Five Faith Practices of Discipleship

“We can’t entertain people into discipleship. We (each individually) must develop practices that counteract culture and conform us to Christ.”
Roger Helland & Leonard Hjalmarson
     It is now widely acknowledged that people are continually being shaped by their culture and environment. Pop culture has formed us – discipled us – through the medium of advertising and peer pressure. We feel that we must dress like everyone else, live like everyone else, spend our resources and behave like everyone else. Certainly we work hard to have nice things but, perhaps, that is part of the problem…some are working to hard and missing what really matters, significant relationship time with those we love and with Jesus Christ. We have “conformed” to the world.
     The consequence has been disastrous for the church. Congregations are filled with people who say they are Christians, perhaps even sincerely wishing to be Christians, but who look less like followers of Jesus and more like the rest of the world. It all has to do with what forces we have allowed to “shape” us.  Some years ago I identified what I believed are the irreducible faith practices of those who follow Jesus; The Five Faith Practices of Discipleship. The hope, of course, is that if every member were to identify a few manageable and intentional changes in priorities, they would be less conformed to the world and more conformed to Jesus.
Here are the Five Faith Practices of Discipleship:
*    Worship Regularly
*    Pray Daily
*    Learn & Apply God’s Word
*    Participate in a Ministry
*    Give Financially to the Work of the Church
     Naturally, these are not the only practices that mark followers of Jesus. But they are the “irreducible minimum” of intentional discipleship. This is where someone begins who desires to honor the call of Romans 12: 2 – “Don’t continue to be like the rest of the world. Start taking on the image of Jesus Christ. (My paraphrase).
     It has been argued that the health of a local congregation never rises above the spiritual health of the individual members. First Presbyterian Church is a good church, no question. Here we see incredible people doing incredible things. Here we see incredible forgiveness being demonstrated and compassion and care given abundantly. But this church can be so much more and can impact the local community far more significantly. One thing is required, one thing…that more and more people reading these words begin to take seriously the five faith practices and allowing God’s power to shape them into something so much more than they are now.

Do You Want to be Transformed?

 “Some years ago, social critic Neil Postman wrote an engaging book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman’s thesis was, in short, that we Americans are no longer interested in information, truth, or transformation. All we want is to be entertained.”
 From Preaching Master Class, William H. Willimon
     There is a fascinating story about Jesus healing a paralytic in John 5:1-9.  Jesus saw this man lying by a pool and learned that he had suffered as an invalid for thirty-eight years, so Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (verse 6).  At first glance, it’s one of the few occasions where Jesus seemed to ask a dumb question; anyone with an affliction spanning nearly four decades would want relief, wouldn’t they?
     This passage is a defining passage for many churches today – the question, “Do you want to be healed?” has become another, “Do you want to be transformed?”  Naturally, ask most church members this question they will respond, “Yes.”  Yet, if that question is followed by, “Then, what are you doing about it?” their eyes go blank.  Wishful thinking rarely translates into intentional behaviors or action.
     Each of you has heard, as I have, that our nation is literally dying from our “fast food diet.”  The popularly of fast food, of course, is not only that it tastes great but that it is cheap and … well, fast.  Our bodies – our health – would significantly be better served by intentional preparation of healthy meals at home.  With thoughtful shopping and the right recipes, we do not have to sacrifice either taste or inexpensive with such preparation.  But it does take time.  Preparing thoughtful, healthy meals that tastes great is not fast. And Americans seem unwilling to give-up “fast.”  Truth be known, they are not will to give-up “little effort” as well.
     The same is true for our growth in Jesus Christ. We want growth, certainly.  But we want it “fast food” style and “to go, please.”  We see this in worship by comments such as, “I go to church to be entertained” rather than “I go to church to express my gratitude for God’s love.”  As Tom Long once observed, when we realize that worship isn’t about us then we sing that hymn that we don’t like very much and speak the liturgy that – at that particular moment – leaves us cold.
     This is also true about efforts in spiritual formation.  I have heard from some of you, “Pastor, don’t give me homework to do, simply give me a video to watch.”  Translation: “I prefer to get there – spiritual growth in Jesus Christ – with little effort on my part.”  This is a “fast food” mentality.  Friends, we can change and become more like Christ but it will require intentional effort on our part.  The question remains, “Do you want to be transformed?”

