Two years of life and ministry in southern Louisiana has been a very revealing experience for my family. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves, been brought closer together as a family and come much closer to filling up our minivan. (We can now only transport 2 extra people…assuming they aren’t too big and don’t have too much luggage…)
I’ve spent the last year preaching, which I've really enjoyed. In many ways preaching each week has not been that much of an adjustment. My preaching style (at this early stage anyway) is not all that different from my teaching style. Since I’ve been teaching a couple times a week every week for quite a while now, regularly preparing and delivering a sermon has been a pretty natural and enjoyable progression (the transition to being the only full-time minister on staff has been a little more stressful). But during my first year, while Tod was still here, my job was something that was actually quite different from what I’d done before.I’ve written about what I was initially hired to do at Tammany Oaks (check out my posts: completing the circle and the unseen destruction) so I’m not going to hash through all of it again. But one aspect which has become incredibly important to me is the relationship between spiritual formation, discipleship and evangelism. It seems that often these represent two, if not three, completely different areas of ministry within our congregations (when we address evangelism at all). The greeters and parking lot attendants, the folks involved with prison ministry or writing letters to church visitors, the folks that study the Bible with a coworker or neighbor…these are all examples of people engaged in the evangelistic ministries of the church.
Another group of people are engaged in small groups, maybe even leading one, perhaps they’re a part of a mentor program, they might teach a Sunday morning or Wednesday night Bible class. Often times these ministries are seen as a completely different area from those previously mentioned. For some they fall under a different "purpose". This is not evangelism or outreach, it is discipleship and/or spiritual formation - a different ministry, with a different purpose and a different target audience.
Spending a year engaged in Outreach ministry was extremely eye opening. The truth that was made incredibly real to me is that we can not separate the evangelistic and discipleship efforts of the Body of Christ without damaging both. Perhaps we should have a different view…one of Christian Forvangescipleship, recognizing that Spiritual Formation, Discipleship and Evangelism are all a part of one lifelong process which is not understood best by tearing it down to its smallest parts. A car is a car not when the drive train and the bucket seats have been separated and handled by trained specialists, but when those components have been brought together and function as one unit.
When Jesus gave his final instructions to his disciples he said to go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them to obey. This is one holistic process. This journey with and toward Jesus does not begin at baptism, it began when God created a universe and decided to love and engage what he created – so discipleship and spiritual formation are just as important to those who have yet to put their trust in Christ whether they realize it yet or not. We are all imperfectly following our Lord Jesus and because of this we all need to continually hear the life giving good news…we are continuing to “be evangelized”. By separating these efforts we suggest several things that I'm pretty sure few of us intend to suggest. We suggest that there are "seekers" and "founders" - those who are seeking aren't yet engaged in discipleship and those who have found have no need to continue seeking.
This isn't to say that those who have become Christ's disciples are still seeking in the sense that Christ is not sufficient, but the reality is that we are all still seeking what it means to follow this Christ faithfully. We are seeking deeper relationship and commitment.
By separating these ministries we sometimes allow for a lack of continuity. Someone "passes" their evangelism phase and goes into off-season for a while before (hopefully) reengaging in discipleship - whether through formal or informal channels. This could give the impression that discipleship and spiritual formation are electives, an extracurricular endeavor for those wanting to attain a platinum level membership. The truth is I haven't yet encountered congregations or leaderships that are intentionally sending these messages. But I do believe that as we continue to think together about how to go about being "salt and light" we should be willing to consider not just what we're doing, but the way we're going about those things.
The Church exists to glorify God and it also exists as the community of believers participating together in the life of Christ. As such it is the role and responsibility of the Church to assist people in that life. My hope and prayer is that our churches will continue to think about and attempt to answer the question, “what does a mature Christian look like?” We all need so much more than just a set of propositions to believe. Our goal is not simply to gain a certain amount of knowledge.
The goal of Christian Forvangescipleship is the continual lifelong journey, together in community, of being informed of the One Holy God, transformed by the Holy Spirit and conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. This is a goal that we share together; it is a goal that brings us together as co-laborers and co-pilgrims. This goal bridges any perceived gaps between the "super-Christians" and the "pagans," because we are all at some stage of the same journey. Christian Forvangescipleship is just my ridiculously inept stab at recognizing the need for our churches to become more and more committed to community and shared life. I pray that our love will abound more and more in knowledge AND depth of insight.