Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
Some Christians have been thrown to the lions. Some disciples have been burned at the stake. Some sacred agents have been imprisoned unjustly for years. And some … some have had it suggested to them that their small group might multiply.
Why is it that multiplying small groups causes so much division? I’ve had some great conversations with leaders about this recently and many find the process long, hard, and very painful. Is it really worth the agony?
Yes! If you’re a mature believer there’s approximately 100% chance that a significant part of your spiritual formation has developed through participation in small groups. I think I’m yet to meet a strong believer for whom this isn’t true. So here’s my question: If small groups are absolutely essential for making disciples, how can we possibly multiply disciples if we don’t multiply small groups? That’s right, we can’t. We either put more believers into existing groups, making them no longer small, or we must multiply the groups.
Why is smallness important? It can, I think, be boiled down to this: With a microphone, you can speak to 10,000 people at a time. But we don’t have the technology to listen to 10,000 people at a time. We can only listen to one at a time. It’s a key part of disciple-making and can readily be seen in the practices of Jesus himself. He too had a small group … that multiplied.
What can we do, then, to ease the pain? Well, a fair bit of the grief, pain and resistance is necessary. Group multiplication is a key occasion for stretching and growing, and that hurts a bit. But what we can do better is to normalise the process so that it comes as less of a shock and that groups become less entrenched in the first place. Keep reminding small groups that fruitfulness (literally) means reproduction and that the pain of reproduction is worth it. Prepare groups earlier – from their start if possible – for multiplication. Don’t wait for groups to hit ‘full’ before having ‘the talk’. And finally, it’s a myth that groups divide perfectly in two. More often it works best when the leader hands over leadership and takes just a few others to go and commence a new group.
What’s your experience been? Easy? Painful? Worth it?
How often have you heard it said about evangelism: “We just sow the seeds, and we’ll never know how they might grow. We may never see those people in our particular church, but that doesn’t matter.” It sounds noble and is usually said unapologetically. But it sounds like very poor farming to me.
Consider Evangelism as just one of four broad stages of our mission to make disciple-making disciples: Incarnation, Evangelism, Discipleship and Sending. When we fail to connect them together, when we fail to do one stage with a view to the next, we significantly hinder the broader process.
Consider a car assembly plant. One worker may be faithfully unpacking windscreen wipers, but if she is not stacking them within easy reach of the next worker who fits them, is she being effective? Or if the wiper-fitter is absent or slacking off, is it enough for her to simply keep unpacking and stacking more and more piles of windscreen wipers everywhere? No! Her specialty may be unpacking wipers, but the Boss doesn’t want her to just look busy doing that. The company’s mission is to assemble cars.
Or imagine a man who decides to reproduce himself by sowing his wild oats all around the district. He hopes that the children he fathers – though he may never know them – will be raised by, well, someone. That part doesn’t matter to him. Would any of us consider such a man to be truly productive? No, we would call him incredibly irresponsible. Fathering without parenting is not God’s style at all!
And yet how many of us practice evangelism without a view to discipleship – the long, hard journey of spiritual parenting? Without any real care for what might be next for the people we encounter? There’s much more to evangelism than “spreading the love” throughout the district. Who goes fishing and doesn’t bother to take a bucket?
Jesus’ call “Come, follow me” is Evangelism with a view to Discipleship. And it even has a view to Sending: “and I will make you fishers for people”. Sacred agents, let’s not dress up irresponsibility as faith. Real faith is truly mindful of our Master, His style, and His desired ultimate outcomes, in all our various actions.
The life of a sacred agent isn’t like the movies. It’s a lot slower. (And more expensive.) Great Christians and great churches take a lot more time to form than it takes to read the books written about them. Our biblical heroes too, lived many a quiet, unrecorded, year.
So this one’s for all the sacred agents out there who are frustrated that nothing seems to be happening. You’re not seeing results. Your church doesn’t seem to be growing, and your unbelieving friends seem no closer to faith.
Now it’s possible that this is because you’re lazy, disobedient, low on faith and untalented. But it’s also quite possible that it’s not. What are we to make of the times when nothing’s happening?
Our theology reminds us that nothing happening is an illusion. God is always at work, though we might not see it. A farmer sows seed and it looks like she is litterally throwing away her wealth. In the dirt. There’s nothing to show for it – yet. Under the ground, out of sight, much is happening.