A Successful Plan

 “Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, 
will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.
-Dallas Willard
     Nearly ten months ago I preached a sermon about the need for Christian formation for strong faith communities. In that message I shared that such formation required the Vision,the Intentionand the Means for personal spiritual transformation. Simply, there isn’t the possibility for developing strong faith communities unless there is individual transformation into Christlikeness. The general pattern for such individual transformation is described by Dallas Willard as the little acronym “VIM,” as in the phrase “vim and vigor.” Richard Schaublin actually remembers that sermon ten months later. Many Sundays he will tell me before worship that he has “VIM!”
     Willard argues that if we are to be spiritually formed in Christ, we must have and must implement the appropriate vision, intention, and means. Willard continues that not just any path we take will do. If this VIM pattern is not put in place properly and held there, Christ simply will not be formed in us.
      Let’s look closely at this pattern Willard calls VIM. Vision is something that is cast by leaders of an organization. Simply, the leaders of an organization have a view for what makes for success and attempt to convey that view to individuals within the organization through vision-casting. For the church, the primary leader is Jesus Christ and the teachings of Jesus make it clear that the primary vision for the church is one of a disciple making community. (See Mark 1:37, 38 among multiple other sources in the Bible)

      Intention involves decision – a decision by each member of the organization to participate in the vision. Not all will, of course. There will always be a few who will respond that they “don’t like homework.” But for the majority that catch the vision, understand the vision and recognize its value, they will be the ones who decide to advance the vision forward along with the leaders. When a church member agrees to participate in the vision of disciple making, they demonstrate that they have been captivated by Christ’s vision for something greater than their personal lives.
      Means is what follows the vision and the intention to obey Christ and is the specific thing or steps one will follow to realize the vision. Bottom line, it is what we do. It is “homework” or what I prefer, “soul work.” Since Jesus’ vision of the church is to be primarily a disciple making community, the means that is identified must be useful in developing disciples. Discipleship Essentials by Greg Ogden is perhaps the best resource available today for this. Dr. Ogden will be with our congregation this November. This will be an opportunity to interact personally with one of the best thinkers today in Christian formation. I hope you will participate in this weekend experience and become personally engaged in VIM for the future Vigor of this great church. Your “Yes” to intentional Christian formation will result in a greater impact for God’s kingdom here in Delray Beach.      



The Meaning of Membership

 “The more we thought about making disciples,
 the more we had to rethink the meaning of membership.” 
Glenn McDonald
\”Pastors must turn over much of the ministry to the laity. 
Pastors of healthy, growing congregations have a whole new set of tasks. 
If these pastors are still expected to visit all who are sick, meet all who are hurting and needy, 
and go to every meeting, they will have no time to do what they should be doing.” 
Paul D. Borden
     My single greatest desire is to see First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach become the church the Apostle Paul envisions in his letter to the church in Ephesus, the Book of Ephesians. Clearly, simply and succinctly, that vision is like a ball team; the game is played by the players, not the coaches. For the church, every member is a player; the hired staff is the coaches. That means that “ministry”, including the ministry of care to the sick and needy, is primarily done by church members. The staff stands on the sidelines and “coach”, in church language, recruit players, discover where their talent is, develop that talent and then send them onto the playing field.
     “Listen in” on the coaching that Greg Ogden once gave to the Elders of my former church, the Lenape Valley Presbyterian Church, New Britain, Pennsylvania in 2006, and then answer, “How are we doing?” Ogden tells the Elders that seven things must happen if we are to be like the church Paul speaks of in Ephesians.
  1. Set the expectation for the congregation that your pastor(s) is (are) primarily equippers for ministry, not just caretakers or administrators.
  2. Change the paradigm of how you make disciples from a programmatic to a relational approach.
  3. Refuse to make an unbiblical distinction between being a Christian and being a disciple.
  4. Be willing to call people to the high bar of discipleship.
  5. View the church as the central context in which disciples is made. A Christian is one who has God as their Father, and the Church as their Mother.
  6. Develop a public pathway of discipleship. Have an answer to the question: “If I wanted to become a mature disciple of Jesus Christ here, how would I propose that happens?” (Note: that is what my book, Faith Journey was written to do.)
  7. Model discipleship by being in a small, reproducing disciple-making community (small group).
      I once had someone share with me that they were in a very unhealthy place, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They sought advice from a doctor. After a few questions to the patient, the doctor responded, “It seems that you have neglected the basics of good health: a regular bed time and getting up at the same time each morning, exercise and a proper, healthy diet. Correct these things and then we will determine “what’s next.” Ogdenprovided the Elders of that church the basics of good health. How do you think we are doing here at First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach?