“Once we begin to realize that genuine spiritual growth is a continuous and sometimes difficult process, we may be tempted to think that it is an option we can take or leave.’
M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.
“One by one, they all began to make excuses.” 
Luke 14:18a
Clay, in its natural state, has little value. Yet, in a master’s hands, clay has nearly endless possibilities for both function and beauty. The difference is the master’s hand. God tells us in Jeremiah 18 that we are like clay. Each person has been created for useful service for God’s purposes. But until we have been molded and shaped by the hands of the Master we have little value in advancing God’s purposes here on earth. The Master I speak of, naturally, is God.
Spiritual formation is the process by which we participate in God’s molding and shaping us for God’s use. It is a shared activity: our willingness to place ourselves in God’s hands and God’s work in and upon us. Alone – apart from God – we cannot become all that God desires us to be. Without our willing participation in the shaping process, God will not create in us an instrument of useful service. Simply, spiritual formation is something we do with God.
            So how do we participate in the spiritual formation process? In my study of the scriptures, I have observed three patterns of active participation:
  • Time Alone with God in study and prayer.
  • Time in Community of a small group for support, encouragement, accountability and care.
  • Time Sharing our faith journey with another.
Through these three activities we consciously and willingly place our lives in the Master’s hands. What will come from all that activity is left to God. It is no different with clay. Soft, malleable clay in the hands of the master has no say what will become of it. The primary difference is that we know the Master – He is the One Who came to us in Jesus Christ and upon the cross gave His life for us. In such hands we have little worry about what will come of us. We have seen God’s intentions and it is good.
The tragedy is that many in the church are not experiencing transformation into useful instruments for God’s use. One by one, they all make excuses. The demands of marriage, raising children and advancing in a chosen career leave no time for genuine spiritual growth activity. No time for the study of scripture and prayer. No time for meeting weekly in a small group for spiritual nurture and growth. No time to share with other people about one’s personal journey of faith. Of course, if there is no time for intentional spiritual formation, there is no faith journey to speak of.

It seems to me that such thinking is really more of a confession than an excuse; confession that one is really not interested in giving-up control of their life to God. As M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. so brilliantly expresses it, spiritual formation is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things. Churches are populated by members who make excuses. Fortunately, they are also populated by genuine disciples of Jesus who are being shaped by the Master’s hand.   


“Do you want more of God? Then shut up and listen.” 
Leonard Sweet
“Be still, and know that I am God!” 
Psalm 46:10
            I know someone who cannot be still. If they are not physically moving then they are seated in front of a computer or mentally engaged with some hand-held electronic device. They are always in motion – physically or mentally. They don’t sleep very well. I’m not surprised. Their mind simply doesn’t know how to shut down and be still. The consequence is that they are always exhausted. Perhaps you know this person. Perhaps this person is you.
            One of the first lessons God teaches us is that we were created in a manner that requires us to be still on a regular basis. In fact, God demonstrates this lesson to us in the opening pages of the Bible; God creates the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. And on the seventh day God rests. To watch some people it would seem that they have more energy than God. They simply have missed God’s intention that we stop occasionally. I wonder if Isaac Newton was making a personal observation when he famously declared that a body in motion tends to remain in motion.
            The person I speak of – and I am thinking of a specific individual – is not only physically exhausted, they often live their life in a spiritual wasteland. They want more of God, they desperately long for more of God but God seems far away. I know because they often ask me how they can have more of God. I haven’t shared with him Leonard Sweet’s elixir, “Then shut up and listen.” That’s another thing with my friend, they don’t listen very well. How could they? Their mind is always racing with one thought or another.
            My friend needs to take baby steps. First, simply stop from time to time and watch people. Notice their behavior, their activity and how they engage with others. Make mental notes, “What do I see?” Naturally, this is still mental activity but activity that notices a world apart from oneself. Once that has been practiced for a period then what is required is actively listening to others. As those in the helping profession would say, active listening is putting aside any thought to a response – it is simply hearing another fully. Active listening frees us from a sense of isolation – another difficulty my friend struggles with.
            Once there is some familiarity with active listening – it is mastered only by the most disciplined – the most difficult step is to read scripture and sit in silence listening for God. Again, quoting Leonard Sweet, if you want more of God then shut up and listen. This isn’t easy. It has often been the most difficult part of my own spiritual journey.
            Psalm 46:10 provides guidance. Placed in the context of the whole Psalm, what we are asked to do is “lean forward” with attentive, expectant hearts for God’s speech to us. This is not an invitation to a passive posture, physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. We are invited to a specific activity – leaning forward to hear a word from God. We wait for something to be revealed to us previously hidden.
            I believe that my friend is sincere in his desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. What is required is that the pathway of discipleship be located in a place of stillness before God. If he can find this beginning place – stillness before God, time alone with God – he may discover that his exhaustion, difficulty with restful sleep and loneliness will all be diminished. More, the Psalm promises, what he will know with certainty is God.

