The greatest threats to Christianity today aren’t immigration, same-sex marriage, or Islam, or even secularism and reduced religious freedoms in Western countries. The greatest threats to Christianity today are greed, pride, idolatry, selfishness, and abuse of power, along with a combative posture in the world which fears and excludes others. The answer to these problems is to move from fear and exclusion to discipleship and conformity to Jesus Christ. From that posture flows the integrity, morality, values, compassion, humility, love, and witness we need.
God predestined us to be conformed to the image of the Son, with ever-increasing glory. From that vision flows our commitment to disciple-making. Jesus calls his church to be a community of disciples who pursue the radical and activist life, imitating their Lord. This conformity to Jesus and imitation of him results in the church sharing in Christ’s glory and inheritance—all this is through faith and by grace. Conformity and imitation result in the church becoming a scandalous, weird, prophetic, and Jesus-like community of disciples.
Today, as much as any time in history, the church needs a conformation to Christ so that God’s people reflect Jesus’s love, justice, peace, humility, and mercy, while sharing in the inheritance, reign, and glory of the Son.
Being Shaped in the Image of Jesus
What do I mean by conformation? Paul talks about being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The word “conformation” means “the shape of something” and is from the Latin conformatio—“to shape or fashion” something with intention. The church has had a Reformation, but now it needs a Conformation. The church has had a Reformation, but now it needs a Conformation. Click To Tweet
Reforming is not enough—conforming to the crucified and risen Christ is needed for Jesus to be glorified and for the sake of the healing of the world. I contrast conformation to Christ with non-conformation—humility replacing pride, love replacing indifference, unity replacing division, peace replacing antagonism, courage replacing the status quo, justice replacing inequality, and so on. We reevaluate all our values and ethics when we hold up those that the world espouses with the values and ethics of Christ and the cross.
Conformation involves the church embracing a restorative mission that reflects the themes of restoration found in the Bible and the restorative justice and new creation orientation necessary for mission. The Reformation’s goal was restoration to biblical Christianity—not only of what had been said and practiced by the church before, but also by realigning the church with God’s restorative intent. This is only possible through conformity to Christ. When the church goes through a conformation to Christ it conforms to the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and glorified Christ. Conformity to Christ is the heart of missional ecclesiology and discipleship. Conformity to Christ is the heart of missional ecclesiology and discipleship. Click To Tweet
Conformity to Jesus Christ is about union with Christ in his messianic sonship, rulership, and glory (Rom 8). It’s also about imitating Christ in every aspect of our lives together and in the world as we testify to his gospel of love, salvation, justice, mercy, restoration, and shalom.
Choosing Costly Discipleship
Matthew records Jesus’s final instructions to his followers as “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the names of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19–20a). Everything in the life of the church flows from discipleship, including its witness and mission. Mike Breen once wrote that the missional movement may fail because we are bad at making disciples. But it isn’t just the missional movement that is weak at making disciples—this is a problem for the church across the world today. If we had truer and deeper discipleship to Jesus Christ, we’d have more effective evangelism, more credible public witness, more life-giving theology and community, and so on. The church’s core problem today is a lack of genuine discipleship. We will not conform to the image of Jesus without costly discipleship.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the church has become too secularized and too accommodating to cultures and their demands. As a consequence, we have received costly grace from Christ but offered cheap grace to the world as Christianity has spread over time; and, we struggle to make disciples and rarely call people to true and costly discipleship to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer writes,
We must recover discipleship for the sake of the church and for the healing of the world. Click To Tweet
Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church. This cheap grace has been no less disastrous to our own spiritual lives. Instead of opening up the way to Christ, it has closed it. Instead of calling us to follow Christ, it has hardened us in disobedience.
Bonhoeffer says that disciples forsake their old lives, “burn their boats,” and completely surrender to Christ. “Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship…Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
Discipleship is never practiced or achieved alone. We run after Jesus together. Jesus makes us his disciples, together. As disciples follow Jesus together, we become his body, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:22–23).
Disciples, and disciple-making churches, live into the fullness of Christ for the sake of each other, and for the sake of the healing and salvation of the world. This isn’t just about living into his peace, love, hope, faith, reconciliation, and justice—as powerful as all that is. Living into the fullness of Christ is about receiving our adoption to sonship and daughtership through Jesus Christ and joining with him in his rule and reign and glory as he restores and redeems the cosmos.
Jesus expects specific qualities among his people. Endure hardship. Reject immorality and wickedness. Test the truth of theologies. Repent, and do the things you did when you first believed. Be faithful, even to the point of death. See when you’ve become lukewarm and rekindle your first love. Accept God’s rebuke and discipline, and open your heart to his correction, chastising, and loving fellowship. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you and respond. The words of the Spirit to the churches begin with a vision of Jesus (Rev 1:1–20) and end with another vision of him (Rev 4–5).
Churches that are conformed to the image of Christ listen to what the Spirit is saying to them and are earnest and repentant and responsive.
We yield to Christ and his Spirit. It is God who transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ, by his Spirit, and for his glory. As Paul says, we are all “being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18b). This is God’s work; a work of grace and the Spirit, from beginning to end. It is only God’s grace, power, and will that conform us to the image of Christ. But God is at work, and his promises are sure. We are jars of clay, but God is transforming us into his image with ever-increasing glory (2 Cor 4:7–10, 17–18; cf. 3:18).
Being Salt, Light, and a City on a Hill
This article outlines themes I cover in my new book, Salt, Light, and a City: Conformation—Ecclesiology for the Global Missional Community: Volume 2, Majority World Voices.
In this book, I engage with 25 Asian, African, Latin American, indigenous peoples, Asian American, African American, diaspora, Caribbean, Oceanian, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern pastors and theologians. The authors are as diverse as Melba Padilla Maggay, Emmanuel Katongole, Lamin Sanneh, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Pope Francis, Lisa Sharon Harper, Willie James Jennings, Richard Twiss, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Oscar Muriu, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Leonardo Boff, Soong-Chan Rah, Mitri Raheb, to name a subset. Through dialogue with these Christian leaders, I show that a missional church is a church conformed to Christ. Jesus forms us in his image and moves us to be a people of shalom, humility, character, justice, peace, wisdom, prayer, beauty, and witness.
We only form missional churches through multiethnic conversations, and through listening and learning from the many voices of global Christianity. It’s time for the church to be what the Spirit of Jesus Christ has already made it—salt, light, and a city set on a hill. We are a people who witness to Jesus through conformity to him. Conforming to Jesus and witnessing to him and his gospel is everything, and it remains the most crucial need and mission of the church today.
Join us for the online book launch of Salt, Light, and a City: Ecclesiology for the Global Missional Community: Volume 2, Majority World Voices, 6 pm CDT on Wednesday, October 7, featuring Lisa Rodriguez Watson, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Brooke Prentis, and Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Register and buy the book here.