Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 30, 2011

2011.10.30 The Third Practice of Fruitful Living: Intentional Faith Development

Central United Methodist Church
The Third Practice of Fruitful Living:
Intentional Faith Development
Pastor David L. Haley
October 30, 2011

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2: 32)
“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit some, but encouraging one another . . .”
(Hebrews 10:24 – 25)

[Note: As stated, this five sermon series is based upon Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (2007), and Five Practices of Fruitful Living (2010). This is therefore my summation of Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices, a combination of Bishop Schnase’s material and my own. For a more full version, see Bishop Schase’s books. You can also learn more at Bishop’s Schnase’s Five Practices site http://fivepractices.org/, or at the Cokesbury site http://www.fivepractices.cokesbury.com/
– Pastor Haley]

Long ago, in a village outside Jerusalem, before sunrise, a woman heads to the village well. She sighs at the prospect of another day of hard work to scrape enough food together for herself and her daughters. Since her husband’s illness and death she had felt abandoned and alone. As she neared the well, she thought about the story she had heard the night before, as she gathered with her neighbors for supper and prayer. It was a story about a woman who had met Jesus at a well, to whom he had offered living water. More stories came to mind, as she thought about a woman and her coin, two women’s tears of sorrow and joy before an empty tomb, and a poor widow giving more than all the rich people combined.

The woman had heard these stories for the first time only a few months before, and now these stories were her stories. First word had spread about his horrible death (he was only a few years older than her husband), and then, amazingly, stories about his being alive and about his followers gathering in Jerusalem and other villages. Perhaps most amazing of all, the people who told the stories invited her into their homes. She could hardly believe it. Everyone knew she was without a husband, on her own, destitute. But these people treated her differently. She and her daughters ate with them, receiving more than they could ever repay. They prayed for her and with her. This unexpected love changed everything. Now, she didn’t feel so abandoned and alone; she felt connected, like her life counted. She couldn’t get enough of these stories about Jesus, or of these followers of Jesus. Whenever and wherever friends gathered to retell the stories, she was there, and then retold them to her daughters and other neighbors. She loved learning more about Jesus, about God, and building friendships with others. All this sustained her through difficult days, but with these stories in her heart and her friends at her side, her burdens felt lighter and her future more hopeful.

Seventeen hundred and fifty years later, in a small thatched-roof cottage outside of London, a man holds his journal closer to the lamp, as he writes his account of the evening’s gathering. It’d been a long day; he had begun working in the fields before sunrise and labored until after sunset. But unlike others, his day did not end with his work in the field. Instead, he washed up and ate a quick meal so he could prepare his home, reread the Scripture, and pray for the Spirit’s guidance. As a Methodist class leader, he prayed for each class member before they arrived. As they began to arrive, his home was filled with the welcome and laughter of a dozen of his friends and brothers. These men had also spent the day laboring, in stables and fields, and shops and kitchens.

As they began, he reminded them of Mr. Wesley’s rules for classes, and about the covenant they had made with each other in order to belong: to attend the public worship of God, including the reading and expounding of the Holy Scriptures and receiving the Supper of the Lord, and to commit to private prayer and the searching of the Scriptures. He read to them their pledge to watch over each other’s souls, to practice diligence and frugality, to do good in every way, and to be merciful as far as possible to all people. Then he led them in singing and prayer, and described how he had experienced the week, his joys and sorrows, his temptations and trials, and the times when God delivered him. He asked the others about the state of their souls, and each in turn spoke of their life and God’s grace during the past week. He shared the Scripture he had prepared, and talked about the thoughts that come to him while he worked the fields. He led them in prayer for one another and collected coins from each to give to the steward for the work of God, carefully recording the amount beside the name of each giver. He offered the blessing of Christ, and they bade him warm farewells to return to their own homes, leaving him with his journal. He noted attendance and marked his appraisal of the spiritual state of each member. Then he snuffed the lamp and took his rest. It had been a long day, but he felt grateful beyond words for his life, his faith, and his friends. He felt renewed, strengthened, and encouraged. By his work in the fields, he made a living. By this care of souls, he made a life.

