When we begin by multiplying disciples, everything falls into place. Long-time Methodist church consultant Bill Easum describes the environment created in a healthy church as a process where people are changed, gifted, called, equipped and sent.
Here’s how it works. People who enter the community are changed by an experience of the living God. With millennials, you get one chance. If they don't experience God in worship, they won't return (and recent studies report most people have not experienced God in worship in their church in the last year). Then, as people seek a deeper spiritual journey, the church helps them discern their gifts. Prayer and meditation about our gifts will help us define the calling nested within our gifts (if you agree that God has prepared us for the plan He has for our lives). Once we begin to get clear about our call, we are ready to be equipped. The fact that I might feel called to be a Christian counselor does not mean I will excel without some practice and equipping. Once people are equipped, they are sent out into the world to serve others as the body of Christ.
TAKE A MOMENT How often do you experience God in worship? What is the impact on your life when you experience God instead of just hearing about Him?
The healthy motivation for missional service, as said before, is gratitude for all God has done for us. As we perform acts of service out of gratitude, our hearts change even more. I have had my attitude towards homelessness changed more by spending one day feeding homeless people under the interstate bridges of Atlanta than all the sermons I ever heard. My attitude towards illegal immigrants changed more by helping a family who had been left at our church’s door with only two garbage bags of possessions than any of the political rhetoric splashed across newspapers and peppered into political speeches.
However, I would never have gone under the bridges, or helped that family of illegal immigrants, had I not been in a discipleship small group that had been challenged to do something missional together. This is what I mean by a transformed heart. Paul says to us in Romans 12:2:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I truly believe discipleship is the critical variable. Invite people into discipleship, and you will change everything else in the church. However, the road to discipleship requires that we place our identity in Christ. Our movement to maturity in Christ will be stunted until we live into the belief in salvation by grace through faith.
For years, I didn’t read the Bible. I didn’t see the point--it didn’t seem to change people. They held onto rituals and practices that insulated them, and they didn’t seem interested in reaching out to the unchurched. Since entering my post-denominational phase, I’ve come to realize that I spent my entire Christian life worshiping in and working with churches full of Elder Brothers from the Prodigal story.
I’ve been attending worship “religiously” for 30 years now, and over those three decades I’ve listened to 10 pastors preach in my home church. I’ve heard many sermons about the Prodigal Son, but each focused on the younger brother who strayed from the father. In all that time, I never heard a Lutheran pastor unpack the sin of the elder brother. Then I joined a spiritual formation group with five other men from City Church. We started a Bible study of Galatians written by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City.
Keller started this church in 1989, and they now draw 6,000 people to worship every week. They have been planting churches for many years, and Keller is revered as the father of church-planting in the Presbyterian tribe.
Here is a brief take on Tim Keller’s view of this parable. He unpacks it wonderfully in his book The Prodigal God. Keller writes:
Here is the shocking heart of the parable. Jesus shows us a father with two sons, and actually both are equally alienated from his heart. One has expressed alienation by running far away, but the elder brother is just as angry and just as much a stranger to the father.
But notice — what is keeping the elder brother out? Why does he stay out when the younger brother goes in? He tells us: It is because all these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed… (v.29). It is not his badness keeping him out, but his “goodness.” It is not his sins that are keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father so much as his “righteousness.” As one writer put it, “The main thing between you and God is not your sins, but your damnable good works.
My point here is that our churches are full of elder brothers who aren’t being challenged as they look through the moral lens and judging everyone else. They’re not seeing and embracing the Gospel Jesus gave us. Keller puts it this way:
The difference between a religious person and a true Christian is that the religious person obeys God to get control over God, and to get things from God, but the Christian obeys just to get God. Religious persons obey to get leverage over God, to control him, to put him in a position where they think he owes them. Therefore, despite their moral and religious fastidiousness, they are actually attempting to be their own saviors.
TAKE A MOMENT Pastors, have you called out the elder brothers in your church? Do you challenge those who place their identity in their careers and businesses?
