Typically in N America, when a church grows bigger, and its worship gathering gets established, and some systems get set into motion for small groups, the church goes into the phase of “going through the motions.” This is at least the temptation. It happens to the best of us, even (dare I say it) mission-shaped churches. Our church worked for years to lay the groundwork for a missional practice at Life on the Vine. We established some systems for what we call “missional orders” and triads (spiritual formation groups). Our worship gathering developed over the years as a liturgy for formation of God’s people into His life and mission. Yet the last few years I sensed we were working for the machine – to keep it going. Many people were noticeably coming among us but gained little direction for life and mission. People would be converted into life with Christ and then wander away. “Mission” was not expanding, it was not becoming part of our lives, it was more “something we talked about,” something in our vision statement or a program we did once a month. Some among the leadership at our church think I assess things a little too negatively (let’s blow this thing up and start all over again!!) so I have to be careful with my generalizations. There were and ARE a lot of good things happening in many places at “the Vine.” Nonetheless, a consensus has been brewing among us for some time that our discipleship practices have been sorely lacking. People were not being discipled adequately into life with God and His Mission.
ONE SINGLE ORIENTING QUESTION
Last May, I attended and spoke at the aggelos church planting training for ecclesia network. I heard Bob Hyatt talk about some Mike Breen stuff on discipleship. His basic contention, as laid out in this post (a presentation of the Breen stuff by Bob Hyatt) is that God is at work bringing in the Kingdom. God’s reign in Christ is “at hand” breaking into our lives regularly but we as individuals ignore (Mark 1:14-15). We are not trained to listen, see God at work, walk with God and respond. Yet this is the basic move of living into God’s life in Christ and His Mission. Hyatt (via Breen) proposed a circle of discernment where we learn to listen, observe, discuss and then engage, be accountable and grow from these moments. This whole process, Hyatt said, started around learning how to ask this single short question: “what is God saying? and how will we respond?”
I have since discussed this, prayed about his, and talked much with our leadership at the Vine. It became apparent to me (through several incredible little episodes and then reinforced by other people in leadership having similar episodes) that this one simple question can be a starting point for discipleship into what we at the Vine describe as “living in Christ together for God’s Mission in the World.” It is not that this one question explains everything. Rather, it is an orienting question from which practically anyone, at any stage of belief, can begin to seek God and enter into His Kingdom work in their lives personally and what He is doing in the world. This one question initiates one into the activity of the Spirit as opposed to merely teaching about it conceptually. That’s right, can I say this again, ONE SIMPLE ORIENTING QUESTION, “What is God saying? How Will You Respond?”
So we at the Vine have begun a process this September of calling our people into God’s inbreaking Kingdom. The entrance into God’s Kingdom always begins in faith, opening our lives to God’s salvation begun in Christ’s work of atonement. IT IS NECESSARILY A RECEPTION, TRUST AND DEPENDENCE UPON THE HOLY SPIRIT (I had to emphasize that because it is an assumption that sometimes goes unnoticed). It is furthermore a continual following of Christ into the Kingdom, the world of His Lordship where He is working for new creation, reconciliation and righteousness in our lives and in the world (2 Cor 5:16-21). “In Christ, God is reconciling the world to Himself.”
Could this one simple orienting question help us as a church open ourselves and our culture to an inbreaking of God’s work in His Spirit and a whole new missional life together in the world? Could this one single question enliven our Sunday mornings with a vibrancy once we get that this gathering is the training ground for hearing God’s voice daily in everyday life? Could this one single question enable us to develop a discipleship culture we’ve been beating our heads against the wall to get going?
WHY I LIKE STARTING WITH THIS SIMPLE ORIENTING QUESTION
I don’t know if I can answer those questions definitively, but here’s some reasons why I like starting with this one single orientating question as the means for initiating a wave of discipleship in our church.
1.) IT IS AN ORIENTING QUESTION It takes our existing practices (missional orders, triad groups, worship gathering, etc.) and drives their resolution away from our own personal problems/narcissism into God’s working in the concrete realities of our daily lives. It orients us to obey God in faith in our current situation. Too often small groups and missional orders (where we gather to pray for and engage the neighborhood) bog down in our own struggles. We certainly need to stop, listen and process these struggles carefully. Yet when we learn to discern “what is God saying in this? How should I obey/respond?” the orientation of the whole time is changed. This question asks where God is at work in these struggles (which the Bible is continually revealing) and how will we respond in faith by moving into His work, His Lordship, His Mission.
