I’ve been working on the following thoughts for the last year or so and I am honestly apprehensive to even publish this because it has morphed and changed so much over the last year.  It’s far from perfect but I’d love to hear your thoughts to improve it and tighten it up a bit. 

Discipleship as the Bottom Line

“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”

Colossians 1:28

The church, in the context of its missional calling, must work with all its energy to present people fully mature in Jesus Christ. I think we can say that mission without discipleship is ineffective and discipleship without mission is pointless and honestly can’t really even be called discipleship.

It was Alan Hirsch who said,

“I have come to believe we are never going to be the movement Jesus wants unless we first et the issues of discipleship right. This is because the health and growth of transformative Jesus movements are directly related to their capacity to make disciples. No disciples, no movement – it’s that simple.”(Untamed, 17)

Neil Cole said,

“Ultimately, each church will be evaluated by only one thing. It’s disciples. Your church is only as good as its disciples. It does not matter how good your praise, preaching, programs or property are: If you’re disciples are passive, needy, consumerist, and not moving in the direction of radical obedience, your church is not good.”  (Source Unknown)

In Ephesians 4 we see that God calls pastors, teachers, prophets, evangelists and apostles to

equip his people for works of service so that the body may be built up until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Here, Paul is talking about the role of the church (especially those in leadership – but I would argue this is the responsibility of all disciples) in bringing God’s people to maturity in Christ. It is when we are mature in Christ that we can “no longer be as infants, tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there.”

These passages, among many others in the NT, point out our main calling as the sent community is to make disciples – or in the words of Dallas Willard, “apprentices” – of Jesus Christ.

This of course begs a few questions:

  • Are we as passionate about this as Paul?
  • How do we do this?
  • What does it entail?
  • What does it mean to be mature in Christ?

In all of this, this whole entire conversation about discipleship must presuppose an understanding of the local church as a community of people sent into the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. It must presuppose a individual and communal vocation of “witness.”

Without this understanding, our maturity simply loses its point. Sure you might argue that maturity for the sake of maturity is good for the sake of itself. But I would argue that you can’t really be mature in Christ if you do not see and understand your calling in the world.

For me, the most important question is, how do we do this?  How do we shape community rhythms where people are actually becoming and continually becoming followers of Jesus?

Okay, so if the primary calling of the church is to make disciples and I said that for me, the most important question is, how do we do this?  How do we shape community rhythms where people are actually becoming and continually becoming followers of Jesus? At our Ecclesia National Gathering in 2010 Dallas Willard was one of our main speakers. I’ll never forget when he said that a) Discipleship is the primary task of the church and b) He had never seen a church that had a good plan for discipleship. This was astounding and quite a challenge.

Towards A Discipleship Framework

As a bi-vocational pastor I spend a good portion of my time buried in my computer working on projects as a web designer. In the web design world we have what are called “frameworks.”  One of the most popular is the BluePrintCSS framework, developed to “give you a solid foundation to build your project on top of.”

I don’t want to get too technical here, but when you are designing for the web one of the most frustrating things is that different web browsers render the same code differently. What works in Safari or Google Chrome doesn’t always work in Firefox or Internet Explorer. It is a rather frustrating thing and it tends to make us all a little bit crazy. Frameworks were developed by web designers who were looking for a solid place to start no matter what context you are designing for or designing in. The beauty of the framework is that you can use this framework to build a foundation that will help your design/project be successful in almost any setting.

So, in response to this question of “how do we build a discipleship culture in our churches” I want to propose that we need a baseline discipleship framework.  I’ve been referring to this concept in different ways over the last year as we have experimented with it at The Well.  I’ve most recently been calling it the Spiritual Formation Puzzle. (I use the metaphor of a puzzle because a puzzle is not complete if you take out one piece. They cannot be disconnected. With these five parts, you generally can’t do one without the other. At the very least, you can’t do them correctly in isolation).

I believe the following serves us well as a discipleship framework. A starting point for us to build upon in our different contexts.