I have done a lot of striving in my life, trying to prove myself. In the structural consulting I'm doing, I see tremendous striving amongst the twenty- and thirtysomethings I'm encountering. Perfectionism, fear of failure, “not good enough” are deeply ingrained, and they drive behavior from an unhealthy place--a place of fear, not grace.
This passage speaks to all the striving I'm seeing in my young Christian friends:
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? - Galatians 3: 2-3, 5
We place our identities in so many things other than Christ: our career, our accomplishments, the approval of others, our bank accounts. Whenever we place our identity in anything other than Jesus, we limit our spiritual growth, because we are trusting in other things besides God.
TAKE A MOMENT The only true Sabbath rest is when we rest in our identity as a child of God. How often do you feel peace? Does rest come easy for you? In what ways do you focus on trusting God instead of proving yourself to Him?
Salvation by grace is not only one of Paul’s basic teachings, but it was the defining belief through which Martin Luther launched the reformation 500 years ago. The centrality of this belief has now been documented by scientific research.
The Reveal Spiritual Life Survey was developed after several years of research, and the results have been validated by its use in over 1,200 churches generating 280,000 individual surveys. Their findings have been published in a series of books. What they have found is the building block of spiritual formation is this belief fostered by Paul and Luther. Until one truly believes in salvation by grace, spiritual growth will not happen. In other words, as long as we think we can do it ourselves, we will never grow.
Hence the challenge with identity issues. One form is perfectionism, which often rests on the belief that “I am a failure.” To disprove this, people will expend tremendous effort proving the belief wrong. Yet paradoxically, every effort to prove the belief wrong fails, reinforcing the feeling of failure. Of course it fails, because we cannot be perfect. People in this structure are strivers, driven to perform at higher and higher levels, and they tend to drive those around them as well. This structure often leads to becoming a workaholic. My father was driven by this pattern and expected everyone else to be a workaholic as well.
TAKE A MOMENT Are you driven to succeed? Is your drive coming from a healthy place, or are you striving to prove something that you really don’t believe yourself?
As long as we are trying to prove ourselves acceptable, what role does salvation by grace through faith have? Often, when we are trying to prove ourselves, we find ourselves seeking approval of others to disprove those deeply embedded beliefs about ourselves that we hold.
Paul speaks to this seeking approval of man in Galatians 1:10:
Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or, am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
This language is a strong condemnation of those who are people-pleasers. In the Lutheran church, I've met many pastors whose primary focus is keeping people happy. They value harmony over truth, and they often sweep unpleasant situations and conflict under the carpet to maintain the illusion of harmony. They offer invitation, but no challenge. Paul is calling out such behavior as wrong and sinful.
These identity belief structures are a distortion of reality, and out of each comes some form of self-limiting behavior that sabotages relationships and success. These strategies ascribe to the myth that it is possible to be perfect, and to be good enough. Since these issues are often operating below the conscious level of thinking, people don’t realize that they are holding up a myth with all their might. They are afraid of what’s lurking in that dark corner just outside their view, and the fear of looking in the dark corner is what gives the structure its power.
As long as I am laboring in one of these structures, I am really substituting myself for God. The striving is really works righteousness, an attempt through my good works to prove myself worthy to God. Even the idea that perfection is possible keeps us from admitting that we are sinners incapable of winning God’s grace. How can I live deeper into God’s grace if I am still trying to prove I don’t really need it?
TAKE A MOMENT Do you think God supports the idea that we could get our identity from anything other than Him?
If I can be perfect, or prove myself worthy, I don’t really need the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross or the gift of the Spirit. I can do this myself. In these identity structures, we are trying to hold onto the wheel and control fate. Even the faith to believe in God is a gift from God. As long as I am in denial of God’s role in my salvation, I cannot grow into His grace. All of my efforts go into proving myself, and not into walking humbly with my Lord, doing good works as His Spirit enables me.
This illustration that Mike Breen shares at 3DM tasters illustrates this point.
