The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations movement, as exemplified in our Texas Annual Conference, speaks of the practice of “Faith Forming Relationships.” I served on the conference committee tasked with this area after the reorganization. As far as I could tell, all the name meant in that context was “all the things we used to call Christian education and spiritual formation.” Since I’d heard conference leaders say that our reorganization was aiming at real change, I figured I must be missing something. Surely the purpose in reorganizing was more than just re-arranging deck chairs, more than merely shrinking a committee, cutting funding, and continuing to do what we’d done before.
In the first post I focused on elements of discipleship that, broadly speaking, refer to our relationship with God. My take on “faith forming relationships” is that here we’re working on our relationships with each other in the Body. In salvation God seeks to heal four dimensions of broken relationship: Our relation with God, with other people, with ourselves and with creation. All these elements are necessary parts of the biblical picture of salvation. If all I do is get right with God, I’m doing a good thing, but I’m missing out on important aspects of salvation. If all I do is join a church and get friendly with other church people, I’m doing a good thing, but I’m missing out on important aspects of salvation. If all I do is receive inner healing, well, you get the idea.
The process of making disciples includes brining people into relation with the church. By “church” I mean more than simply getting their name on a roll. Church for us, here and now, always entails a particular group of people in a particular place and time. That’s why when I receive people into membership I speak of their loyalty to and support for this congregation of the United Methodist Church, not just the United Methodist Church. Only a few will ever relate to the abstraction we call the UMC. All ought to relate to this particular set of people that instantiate that abstraction.
Here are the characteristics I look for as I work to build a disciple’s relationship with the church:
- Disciples understand clearly the basic convictions of the church. Being a Christian entails having a certain set of convictions. It is more than having convictions, but it is not less. It’s the same with being a United Methodist – and with being a member of a particular congregations. Disciples grow in their understanding of the basic convictions that differentiate our community from others. Understanding these convictions makes us neither ethnocentric, triumphalistic not exclusivistic. Some of the convictions we claim are at the heart of the faith. Some we recognize merely as “our” way of doing things.
- Disciples can articulate the basic convictions of the church. We understand things better when we articulate them, when we put them into words. These convictions are not our private possessions, but the shared property of the church, of the community of followers of Jesus.
- Disciples identify, support, and live the vision and mission of the church. The mission of the church is not just for the pastors and leaders. The mission of the church is too large for the whole body not to be involved. Part of being a Christian is recognizing Jesus as Lord over the whole of life, of taking up his agenda as our agenda.
- Disciples understand their membership in the biblical sense, with people as parts of the body of Christ. When I am a member of a church it means more than having my name on a roll, more than receiving a set of privileges. I am a part of the Body – connected with these particular folks through the shared gift of the Holy Spirit. While we share a common faith, that faith is not the ultimate source of our unity. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate source of unity.
- Disciples let love rule in all relationships within the church. We often find it easier to love people outside the church than people inside the church. We find that we know them too well. We’ve been hurt by them too many times. But if we’re going to be disciples, we’ll increasingly give in to love and let love have the last word.
- Disciples are learning and growing in their ability to be open with each other. Openness requires great trust. Great trust takes spending time with people. When we’re open we’re more able to receive grace from others. When we’re open, the work of God in our lives is more visible and accessible to the people around us.
- Disciples desire that forgiveness be real and abiding. We know we’re supposed to forgive each other. But 490 times? No – I don’t think Jesus meant his math to be taken literally (even if we take the reading that has 77). He meant don’t count – don’t keep a record of wrongs. That’s tough. Nearly impossible. In fact it is impossible without the grace of God.
- Disciples have a passion to see relationships restored and healed. We already have passionate worship. We’re also passionate about seeing relationships healed and restored. It matters to us. It bothers us to see people in the church who hate each other, who go to different services so they won’t have to see each other. That’s not what Jesus intends.
- Disciples make themselves available to God to use in the work of healing relationships. Sometimes God just strikes us with relational healing. More often God seems to work through other people. As we grow in Christ, we will increasingly allow God to use us in that healing work.
- Disciples are involved in a small group structure where they can be open and honest with each other and provoke one another to growth in relationship with Jesus. Many of our Sunday school classes settle for head knowledge or for fellowship (meant as drinking coffee, eating donuts, and talking friendly). Nothing wrong with that. But what we desperately need is face to face relationships where we can be open with each other, speaking – and hearing – the truth in love.