The five different puzzle pieces as I see them are:

  • Liturgical Formation – The community gathered for worship is where we are re-oriented together to the story of God through the scriptures worship, prayer and communion.
  • Personal Formation – This emphasizes our need to relate to God intimately through spiritual disciplines.
  • Servant Formation – We are called to love and serve others and when you care for others, you cannot help but be changed.
  • Relational Formation – We are not called to follow Jesus alone. We intentionally seek relationships that were encouraging one another on towards Christ-likeness.
  • Educational Formation – We seek truth together and seek a knowledge that leads to faith. This “renewing of the mind” is a vital part of our formation.

My contention here is that if we are intentionally being formed in each of these puzzle pieces in some way, we will likely be moving towards the goal of maturity in Christ. (I say likely because it would be quite possible to go through the motions on all of this, but that’s another conversation altogether).

I believe that we can actually use this puzzle as a template to look at the rhythms of our lives and our churches and gauge how we are doing with our discipleship rhythms.

Before we look at each different pieces of the puzzle separately, we need to talk about the whole. It is important that this whole puzzle must be talked about in the context of community. We are not formed in isolation from one another. In fact, we will begin to see that we need the whole of the body of Christ (both locally and globally) to live out the puzzle well.

Also, it is important to note that this puzzle is more like a 30,000 foot view of discipleship than it is a five step process. This to say that this is not a one size fits all approach where we all do the same things all the time. Also, we might be tempted to think that we must be participating in all five of these perfectly all the time. Usually we use the language of “balance” when we talk like this. I tend to believe the balance is a myth and what we are really looking for is “harmony” within these five pieces. What I mean is, we might find ourselves more focused on one piece for a certain period of time and another for a different period of time. The reality is that God calls us to different places at different times along the journey. But, if we are to be formed in a holistic way, I believe we need each piece in our lives (and lives together) in some way or another.

In my experience, most churches tend do one or two of these pieces well. In turn, they draw in people who are passionate about those one or two. If someone is passionate about something else, they find a church that does their favorite piece well. Frankly, this seems like a broken system to me. We should be able to have local communities that are growing in each of these areas. But this will never happen if we have churches unwilling to grow in their areas of weakness. It will also not happen if leaders (both formal and informal) are unwilling to lead our communities where we are passionate and gifted and give up leadership in the areas that we are weak.

The bottom line is, we do not need to fight about which one of these five pieces is most important. What we need is people who are passionate about one of these five and are willing to help lead the community towards health in each of them. If your church is not doing well at one of them, it does not mean you should leave the church! Instead, it means you should help the church get better in that particular area. I think that often, we think that we need to diminish emphasis on one of these in order to be more complete in another. It’s almost like we think that you improve one and the others will regress. This is not how it works if everyone is living out their calling and gifting. If I am passionate about mission and you are passionate about liturgy then I need you to stay passionate about liturgy and call me towards that. What I don’t need is for you to shut up about liturgy so I my passion for justice can be talked about more. Yet sadly, this is the attitude that I see in churches far too often.

As we look at each piece of the community formation puzzle we will look at the following: What this piece looks like, how the biblical witness, especially Acts 2, points to it’s importance, how this piece has been traditionally practice looked at by evangelical churches specifically, what traditions this piece finds the greatest emphasis and ways that we (again, specifically the evangelical church) can grow forward with it.

Liturgical Formation

The first piece of my Spiritual Formation Puzzle is Liturgical Formation. This is often understood as formation that happens in our worship gatherings. Our corporate gatherings are an environment where we are shaped together around the narrative of Scripture and witness of the church history. Our liturgy reorients us to the right Story, the story of Jesus and redemption. This puzzle piece is traditionally emphasized by traditions such as the Catholics, Anglicans and many in the reformed tradition.

In Acts 2, we see in verse 46 that “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” Even as they gathered in homes and had all things in common they did not forsake gathering for their liturgical time together.