God the Father pours out his grace on us. We get our identity from Jesus' promise that we are adopted children of God, heirs to the kingdom. As I recognize Jesus as not just savior but lord of my life, I respond with submission and surrender to His will, conforming my life to His. In grateful obedience, I try to live by God's commandments, recognizing that I am still a sinner and will only be obedient as the Spirit gives me strength each day.
I heard Mike Breen say it this way,
I told God I would be more obedient, so that more of his power would flow through my life and touch others. And God said, 'No, I will give you more power so you can be obedient.'
Those who are still trying to prove themselves are trying to reverse this flow. In that scenario, because I try to obey His law, God owes me something. By behaving in a certain way, I can control God's response. The problem is, it never works.
In Micah 6:8, we learn:
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?
Walking humbly with my God requires that I understand the He is God and I am not. Only God could have brought forth out of me any humility. On my own, there is not a humble bone in my body. But through the work of the Spirit, I am slowly learning to live out this passage. Transformed hearts and minds are the fruit of the Spirit in those on a discipleship journey.
In John 10:10, Jesus says: “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” The abundant life is what flows into us when we allow our minds to transformed by the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but when I look around the pews of many churches, most people don’t seem to be living the abundant life. It makes me wonder why.
Scott Seeke, a pastor I coached for several years, did a sermon series on the abundant life. One Sunday, a member of his congregation approached him after church and said, “I don’t even know what an abundant life would look like. What would it mean?” Scott replied, “What if you had more of what matters more, and less of what matters less in your life?” That was a great response, because it gets us reflecting on what matters.
TAKE A MOMENT What would your life look like if you had more of what matters more, and less of what matters less? What would you start doing, or doing more of, and what would you prune away?
From my earliest experiences learning about Jesus, and his life, I have wondered why people I met in church did not seem to really believe all those promises He made.....
Ask, and it will be given...
Knock, and the door will open....
My peace I give to you...
Do not let your hearts be troubled...
Worry not what tomorrow brings....
What are the obstacles to receiving Jesus’ promise of abundant life? The identity issues I’ve noted are one of the significant obstacles. In my life, I’ve sought solace from many sources other than Jesus.
Several years ago, after a business failure, I found myself the loser in a lawsuit that would have wiped me out. At a time in my life when it felt like everything that mattered was at risk, God invited me to reexamine this simple question: “Where do you put your trust? Do I have to take it all away from you to show you that is not where to put your trust?” Through this time of trial, God enabled me to see that anything I try to substitute for my trust in Him will fail me.
When I identified myself as an adopted child of the King, I began to experience abundance. Don’t get me wrong; I was truly blessed before. But until I started daily to live into the Kingdom, I did not really experience abundance.
Key to this was my recognition that all I have is truly a gift from God. I spent many years trying to prove how smart I was, how capable, how good a leader. But in my striving, I was trying to overcome a feeling deep inside me that I wasn’t good enough. Most of my striving, in life, at work and in church, was driven by the need to prove myself.
God has helped me to see that I could never be good enough to earn His love or my salvation. Even though I fall short, God loves me anyway, and Jesus went to the cross for me, a sinner. As I look through the scripture, I’m amazed at how God continually used imperfect humans to do his will. I am so thankful to be in a place where my worth does not depend on my accomplishments.
The joy that comes from using my gifts to help others see and use their gifts brings more satisfaction that my greatest business success. Seeing how the Spirit uses me to touch others strengthens me for deeper obedience and submission. Serving out of our giftedness, allowing ourselves to become channels of God’s grace, instead of reservoirs of His blessings, is a door to abundant life.
I once heard my friend Mike Foss preach a sermon whose focal point was the simple assertion that “it’s not about me.” Church is not here to meet my wants or even my needs. The Body of Christ exists to live out Christ’s mission of love and service to the world. We are His hands and feet. I heard it said recently that God’s church does not have a mission; the mission has a church.
