It takes a community to make a disciple

Jesus now present in his body, the christian communityBurden of solo discipling

A burden of expectation lurks somewhere at the back of the minds of many Christians. It insinuates that they have neglected a key responsibility. This idea that a believer who is a good disciple will make other disciples who makes other disciples is one that has been embraced by many. The solo Christian is to take a new convert, teach him the basics of Christian living and help him grow mature in Christ, and for him while growing, to make another disciple. By and large, he is on his own in this difficult task, and by and large, he usually fails in multiplication. It is wearisome for anyone to carry the memory of such a discouraging, erosive experience.

Redressing a bias

Perhaps too much have been made of solo discipling. The Scripture may have been made to say more than what it may have said. A re-examination and a re-interpretation of the same texts may reveal an additional perspective that shouts for greater emphasis and weight to redress a Western driven bias towards individual responsibility and action. There is in Scripture a community aspect of disciple making that we have failed to give sufficient weight to. We missed it because our lens are too Western.

It takes a community

An Eastern, and more balanced perspective is this: it takes a whole community to make a disciple. Just as it takes a whole village to raise a child it takes a church to make a disciple. The Gospels  seem to show that Jesus made disciples solo, and discipling actions emanated from him and the disciples’ learning was centered around Jesus. The rabbi of Jesus’ time would have followers and learners whose lives revolved around learning and imitating their leader, despite his imperfections. Jesus however was God incarnate, perfect and sinless, and filled with the Spirit without measure. The Twelve had a perfect model.

Discipling by the Spirit

With the ascension of Jesus and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit a new way of discipling has been opened up. Jesus was no longer around. He said, It is to your advantage that I go away. Now I am limited by my physical body. When I am gone the Spirit will come on you and where a community is gathered in my name, there I am in their midst; there is the body of Christ. In effect, the discipling that was centered around Jesus when he was physically present, has now shifted to the community, the body indwelt by Christ. Now it is the Christian community, together reflecting the fruit of the Spirit, and releasing the gifts of the Spirit, that makes a disciple. Discipling is still “centered around Jesus”, but Jesus is now present to us as a body, a community of believers not a solo disciple. This insight was developed most thoroughly and clearly in a book titled “Making Disciples” by Sylvia Collinson. Obviously no one person have all the strengths of character and gifts we see in Jesus. It takes the Spirit working through a whole community to get anywhere close to that. It takes a community to make a disciple!

Revival community

Let me give an example of what it means for a community to make a disciple. I became a Christian in a revival that began in Dunearn Tech Sec School. It happened around the same time as the ACS clock-tower revival but it developed differently: it became a church. It was a  revival of tears, love and joy: one where the deep moving of the Spirit resulted in hundreds turning to Christ and being baptized, filled with the Spirit and having their lives transformed. I was one of them. As I reflected on my experience, I noticed I did not have a solo Christian who discipled me. There were key encouragers who told stories, shared experiences and life. There were the values of the revival community: intense prayer, enthusiastic evangelism and missions, love for the Word, desire for spiritual gifts, great love for one another, that I saw lived out in the lives, activities and ministry of the people of the revival. It was a community and its values that discipled me, a socialization for citizenship in the kingdom. I learned behaviors, values and beliefs just by being deeply enmeshed in the social interaction, and involved in the community’s life and activites. The Spirit that indwells the community was implementing His curriculum in His time and in His way.

A review of Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

renovation of the heart

Vision of spiritual formation

The author wants the church to hold to a vision of spiritual formation of all believers into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is rooted in the Great Commission, and the church that fails to do this simply has failed. Dallas Willard is a professor of Philosophy in U.S.C. and a widely read author. His writing is cogent, and patiently builds up air-tight arguments to prove his thesis. His extensive reading and research is evidenced in his references. But his background also explains why his definitions of various elements of the human, like soul, spirit, and heart betray a lack of biblical theology.

Dallas begins by painting a grim picture of the gap between what is professed and what is lived out by the church. Many have severely fallen short of the standard of Christ’s holy life. He then pinpoints the church’s problem: majoring on the minors. The cure: a fresh, intentional focus on spiritual formation. A vision of change and hope is outlined and then in detail he goes on to show how every element of the human person can be transformed. The thought life and the feelings; the will and the body; the social and soul, all need to come under the transforming work of Spirit and man’s intentional and habitual response.