In many evangelical circles, we tend to see the worship gathering is a product to be consumed by a group of individuals. We come to church to “get something out of it” or “to be fed” instead of coming to church to be formed in community around the right identity and calling. We need to instead see the gathered congregation as individuals in community. As stated above the gathering isn’t a place to get something but rather a place to be formed along with a community and reoriented to the right narrative of Jesus and redemption.

I fear that in many missional/emerging churches there seems to be a lack of importance/emphasis on the community gathered together for Liturgy. Many new congregations are forsaking the larger gathering all together and meeting only in small groups. While I see the reason for this (And these reasons are great!) I fear that they are living out an underdeveloped understanding of the importance of liturgy and worship. We need to talk about the church being gathered for the sake of being formed as one people.

Shane Claiborne and Jonanthan Wilson-Hartgrove write,

“Participating in the liturgy of the worldwide Christian community, whether on a Sunday morning or at another time, is more than attending a service or a prayer meeting. It is about entering a story. It is about orienting our lives around what God has been doing throughout history. And it is about being sent forth into the world to help write the next chapter of that story. Wandering the world in search of meaning and purpose, we may not even realize how desperately we need a story. But we know we’ve found something priceless when we find ourselves in God’s narrative.”

They also write that,

“liturgy invites us into a new “we.” The church reflects the most diverse community in the world — white, black, and all shades in-between, rich and poor, all walks of life. We are called to bring our lives and our cultures together to become a new community.”

If we are going to see liturgy as something that is vital to our formation as a community we need to begin viewing our worship together as more than a way for us each to get bits of information to help us with our lives or just a means to us to get together and sing some songs. The weekly gathering of the local church should be a time where we are imaginatively and communally seeking to be interrupted by the narrative of scripture, the prayers of the people, the celebration of the Lord’s table and the songs of people longing for redemption. It is this recovering the whole of the biblical narrative that Robert Weber says is most vital to Christian worship,

“The issue that all of us need to deal with is the reduction and fragmentation of God’s whole story. The full story is that of the work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God creates, becomes involved with creation, and is made incarnate into time, space, and history in order to redeem and restore the world as the garden of God’s habitation and people as his community of love and fellowship. In summary, here is what biblical worship does: It remembers God’s work in the past, anticipates God’s rule over all creation, and actualizes both past and future in the present to transform persons, communities, and the world. (Ancient Future Worship)”

Personal Formation

The second piece of the Spiritual Formation Puzzle is Personal Formation. These are the personal rhythms and practices that we intentionally put ourselves under. In short: spiritual disciplines (Fasting, prayer, study, meditation, lectio divina, etc). Here, we follow the example of Jesus himself who often went off alone to be with the Father. This piece of the formation puzzle has traditionally been most emphasized and taught in the Quaker tradition and the different monastic traditions.

As we turn again to the second chapter of Acts we see that patterns of prayers were important to the people of God. In verse 42 we see that they “devoted themselves…to prayer.” Scot McKnight points out in his book, Praying with the Church, that the disciples were gathered for 9:00am fixed-hour prayer when the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost.

Fixed-hour prayer is one of the many disciplines that the early disciples, and Jesus himself practiced. Elsewhere in the Bible we see the disciplines being practiced regularly. We see Daniel being sent to the lions den because he was keeping the hours of prayer. We see David and the psalmist internally reflecting on his own life in light of the truth of God.

In the churches that I grew up in, personal formation was very, very limited. We were basically taught that if you wanted to be fully devoted follower of Jesus you should read your bible each day (usually called a quiet time) and pray according the A-C-T-S (Adoration – Confession – Thanksgiving – Supplication) acronym.

In the churches I have been in since, we have done well at deconstructing “quiet times” as the sum total of personal formation. Quiet times aren’t evil but for many of us they didn’t live up to their billing as the thing that will make us more like Jesus. We were right to recognize that personal formation is much more than reading a chapter of the bible every night, journaling and praying through the ACTS acronym.