I think we all come into the church seeking to have our own needs met. Whether it’s for our children, to protect them and teach them values, or for ourselves, to bring meaning and assuage our generalized guilt and anxiety about living so well when so many do not. But if we don’t realize that it’s not about us and our needs, we’ll never create anything but a consumer culture in our churches. Discipleship communities are about serving, not being served.
TAKE A MOMENT Would we still see worship wars over musical preferences, the use of screens in the sanctuary, arguments over how liturgical the worship is, if people realized that “it’s not about me?” Have you realized that in your own faith walk?
Since realizing that it’s not about me, a grateful heart has grown inside me. I try to treat each day as a blessing. My health, my finances, my wife, my kids and grandkids are all a blessing from God. As I have walked this path, I have found many ways to serve God by serving others. I have more peace and joy and deeper satisfaction than ever before in my life.
Sadly, I see people continuing to reach for control in churches, trying to preserve traditions and worship styles. Their wants and needs, their comfort zone is what’s at stake. They haven’t learned the lesson that is the key to a joyful Christian life.
An old friend turned down a call at a big, traditional Lutheran cathedral a few years ago. He said to me, “I think they’re more interested in preserving the museum than reaching people for Christ.”
Another key to transformed hearts and souls is equipping people to discern their gifts and calling in this life. After being baptized in my late twenties, I felt the touch of God calling me to something, but I didn’t know what. I had two small children and was working in the family business. The way I understood it, the proper response to a calling was to leave my business and pursue ordination so I could become a pastor. No one ever affirmed to me the possibility that my calling was my work in the business world. After a year or so praying and agonizing about whether to go to seminary, I finally settled on the Via de Cristo mantra to “bloom where you’re planted.”
The main impression I got from church was that the business world was evil, and business people were primarily greedy and self-serving. So how could I possibly be serving Christ in business? To serve Christ, I thought I had to come to church, join committees, attend council meetings and generously support the work of the church with my offerings.
25 years later, when I sold my business and left to pursue my “calling” in the church, I still didn’t have a clear understanding Luther’s notion of vocation. The idea that my company and my work could be a calling, a Christian vocation, was still not on my radar screen.
What is a Christian vocation? Vocation means “calling.” From Luther’s viewpoint, pastors or others who work for the church have a vocation, but Christians who work outside the church do, too. Any job or career becomes a Christian vocation if a Christian remembers to do that job as part of her or his call from God to serve others. Christians in every walk of life are called to demonstrate love, do good works, and share the good news of Jesus. Everything we do is to be done for the glory of God, including our work.
This means that any honest work can be a Christian vocation or calling. We do our jobs as Christians when we do our jobs as effectively and honestly as possible, honoring God by our work. For example, a Christian factory worker may want to lead a Bible study during lunch break, but doing so doesn’t make that job a Christian vocaiton. Doing quality instead of shoddy work while on the assembly line does. Why? Because doing so contributes to the wellbeing of society and thereby serves others.
Maybe my best grounding in this notion of vocation comes from Brother Lawrence, in his book Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence lived in the 1600s. An uneducated layman, he entered the monastery and spent his life working as a cobbler and cook. From his humble post, Brother Lawrence learned how to experience God in the most mundane. He dedicated his washing of dishes to the glory of God, and that made it holy work. The book is a compilation of letters to his spiritual director, gathered and published upon his death. It still sells today.
The idea of Christian vocation also extends to unemployed people and people whose lives do not include work for pay. For example, teenagers who are Christians share in a calling to do their work as students as honestly and effectively as possible.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you discerned the calling that is nested in the gifts and experiences of life God as led you through? Do you see your career as a calling from God? What might change about how you do your work if you were trying to honor God in your work, and treat it as a calling?
Benjamin Franklin said, “Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What's a sundial in the shade?” I have found several good tools to bring us deeper understanding of how we are wired and equipped for Christian service, that we may discern the calling God has for us.
