2019.08.09 – Part 6: Turn to the Great Shepherd

So far we have turned to the early church and modern scholars to inform and instruct us on how to engage in Christian ministry in this moderns secular and pluralistic context. Now we turn to the Triune God of Grace.

What can we do?

The greatest challenge facing any work with post-Boomers who are likely to distrust institutions and are heavily influenced by post-modern views about absolute truth, is how to cultivate an authentic faith in Christ without institutionalizing or trivializing it. In his book, The Crucifixion of Ministry, Andrew Purves states:

We walk a fine line here because we must pick our way between at least two competing worldviews…On the one hand we see around us a culture, both popular and intellectual, tipping headlong into postmodernist relativism. It insists, leave me alone with my truth…On the other hand, we also see around us a world grasping at absolutes…[Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 32]

With this in mind, how do we balance the truths we know as Christians with the absolutes? What can we do? To go forward, we must look back. If there were anyone who challenged the institutionalism of his faith while not compromising the basic tenets of belief grounding that religion, it would be Jesus. (Matt 5:17-18, Luke 16:16-17) Therefore “we must grapple with his identity and his person”[Purvis, p.28] in order to understand how to move forward in relationship with him and others.

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he answered that loving God with all that we are is the greatest commandment, and to love our neighbor as ourselves is just as important. (Matt 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28). In that context, the commandments had become over institutionalized and burdensome for the people, and yet Jesus was not compromising on the covenantal love that undergirded all of the law and the prophets. Yet, he would also point to the fact that he himself would be the fulfillment of the law and the prophet.

So what better way forward when working with people who are trapped between absolutism and relativism then to turn toward the Great Shepherd; “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:7) Who better to lead a people looking for an experience that is more organic or grass roots in faith than the incarnate Word of God?

All of our work together will center on the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, the scriptures, the sacraments, and from the voices of the early church. The main resources for our quest will be prayer, scripture reflection, and worship. We will attempt to peel away false notions (outside influences and traditions) about Jesus and reveal who he is and what he taught as revealed by the early witnesses of the church.

In addition to establishing the foundation of who Jesus is, we will ask what spiritual practices Jesus would engage in to serve as a model for us. In his article on The Quest for the Spiritual Jesus: Jesus and the Spiritual Disciplines, Les Hardin challenges us to consider “the spirituality of Jesus himself.”[Les Hardin, “The Quest for the Spiritual Jesus: Jesus and the Spiritual Disciplines.” Sone-Campbell Journal 15, (Fall 2012), 217.]

Hardin proposes that there is Biblical evidence supporting Jesus’ spiritual formation practices and that these may be helpful in our development as followers of Jesus:

Men and women in the community of faith seek to imitate Jesus, to pattern life after his example, to “mimic Christ” as Paul counseled (1 Cor:11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 1 Cor 4:16; 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7). Jesus-style spirituality may easily be pushed to the side if he is understood to be mostly divine, with a sprinkling of humanity. But the testimony of the church is that Jesus was immersed in both divinity and humanity, that he was fully God and fully man.[Hardin, p.217]

In my opinion, the beauty of this type of challenge is that it takes us away from what we have been told by well-meaning pastors, Sunday school teachers, and modern writers (all representatives from institutionalized Christianity) who stressed the importance and the mechanics of spiritual formation, and actually focuses us upon the example of our Divine Savior who was also human; who was developed and formed through spiritual practices.

I believe Hardin’s work readily lends itself to discussion topics which may help post-Boomers tap into a more organic or grass roots understanding of the approach toward faith in Jesus Christ:

Biblical spirituality…is inherently practical. Based on biblical evidence and its development in Christian history, it becomes prudent to talk about spirituality as practical partnership with the Spirit…it draws us near to the partnership we have with the Trinity in bringing about the fruit of spiritual development.[Hardin, p.217]

Notice that even the language Hardin uses invites us into a partnership with the Trinity (with Christ) which means that we can walk with an active God, not one who is aloof and distant. This understanding strips away corporate institutions and generational baggage and brings Christ and his people together.

