In the Peanuts cartoon series, Lucy is in business as a psychiatrist. “Advice—5 cents,” says her sign. Charlie Brown is her client. Charlie Brown woefully asks Lucy’s advice on finding a purpose in life. Using the metaphor of the bow of a large boat, Lucy responds, “Some people go through life with their deck chair facing backwards, looking at where they’ve been.” Then she asks,” Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?” Charlie Brown concludes sadly, “I really don’t know—I’ve never been able to get my deck chair unfolded!”
Today is the third week (of five) in our series on the practices that you can see flourishing in the life of healthy, fruitful congregations. We began with Radical Hospitality (welcoming others in Jesus’ name); last week was Extravagant Generosity. Today we are going to unfold the deck chair of developing our faith. Perhaps, where our spiritual development is concerned, we have all spent time with an unfolded chair or two.
It will help to define what we mean by Intentional Faith Development.
Faith has to do with your relationship to God, and the trust-level you have to let Him control things. In Paul’s letter to the Roman church Paul begged and pleaded with believers to watch their lifestyles – to make certain they were not being conformed to this world, meaning they were to live like Jesus lived, not like the people who crucified him; they should be transformed people. That word “conformed” shows up in Galatians, where Paul wrote that he was working as hard as he could with them, and on them, to see Christ formed in them.
This “conforming” to the image of Christ is growth, maturation in the faith, and of your faith. The Greek word is telos (telos), meaning “mature” or functioning in the manner for which you were created. A surgeon goes to school to become telos in surgery; his goal is to become proficient in his practice of healing. In Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Robert Schnase writes,
Vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations practice Intentional Faith Development. From the first generations of Christians to the earliest Methodists to the youngest generations of faithful members today, the followers of Jesus Christ mature by learning together in community. Churches that practice Intentional Faith Development offer high quality learning experiences that help people understand Scripture, faith, and life in the supportive nurturing of caring relationships. (Abingdon Press, 2007; p. 62)
“Intentional” may be the most disturbing of the three words in today’s emphasis. This word debunks the myth that growth occurs in the Christian journey by osmosis (where it seeps through your skin like poison-ivy); you just go to church, read your Bible a little, pay your tithe and stay away from bad habits, and, voilà, you’re a Christian; the Jesus gene takes over and you go to heaven.
Generally speaking there is a parallel between the spiritual and physical life. Jesus taught many truths by illustrating them with physical realities. He said he was like a vine, we are the branches. We are sheep, he is the shepherd.
Intentional vs. Osmosis
This is also true with the idea that our faith (relationship with God) and development (Christ formed in us) will not happen unless intentionally tended by every Christian. To clarify this principle, consider the following comparison of intentional parenting, as opposed to letting a child do whatever he wishes:
· Intentional parents take their children for checkups, shots and make them brush their teeth. “Osmosis” parents wait until the child is sick and weak.
· Intentional parents involve themselves in their children’s education. “Osmosis” parents raise ignorant children.
· Intentional parents train their children in faith and community responsibilities. “Osmosis” parents raise hellish, carnal children, because they don’t know better.
· Intentional parents teach their children manners and how to respect others. “Osmosis” parents raise selfish, brutish, obnoxious children who assume there’s no one else in the universe but themselves.
In each of these, it is not the children who are at fault, but the parents who sit back waiting for the parenting osmosis thing to kick-in. We all know that doesn’t happen!
So, how can you/we be intentional about spiritual growth? When Paul addressed this issue, he spoke to the whole church, but he also lifted up the idea of Christ being formed in you. So it is a personal issue which is before the whole congregation. This is how we apply intentionality – it is personal AND corporate; it’s for the individual believer AND the community.
This is why we covenant together, agreeing to support all the different functions, such as worship, Bible study, fellowship and prayer (Acts 2:42). There are five components to this covenant: We promise each other our prayers, presence, financial gifts, service and witness.
