As I worked on content for CBFVA’s 2018-2019 Ministry Planner and guided the formation of this year’s Bible study series, I thought often about our theme: Seeking Transformation. One recurring insight shines through my reflection: Transformation is more gift than acquisition. Certainly, we have no difficulty affirming God is responsible for any transformation in our lives—individually and collectively. God is the Master Potter and we are the clay. Clay has no capacity to shape and form itself! This begs the question, “If transformation is God’s domain, what part do we play?” What can a congregation do to partner with God in this transformative process? How can we help our congregations move from “no expectation” to “yes, we desire and expect transformation”?
Before I go on, allow me to remind you of CBF’s big idea “forming together” (note how the word “form” is part of the word transformation). Forming is key for CBF and drives this definition: Spiritual formation is the process of being formed in the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s Spirit in community for the transformation of the world. This profound definition reminds us faith is formed in and by God, adherents to this process are nurtured to become like Jesus, this essential work takes place in the context of Christian community, the process cannot be programmed (i.e. can’t be handed over to Sunday School classes), and the collaborative by-product is the transformation of the world. Of course, the process of formation and seeking to become like Jesus is by its very nature never complete. Jesus clearly identified the most important commandments for his followers: love God and love neighbor. Nurturing capacity to love like Jesus is key to this process of formation. The goal of the ongoing, ever present process of spiritual formation is to nurture believers to become like Jesus in attitude, conviction, intent, and action.
We can’t talk about congregational transformation without talking about Jesus. The premise that Jesus is the center of Christian discipleship goes without saying. Jesus showed us by how he lived that God cares about what happens in the material world. He wasn’t only focused on the eternal destination of souls. Jesus spent much time and energy showing us how to care for earthly things. Jesus embodied grace and love as he reached out to people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and served the oppressed. Jesus told parables listeners could understand. He celebrated at weddings and played with children. Jesus’ life was marked by compassion for what happened around him. When we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, we can do no less.
Someone aptly said, “non-discipleship is the elephant in the room” of the church today. Why? Our tendency is to see things our way and in so doing believe we are engaging in genuine discipleship. The norms we establish for Christian discipleship fall far short of Jesus’ teachings, actions, and expectations. David Watson in Forming Christian Disciples says it well: “Instead of serving as salt and light and leaven and seed as Jesus commissioned us, we have created congregational ‘safe houses,’ offering the benefits of salvation, but doing little to further God’s salvation of planet earth.” We cannot make Christian discipleship primarily about comforting and supporting people. We must take steps toward deeper understanding of our faith and practice.
Is it possible congregational discipleship efforts are too focused on our human understanding of discipleship, our human concept of faith, and our human assessment of what it means to live for Christ? As long as the objective of discipleship efforts is to strengthen our faith, to deepen our spirituality, to utilize our gifts, or to fulfill our potential, we foster homogeneity (where all believe the same) and leave little room to follow Jesus through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion. Preoccupation with our way of being church leads to a congregational maintenance mindset (status quo, not transformation). The church never exists for itself; it exists for the world—where the blessed find joy and spiritual vitality and are empowered to bless others. Churches can’t arrive at these understandings or produce this kind of fruit if congregants aren’t nourishing their inner lives. In other words, we can’t give what we don’t have!
So, the challenge is to keep Jesus the center of community life. When Jesus and God’s mission are at the center of congregational life, the reason we are together is obvious, and we don’t have to sit around trying to figure out what God’s will is for the church. We exist to have the eyes of Jesus that look with compassion on the world God loves, then we act on what we see—we go with Jesus into the world (near and far) to minister and serve (love in action).
In light of these insights, what spiritual practices could help your congregation keep Jesus as the true center of Christian discipleship? What existing practices might need to be reformed so “faith is formed in Jesus for the sake of the world?” Remember, when God transforms us we can no longer look at or live in the world in the same ways as before. Faithfulness is now defined by this new way of being Jesus’ disciples in the world.
NOTE: This article is adapted from the Nurturing Faith book I co-authored with Gene Wilder, “Reclaiming and Re-Forming Baptist Identity.” I commend this book to you if you desire to go deeper in understanding what “forming together” means. The book also has an excellent section on Baptist history that shaped and formed the Fellowship.