By Shannon Youell
I know, I know, when you read today’s title, some of you are already thinking “we already share practices in our congregation: each week we faithfully gather together to worship, fellowship, pray for one another and hear teaching on Sunday and, often, we gather in smaller groups during the week.”
Yes, we do already share these rich times together. So good! We also encourage one another, rightly so, to spend time daily with God in prayer, meditation, scripture reading, confession and reflection for our own personal growth when we are not together.
Yet, we believe there is a thicker definition of what it means to embody this kingdom life we’ve been called to. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he is always talking about a community of people who are 24/7 citizens of that kingdom participating in the practices, the devotions, and the mission of the kingdom together. And he frames it all in the midst of discipleship, something that one does not pursue individually, but rather in relationship to others.
Like many of our human innovations, the proliferation of published books/information has both enhanced humanity immensely and also fed into the disconnection and fragmentation of community. There are so many amazing and wonderful devotionals, spiritual formationals, Bible studies, theological reflections and any other genre of book written, and we celebrate those and continue to encourage disciples of Jesus to pursue knowing God deeper, enriching people wherever they live, work, play and pray.
However, partnered with our western-world philosophical adherence to individuality and self-help, and distrust of anyone telling us what to think or do, our endless Kindle reading lists can actually separate us from the ancient practices that built and sustained communities of the faithful, which made those early disciples distinguishable in the places where they were embedded and participated in the new kingdom community marked by the Jesus way. In our current reality, discipleship itself has become optional, an add-on for those who are “wanting” more than the service on a Sunday morning or who are viewed as “more religious.”
Both Jesus and the early church demonstrated a journey of discipleship that was done within a community. Putting the idealized Acts 2 church into perspective, the people did not sit on the temple steps 24/7, forgoing work, family, civic duties and all the other components that make up humanity’s days. I believe the point of that passage in Acts is that they were intentional to gather and be discipled together and that they were equally as intentional to continue these practices when scattered, resulting in a community that were being both shaped and influenced together.
They were building a culture of discipleship that incorporated shared practices while scattered and that also enriched the shared practices of their gathered times.
We like to say this is a thicker understanding of what it means to be church together because it expands what we do, say and confess as a people together into the other six and half days of our lives. It takes our theology of what we believe and understand about God and his people to the place of praxis – what does that look like lived out?
Dallas Willard calls nondiscipleship the “elephant in the church.” He continues to say that the “elephant” is not the “much discussed moral failures, financial abuses, or the amazing similarity between Christians and non-Christians.” 1 Rather, nondiscipleship is the underlying problem to those failures. It’s the thing that everyone knows fills the room but nobody really talks about, especially when challenged with the part of discipleship that makes us accountable to a community of fellow disciples.
It is much easier (and safer) to just do whatever one does by oneself. The barrier the church finds itself up against is that we’ve done a good job of making believers but a dismal pass on making disciples who make disciples, who are on God’s mission together to bring his kingdom shalom into the world.
The good news is that God is waking up the church to this reality! In fact, it has been the Baptist historical ethos: whenever the church became too involved in self, God stirred up his followers to look around and see what is missing from their life together. Those who yearn to see the church become distinguishable from the rest of culture recognize that what is missing in our life together is the together part—a people who are devoted to the journey of discipleship that actually continues to transform us more and more to Christ-likeness! The together part is bigger and richer and more formational and thus tranformational, enhancing all the other wonderful rich things we do when we gather for a service. It is about shared practices—things we do together even when we are not together—things we do “together” as we engage being on mission with God to make disciples of all peoples and then teaching them to do the same.
In this next series of blogs, we will be sharing what we’ve learned ‘as we go’ in the rich pathway of shared practices, including stories of our own congregations as well as those of other lovers of Jesus who knew there was more to this life as church than what we have been engaging in.
Our purpose is that all of us as people who are faithful in our lives to God’s work in the world desire to see the culture around us be infiltrated with God’s goodness and kingdom. The reality is that before we can really see that happen, we must first shift our own internal culture into that of disciples on mission with Jesus.
Follow with us, comment, email us, and let’s share this journey of going deeper and wider together by creating a culture of shared practices.