(Posted Feb 6 2007)
Real spirituality leads to spiritual formation (or discipleship) which is the process whereby the inmost being (will, heart or spirit) takes on the character of Jesus Christ. The aim of spiritual formation is the transformation of the self and this only happens through the transformation of thought, feeling, social relationships, body and soul.
There is a great deal of disappointment expressed today about the character and effects of Christian people and institutions. Most of the disappointment comes from Christians who find great disparity between the hope for life expressed in the Bible (as exemplified by the lifestyle of Jesus and His disciples) and the actual day-to-day behaviour of today’s professing Christians.
Sadly, spirituality in many Christian circles has simply become another dimension of consumerism where Christian ‘consumes’ services and the ‘process of consumption’ (that is, being entertained by the worship leader and the pastor) is called spiritual growth! Willard[i] calls this the Great Omission and argues that such great disparity is due to the assumptions among professing Christians that they can be ‘Christians’ forever without becoming disciples – that is a Christian practitioner who continuously grows in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2Pe 3:18). The missing note in evangelical life today is biblical spirituality which is complete obedience to Christ. There is no ‘short cut’ to spiritual power – one cannot fool God for God looks at the heart, while men look at the outward appearance.
Gibbs[ii], McLaren[iii], Barna[iv], and Wagner[v] believe the institutional churches in the West will look very different in twenty-five years from now and possibly several denominations may no longer exist. Gibbs[vi] has argued that our world has become a global village and lessons learned in one place have an application in another. Churches in Malaysia should learn from such lessons. In the West, for several decades churches have relied upon greater sums of money, better techniques, bigger numbers and facilities and more impressive credentials as the means to influence society at large. Irrespective of size, no pre-packaged ‘market driven gospel presentations’ or ‘seeker sensitive’ model has adequately responded to the challenges presented by the current generation. The underlying issue is not the method but the exercise of spiritual discernment.
Any church leader applying any model must be driven by a concern to reach the lost and transform lives rather than simply to fill the church. The ministry model should be fundamentally a missional model and not simply an ecclesiastical one. The only offence that must remain is that of the cross of Christ[vii]. The confidence of the witness must be in Christ alone and not in religious institutions or the impregnability of a Christian apologetic. Any hint that the witness is motivated by a desire to enhance an institution or to convenience the hearer on the superiority of the Christian religion is bound to fail. Only in so far as Christians are prepared for their lifestyle and deeds to be scrutinized at close quarters by people of other religion will they be in a position to persuade the unsaved to critique their own assumptions and acknowledge the power of Christ[viii].
Evangelistic and church growth strategies developed out of ‘marketing’ or ‘seeker-sensitive’ insights must be handled with care. Such methodologies tend to make the audience sovereign and turn the gospel message into a means of personal fulfilment instead of Christ being supreme. Jesus was acutely aware of the people’s felt needs: feeding the hungry, healing the sick and delivering the oppressed. Yet, it was not the demand of the crowd, the disciples or the authority that determined His agenda. He restricted Himself to doing the will of the Father. Not all are fed, healed or delivered unless His Father says so! Hence, it is not the customer who determines the agenda of the church but the Lord. His command is to make disciples who will worship the Father in spirit and truth.
In communicating the gospel, our confidence is not in the effectiveness of our technique but in the inherent power of the gospel message itself (Ro 1:16). Some power-evangelism emphases place too much significance on experience, healing and deliverance, downplaying the power of the Holy Spirit working through the preaching of the Word to reveal the mystery of the gospel. Francis Schaeffer, more than 20 years ago, has decried the adoption of methods that treats experience as the final authority without the preaching of truth based on God’s Word[ix].
Measuring results in terms of increased attendance at worship service and other church-related activities creates a premature sense of achievement. Leaders must always ask who the new people are and where they are coming from. Is the church winning people simply at the expense of other churches that do not have the resources to compete on equal terms in the religious market place? In any church, small or large, we need to ask what percentage of the congregation is finding support and being held accountable in face-to-face relationships that are essential to discipleship. What percentage is moving from a passive, consumer-oriented mentality to one of sacrificial and fruitful Christian service? Congregations that lack a shared memory and relationship are unstable communities and a significant percentage of the members drift from church to church looking for the illusive experience. The issue is not the size of the congregation but the impact the congregation is making on society. Numbers must not be confused with spiritual vitality. The presence of one does not guarantee the existence of the other[x]. “Let each look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … who emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death – even the death of the cross” (Php 2: 4-7).
Unless and until we are prepared to die to self, we shall never be in a position to live for Christ. The example of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus is a case in point. He had to face the fact that his riches had become an obstacle in his life; refusing to do so, he went away sorrowful (Mt 19:16-30). The considerable assets of the individual became his liability. We need to set our mind on things above, not on things that are on earth (Col 3: 1- 4).
In Indonesia, Turkey, Albania and Kosovo, Christians have given help to non-Christians affected by tsunami, earthquake and ethnic cleansing. Because national Christians were prepared to share their lives with others of different culture and religions in their own country, there is a new openness to the story of Jesus. The gospel of grace delivered by a lifestyle that imitates Christ is the only message with the power to liberate. Churches cannot stand apart from society and invite people to come to them on their terms. Rather, churches must adopt a missional strategy and make true disciples out of the congregations to reach out passionately to the unsaved and communicate in ways that make sense to them.[xi]
P/S For report on NECF Survey on Spiritual Formation, please refer to Forum 5 "A Spiritual Healthcheck of the Church in Malaysia".
[i] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, Monarch Books, 2006.
[ii] Eddie Gibbs & Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches, Baker Academic 2005.
[iii] Brain McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan, 2006.
[iv] George Barna, Revolution, Tyndale House, 2005.
[v] Peter Wagner, Changing Church, Regal, 2004.
[vi] Eddie Gibbs & Ian Coffey, Church Next, InterVarsity Press, 2005.
[vii] Sally Morgenthaler, Worship Evangelism, Zondervan, 1995.
[viii] George Barna, Think Like Jesus, Integrity, 2003.
[ix] John Armstrong, The Coming Evangelical Crisis, Moody Press, 1996.
[x] Eddie Gibbs & Ian Coffey op. cit.