Biblical theology gap

The definitions and explanations and practical applications about what Christians can do to predispose themselves to God’s grace in transformation are clear and the arguments almost airtight. However I would have been more convinced if he had brought in more biblical theology with word studies, of biblical terms like the heart, or spirit and soul. It sounded more psychological than biblical. Perhaps in targeting the lay Christian reader, he has deliberately avoided technical discussion on such matters, but I wished that at least it could have been included in an appendix.

He could have filled a gap in terms of biblical theology of how Christ’s finished work, our union with Christ, the sacraments, and sanctification relates to spiritual formation. Perhaps he was overeager to avoid theological jargon but we readers would like to be able to relate what we read in his book to the epistles of St Paul in Romans 6-8 and other great passages. For example, he made some insightful observations about how “ideas, sensations and emotions”, both positive and negative, can by habit become “settled attitudes” that become like tendencies that can trigger automatically without conscious thought in reaction to life situations. It would have been wonderful if he discussed that in relation to the “old man” or “the flesh” or “body of sin” or “ indwelling sin”.

Community applications needed

His suggestions were practical. For instance, memorization and meditation of the Scriptures to renovate the mind so that it comes fully under Christ’s rule. However, it is noticeable that most of his applications were directed to the individual Christian. There were a few directed to the community and leaders of the community in the social dimension but it would have been better if all the application were viewed from a community and relational viewpoint. Thus the applications for mind renewal could have been the reading and preaching of Scriptures in the worship service, the role of hymns, the family’s role in encouraging thinking from God’s viewpoint, the study and discussion and application of truth to life in small groups etc. Frankly, most individual Christians will not memorize scriptures or study over the long haul. The only hope of such actions becoming habits must be for a community practice to be established and for them to participate in them faithfully.

An Asian way?

The approach of breaking down all the human elements that need transformation is also a very Western and scientific approach. It helps me to understand each particular part and how it functions together and deepens my understanding, but it also overwhelms the individual with too much applications, and it feels quite cumbersome. It may be better if he had taken a more Asian or holistic and biblical approach and viewed the human being as a whole and demonstrated how Christ’s death and resurrection has provided a basis for the renewal of my whole being and how the church needs to provide a conducive context where all its members can better predispose themselves to the ongoing grace of sanctification.

Spirituality and faith formation at AGST

New eyes

So far the courses I have attended covered discipleship, building formative faith communities and this time round, “Spirituality and Faith Development”. Hands touched my eyes, and I find myself learning to cope with strange light and blurred images, and a new way of seeing how learning can take place more effectively in church. It is stimulating to view the same things from a new framework, and to have clarified in books, lectures, discussions and journal articles, insights and patterns you have sensed but could not give precise shape to. It is uncomfortable too, because you see methodology and philosophy in the church that does not maximize learning, but will require great energy to modify.

Dr George Capaque facilitating discussion

Different Christian traditions and spiritualities

Dr. George Capaque, the Dean of Discipleship Training Center was our main lecturer together with Dr Allan Harkness, the Director of Education programs in Asia Graduate School of Theology. There were eight of us in the group from four countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines.  We were introduced to the different traditions and spiritualities of the church and to the ways our faith is formed and developed, always with an eye to how we can incorporate what we have learned to benefit our respective contexts.

Though academic there was thought put in the program to integrate elements that would impact the heart and behavior. While we examined the six traditions expounded in Richard Foster’s “Streams of Living Water”, we took it down from the cognitive domain to let it work in our hearts and hands. We used the workbook for the first hour of each day to actually discuss where we are personally with respect to each tradition and how we will weave it into our actions through specific applications. The sharing were times of openness, fellowship and mutual encouragement.

Carlos making a point

break out groups

learning by sharing

Ladeq expressing her view

I’m liking it

Besides exploring the contemplative, evangelical, social justice, charismatic, holiness and incarnational traditions, we also examined the nature and contributions of the pietist spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, and John Wesley’s teachings. We looked at how different types of personalities have preferred spiritual pathways, the spiritual disciplines, different types of prayer and how to develop a personal rule of life.

Dr Allan HarknessDr Allan lead us through stimulating discussions on various theories and several paradigms of how faith develops. Some of the stuff here includes John Westerhoff’s styles of faith, James Fowler stages of faith, and Hagberg and Guelich’s Stages in the life of faith. These are interesting stuff that I will need to process and synthesize and reflect in the context of my ministry situation.

The papers we have to do are geared towards our own growth in spirituality and faith, and that of the community we serve and Ee Yiung and Kenny at EAST officefind ourselves in. They press us into integrating the insights and new learnings into our life and ministry context. This is anytime better than doing purely theoretical stuff that does not result in real change in attitude and behavior. True knowing involves life transformation.

Meeting friends

In such courses, we do make new acquaintances occasionally, and when we meet in an intensive 7 days schedule, inevitably friendship grows, and we even discover new things and meet old friends. A new aquantance shared with me theology outside the classroompersonal anecdotes about the late Anthony Yeo that really moved me, and I said to myself, I must write at least a blog post about this great man, even though a book is more appropriate. Another pleasant bonus was meeting Ee Yiung, a member I baptized 21 years ago in the East Coast Park and with whom I keep in touch via….what else but Facebook. It was heartening to see that she has found her place in God’s economy and enjoyed the work she did for East Asia School of Theology, the Campus Crusade’s training center.

“Spirituality” and “Intimacy with God”: screwed up?

eugene petersenWhat is the most misunderstood aspect of spirituality?

That it’s a kind of specialized form of being a Christian, that you have to have some kind of in. It’s elitist. Many people are attracted to it for the wrong reasons. Others are put off by it: I’m not spiritual. I like to go to football games or parties or pursue my career. In fact, I try to avoid the word.

Many people assume that spirituality is about becoming emotionally intimate with God.

That’s a naïve view of spirituality. What we’re talking about is the Christian life. It’s following Jesus. Spirituality is no different from what we’ve been doing for two thousand years just by going to church and receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading Scriptures rightly. It’s just ordinary stuff.

This promise of intimacy is both right and wrong. There is an intimacy with God, but it’s like any other intimacy; it’s part of the fabric of your life. In marriage you don’t feel intimate most of the time. Nor with a friend. Intimacy isn’t primarily a mystical emotion. It’s a way of life, a life of openness, honesty, a certain transparency.

Doesn’t the mystical tradition suggest otherwise?

One of my favorite stories is of Teresa of Avila. She’s sitting in the kitchen with a roasted chicken. And she’s got it with both hands, and she’s gnawing on it, just devouring this chicken. One of the nuns comes in shocked that she’s doing this, behaving this way. She said, “When I eat chicken, I eat chicken; when I pray, I pray.”

If you read the saints, they’re pretty ordinary people. There are moments of rapture and ecstasy, but once every 10 years. And even then it’s a surprise to them. They didn’t do anything. We’ve got to disabuse people of these illusions of what the Christian life is. It’s a wonderful life, but it’s not wonderful in the way a lot of people want it to be.

Yet evangelicals rightly tell people they can have a “personal relationship with God.” That suggests a certain type of spiritual intimacy.

All these words get so screwed up in our society. If intimacy means being open and honest and authentic, so I don’t have veils, or I don’t have to be defensive or in denial of who I am, that’s wonderful. But in our culture, intimacy usually has sexual connotations, with some kind of completion. So I want intimacy because I want more out of life. Very seldom does it have the sense of sacrifice or giving or being vulnerable. Those are two different ways of being intimate. And in our American vocabulary intimacy usually has to do with getting something from the other. That just screws the whole thing up.

It’s very dangerous to use the language of the culture to interpret the gospel. Our vocabulary has to be chastened and tested by revelation, by the Scriptures. We’ve got a pretty good vocabulary and syntax, and we’d better start paying attention to it because the way we grab words here and there to appeal to unbelievers is not very good.

Looks like Eugene Peterson, pastor and lecturer, and famous author of Bible paraphrase “The Message” and other notable books, is passionate when talking about how the church’s language has been held captivity by the culture it finds itself in. He has even more to say in the full interview with him done by Mark Galli for Christianity Today(30th June 2010) titled, “Spirituality for all the Wrong Reasons”