Accidental Faith Development
Six years ago I was hired to be the Intentional Faith Developer at another Methodist Church. It was a newly created position developed by a consultation group for the conference. The idea of having this position was great in practice, and with other church leaders, we did a lot of great work during my three years there. We started new missions and outreach programs, revamped our children and youth ministries, and got more people to participate in Sunday School and weekly study. But after three years, I cannot say that I was able to develop a process for "intentional" faith development. I do think that people's hearts were changed and that people grew in their faith. But a lot of that change came accidentally, as we threw ministries and studies at the wall to see which ones stuck in people's hearts and minds. That church, like every church I've ever been a part of, still lacks a definitive way of developing people's faith in a profound, obvious and reproducible way.
When Jesus called the disciples to follow him, he called a strange crew to come together. They were truly a ragtag bunch. James and John were fishermen, which was a labor intensive, lower class existence. Matthew was a tax collector, the most corrupt, white collar, financial position one could have in that time period. Simon may have been a religious leader before being called, but we don't know if that was his profession. We don't for sure what Judas did before following Jesus, but his financial acumen meant he likely worked a more upper class position. Many of the other disciples, mostly teenagers, were likely laborers of some sort, though we don't know for sure. Either way, the men and women who were called to follow Jesus came from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of skills and abilities.
So how did they learn from their master? Did Jesus have an intentional plan to develop their faith? They walked together in the wilderness, mostly the edges of each community, away from the center of town. They also spent a great deal of their ministry outside those communities. He preached to them and taught them, but he also led them to act on his behalf. They healed others as he did. They taught others as he taught them. They served as he served. How did they grow their faith from their different positions and different backgrounds? Christ developed the disciples by letting them walk in his footsteps, together, while stirring their hearts collectively and challenging their own faith personally.
Often times, when we think about how to grow in our faith, we struggle to think about which approach is best. Is it enough to come to worship gatherings, church potlucks, and the occasional Sunday School class or small group? Or can we develop our faith more at home by reading the Bible, praying, and meditating privately about God? Is there some magic combination of all of those things, done in the right order, that makes us have an inward faith in God? Most Christians today, in all honesty, proclaim an outward faith and demonstrate faithful practices, but deep down, struggle to really feel an inward faith that transforms their life or connects them to God more deeply. What I've discovered in my work as a pastor and teacher, is that there is no perfect study, no universal discipleship path, or some set of steps we can all take together that will grow our faith.
What I think we need to consider as a church, is where our weaknesses in faith are, and how we need to follow Christ in ways that overcome those weaknesses. Maybe we struggle to understand and faithfully read the Bible. Maybe we read the Bible well but don't engage much in the worship services. Maybe we've never felt the presence of God when we pray. Most importantly, maybe we get all the theories, understand all the rituals, read all the text, but never actually let these ideas become real in our lives. Discipleship without stepping out in faith is like practicing medicine without a patient, writing computer code without a computer, or learning to drive without a car. At some point, everything we learn and practice needs to manifest in some real way in our lives. This should reflect on us as a church, as well as individually.
Just like the disciples, those ways will look differently. The apostle Paul was charismatic and understood law and religious custom. When he founded new churches, he leveraged those abilities with his understanding of the life of Christ to persuade people to join the faith and start churches. He could make solid arguments with competing faith leaders about why we should believe and how we should live. Peter was an organizer. He was able to bring people together and motivate them. He equipped leaders well and structured the churches in ways that helped them flourish and grow. Other faith leaders in history have all found ways to start where they were strongest and develop their inward faith so that they could follow Jesus in ways that were intentional for them.
What are your personal strengths? How do you think God is calling you to use them? What weaknesses in your faith, either personally or as part of the collective church do you need to develop in order to be the disciple that can use your abilities in the best way possible? How can the church help you develop those weaknesses, and how can we point you in the direction where Christ is leading? If we do nothing else in the next year, answering those questions could transform this church in ways we cannot yet fathom. We need to step forward into lives of discipleship, but we need to first discover what that looks like for each of us. I hope you'll consider how God is calling you to step forward today.