Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video. I’ve been talking over the last two weeks about discipleship, something I think is incredibly important for us as we look to the future of the Church. If you want to catch up they’re no’s 92 and 93 on YouTube. The best equivalent English idea is that of an apprentice who spends time with Jesus, in order to become like Jesus so they do the same sort of things that Jesus did. Last week we looked at the first of three ways in which we can grow as disciples – the spiritual disciplines. These are the age-old practices of Christians going back to the time of Jesus: prayer Bible study, fasting, solitude, generosity and worship are a way in which we grow in our relationship with him, putting ourselves in a place where his Spirit can act in our lives. However, other than the obviously corporate activity of going to Church and breaking bread together, all of these disciplines can be rather solitary. The Church where I became a Christian in 1979 placed a great emphasis on the study of the Bible. In fact, the whole architecture of the building made it very clear that the main reason you were at Church was to hear the sermon – the rest felt a bit of a time filler until the main event. I did sometimes ask myself why we needed to go on the basis that I could have read the Bible at home and that Christian books to explain it were easily available. How much more now when the internet means you can listen to some of the finest preachers in the world on-demand at the click of a mouse.
The New Testament makes clear that church is about much more than receiving Christian teaching, receiving communion, and certainly more than a pleasant cup of coffee and good conversation after the service. Everywhere you look you find the phrase ‘one another’. It's used over 50 times. Jesus commanded us in John chapter 13 to love one another, and cites this love as evidence of the truth of what we proclaim in v. 35, “by this will all people know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another”. Paul in Colossians 3: 16 talks about ‘teaching and admonishing one another’; in Romans 12 he tells us to be devoted to one another and honour one another above ourselves. In his letter to the Ephesians, he commends ‘bearing with one another in love’ The writer to the Hebrews in Chapter 10: 24, talks of, ‘spurring one another on toward love and good deeds. James 5: 16 even advises we confess our sins to one another. We could pick many similar verses.
The point of all these things is that you can only do this if you are in some sort of meaningful community. A true Christian spirituality is as much about dealing with each other as it is dealing with God. In an individualistic society like ours this is really difficult. But then that prototype community of 12 disciples was hardly a homogeneous group of Galilean chums. You had terrorists and collaborators, at least two people who were highly unreliable – one who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver and one who denied he even knew him having protested the opposite only a few hours before. You had two who were known as the sons of thunder, presumably because they had a foul temper. I imagine their meal times could have been quite frosty. But it was not just Jesus’ teaching that formed them but practicing it in this network of very difficult relationships. In fact, its only in the crucible of this sort of community that our rough edges are exposed and rubbed off.
So, if the first way we grow as disciples is through the spiritual disciplines, the second is through what I’d call significant conversations, that can only happen in the sort of mutually invested community that goes a lot deeper than we often experience in church. The closest analogy to the sort of community we see in the New Testament is probably the 12 step addiction recovery meeting. In a non-judgemental, but accountable set of relationships people start to get their lives back under some sort of control and get free from addiction. If church was a bit less like passive receipt of religious services by trained professionals and a bit more like a recovery group to help us with our sin addiction, I think we might be further on in our journey to Christ-likeness!
I realise that is possibly exaggerating to make a point, but I hope it might encourage us to take up some of the opportunities to meet together in small groups alongside our gatherings for worship. The evidence from multiple sources is that church growth is often correlated with the presence of small groups for study, mutual support and encouragement and prayer. These are often settings where we grapple with putting Jesus’ teaching into practice and learn to articulate our faith in a safe environment.
With Lent coming up, why not take the opportunity to join a study group or a house group as a means of accelerating your journey to become more like Jesus. It may be a courageous step, but I’m sure you would benefit from it. Next week I want to look at a third way we grow, something I call stretching experiences. I do hope you’ll join me next week.