Maps are idealizations of territory. They are useful to the extent that their methods of idealization help us orient ourselves in space and figure out where to go and how to get there. This is true whether the space be literal or metaphorical. If I have a map that shows me where I am and where I am going, I have the means at my disposal to answer the question, “Are we there yet?”
Houston is one of the places I go every year, as I participate in the meetings of the Texas Annual Conference. When I look at a map, I see a region labeled “Houston.” If I’m using the map on my phone, I can get it to tell me exactly how many miles it is from where I am at the moment to this entity called “Houston.” If I then drive exactly that distance I can say, “I’m in Houston.” Or perhaps I choose another strategy. I’ve looked at the map and figured out the route. Now as I drive, I look for signs. When I see a sign “Houston City Limit” or “Now Entering Houston,” I can take myself to be “in Houston.” Or perhaps I’m looking for landmarks. When I see the Houston skyline, or Minute Maid Park (do they still call it that?), I can say, “I am in Houston.”
It’s easy to see that each of these strategies of identifying my location has a degree of arbitrariness to it. Houston is a large, complicated place. When I go to Annual Conference, I am “going to Houston,” but “going to Houston” doesn’t tell the whole of it.
Mapping our Christian experience is similarly complex. We use terms like “become a Christian,” “get saved,” or “join the church,” as if these are all simple punctiliar events. They’re not. The disadvantage of these not being simple and punctiliar is that answering the question “Are we there yet” sometimes doesn’t lend itself to a clear yes or no answer. We can use that complexity to our advantage, however, and conceive of our movement through “Christian space” in a way that deepens our life in Christ and advances the mission of the church.
One way that I have talked about the space is in terms of crossing three lines.
The first line is the line sometimes described as “becoming a Christian.” Alternatively, this line can be called “putting our faith in Christ,” or “becoming a willing participant in what God is doing.” Each of these actions can be named in just a few words, but even on this level each action is complex. However we put it, one of our goals in ministry is to help people cross this line.
I usually call the second line “taking responsibility for our own spiritual growth.” When a child comes into the world (itself a complex event that admits of a clear “before” and “after” even while having a time of transition) the child is helpless. He or she needs feeding. Similarly, when I first become a Christian (cross the first line), I need help. I’m in the place of the helpless child: I need people to come alongside me and feed me the basics of the faith. Helpless little babies are cute. A helpless 5 year old, teenager, or adult is not cute. Likewise, there is much joy when a person comes to faith in Christ. We’re excited to come alongside them and help them take in the basics. There’s not so much joy when a person has been a Christian for a number of years yet still helplessly, like a baby bird in a nest, or a toddler in a highchair, calls out, “Feed me!” When we recognize that the Spirit equips us to relate to God on our own, to take the steps that lead to Christ-likeness without someone pushing us along, we have taken an important step in maturity. Failing to take this step is a primary reason people leave one church for another, saying, “I just wasn’t being fed.”
When I take responsibility for my own spiritual growth, I am not entering the way of independence. I still need the Body of Christ. Rather, what I am doing is taking up my own role within that Body. My hand needs my arm. It cannot function as a hand without its attachment to the arm. But as a hand, its “handness” goes beyond the arm’s “armness.”
The third line looks beyond myself to others. I usually call it “Taking responsibility for the spiritual development of others.” If I’m only concerned for my own spiritual growth, whatever kind of spiritual growth I’m experiencing is something other than Christian spiritual growth. God calls us all to pay attention to the people around us, to watch out for them, to help them on their journey to God. We cannot take that journey for them. We cannot take from them the responsibilities they have (crossing these lines for themselves, for instance).
There are other ways to map out this territory; this is one method I have found useful. Which maps are you finding useful?