Some saw this confession as evidence for the demise of the “seeker sensitive” movement. We can learn a simple, but important lesson from our brothers and sisters: it is important to examine our congregations regularly, to consider how and where human lives are being changed or transformed. In asking critical questions about the human experience and the nature of God, Willow Creek “practiced” theology.
We Nazarenes articulate a clear call and commitment to nurture and shape “Christlike disciples in the nations.” Implicit in this call and commitment lurk numerous additional questions. If we dare to practice theology, we must ask ourselves: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be changed or transformed? What does it mean to be Christlike? and How does transformation occur? Questions like these must be considered if we are to assess our effectiveness in nurturing “Christlike disciples.” Once we begin this process of reflection, questions about sin and redemption, the person and work of the Triune God, and the holy life rise to the surface. A lot is at stake in our congregational life!
Our work as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ demands we theologize upon questions of deep meaning. This is the way of life for the minister. Practicing theology is not an “ivory tower” exercise. Theologizing happens in the everyday nitty-gritty stuff of life and is hard, gut-wrenching work. Grappling with a daughter’s diagnosis of scoliosis or news of the death of a loved one throws us into the practice of theology. Good theology is not separate from practice—good theology is lived theology.
If we are not reproducing Christlike disciples we must reconsider the narratives we are telling and the practices we are using.
Practicing theology creates space for clergy and congregations to reflect upon the narratives and practices that shape their identity and formation as the people of God. Since we are a people committed to nurturing a particular expression of Christian discipleship, we must articulate a strategy for assessing our discipleship practice. If we are not reproducing Christlike disciples we must reconsider the narratives we are telling and the practices we are using. Broken practices result in malformed disciples. Practicing theology means asking questions similar to those asked by our brothers and sisters at Willow Creek.
Our Nazarene statement of mission prompts us to ask a very important question: Are we nurturing and shaping Christlike disciples in the nations (or in this local church)? If Jesus is our framework or pattern for the type of disciple we intend to nurture, Nazarenes will need to study their congregations through a framework of love, patience, hospitality, generosity, self-control, and gentle speech.
A helpful way to know if we are nurturing and shaping Christlike disciples is by observing a congregation’s shared life together. Study and meditation upon Scripture, prayer, service, testimony, and hospitality are illustrative of a long, rich history of Christian practices used in the formation of the holy people of God. Employing these narratives and practices place people and congregations in the crucible or context where God can transform them. These shared life experiences are often typical of Sunday or mid-week worship, but can happen in many other contexts, such as small groups, prayer services, Vacation Bible School, weddings and funerals, and so on.
Another point to note is that if we don’t disciple, our culture will.
Another point to note is that if we don’t disciple, our culture will. Messages from advertising and the media can deeply influence our thinking, our sense of identity, and our self-worth. Against these, faith-shaping practices and a supportive community of faith help to reinforce where God’s people truly derive purpose, meaning, and self-understanding.
Simple survey instruments can invite parishioners to identify which Christian practices are nurturing them...
A Sample Assessment Strategy
As we learned from Willow Creek, it might be painful to ask if we are as effective as we’d like to be in nurturing spiritual growth in our congregations. Nevertheless, too much is at stake for us to be timid. Simple survey instruments can invite parishioners to identify which Christian practices are nurturing them, as well as how frequently they utilize such practices. Focus groups might bring together various members of the congregation for a conversation about how God is at work in the congregation’s shared life. It is critical to nurture safe space for such honest, frank conversations. As that space is made, we can converse around these (or similar) questions:
- Identify Christian practices forming individuals and communities into persons of faith.
- How is the reading and study of Scripture a practice deeply shaping individuals' lives?
- In what ways does the congregation practice service of neighbor and hospitality as a way of life?
- In what ways does the practice of prayer punctuate the congregation’s shared life?
- In what ways do they share generously with one another and contribute to God’s mission in the world?
- Listen for stories of faith, which evoke a counter-cultural way of life for the people of God.
- How is the Christian narrative formative for the local congregation?
- How are testimonies of God’s grace shared for the congregation’s edification?
- Observe the rhythm of the congregation’s life.
- Where and when do they meet together regularly?
- What do they do and say when they’re together?
- How do they interact with one another and with guests among them?
- Are they loving? Patient? Hospitable? Gentle in speech?
- Are they helpful to one another?
- Do they share their resources with one another?
Asking the Right Question Regularly
The question of whether we are nurturing and shaping Christlike disciples in the nations is one every pastor and congregation in the Church of the Nazarene must ask regularly.
As I reflected upon the remarks of the young man in my congregation, I began to inquire about both his practice of theology and the practices offered through our congregation’s life. I discovered that he had come to believe that being a mature man meant being independent. I also discovered that our congregation was not nurturing communal practices that reflected our belief that each member is a part of the Body of Christ—and that we need each other to be fully formed disciples. We were fostering independence among the young adults of the church community. Such discoveries challenged us to reconsider our understanding of what it means to be God's holy people in our neighborhood. The art of practicing theology revealed how we had malformed disciples.
The question of whether we are nurturing and shaping Christlike disciples in the nations is one every pastor and congregation in the Church of the Nazarene must ask regularly. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the difficulty in assessing or measuring Christlikeness. Yet, our failure to even ask the question may only result in nurturing malformed disciples. The quest to make Christlike disciples is not only important to our families, churches, and communities, but it is also what makes us salt and light in a hopeless world.
JEFFREY T. BARKER is Senior Pastor of Bethel Church of the Nazarene and Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Eastern Nazarene College
*The study’s findings were published in a booklet entitled, “Reveal: Where Are You?” which was published by the Willow Creek Association in August 2007. Remarking on the findings, Senior Pastor Bill Hybels related, “Nearly one out of every four people at Willow Creek were stalled in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied with the church—and many of them were considering leaving.”