What Are You Learning About Faith Formation and Discipleship in Your Ministry Context?

Blog Series:  Your Perspective, Insights, and Witness Make a Difference

Dear friends, TMC thrives on listening to and learning from you – ministry leaders, TMC cohort facilitators, and other conversation partners across the country – who continually provide deep insights, alternative perspectives, and imagination that helps us discern where the Spirit is blowing and how the TMC network can faithfully respond. Your collective feedback is a powerful witness to what God is doing in the world. So, as always, we want to hear from you! Each post in this blog series is a question directed to you, accompanied by short reflections about why we’re drawn to these questions, and a simple way for you to respond. We hope these questions resonate with you and others in your ministry context. 

For centuries, the Church has heeded Jesus’ words in Matthew 17, “The Great Commission,” to make disciples. Of course, history reminds us how grotesquely this mission was interpreted and abused by so many for so long. But even today, that “teaching” part of the Church’s purpose can be rigidly adopted as we seek to do what Jesus told us to do. Making disciples requires teaching the Scriptures and stories. And yet knowledge and information alone does not make disciples. Jesus did not simply give a series of lectures or present a weekly sermon – he also invited people to follow him and see and experience what it means to live abundantly. We know that information does not lead to transformation. Nevertheless, we too often put resources, energy, and effort into programs and models that focus on Christian Education in a way that suggests a “know it and do it” mindset. And I confess that I love knowledge – teaching and studying – but I remind myself that it was the serpent who said if you have knowledge, you will be like God…

Then there is an “Alternative Great Commission,” in John 15. Of course, it is not an alternative at all – it is a sending that reveals what Jesus taught us and wants us to teach others. And it is a teaching that inherently requires doing. Jesus is clear that everything He has learned from the Father, He has made known to the Disciples. To avoid any confusion or question, he says in John 15:12 “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” And again, in verse 17 “This is my command: Love each other.” Love can only be learned and practiced in relationships with others, in doing life together. But when churches build programs around this approach, often without an anchor in Christ and the guidance of Scripture, they can form a community of good and nice people that lacks depth, direction, and growth.

Faith formation and discipleship is the work of the Church. We study the Scriptures and seek to love one another as Christ loved us. We do this together and as a whole – as Brian Wallace puts it, Christianity is a team sport. Faith formation and discipleship is not simply the work of a department, committee, or person. While many of us are called (or tasked!) with creating and overseeing programs and opportunities that seek to serve this function, we do not exist in isolation from other avenues of faith formation and discipleship, such as worship, service etc. Problems emerge when we feel undue pressure and focus so much on the form of discipleship programs that we lose sight of the function, of the “why?” While the function or desired outcome may be clear and constant, the form can change and be highly contextual.

My first job out of seminary was as an Associate Pastor for Discipleship. I was thrilled and eager. However, I started at a time when Life Groups were the “next big thing,” and Sunday Schools were considered out-of-date. This was largely based on the success of a local megachurch. There was a desire to move from an educational model to a small group model, and there was nothing contextual about it. Looking back, I realize that there were good intentions behind the plan – a hope to offer community, not just classes – but so many assumptions were made, and details missed. One Sunday School had been meeting for decades and so were doing life together in a way that a new group based on a zip code could not even imagine. The newly formed small groups needed material and guidance to gather around rather than an edict to go and be good Christian friends! Eventually we recognized that we could be a church “with small groups” rather than a church “of small groups.” I was sent in with a sledgehammer when what I needed was a scalpel. There was (after years of challenging work!) an understanding of a shared function across the different forms, and a recognition that an effective model for one church may not work at all in another.

I am now a few decades into my ordained ministry and one of my roles is preparing the way for a new Associate Pastor of Discipleship at my current church. And I am learning that there is nothing new under the sun! The tensions of ministry in faith formation and discipleship remain. We must approach this work of the Church in a way that involves teaching and learning, showing and telling, knowing and doing – so that we don’t become either well-versed and educated OR friendly and works righteous. We must ensure that the forms we create and use serve the function of nurturing faith and making disciples. And we must pay attention to the particular context we inhabit – life and ministry is not a one-size-fits-all.

What Are You Learning About Faith Formation and Discipleship in Your Ministry Context?

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