As we face the new millennium, we acknowledge that the state of the Church is marked by a paradox of growth without depth. Our zeal to go wider has not been matched by a commitment to go deeper.
The Eastbourne Consultation on Discipleship (England, 1999)
It was almost 2,000 years ago that the Apostle Paul wrote a letter that undoubtedly prompted reflection and prayer among Jesus followers in and around the large commercial city of Ephesus. After painting a magnificent portrait of God at work in the world through Christ (Ephesians 1-3), Paul urged them to live a way of life worthy of God’s gracious and powerful work (4:1). He challenged the community’s leaders to foster maturity in its members (4: 11-13). Then Paul wrote,
We must no longer be children.… But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Eph.4:14-16)
The need for spiritual maturity gripped the Apostle Paul over 2,000 years ago. It was urgent work then; it is urgent work now.
One is hard pressed to find a time in history when the Church has gone more places, provided more resources, and proclaimed the gospel more widely than over the past several decades. Yet amidst all these efforts, there is a growing realization today that we are just skimming across the surface.
Many people are startled and saddened by the degree of aloneness they experience in adulthood. From the outside it seems like family and work and church would provide a vital sense of being known. For many, though, the reality of their hectic and competitive lives keeps them skimming across the surface of their relationships with spouse and children and coworkers and their church community. Their intentions for faithful living and service are well meaning, even noble, but their individualistic approaches prove inadequate to the task. They have consciously or unconsciously sought to make it on their own, and have found, over time, their lives desperately lacking, their souls shriveled. Sadly, the tale of an individual human life is too often told as a sequence of independent and unshared moments.
As we pay attention to the rhythm of our lives, a critical element to discern is this tendency toward isolation. Few things are more predictive of not finishing well than isolation as a way of life. Living faithfully with Jesus and others is simply too hard to do alone. So in the midst of our many relationships do we confide in and pray with and sort out our deepest questions and life challenges with some key people? Or do we have a prevailing tendency to keep this type of stuff to ourselves?
In the eighth century, Christian theologians began describing the relationship among the persons of the Trinity as a dynamic communion, a dance of three persons. God’s triune and dynamic presence creates space within that presence, a space into which we can be drawn. The Son, who is both God and human, reaches out to us, taking hold of our hand and welcoming us into this dance, this perfect love of God.
Debra Rienstra 
At every level, the Christian gospel begins with God’s initiating love: creation, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God takes the first step over and again inviting us into his dance, his loving life. The Spirit of Jesus moves toward us freely and graciously and with full knowledge of our particular frailties, resistances, indifferences, vices, and virtues. And he makes space for us to share in this Trinitarian community of perfect love.
Jesus describes our relational responsibility when he implores his first disciples to “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). The Message translates his invitation—“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” Christian maturity is not a technique or program or formula, but it is a life of learning to keep company with Jesus. Gordon Smith writes,
Without an emphasis on union with Christ, spiritual formation will be a frustrated effort to become like Christ. It will eventually become nothing more than self-development. The grace we seek is not so much to be like Christ as to live in dynamic union with Christ, abiding in him as he abides in us (John 15:4).
Might some of us be trying to live the Christian life without actually involving ourselves with God? It is foolishness and frustration to strive after an ideal life of Christlikeness without opening ourselves to God’s gracious friendship. God intends to transform our lives—yes—but more fundamentally, God desires to share his very life with us. Our maturity then becomes a by-product of immersing ourselves in this relationship with Jesus. As C. S. Lewis concludes in Mere Christianity, “The whole purpose for which we live is to be thus taken into the life of God.”
In October 2014 we hosted A VP3 Gathering in Banff, Alberta and addressed the topic of “Walking with God and Others through Pain and Suffering.” Scott Shaum (Barnabas International) cultivated a deeply meaningful conversation about God’s person, character and shaping work, our life experiences, and our deep desire to walk well with others through darker times. We so appreciated the time together that when we got back to Sioux Falls we immediately began to talk about how we might offer this same gathering somewhere in the States in the near future. This April, the weekend after Easter, we will be hosting this same VP3 Gathering in the greater Chicago area.
Walking with God and Others through Pain and Suffering
April 21-23, 2017
Cedar Lake, Indiana
Little did we know when we calendared this retreat, the meaning it would hold for us and the greater VP3 community. Personally it has been an utterly heart-breaking and stretching 5+ months since Randy’s passing, but also a profoundly meaningful time as well. The Lord’s dependability has been over overwhelming.
I am more aware now than ever that growth in Christ is never a simple, straight line from infancy to maturity. Finishing well as a person is a beautiful thing, but it is not an inevitability. There are many barriers and obstacles and dynamics in the world that seek to derail, distract, and discourage us from a well-lived life of “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). If we are to persist at living well with the Lord and others, then we must bring to the table our best thinking and praying about living wisely and faithfully amidst great difficulties.
Growing up into Christ involves far more than acquiring the right information. It requires a deep connection between truth and life, between belief and behavior. And such connection only occurs when we take extended time for dialogue or conversation with others about these things that matter most to us.
