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Christian Formation as #TrulyHuman Discipleship

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“The task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it.” — Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

I am on a journey. I know I am not the only one. I am on a journey to know God, a journey to be seamlessly integrated into the life of God, into what Eugene Peterson calls “all the operations of the Trinity.” Our God, the Christian God, is not a stagnant monolith. As we Christians speak of God, we do not talk about a God who is immovable, impersonal, or impenetrable. We have not received a faith tradition which describes God as a long-forgotten, far-removed idea or an insignificant element tucked away in the material attributes of all things. Our God has existed from before the beginning as a dynamic, self-giving, active, moving, living, communion of persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We find our journey on the well-traveled path of our faithful ancestors who have handed down the faith from the apostles who received it from Jesus himself. It is a journey to both know God and make him known, a journey of love that motivates us to broadcast this good news and invite other to join us. It is a journey of discipleship and disciple-making.

Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV). We are traveling to be with Jesus and as he sends us out he promises never to break the bonds of being present, to never sever the relational chords between us and him, to never to end the steady flow of love that bind us to him. This very love we have received from the Father through the Son by the Spirit compels us in obedience to go and make disciples, but how? Jesus tells us clearly what to do, but he does not tell us how to do. So the church has wrestled and shifted and morphed into this expression of discipleship and that expression, a shifting that continues into our present day. This shifting and rethinking is a necessary part of remaining faithful to Christ where we join in with the tradition of the Protestant reformers and say “we are reformed and always reforming.” We do not intend to reform the practice of Christian discipleship for the sake of novelty and innovation. We seek to be always reforming our practices so we can remain faithful to Jesus as he was revealed according to apostolic teaching.

Admittedly I have been schooled in evangelical models of discipleship that I would describe as programmatic and heavy on education. I appreciate all I have received benefit from those models, but it seems they were developed with the thinking that the ultimate and primary goal of discipleship was to become knowledgeable. What if the goal of Christian discipleship is different? What if the purpose of discipleship is to become #TrulyHuman, fully human, fully alive as a human being resembling the life of Jesus himself? Athanasius from the third century famously said regarding the incarnation, “God became man so man could become God.” To “become God” does not mean we become less human. To “become God” means we become so united with God that we fully bear his image and likeness and thus become #TrulyHuman.

So if the goal of discipleship, or formation, is to become like Jesus, to fully reflect the image of God, then how does that shape or reshape our practices of discipleship-making? I have been thinking about this in the context of my own church where I serve as the Discipleship Pastor. At our church, we have a clear path of discipleship for our children, but we have left things pretty hazy for our adults. I wanted to get some fresh perspective from leaders outside of my church, so I sat down recently with two (newish) friends from the Kansas City area, Shane Ash, Pastor of New Beginnings Church in Lee’s Summit and Jamie Roach, Director of Christian Formation at YouthFront, a missional youth ministry in the KC area.

We met to discuss new fresh models of Christian formation. For two hours we shared our thoughts over coffee, sketched out models on a yellow legal pad, and pondered what it would look like to practice discipleship in a #TrulyHuman way, where we could participate with the Spirit and people could become full-orbed human beings. We came up with a lot. Much I am still wrestling with, but here are some key insights.

First, people are not pushed by programs into formation; people are pulled by imagination. Shane shared this insight from James K. A. Smith. Older models of discipleship push people through linear programs similar to classes in college. You take “BIO101: Introduction to Biology” so you can take “BIO 203: Cell Biology” so you can take “BIO313: Molecular Biology,” so with the completion of other courses you can graduate with a degree in Microbiology. The given educational structure of prerequisites pushing students towards graduation works well when education is the goal. Christian formation is different. We are not merely educating people in the facts about Christ; we are participating with the Spirit in seeing people formed into the image of Christ.

Second, this pulling by imagination towards Christian formation has four movements:

  1. Awareness: we are aware of God’s activity
  2. Learning: we learn the vocabulary, theology, habits, and skills of formation
  3. Reflection: we think, process, and internalize what we have seen and learned
  4. Practice: we are doing and being, practicing habits of Christian formation by the Spirit

Our first step is simply to be aware that God is at work, and God has been at work for a long time in and through the life of his church. Once we become attuned to ways in which God is active in the various aspects of church life, we grow in the knowledge of God and his ways. This model is indeed formational and not information, but some instruction is necessary. If Christian formation is an art form (and I would argue it is more of an art than a science), then we acknowledge the necessity of learning the genre, forms, theories, and skills necessary to practice this art form. As we learn, we pause to reflect. We digest what we are learning. We create space for the Holy Spirit to do the work of renewing our minds, not only changing what we believe, but changing how we see the world.

This reflection and renewal gives us the desire and intention to practice the habits that allow us to participate in the life of God as we become #TrulyHuman. These movements are cyclic and not linear.

As we arrive at the end of “practice” and begin to live out instinctually those things we have seen, heard, and understood, we return to awareness again where we see where else God is at work.

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