“The missional church at the dawn of the twenty-first century 
stands or falls on its capacity to make disciples.” 
Alan Hirsch
The primary business of the church is to make disciples. Preaching, teaching and pastoral care are each important so long as they serve the singular purpose of making disciples. Jesus demonstrated this priority in His ministry. In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples seek Jesus early one morning and find Him praying. With considerable audacity they disrupt Jesus at prayer and tell Him of the urgency before them that day – the pastoral care load was already mounting. Jesus dismisses the disciple’s agenda for the day with another, going to the neighboring towns that disciples may be made in those places. “That is what I came out to do,” says Jesus as if He is surprised that He has to remind the disciples,

Additionally, Jesus told the disciples clearly and directly that the primary purpose of their ministry is to make disciples. At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, the church locates what has come to be known as The Great Commission. Jesus is prepared to depart from His disciples and has one final word for them. Last words or final words are usually chosen with care. The one speaking sifts through multiple thoughts, multiple concerns to locate the one thought, and the one concern that trumps all others in importance. Jesus’ final thought – His primary concern – is that the disciples understand that they have been called together and apprenticed for three years for one thing, to make disciples,

It is curious that church boards often spend considerable time in identifying and crafting a mission statement for their church. One would think by all that effort that the mission is negotiable. Jesus gave no indication that it is. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus demonstrated this in His ministry and told the disciples that it is to be their ministry. Making disciples is the main thing.

Alan Hirsch is right – the missional church stands or falls on its capacity to make disciples. Beautiful and compelling worship, thoughtful teaching and preaching and excellent attention to the pastoral care needs of a faith community remain important. Yet, if year after year all of that activity is for the same people, the church will have failed to advance the one thing Jesus said was most important.


“Ultimately, each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. If your disciples are passive, needy (“feed me,” “visit me,” “take care of my needs”), consumeristic, and not moving in the direction of radical obedience, your church is not good.” 
Neil Cole
“The unseen culture of a church powerfully shapes her ability to grow, mature and live missionally.” J.R. Woodward
The wonderful Presbyterian pastor, Craig Barnes has advanced – with considerable force – the singular notion that “It’s not about you.” A popular speaker at leadership conferences and as a guest in churches of every size, Barnes has crafted his “stump speech” around those four words. Thousands have heard those words enumerated in various and imaginative ways but the message remains: the work of the church is not, has not and never will be about “you.” What remains, of course, is the question, “Just what is the work of the church about?” Simply, the work of the church is about the Missio Dei – the Mission of God.
Unfortunately, something of a heresy has infected a great number of churches in North America. I limit this observation to North American churches only because my personal observation and reading has been so limited. The heresy of which I refer is a change of culture from the one that shaped the church of the New Testament; a change from the New Testament church’s self-understanding that it existed to advance the work of God in the world to the present North American understanding that the church exists to provide religious goods and services to it’s privileged members. As someone once observed, the Sunday morning offering has become membership dues and those that pay expect certain privileges. The church has become another club.
There is good news. Emerging in the last two decades is a recovery of the original charter of the church – the church exists for God’s ongoing work in the world. Church members, rather than being “club members” who demand goods and services are now identified as “disciples” who accept personal responsibility for God’s mission. Widely, this recovery is referenced as the “Missional Church.” Quite simply, this fresh understanding of the character and mission of the church is a movement from “What can the church do for me?” or even the more noble question, “What can I do for God?” to discernment of where God is presently at work and joining that work in a meaningful way.
Churches who are now possessed by this new culture are renouncing the heresy that once held the church captive. Abandoned are the artifacts of a culture that seeks to meet the personal needs of members. This old way of thinking about and being church is experiencing a New Testament rebirth that calls all church “disciples” to ministries appropriate to the spiritual gifts that they have been so endowed by God. Anything less is now recognized as idolatry – “me” before God.
How might a “membership” culture be changed into a “discipleship” culture?  Reams of paper have absorbed gallons of black ink orchestrated by those seeking to address that question.  Many helpful insights have been provided. What many have discovered is that specific tactics and strategies vary from region to region and church to church. Cultural change in a specific church is difficult work and requires more the careful hand of an artist than the blueprint of a strategist. But there are two biblical principles that drape over all tactics and strategies like a sacred canopy: repentance and prayer.
The Book of Jeremiah is instructive. In the eighteenth chapter, God has Moses tell the people – who are on the wrong track – that if they “turn from their evil,” then God’s response will be, “I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring.” What God is speaking of is “repentance,” by both the people and God. Simply, if the people turn and go the other way – the meaning of repentance – then God will also turn and go the other way. Many Christians are often surprised to learn that God has invited us into a dynamic relationship with God. And that relationship is sustained and nurtured like all relationships – through regular and substantive conversation. Such conversation with God is commonly called “prayer.”
Any cultural change within a particular congregation must begin with the leaders acknowledging that they are “going the wrong way.” Ministry that has been designed to serve the people and all their perceived needs must give way to a fresh commitment to the mission of God. Then leaders must do what leaders do – lead the people to a fresh encounter of the scriptures and understanding of the dominant theme found there – God’s mission in the world. Naturally, all leadership must acknowledge a dependence upon God for hearts to be changed and people mobilized for ministry. That is what will shape the content of their prayers.
This is not to say that people’s needs do matter to God. The church only has to point to the cross of Jesus to demonstrate God’s concern for God’s people. What scriptures do say is that ministries to the needs of the people is to be done by the people of the cross-shaped community – not necessarily by the leaders, ordained and elected. Leaders direct the people into meaningful participation in the mission of God and the people minister to one another as the larger mission of God is advanced. This is what the Reformed Church has called “the priesthood of all believers.” 
Neil Cole is right. Each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. Attention to the expectations and behavior of any particular church will reveal whether it is a church that functions as another club in the community or a missionary force for God’s purposes.
Doug Hood