But, the problem comes in that after de-constructing quiet times, many of us have replaced them with nothing. Now we are left without any tools that help us engage the personal side of formation. While reading a chapter and writing in a journal fell short, they were better than what many of us currently have. As churches and leaders we must give people more holistic tools that will help guide their personal disciplines. There are many, many resources out there for this today so it is not acceptable that we haven’t taught this or practiced this better.

There are some excellent traditions around the areas of Personal Formation. Perhaps the best known book to get people started in a more holistic approach is Richard Foster’s book, The Celebration of Discipline. Here he introduces thirteen different approaches to personal formation, a far cry from quiet times! Foster writes that “The disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us to transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

There is a strong difference in the emphasis of the disciplines than there is in the emphasis that comes from a quiet time. For most of my life, I spent my quiet times gathering information about Jesus. The bible I used as a youth was underlined and highlighted all over. But, my mission in those underlines was like that of a miner. My goal was to find as many cool, interesting and helpful tidbits and facts as I could. The focus of the disciplines is quite different. The focus of the disciplines is for listening. For hearing God speak into our lives. When I was taught to have a quiet time, I was not taught to listen. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of what I was taught as a youth. Even as we look at the often helpful A-C-T-S acronym we see that there is no place where we are sitting quietly before God inviting him to speak into our lives.

This piece of the formation puzzle is obviously vital to our maturity in Christ. But, this is perhaps the one that is hardest to teach and to pass on. We can teach all that we want about the different disciplines from the pulpit or in the classroom. But, I am convinced that until we have personal mentors who are walking with us through these disciplines, we will never realize them fully.

Servant Formation 

The third piece of the formation puzzle is Servant Formation (I know, this naming doesn’t fit but the term “Missional” wouldn’t be fair to use here). This is formation through service and loving others. Not only are we called to love others, but we are formed through serving others less fortunate than us. Some of the most formative moments of my life have been when I’ve been in service to others. Here is where we are often stretched and challenged in our thinking. Here we have our eyes opened up a world much larger than the one we live in on a day-in day-out basis.

Again we turn to Acts 2 to see how the early church practiced this. In this chapter, we see that “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles … And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Here I do not believe it is a stretch to understand the signs and wonders being done by the disciples as means of caring for those who were hurting. After all, the disciples were following after the pattern of Jesus. Almost everyone of Jesus’ signs and wonders were focused on caring for those less fortunate, the outcast, the marginalized. No where in Scripture do we see Jesus performing a miracle that did not result in someone being cared for or helped (correct me if I am wrong here!).

When we talk about servant formation we see that it is reasonable to view people being “saved” as a legitimate result of the compassion that we are to have on one another. The traditions that have emphasized this focus well have often been more mainline denominations like the PCUSA and the ELCA. These traditions have often been accused of preaching a social gospel. Yet, even if if this accusation is legitimate, they are living out their faith in a very real way that follows in the way of Jesus and the way of the disciples.

In the evangelical churches that I grew up in, the issue of social justice or this typical type of missional work was usually left to missionaries or the “liberals”. There was a strong bias away from ever caring for someone’s physical needs. In fact, too many times I heard “they don’t need food, they need Jesus” when we were talking about someone who was poor. Ironically, it was usually someone who was well-off by the world’s standards who was saying this!

Ron Sider in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, writes the following,

“We need to discover that in the BIble, sin is both personal and social. Again and again, the prophets make it perfectly clear that we sin both by lying, stealing and committing adults and also by participating in unjust legal and economic systems without doing what God wants to change them. Sin is both personal and social, so overcoming evil demands both personal and structural transformation.”

We see this same tension in the book if Amos in chapter 5 where we read,

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

We also see this in a similar passage in Isaiah 1 where we see God say again that he is sick of all Israel’s worship and sacrifices because their “hands are full of blood”. He then calls them to, “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

We see here that we cannot separate the service from our formation. In addition, we cannot worship in our liturgy without also caring for the needs of those around us!