Dialogue is a critical gift on the journey. The back-and-forth conversational work of listening and question asking, reflection, clarification and discernment are so necessary for development and maturity. Too often in our churches we major on the presentation or the performance—the monologue—without majoring on the hard work of cultivating dialogue.
Many of us yearn for more than the chitchat prompted by the fill-in-the-blank small group questions. We want meaningful conversation around the biggest questions of our lives. We want to candidly ask others whether they think the dreams and hopes we carry within are of the Spirit or not. It is a small, yet powerful matter—our ability to talk and listen—to use words and silence well with each other.
During our VP3 Webinar: Barriers to Spiritual Growth on Wednesday, I was struck by the panelists’ and audience’s interest in discussing busyness as a chief barrier to maturity in our faith communities. I found myself later in the afternoon returning to the question, what does a busy pace do that so frustrates our maturity?
It seems the relationship of busyness to Christian maturity boils down to the issues of attention and distraction. On the whole, we certainly are busy, busy people. We have meetings to attend, dinners to prepare, children to pick up, papers to finish, vacations to plan, projects to complete, things to maintain and repair, sermons to preach, houses to clean, lunch appointments to keep, on and on. Life presses in on us and, perhaps instinctively, we do all we can to press back. Many good things and important things stack up, and we busy ourselves with such things. In time, these many things shape our schedules and even our consciousnesses into a form that is ill suited to an attentive life.
When it comes to our capacities for a pace that is life giving, people reflect a wide range of differences. Some people move more deliberately and slowly, others simply move faster due to a variety of factors including stage of life or capability or temperament. So there is not a one-size-fits-all prescribed or preferred pace.
What we must pay close attention to, though, is the interrelationship between our pace and our attentiveness. The great danger in all of this is that the pace of our lives squeezes out critical human concerns (e.g. community well being, job effectiveness, parenting children, a flourishing inner life, a God consciousness, kingdom-responsibility). Whether we are Christians or not, we are all vulnerable to living a way of life that fails to pay attention to the most important things in life. A rushed or hurried or frenetic pace most often blurs our attention and causes us to overlook all sorts of things and people.
“The church is always more than a school…
but the church cannot be less than a school.”
Historian Jaroslav Pelikan included these critical words on the first page of his five-volume history of Christian doctrine. Around VantagePoint3 circles, we would tweak Pelikan’s language a little bit by saying—the church is always more than a learning community, but the church must never be less than a learning community. We are formed to worship, to fellowship, to be sent out into the world in Jesus’ name—all essential tasks of the church. But we must recognize that the church is also essentially a place of ongoing education. From the crib to the grave, a church community must be a place where we learn to make sense of our lives and of the world, where we explore with a fresh imagination what our lives could really become, where we learn together to follow Jesus and his way of life in the world. The church is always more than a learning community, but never less.
Sadly it seems that many adults are simply surviving, hoping to get by with what they already know; learning is for children and teenagers, or so they think. There is often very little expectation of further movement and development in their adult lives. We desperately need communities whose life together challenges such notions; we need churches where the cultivation of a lifelong learning posture is Discipleship 101.
A learning posture of the heart and the mind does not discriminate between Sunday morning sermons and Tuesday night dishwashing, between classroom lectures and dinner table conversation, between sunsets and supermarkets. It is a cultivated paying attention, which operates within the everydayness and everywhereness of life. And when practiced over the long haul it is what the ancients called the way of wisdom. Or as Christian educator Steve Garber states, “we understand that the deepest lessons are not learned in text books, but instead are discovered as learning meets life.”
I have a hunch that as a reader of this blog you lead adults and care about their ongoing development. With my “Practical Pam” hat firmly on, let me encourage you with my top three non-negotiable adult learning tips. You will notice similarities between them.
I challenge you to identify an upcoming adult meeting, small group, or important gathering, thinking about how to integrate these strategies as you lead.
1. Ask and Include.
Resist the urge to be the answer-man/woman. There is so much more to be gained by asking and including participants’ input before you begin, when you gather, and all along the way. “Why did you choose to come? What expectations do you have? What will make this a good use of your time? What do you hope for?”
In the process of including others through our questions we gain so much more than answers. We demonstrate our ability to listen, earn respect, observe, build enthusiasm, show that we are in this together, and create a warm, safe, trusting environment.
2. The power of dialogue.
A couple of statements we repeat around VP3 are, “conversation creates culture” and “the answers are in the room.” Both mandate a way of being together that put a priority on contribution from everyone, through a process of questions, reflection and generous conversational space.
Intentionally walking with others, helping them grow deeper in their faith, becomes transformative when we make space to notice others particularly. For it is in the conditions of lives shared, honored, noticed, and enjoyed—that is, friendship—that something of the Spirit’s nurturing grace is imparted to us and through us to others. This noticing involves expecting God to work in the lives of those around us. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson points out that we must cultivate a sense of expectancy when it comes to helping our community mature and grow. Peterson writes,
An important question we all need to be asking ourselves is, “How deeply rooted am I with God?”
How blessed is the man
Who does not walk in the counsel
of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates
day and night.
He will be like a tree
Firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
From my perspective, there can (basically) be three possibilities. Since this is about being “deeply rooted,” lets look at trees as the example…