Two hundred and fifty years later, a young woman pulls into a church parking lot. She’s running late. Like most Tuesdays, she’s still wearing her suit from work, a blur of movement from office to school to soccer practice to drive-thru to church. Her son dumps his fast food wrappers in the trash bin beside the door as he carries his schoolbooks into the building. He’ll do homework while mom does her “Bible thing.” She slips into the room just as the video begins. Her closest friend is there and welcomes her into the seat beside her. They signed up for this together, deciding to “just do it” after years of wanting to study the Bible. The class also includes two couples, two older women, a graduate student from the university; and the leader, recently retired. She didn’t know most of these people before she signed up for Disciple Bible study, but she’s amazed at how much she’s learned from them as they’ve shared their thoughts about God and faith and Scripture, and amazed how much she’s come to care for them as they’ve shared their lives. The Tuesday evening study has become a time of refreshment for her each week, an oasis of encouragement, learning, and support. For 10 minutes, they listen to a seminary professor on video talk about the stories of Moses, his birth and marriage and encounter with God. Then they walk through the readings, sharing observations and questions.

Every day for the past week she has spent time reading Scripture. Sometimes she gets lost in the archaic practices and customs and confused by the stories and characters. She has so many questions. She wasn’t sure she had time for this, and sometimes even now wonders if she’s wasting her time. Moses seems way back then and way over there. The leader talks about Moses’ call – the burning bush, the fear and humility, the excuses and justifications he gave to avoid doing what God called him to do. Her stomach tightens as she hears people tell about times they felt called by God to do something and repeated the same excuses. She looks at her own notes from the readings, and the questions she wrote. How does God call people? Sometimes I feel called, but I’ve never heard voices or seen burning bushes. Am I being called? She shares her questions with others and discovers that they wrestle with the same things. The evening ends with prayer and after she drives home with her son, tucks him into bed, and nestles into her favorite chair, she finds she is praying, asking, and hoping, “What would you have me do, Lord?”

These three people, representative of so many others in various times and places, have this in common: they are engaging in Intentional Faith Development. This is our third practice for both fruitful congregations and fruitful living: Intentional Faith Development. Vibrant, fruitful, and growing churches engage people in Intentional Faith Development.

What we find is that when we practice Radical Hospitality, we open ourselves to receive God’s love, saying “Yes” to God. In Passionate Worship we love God in return, offering ourselves to God, to be created anew. As that occurs, we desire to grow in grace, and thus seek Intentional Faith Development.

From the first generations of Christians to the early Methodists to the youngest generation of faithful members today, followers of Jesus have always found that we mature better by learning in community.
We do it because it replicates the way Jesus taught his followers, as well as the way the early church taught the followers of Jesus. As Acts 2:32 reminds us, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This was, as Robert E. Coleman called it, “the Master Plan of Discipleship.”

And we do it because there are some things — like peace, justice, patience, kindness, faithfulness, and forgiveness — that we cannot learn on our own by reading a book, even when that book is the Bible. We can only learn those things as we grow and struggle together, in community with others.

We Methodists do it because it also reflects the Wesleyan notion of the sanctifying grace of God, that there should be an upward movement to our faith journey. This is the idea that by the grace of God, we are closer now to God in our walk of faith than we were 5 years ago, and that 5 years from now we will be even closer than we are today. Faith is not like a light switch, switched on or off, but rather faith is dynamic: it moves, grows, matures, and changes.

As the name suggests, in order for our faith to grow through Intentional Faith Development, it requires intentionality on our part. It doesn’t happen accidentally, haphazardly, or by occasional visits to church. On the contrary, like exercise, it only happens as a result of decision and effort on our part to do something about it, to join or form a group, in order to learn and grow with others. While the transformation of human hearts and minds is God’s work, Intentional Faith Development is about placing ourselves in the hands of God so that God can re-create us in the image of Christ.

How do we do this? Intentional faith development occurs in all those ministries that help us grow and mature in faith, outside of worship. This includes Sunday School classes, Bible studies, small group meetings, circle meetings, Vacation Bible School, youth gatherings, prayer groups, just to name a few, all those ways we meet with others in our common growth in faith.