Relational Formation

The fourth piece of the formation puzzle is Relational Formation. This is formation that happens when we place ourselves in intentional relationships focused on prayer, sharing and encouragement. This isn’t referring to merely having fun with close friends (which is definitely important) but this is referring to groups of 3-5 that meet regularly to share life.

We see in our chapter of Acts 2 that the people were in close community. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need….They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” We see later in chapter 4 that they were sharing all of their possessions. And in the next chapter when Ananias and Sapphira withheld their offering from Apostles they knew about it right away. I would argue that the Apostles new about it right away because they were in such close community! There are a few traditions that do “community” really well. Perhaps the most well known denomination is the Vineyard churches who I have seen have a great focus on community in their churches.

In the evangelical tradition the focus on community has been meant for many people the practice of “accountability groups.” This meant every week or so you would sit with some “close friends” and feel guilty about all the things you did wrong that week. Then someone would ask you if you lied during the conversation. My personal experience with these groups was obviously not very helpful! I always found ways to come up with excuses to not attend these meetings because I felt like the groups were all about “keeping record of my wrongs.” In I Corinthians 13 we actually read that, “love keeps no record of wrongs”!

Accountability/Accounting is a term that we use to talk about maintaining records and few people likes to experience groups like this. Because of this many churches like mine have intuitively and wisely done away with accountability groups. But again, we’ve replaced them with nothing and we’ve thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

The question before us then, is what is a better way forward? I still believe that small groups of 3-5 are a vital part of our formation. We need people who we can bear our souls to. People who can know our struggles and our strengths. People who can hold us up with we’re about to fall over and people who can rejoice with us when our lives are full of joy. But we need some models of how this works well. In a class I took at seminary with Joseph Myers he talked about the possibility of “edit-ability groups.” He argued that an “editor” is a much better metaphor for what we are looking for. Editors help make writing better. A good editor does not just point out errors. A good editor finds an error and helps find a way to make the writing more complete. While the name “edit-ability groups” doesn’t have a great ring to it, I think the concept has value. We don’t need people who are keeping records of our wrongs. We need people who are aware of our weaknesses and helping us become more whole. The big question then is, how do we model and provide helps with people engaging as editors rather than accountants?

We need to give people tools that allow them to slowly enter into these kinds of relationships. Whether it be a list of questions or a book to study through together, we must provide the tools. I have been amazed at how awkward and unnatural it feels to talk about spiritual things, even with some of my closest friends. In my experience having a book to lead and guide our discussion is beyond helpful. The book is merely a path to walk down and we feel the freedom to take a detour off the path whenever we want. It’s just nice to always have a path to come back to and a path to get us started.

Mike Breen in his book, Building a Discipleship Culture, points out that if we are going to from disciples the way that Jesus did we need to learn from the way he actually did it. He writes,

“Time and time again in the Gospels we see Jesus functioning as a classic horse-whisperer, inviting his followers into an intimate relationship with him while also initiating a direct challenge to behaviors he knew were either right or wrong or unhealthy. He drew his disciples closer, loved them, then gave them opportunity to accept the responsibilities of discipleship.”

As Breen points out, Jesus is perhaps our best example of what it means to live with and share life intimately with a small group of people. Yet, we have other examples of this kind of friendship in other parts of the Biblical witness. We see the close friendship of David and Jonathan. We see Pricilla and Aquila taking Paul under their wing to mentor him and teach him. We see Paul then doing the same with Timothy. All throughout scripture we see people coming together to be shaped by one another.

Unfortunately for many of us, being in these kinds of relationships is unnatural. Our culture is based on surface friendships that tend to revolve around the latest episode of our favorite television show, the latest sporting event or a common interest in a hobby. These are not unimportant parts of our friendships but they are not the essence of relational formation. If we are going to be in friendships where we are drawing each other closer to Jesus and following in his way we must be willing to enter into the mess with each other. Resources like Mike Breen’s LifeShapes are a helpful tutor when it comes to building these kinds of groupings in the local church.