“The church is not just called to be a body of disciples; it is called to make disciples.”
William J. Abraham
What is it to make disciples? What are we talking about? Lack of clarity on this one question – what does it mean to make disciples – doesn’t seem to be a place of anxiety for many mainline churches today. Not that there is a general understanding or consent to the answer. The absence of anxiety is the result of the question not being asked. Simply, for many churches in the mainline family of the Christian church, “discipleship” simply isn’t the primary focus.
This, of course, begs the question, what is the primary focus of these churches? According to my friend and mentor, Greg Ogden, one only has to pay attention to the informal criteria by which professional clergy are measured by the membership. Churches that care about discipleship will ask, “Is the pastor hanging-out in diners and coffee houses connecting with people who do not have a meaningful relationship with Jesus?” “Is she meeting weekly with one or more small groups of people encouraging actual growth in personal discipleship?” These are the concerns of a church membership that takes discipleship seriously.
On the other hand, argues Ogden, if the questions are, “Has the lead pastor visited our members in the hospital?” or “Is the lead pastor calling on the membership in their homes?” then what becomes apparent is that the focus is inward. Such questions disclose a church that has directed its focus more upon “care of their own” regardless of the printed mission statement.
Of course some churches will have additional pastors that are called specifically for the purposes of pastoral care. And churches that have the resources to staff in this manner are blessed. Ogden’s contention is that pastoral care must not be the primary expectation of the lead pastor, senior pastor or solo pastor. The primary function of such pastors is to direct the church in making disciples. Nowhere is this observation made more forceful than the first seven verses of Acts, chapter 6. Here the apostles answer “no” for the request that they spend time administering pastoral care to the membership. Yet, they do recognize that excellent pastoral care is an important mark of the church. What they do is set apart specific people who have the particular gift of pastoral care. The result for the church is stated in verse seven, “and the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.”

“The faith that does nothing means nothing.”
Miroslav Volf
In my first year of theological studies I attended a singles Sunday school class of the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.  One particular morning a student asked if he could address the class. He shared that five years earlier he had made a profession of faith in Jesus and was baptized. He continued that since receiving baptism he had done nothing with his faith so his faith had done nothing for him. “That needs to change,” he said, “And I need your help.” Here was a class member asking other class members to hold him accountable for an active faith. He had grown bored of an idle faith.
Active faith is dangerous. It is dangerous because control of one’s life is handed over to another – it is handed over to God. For all that our faith teaches us about God, there is so much more that we don’t know. As the Apostle Paul writes in First Corinthians 13, seeking to understand God is like looking in a mirror that has become darken – you can see something but much remains unclear. Yet, Christian baptism is nothing if it isn’t handing personal control of life over to God. It is a dangerous move.
Active faith also holds a promise. There is a promise that life will be experienced with greater vibrancy. A life that is tightly grasped by the individual misses what cannot be imagined. But a life that is imagined by God – and directed by God in that imagination – holds unfathomable possiblities and surprises. Simply, God has larger eyes for what is possible than our own.
Perhaps the greatest wound inflicted upon the church is an idle faith by persons who otherwise assert that they are followers of Jesus. Absent in their life is evidence of listening to God, submission to God, actively learning all that Jesus taught and obedience to those teachings. There is an unwillingness to walk the narrow path – to be peculiar – as William Willimon would say. Life is left untouched and unchanged by the hand of God. The result is people living lives that look no different from the lives of those outside the church. The result, of course, is the question of popular culture, “Why follow Jesus?” “Nothing seems different.”
That young man in the singles Sunday school class finally realized that he wanted more from his faith. An idle faith wasn’t working. He started new by asking for accountability. With that simple request he became to all of us a great teacher for how to begin moving toward an active faith.