That’s all well and good, but what are we to do when nothing’s happening? Here are some suggestions:
(1) Rest. As in farming, the harvest season is very busy and there are other seasons where it’s wise to go at less than 110%, so as to be well refreshed for when the rush comes.
(2) Prepare. Those who are wise know that “it doesn’t rain, it pours.” It can all happen at once. The worst time for flood management is during a flood. Arks are best built before them.
(3) Pray. Not just for “things to happen” but for your own preparation for “things”. You might not be seeing fruit because you’re not mature enough yet to bear much. People think that crises form character, but it’s more true to say that crises reveal character – the character that is formed in the quiet, unspectacular, everyday grind.
(4) Think. Your mission may be barely developing, but it could be on an exponential growth curve. Just the flat, early bit. But that’s where the curve is formed, by wise decisions at the beginning. Twitter recently reported that it processes 1 billion tweets every week. But the first billion tweets took 3 years, 2 months and 1 day. And yet they were the crucial years when the platform was developed.
What’s worse that being a fired-up sacred agent when nothing’s happening? The realisation, when it all suddenly happens, that you were completely unprepared.
The value of identity of course is that so often it comes with purpose - Richard R. Grant*
Every church wants to be more missional. But how to go about it? Too often I think we try to approach it at the levels of teaching and action. Teaching – through more sermons about how God loves the lost, and action – by just getting people ‘out there’ and hoping they’ll catch the bug. I’m not against either of those, but I know many pastors who try them both and don’t see lasting change. To attempt missional transition, we’re dealing with a thorough-going systemic issue – one that can’t merely be dealt with at the surface. For lasting change we need to challenge paradigms, And this means dealing right down at the level of identity. We need to talk about ‘calling’ – literally learning to call ourselves what God calls us.
At the core of the discipleship process is the discovery of a new identity we are given in Christ. Without a deep awareness of this, change in our behaviour goes no further than social conformity (learning how to speak and act churchian). The biblical characters (Abraham, Israel, Peter, Paul) who had their very names changed upon encounter with God were onto a good thing. Some Christian communities across history have picked up this practice, (a recent example being the Church Army). We have become a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Christians could refer to each other as “Prince” and “Princess” – because we are given a nobility that precedes and makes sense of the call to noble action. But the practice of calling each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ – let alone prince or princess – has become rare.
Most Westerners have their identity tightly bound to their occupation. That’s identity-theft. A person says “I am a hairdresser.” She might consider herself a “Christian hairdresser”, but the noun “hairdresser” remains the defining element. How might things change if believers considered themselves “a Christian” or “a missionary” first and foremost? Instead of being a Christian hairdresser, one becomes a hairdressing Christian? Representing Christ becomes core. Hairdressing becomes the way I serve Him at the moment.
As a pastor I often saw people transfer into and away from our city, as their employers moved them around the globe. The comment “Wherever my work takes me, I’ll find a church” sounds pious, but once again betrays the core of one’s identity. I’d rather hear “Wherever the Lord sends me, I’ll find a job.” We must recover the radical new identity to which the gospel invites us.
I remember struggling to get through to a group of teenagers that God’s plan for them was much more than to become neatly-dressed, clean-speaking church attenders. In frustration I blurted out “It’s much more like being a secret agent!” And from there, the label “Sacred Agent” has stuck with me and hence the name of this blog. Hairdressing is at best our cover. We have another story, a very exciting one. We are a part of a very big plot. And it doesn’t need to be secret.
For a church to become a ‘missional’ church, the only real way is for the majority of its members to see themselves as missionaries. Sacred agents. Ambassadors. Right from the start Jesus called his followers ‘fishers for people’ and ‘apostles’ (sent ones). When people reclaim this identity, their mission then comes from their very core, and their full creativity is brought into play. Without this, church members might ‘do mission’ – but only as another way of ‘helping out the church’, rather than being the church.
What do you call yourself? What did you put down as your occupation in the recent census?
*Useful quote, but does anyone know who Richard R. Grant is?!
All mission begins with God and any fruitful missionary will have their roots deep down in God. Here’s a great Benedictine prayer that a friend sent me today:
Gracious and Holy Father,
Please give me:
intellect to understand you,
reason to discern you,
diligence to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
a spirit to know you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
ears to hear you,
eyes to see you,
a tongue to proclaim you,
a way of life pleasing to you,
patience to wait for you
and perseverance to look for you.
Grant me a perfect end,
your holy presence,
a blessed resurrection
and life everlasting .