If have found that like many things, we must be modeling this kind of thing as leaders for it to take hold in our communities. Modeling actually works! Recently I began meeting with a group of men in my congregation every other Monday night to pray for one another and share life together. One of the members of my group, all on his own, reached out to two other men in our church to begin doing the same thing with them on our off meeting nights.

Educational Formation

The final piece of the community formation puzzle is Educational Formation. This is formation that happens “by the renewing of the mind”. Knowledge is important. As Dallas Willard says, our faith must be based on something other than just dumb luck. We are formed by what we know and believe and the only way we know more is by intentionally learning and stretching our thinking.

We see evidences of this part of formation all around the Scriptures. Again, we see this in our Acts 2 template where it says that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” in verse 42. We also have the oft-quoted passage in Romans 12 where Paul admonishes us to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” so that “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Again in 2 Timothy 2:15 we read that in the example of Timothy he is encouraged to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” There are traditions who are very passionate about learning as important to formation. For example, the presbyterian tradition, especially the PCA, places a large emphasis on learning.

I also grew up in an environment that placed a large emphasis on learning and knowledge. In fact, 2 Timothy 2:15 was one that I remember hearing about over and over again! The unwritten belief was: get your knowledge correct, your doctrines in order and you will be a mature disciple. In fact, a mature believer was generally one who had the right answers to the theology questions.

Over time many have recognized that this is not helpful when taken to this extreme. We have recognized that knowledge does not automatically lead to maturity. We know plenty of Christians who have all the “right answers” but their lives show little Christlikeness. So, we’ve wisely said “Following Jesus isn’t all about knowing the right information about the Bible.” But, in the process many of us have more or less said in practice, “Following Jesus isn’t about knowledge at all”. This approach obviously has swung the pendulum way too far.

We can’t hold knowledge up as the “only” thing in discipleship. But we do need knowledge as part of the formation puzzle. This is especially true since we are in a post-Christian culture where Biblical knowledge is at an all time low. We must find ways to teach people the truths of Scripture and give them the tools to study on their own.

This is why James K. Smith wrote his book Desiring the Kingdom. He says the point of his book is that “It is an invitation to re-vision CHristian education as a formative rather than just an informative project.” This is a key thought because it shows that education is an important part of our formation, not just a means of cramming more information into our heads.

As churches, we must do better at talking creating an educational environment that forms people for witness. Again, this comes back to realizing that we cannot remove our discipleship, especially our educational piece, from mission.

The Acts 2 Church?

As we have seen the witness of Scripture, especially Acts 2, formation of a community takes on five main forms. As communities, we have traditionally emphasized one or two of these pieces of the puzzle at the expense of the others. If we are going to be forming holistic disciples of Jesus Christ, than we need each other in the process. In the local church, we must build leadership structures that allow people of all different gifts and passions to teach others. The fact is, most pastors are gifted to teach in one or two areas. We needs pastors who willing to give up their positions of power and allow those in their communities who are gifted in other pieces to take the reigns and lead the community. In the same way, we need leaders of traditions and denominations and movements to realize that their way is not the only way and that they can learn from traditions wider than their own. If we do not work together we will not only be making incomplete disciples but we will be ignoring the witness of scripture as well as the witness of the Church over the centuries.

One of the things I have realized here is that it is actually possible to have an “Acts 2 church”.  But, we have to take Acts 2 in a descriptive way, not a prescriptive way. We are not called to copy Acts 2 exactly as we see it.  We can however learn from Acts 2.  When we do, I believe we see a five-fold approach to Spiritual Formation. With this Puzzle approach to community formation we can see how a church in Zambia as well as a church in Center City Philly to a church in Suburban Chicago could be helped by contextualizing what it means to be in relationships together (Relational Formation), learn together (Educational Formation), worship together (Liturgical Formation), service together (Missional Formation) and learn what it means to be formed inwardly together (Personal Formation).

Over the last year, we at The Well have been living, learning and leaning into this framework. I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts and ideas as we continue to wrestle through rhythms of community life that lead us to take active participation in our formation as individuals in the context of community.