But here we have to be careful not to confuse the medium of these activities with the movement that creates faith development. Medium is what coveys you to a desired result; movement is the actual, measurable growth BECAUSE you participated in the medium. Huh? An illustration – My car brought me here this morning – it was the medium, and it moved me up I-85 to 311 and then Worthville Road and into the driveway covered with ice. The car got me here. But the goal was to be here, not to ride in the car!
The goal was to be with you all – to arrive at this destination.
Bible study, prayer meeting, fellowship times, mission service, giving and worship are like my car…they are not the goal of becoming a Christian; they are not the movement. These are the media in which we participate in order to grow our faith so we become the kind of people God seeks as His children.
Let’s compare once more the difference between osmosis and intentionality:
Osmosis Faith-Development in the 21st Century
When you opt for the quick, or the easy, undemanding, totally-in-my-comfort zone approach to discipleship, you might choose the new I-Phone app for confession. Seriously! This new app allows you to enter the booth via your hand-held I-Phone, confess your sins, press the “finish” icon, receive absolution and end your session cleansed (that is, if you do the assigned penance!).
This is not a joke to some people; it’s an option! Without doing the hard work of facing your sins and dealing with them, we can opt for anonymous confession and absolution, without so much as getting off the couch!
The same holds true for spiritual faith-development in terms of worship, missions, giving, witness and Bible study; it’s all on the Internet, just waiting for the click of your mouse to make you into a Super Saint! You can even donate by Pay Pal! Religion without the fuss, demands on your time, or all those irritating people…what a deal!
Intentionality in developing your faith requires a much more ancient app – personal involvement! Incidentally, that’s always been God’s way, ever since he went looking for Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had sinned. They wanted to hide; God wasn’t having any of it! The same held true for their son, Cain. God came to the first murderer and confronted him with the question, what have you done? It was the same question God put to Cain’s parents; it’s the same question he holds before us. God wants “up close and personal” – that’s why proxy doesn’t work in developing your faith. Nobody else can do it for you, and if you wait for “osmosis” to kick-in, you’ll have a very long wait.
Intentionality takes time and doesn’t avoid the steps that promote development of faith. It’s a long….. (Life-long)…process! Pastor Melissa Bailey-Kirk shared in a sermon something about steps that really sticks in my mind:
Twentieth century archaeologists uncovered some interesting things about the ancient Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of which is the seemingly random design of the southern stairs. It was by these stairs that weary travelers climbed several hundred feet from the valley to the actual Temple. The rise of the steps varies in some instances by several inches. The stretch or depth of the steps varies—in no discernible pattern—by several feet!
Now, some might conclude that the design engineers were either under the influence of mind-altering chemicals or incompetent. But not the ancient rabbis. They saw the random, sometimes treacherous state of the southern stairs as a powerful metaphor for Intentional Faith Development. They argued that the engineers were not “stoned” but were persons of faith who knew that to ascend the hill of the Lord hurriedly and without thought would be spiritually dangerous. Rather, those who would approach God must do so with intention, caution, and measured steps—paying attention and learning all along the way.
All Along the Way
All along the way! What a wonderful picture of how intentionality works. Each step is considered part of the whole. That is your life; that is your life being conformed to the image of Christ!
At Bethany we have the media – like my car was the medium to get me here. What we’re involved in right now (worship) is part of the “all along the way” changing or transforming process. There is Bible Study and prayer both on Sundays and Wednesdays. There are mission efforts, relating to the schools, hospitals and prisons and homebound. There are mission opportunities like helping with the Nehemiah House project at Ward Street. You can crochet prayer shawls and help with Youth. There are various committees on which to serve.
All of this is part of the uneven, seemingly random set of steps to help us become persons of stronger faith. It is intentional; it may seem like the results are osmosis-like, but God’s way is always step-by-step until Christ is formed in you!
Father, like the poet, we have many steps to go before we sleep. Order those steps for us; keep us on the pathway of developing our faith. LORD, in this moment place in our hearts the desire to take that next step. Some here should be serving, studying or learning to pray, because that is THEIR next step. Show each of us how to intentionally step-into finding that next piece of the journey along the way. We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!