2.) IT GIVES EVERYONE A PLACE TO START As opposed to concentrated Bible study and the feeling that I need to learn a lot before I begin life with Christ in His Mission, this one simple question presses even the newest believer to begin their life in God’s Kingdom right now in their existing lives/circumstances no matter how screwed up or challenging. By asking what is God saying, asking, doing and how we can respond, participate, walk into obedience, the new believer learns in practice, not purely cognitively. Yet the oldest believer, the disenchanted, the broken marriage, the single person stuck in that singledom malaise, can just as powerfully also be pushed into the Kingdom and God’s life in the Spirit now.
3.) IT PUSHES EVERYTHING INTO THE CONCRETE (Ok, I’m just repeating myself, but this is perhaps the most important aspect of this question).
4.) IT FORCES US TO GO DEEPER INTO SCRIPTURE, THE SPIRIT, JESUS AND WHO GOD IS Many of the discernments that will arise out of this one single orienting question will require little new theological territory. I hear God saying to me “speak peace” to that hurting person. Is that the Spirit? Is that of God? Yes, obviously. Other situations however will inevitably require deeper teaching and understanding of God’s ways that must come from leadership. But the point is, everyone will be motivated to learn, pray and discern not out of the concept “we should be doing this” but because this is actually happening in our concrete lives together.
5.) IT PUSHES US INTO FAITH AND ACTION IN THE WORLD OF GOD’S MISSION Everytime someone asks this question, it leads to a response into the world. It not only asks us questions about our personal life issues, this question also continually asks us to listen to God’s voice/work around us, discern what He is doing in that homeless person’s life at the train station, that person in the coffee house who sits alone is despair I keep seeing every morning etc. And then we are pushed to believe and trust God’s work and call into ministering His presence there.
6.) IT IS REPRODUCIBLE Again, this simple orienting question is teachable so that most people who have been on the path of following Christ for a while can easily begin to disciple a new person by discerning this question. This is a good way to spread discipleship into the community.
1.) THIS REQUIRES COMMUNITY AND CONTEXT Frankly, anyone on any given day, especially a well-honed self-deceived Christian can derail this. As we have learned over and over again, this kind of “listening for God’ is often prone to sin and deception, and therefore requires the dynamic of the body of Christ for the truth to be discerned. The question itself “what is God saying?” is always addressed to the individual and the community at the same time. Never one without the other. It is necessary therefore to have in place the communal practices of worship, teaching, leadership, and discipleship as the context from within which we can discern some of life’s most confusing times. The communal processes of Matt 18 must be firmly ensconced in such a culture for this single orienting question not to into an individualistic “orgy” of ecstatic experiences. We must have a missional enScripturated culture to breed discernment. Together we have/learn the mind of Christ! (1 Cor 2.16). To me, this is where I differ from the emphasis in Henry Blackaby’s work. To me he tends to emphasize the individual hearing the voice of God our of personal sopiritual practices. I would suggest he works from an undeveloped (Southern Baptist) communal ecclesiology. To a much lesser degree, I feel Dallas Willard can sometimes err in the same way. Nonetheless, I recommend Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God as a good starting point to cultivate this kind of missional discipleship into your church.
2.) THIS REQUIRES THEOLOGY It goes without saying that God’s voice is not, in fact rarely ever is, audible. “The sheep know His voice,” but they don’t speak or comprehend English. (John 10:27). And so we must learn how to discern the ways of God at work in our midst and in our neighborhoods. For me, we need to understand the categories of a.) (new)creation, b.) reconciliation, c.) righteousness (1 Cor 5:16-21) as descriptors of what God is up to. In addition, the idea that God always moves us toward a.) peace with God (shalom), b.) reconciliation among us and the world and c.) into His Mission in the world are additional categories. The question “what is God saying? And how will I respond?” are really three questions: “What is God saying to you in this? What is He doing? How is He working? And how will you respond?” These three questions expand the one question and enable us to the discern and respond to the multiform ways God is at work and alive in our communities and surrounding communities by His Spirit.
OK, this is my first attempt to describe the ferment going on with us at the leadership level art Life on the Vine. What do you think? Dangers? Misfires? Problems? Have I gone too charismatic? have I lost my theological bearings? Why? why not? What are your experiences of how this works at your places of Mission?
UPDATE There are those in the twittersphere who are badgering me (@johnwithum) suggesting I learned my arithmetic in Canada. They say this question is not one question but two. So to clarify, and to defend my Canadian educational heritage (grades 2-10), I maintain that these supposed 2 questions are so inextricably linked, they cannot be asked apart, that they inessence constitute one question. That’s my story and I’m stickin with it.