Missing Steps?

“…I in them and You in me—so that they [disciples] may be brought to complete unity…”

(John 17:23)

My first role in vocational ministry was as a pastor of spiritual formation.  I assumed this responsibility after a lengthy career in corporate human resources.  I served in this role for 7 years before taking on a lead pastor role.  There are some definite parallels between strategic HR and spiritual formation.  My HR focus was dedicated to influencing the creation of work environments in which talented people could flourish, aligning their abilities and contributions with business processes in order to achieve success after success, both corporate and individual.  The models for these successes were predetermined…in other words, we knew what success would look like and worked toward those ends.

Spiritual formation, specifically Christian spiritual formation, is the transformation people into the image of Jesus Christ for the benefit of others, all under the influence of GOD’s Holy Spirit.  The model for this transformation is Jesus Christ…being like Him is the “success” target to which all Christians are to aim their lives, regardless of branch, denomination, doctrinal distinctives, ethnicity, cultural preferences, economic status, political affiliations, or whatever the TV preachers are saying.  Jesus speaks directly to this in His High Priestly prayer in John 17.  “Complete unity” in Him and in the Father, i.e. being like them, is the purpose of spiritual formation.  When it occurs, others benefit and are blessed of GOD which is consistent with GOD’s nature (there are too many biblical citations to note here to support this point; suffice it to say that GOD loves people, all kinds of people, all people, beyond our ability to fully grasp).

In a recent reading on the early Church (2nd and 3rd centuries), the author asserts that church growth  was not the result of evangelistic fervor in the way we understand it today.*  Instead, he claims it was because the of the slow, patient, very steady development of new converts in a way that required them, over time, to demonstrate with their lives their commitment to their confession of faith.  It was when others deeply embedded in the non-Christian world witnessed the generosity, the compassion, the love (toward each other, the poor, and even toward those who abused and persecuted them), they were so impacted by this distinctly different lifestyle that many wanted to know more about this Christus.

To generate this lifestyle testimony, those making inquiries about Christianity and new converts were strictly limited in their participation in the community of faith (the church), typically for weeks, sometimes months and beyond.  This was to give new converts time, instruction, and opportunity to reflect upon and ultimately to replace the attitudes and behaviors developed in the many years prior to their conversion to new attitudes and behaviors consist with the faith.  It also gave the church an opportunity to assess their prospects before they were admitted into the fellowship.  Prematurely admitting poorly formed people into the church would undermine the church’s witness to an unbelieving world because there would be inadequate distinction between those in the dominant culture and those in the church.  Premature admission would also increase the prospect for persecution if disaffected converts or insincere people became avenues of information to those hostile to the church.

The practice of patient formation of new believers over the course of decades to strengthen and grow the Church is vastly different from contemporary practices of “opening the doors of the church” to anyone who wants to become a member, allowing people to join after taking a few membership classes, and baptizing folks who may be hard-pressed to explain the significance of baptism apart from it being a church ritual.

The Galatians passage on the Fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23) provides very specific examples of outward behaviors reflective of a legitimate inward transformation.  Similar behaviors are shared elsewhere in the New Testament by Paul, Peter, and John.  These are what the spiritually formed Christian should be demonstrating consistently as evidence of a fundamentally changed heart.  Among the things the behaviors are contrasted with are bitterness, discord, rage, factions, and malice.

At a time when the witness of Christ’s Church is as critically important as it is today, I wonder if we’re missing some important steps in helping people live the faith and not just profess it.  The drive to get B.I.S. (butts in seats) is strong, but if that drive is so strong that it actually undermines Christ’s mission by turning immature and under-formed Christians loose on the world, then it can’t be right.  After all, we’re not here for ourselves…others are key.

The measures of church success are varied depending on who you speak with.  How many in the Church today measure themselves against the standard of “complete unity” with the Father and the Son?  At the end of the day and at the end of the age, that’s what will count.

* The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, the Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Alan Kreider, 2016.

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted

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