If you have not done the Gallup StrengthsFinder instrument, I recommend it. StrengthsFinder identifies your five major strengths from a list of 34, and it gives characteristics of the strengths and specific recommendations for how to use them. Rooted in more than 40 years of research, this assessment has helped millions discover and develop their natural talents. It is a great tool to help us find meaningful work in our careers as well.
Over the years, I found many ways to serve in the church, but most of them were life-draining rather than life-giving. I tended to confuse serving my church with serving God. The idea that God had a unique plan and purpose for me resonated, but I had a hard time discovering the ways I’m unique and how that might be tied to some greater purpose or destiny.
For years, maybe decades, I walked around with generalized anxiety that I knew I should be doing something for God, but I didn't know exactly what. So I dabbled at different things, and, lacking focus, did a mediocre job at most of them. I was still nagged by this feeling that I hadn’t done enough, and that one day I’d have to stand face-to-face with God and give a report. The thought filled me with dread.
In embarking on Life 2.0, I began to pray this prayer: “Lord, I know you have a plan for my life. If that's so, surely you would have prepared and gifted me to accomplish what you designed me to do. What would you draw forth from the gifts, passions and experiences of my life that could serve Your purpose?”
As I prayed this prayer, shapes in the mist began to emerge, and as I moved towards them, over time I found my path: a path with a heart, a purpose and a calling.
A few years ago, I met David Stark at the Changing Church Forum and learned about a course called LifeKeys: Discover Who You Are. I had been looking for tools that would help people short-circuit the decades-long process of finding a purpose and calling as Christ-followers in the world. I now facilitate this course. I have seen LifeKeys help people in transitions from school to career, from career to career, and for finding Christian vocation.
LifeKeys helps individuals find meaning and focus in their lives by looking through five lenses: personality, values, talents, spiritual gifts and passions. Through an experiential learning process, the facilitator helps you to find a focal point where these five lenses all intersect, like a magnifying glass with sunlight. It is a great tool for discernment of gifts and calling.
Mike Breen and 3DM come at it a different way. They have created an instrument based on the fivefold ministry described in Ephesians 4: Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, Teacher. The instrument shows which is the strongest of these five and ranks the others. Apostles, Evangelists and Prophets are pioneers. They take the Gospel into new territory, start new things, draw people to Christ. They take new ground and then move on. Pastors and Teachers are settlers, or developers. If settlers and developers do not follow closely behind, the pioneers will move on to the next frontier, and wilderness will retake the ground they left behind.
Mike points out that the church needs both pioneers and settlers. Pioneers are the adventurers, who strike out for new territory. They plant the flag in new land and claim it for the Kingdom. Settlers come in behind them and develop the new territory, building community, organizing and civilizing the new land. Nothing sustainable is created until the settlers come in to stay. In churches, pioneers are always anxious to conquer new territory for the Kingdom. Settlers are caring for the people and teaching the abundant life in Christ in these new communities. The problem is pioneers and settlers don’t mix well in churches.
As we talked about this concept with a group of leaders at City Church, two of the elders clearly identified themselves as settlers. They were there from the beginning, following closely behind the pastor who was planting the church, doing the pioneer work. These guys laid the foundation that allowed the Gospel to take root, and the church to organize itself, grow and become sustainable.
Breen points out that most of the pioneers have been distilled off the denominational church into parachurch organizations that are now doing much of the pioneering work. That leaves churches full of settlers, who have lost the evangelistic zeal to reach new people. Churches full of settlers become complacent, and will plateau and slowly die, without the pioneers to spur them onward into new territory, bring new souls to Christ and new energy to the fellowship.
These are good tools to support growing spiritually, finding gifts and calling, and living an abundant life. Those who find their spiritual journey stalling out have resources that can transform their hearts and souls and kick-start a discipleship journey, if they are willing.
TAKE A MOMENT Pastors and leaders, are you using the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey, Gallup Strengthsfinder or LifeKeys to help your people find the path? Will you help your people find the abundant life that discipleship promises?
See the rest of the Themes of Healthy Community here: