5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations
Intentional Faith Development
Acts 2:42; Philippians 3:12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:17
Acts 2:42: The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.
Philippians 3:12-14: It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.
2 Corinthians 5:17: So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
I wanted to start this morning with a story from Bishop Schnase’s book. “Carol joined a United Methodist Church, attended worship and Sunday school, and volunteered with various week-to-week projects and programs of the church. One turning point in Carol and her husband’s faith journey was joining with a Volunteers-in-Mission work project overseas. Then she joined DISCIPLE Bible Study. In the small, supportive community of her class, she encountered truths and insights she had been searching for. More than that, she found God calling her to radically change the direction and priorities of her life. She eventually offered herself to full-time Christian service, changed jobs, and now works as lay mission coordinator, focused on international ministries. “Bible study messes with your life!” is her good humored but serious way of telling others about her faith journey. Learning in community helps people explore possibilities that God may have for them that they never would have considered on their own.”
“Bible Study messes with your life!” We hold our lives in pretty high esteem. We protect our lives and cherish normalcy. So why would we participate in something that will mess with it? Why are we willing to disrupt our weekly lives to disjointed and disorientated? Why can’t we keep doing what we are doing at the level we are doing it for as long as we can? The truth is there is only one thing for certain in this world, only one thing that always stays the same, and that is change. There is always change happening in life. You cannot stop and freeze life, life keeps moving. The question is are we stuck or are we willing to be messed with, transformed, changed to face the future that is ahead of us.
One way we move forward is by something Bishop Schnase calls Intentional Faith Development. This is how he describes this practice: “Intentional Faith Development refers to all the ministries that help us grow in faith outside of weekly worship, such as bible studies, Sunday School classes, support groups, and prayer teams. Congregations who practice Intentional Faith Development offer opportunities for people to learn in community for people at all stages of faith. They offer ministries that help people grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God. Intentional refers to deliberate effort, purposeful action, and high priority.”
How deliberate are you with nurturing your faith and building up your relationship with God? Relationships take work. To have a good relationship with your spouse takes dedication and hard work over the years. To have a relationship with a friend takes work, you have to connect with them on the phone, in person, or in other ways to tap into the benefits of friends. Could you call someone your best friend if the last time you saw or spoke to them was ten years ago? They may have been your best friend ten years ago but not now. How many times do we say that we have a friend in Jesus yet we haven’t personally talked with him in years? How can you work on your own faith if you don’t tap into the resources that God gives us to grow our faith? The truth is you may not know God as well as you think you do if you don’t take dedicated, purposeful, and deliberate time to grow your faith over they years. Intentional Faith Development adds a deeper spiritual aspect to our faith that simply attending worship cannot. It can make our relationship with God even more personal, intimate and communal. It takes the aspects we do here in Passionate Worship and it magnifies them on a personal scale.
The scriptures today point to the early church and how they kept the stories and lessons of Jesus Christ going. The verse in Acts says; “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.” If we look at what we do as a church I am sure we would say the same thing. We gather for worship, we eat together as much as we can and we lift each other up in prayer. The early church is doing what we do, they were being Church. They also devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings. They made sure they were learning what Jesus taught them so they could pass it down. Back then they didn’t have Nooks and Kindles. Even books were extremely hard to come by. The stories and lessons of Jesus were passed down by oral history. They were told to people who told it to people who told it to people. There were letters starting to fly around from Paul and some of the other apostles. But even the first evidence of a written gospel of Jesus Christ in our cannon is the Gospel of Mark. Scholars argue when it was written but it looks like it was probably between 50-70 AD. That is 20-40 years after Jesus’ death. In those days that is almost two generations of people passed before something was written down. The stories of Jesus, the teachings and lessons of Jesus had to be passed down from generation to generation before they were written down. This took many devoted hours of storytelling but it was what the first Church devoted themselves too.
Quick pop quiz: how many of each animal did Moses put on the Ark? It is a trick question because it wasn’t Moses that put anything on the Ark, who built the ark? Noah. The only way the next generation will know that is a joke is if we teach them. This week the Pew Research Center came out with a staggering statistic. They were researching the religious affiliation of Americans. “In the last five years, the unaffiliated have increased from 15% to 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics, as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.” That is 46 million people who have no connection the Christian faith and they will be raising a generation of children who do not know the basics of Christianity or the major Biblical stories. There is only one way we can make sure these lessons and stories of Jesus will be passed down, if we learn them ourselves and if we then teach others. All of this comes out of Intentional Faith Development.
In Philippians 3 Paul is telling the Philippians that they have to continue to grow in their faith. He has not been perfected yet but he pursues it. This is Paul, the great missionary, the person who was knocked off his horse and blinded by Jesus himself. He had to continue to pursue his relationship with Jesus. I love the phrase that is used in the Common English Bible, “I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” We should be reaching out for the things ahead of us. We should be striving to move forward in our knowledge and relationship with God. As we do this we get to the 2 Corinthians’ verse. We are made new in Christ as we get to know him better. We are part of that new creation that is happening right now through the transformative power of our Savior Jesus Christ. The old things go away and the new have arrive as we let God mess with our lives and break us free to what is really important in life, which is our relationship with God and each other.
To quote Bishop Schnase again, “Through the personal practice of Intentional Faith Development, we do the soul work that connects us to others, immerses us in God’s Word, and positions us to grow in grace and mature in Christ. We place ourselves in the most advantageous circumstances to learn and grow in our following of Christ. We cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our own spiritual maturation. We learn in community.” We need each other and we need to lift each other up. When we participate in a Sunday School Class, small group, life group, home group, whatever you want to call them. When you surround yourself other people there is a natural accountability that takes place. There is a natural group that supports each other, prays for each other, and replicates what Jesus did with the twelve. He called a small band of people to gather around him, learn form him and then go out to spread his gospel.
We are called, as Christians to take our faith seriously and devote ourselves to learn as much as we can for as long as we can. Jackie Boles was my first funeral at my last appointment. She dedicated herself to a life long learning and was instrumental in starting a weekly Bible Study. The group surrounded her as she went through Pancratic Cancer. We held Bible Study groups in her house and then at Hospice. Even though she had just been diagnosed with cancer she still went out and had purchased a new Bible, that put all the books in the Bible in chronological order. She was so happy and showed me her new Bible. She wasn’t able to get too far into it before she passed away but that love of learning, that desire to continue to grow even after getting the diagnoses, is a testament her faith development. There is an old saying that the more you learn the less you know. That was the case with Jackie and her walk and that should be where our walk goes as well.
How does Indian Trail do with Intentional Faith Development? Bishop Schnase states that congregations should have about 50% of their church active in different faith development groups. I went back and I looked at our numbers in September and the first week in October and we average 65% retention rate from our worship service and Sunday school. That means that 65% of the people who attended the worship service stayed for Sunday school, which is our only small groups at the moment. That is wonderful and we should be proud of that. I am very impressed that Sunday School follows worship and so many people stay. That is an asset of our program here and of our dedicated teachers who strive to build that up.
But that also means that 35% of the people go home and don’t continue to build on their faith. I am wondering why? Is it the timing and location? Is it the classes that we offer? Is it the space we meet in? If we were able to know those answers it would be pretty enlightening to us as a congregation.
Bishop Schnase also tells a story about a middle size church that was living out radical hospitality. They did great things to bring in new people into the church. They had an excellent way of taking new members and welcoming them in to the general membership. But then they noticed a trend. The new members would stay for a while but then they would eventually drift away after several months. They finally were able to get to the bottom of what was happening. They new members felt a sense of belonging and warmth in worship but when they tried to get involved in the small groups in the church they found them cold and unwelcoming. “One woman said, “Before I moved here, I was the kitchen chief in my old church for years. I didn’t expect to do that again here, but I hoped to join the cooking team. When I showed up to help with a dinner, they handed me napkins and told me to put them on the tables, and then I just stood around by myself the rest of the evening. I felt like they didn't need me or want me.” What this church realized was it had a ‘middle door problem.’ They were great at getting people in the front door but soon they slipped out the back.
I am not saying that we have a middle door problem, actually being the new guy here I am just through the front door myself and I couldn't tell how many middle doors we have. But this is great question to ask because how are we at ITUMC at making people feel welcomed in the different groups that meet outside of worship? Could new people join without much effort on their part and feel welcomed, able to help, and needed? Another great question is could our middle doors turn into other front doors?
The Church (with a big C, meaning all Churches) in America has to rethink how people come into church. The old model stated that people go involved in church in a liner pattern. They were invited or showed up on Sunday for worship. They liked it and then they came back again and again before they joined the congregation. Once they joined the congregation they started to look for a Sunday school class or small group to get active in. But now things have switched and things are a little different. What churches are find out is that what use to be their middle doors are now turning into front doors. One church decided to start small groups. They asked if 6-8 people who lived in a similar area or neighborhood wouldn't mind starting a small group in their house. About three groups started at three different locations and with 6-8 people in it. They wanted the groups to be between 10-12 people in each but they left space in each group on purpose. They did so because each of those 6-8 members who were starting the group knew some people in their neighborhood who may have wanted to come. The new trend is that people are more likely to join a small group in a person’s house rather than join them at worship. The same is true for missions but we will get into that next week. What this specific church found out as these three small groups gained outsiders to round out their group was that people desired intentional faith development and it can be an avenue for reaching people that would never show up in their worship services.
The other old model is that church small groups are supposed to meet at church on Wednesday or Sunday evening and the pastor is supposed to lead them. The truth is the most effective small groups out there now are led by trained laity and located at people’s house or other sites away from the church. I am so happy to know that we have 65% of our congregation participating in Sunday school but I am wondering, “what could we start that would move that number up even higher?”
The scariest place to be for a Christian is comfortable. When you are comfortable with your faith you stop learning, you stop growing and you hope the world will stop changing because your faith and your life are perfect at that moment. But if you remember the only thing that is constant is that everything changes. We have to continue to grow in our faith to stay in good relationship with our God. We have to continue to learn about who he is until we meet him face to face. We will never know everything about God but that doesn't mean we try.
And all God’s people said….Amen.