This approach of partnership with Christ in his spiritual formation practices may not only help us develop in Christ, but it can also invite us into active ministry with Christ. Robert Mulholland relates this blend of the spiritual life and active participation to breathing in and out:

The perennial tension between the contemplative life and the active life, between spiritual formation in Christ and mission with Christ, might be likened to the tension between breathing in and breathing out. Can there be any breathing in without breathing out? …The dynamic of breathing provides a useful analogy for the Christian spiritual life. No healthy spiritual formation in Christ is possible apart from mission with Christ. Similarly, no transformative mission with Christ is possible apart from formation in Christ.[M. Robert Mulholland, “Spiritual Formation in Christ and Mission with Christ” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care-Campbell Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1  (2013), 11.]

Again notice the “earthiness” of this explanation of the spiritual disciplines. It does not dictate an edict “from above” to develop spiritually, but rather summons us into a relationship with the one who is not only fully divine but also fully human, and thus we are invited in “sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus, for the church and her ministry can be found only where Jesus has already showed up.”[Purvis, p.24]

Ironically, this is nothing new for the church in any generation. Spiritual formation practices have been a focus throughout the history of the Christian church. Unfortunately, what has happened along the way is that we are given some book, essay, devotional, or lecture about the importance of spiritual formation and the mechanics of it often taught by saints of the church such as Thomas Merton, Richard Foster, Brother Lawrence, et al. These are all relevant and wonderful resources, but they come from people of established religious traditions and of specific settings which may or may not be related to the context faced today.

Again, Hardin’s work opens up a platform for discussion rather than a recipe for renewal. It allows us to ask what Jesus did to develop himself and others spiritually, and use this as a guide. Therefore, our work together will use the eight spiritual disciplines Hardin posits[Prayer, Study of Scripture, Corporate Worship, Submission to God, Simplicity or Singular Focus on the Kingdom, Proclamation of the Kingdom, Welcoming of the Outcast, and Fellowship.] to stimulate discussion and reflection rather than as a program or a how to guide to being a better Christian. These spiritual disciplines, earthy or organic in nature (real), may help congregants find and pursue those three characteristics of spirituality that Flory & Miller earlier called “Expressive Communalism.”[Flory. p.185] The couples I will be working with will have the opportunity to be exposed to the experiential dimension of religion, an emphasis on community, and pursue outreach.

[What follows is written in future tense, but actually refers to work I did with six couples from the Sparta congregation between August 2015 to February 2016]

With the exception of corporate worship, most of the time together will be spent physically offsite in a comfortable atmosphere and a shared meal. Even in these informal meetings, we will begin a worship component to reinforce that when believers “are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:20)

Having said that, the six post-Boomer couples will also be strongly encouraged to actively participate in the church’s corporate worship services, as I believe this will keep them connected to the larger body of Christ as well as reinforce the connection of Christ’s presence within the larger body.

Too often, churches have overlooked the powerful influence that corporate worship has in spiritual development as a community of believers. Trends seem to lean toward worship as an evangelism tool, an individual driven experience, and/or a form of entertainment. As a result worship wars have erupted all over the western church over the last several decades and authors have written volumes about how to fix it. These influences and battles have profoundly prejudiced post-Boomers, and it is not even clear if they truly understand the heart of worship.

James Torrance’s work on the differences between the “unitarian” and “trinitarian” views of worship may be very helpful moving forward as a community. He believes that “what is needed today is a better understanding of the person not just as an individual but as someone who finds his or her true being in communion with God and with others, the counterpart of the Trinitarian doctrine of God.”[James B. Torrance, Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996) 38.] Notice that he not only speaks to the sense of identity in The Triune God of Grace but to the aspects of communal relationships found as we worship with one another. Often this is lacking in many of the traditions regardless of style and Torrance calls us to:

…return to “the forgotten Trinity”- to an understanding of the Holy Spirit, who delivers us from a narcissistic preoccupation with the self to find the one true being in loving communion with God and one another – to hear God’s call to us, in our day, to participate through the Spirit in Christ’s communion with the Father and his mission from the Father to the world – to create in our day a new humanity of persons who find true fulfillment in other – centered communion and service in the kingdom of God..” [Torrance, p.41]

Hopefully this characteristic will be encouraged as the couples participate in this group. The participants will be challenged to alternately engage together within both worship experiences offered at FPC; one more traditional in format and the other more casual. The hope is that they will see beyond the style of worship and experience a new identity in Christ as they participate with the Body of Christ.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Psalm 23 esv

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