While Bible studies – especially such studies as the Disciples’ Bible Study – are important, topical studies, such as age and issue related groups, can also touch lives in significant ways. For example, people who gather to talk about parenting skills, money issues, debt, living with cancer, singles groups, people going through divorce, these are just some of the life challenges helpful to look at through the eyes of faith, in the company of others. What might be one you need to form or join right now?
Every learning group in the church has social components, and every social group has learning components, that can further faith formation. This means that Sunday school classes and studies should have fellowship dinners, Christmas parties, service projects, prayer support, and other practices that deepen community. In a parallel way, groups that form around social needs or common interests, such as choirs, book clubs, knitting classes, or eating and travel groups, should also include prayer, devotion, mutual support, and invitations to other ministries of the church.

How are we doing? How long has it been since we have been a part of such a group? Are we always looking for new groups we can form, always inviting new people to the old groups? It doesn’t take a whole lot of people, it only takes two or three gathering together, to study and pray, to help sustain each other in faith.

If intentional faith development is so important and provides such rich spiritual benefits, why don’t we do it?

Well, if we’ve never done it before, we may feel embarrassed by our ignorance. And, no doubt about it, those of us who are shy people always find it hard to walk into a room full of strangers. What if someone asks us a question, or asks us to pray? Those of us who are small group veterans often forget how intimidating it can be for newcomers. Still, even us shy seekers have to ask ourselves, “Are we willing to experience temporary incompetence in order to attain a sense of confidence, not to mention the support that comes along with it?

And of course, for many of us, there is the question of time. With full schedules and family obligations, many of us believe we cannot find time to attend a weekly gathering. And we cling to the fantasy that someday something will change and we will finally have time to nourish our spirits. The truth is, as for almost everything else that is important in life, no one ever finds the time, we have to make the time. Otherwise it never happens.

In the Peanuts cartoon series, Lucy is works as a psychiatrist. “Advice – $.05,” says her sign. One day, Charlie Brown asks Lucy’s advice on finding purpose in life. Using the metaphor of a large boat, Lucy’s response is that some people go through life with their deck chair facing backwards, looking at where they’ve been, rather than facing forward, to look where they’re going. Then she asks, “Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?” Charlie Brown concludes, sadly, “I don’t really know – I’ve never been able to get my deck chair unfolded! When it comes to Intentional Faith Development, too many of us are like Charlie Brown, “We’ve never been able to get our deck chair unfolded!” Once we do, we will find it worth the effort.
I end with one last story. A young man went off to college. Though it was not far from home, it was the first time he’d ever lived away from his family. He was going to live in an apartment, rooming with an older friend, an upperclassman.

It was a difficult first semester. The classes were demanding, and he didn’t have many friends, other than his friend’s friends, mostly all older and involved in activities he wasn’t interested in, like drinking and partying.

The young man been brought up in the church, and his past was full of Sunday school, vacation Bible school, youth groups, retreats, even positions of leadership. But somehow all of that didn’t seem to help much now.

One day he heard about a gathering of campus Christians meeting on Sunday evening. He went, and found that it was an informal group, of college students like himself, and there was humor, and singing, and fellowship. It resonated with values important to him, and he began to attend weekly.

Before long, one of the leaders invited him to join a small group, which met in one of the dorms, for Bible study and prayer. In terms of faith, the young man began to study and learn and to grow, something he’d never gotten in all those years of attending church. Before long, some of the members of the group became his best friends.

What he found was that the more he learned, the more he wanted to know. Soon he was not only attending but leading a Bible study, and soon he was not attending the group, but leading the entire campus ministry. Before long, word reached the local Methodist superintendent, and he began accepting opportunities to preach in small rural churches. Through this, the young man heard and accepted God’s call to enter the ministry. After college, he attended seminary, which was to be a time of even greater learning and growth, including the strong support that came through new groups of like-minded friends.

That young man was me. All that happened 40 years ago, but I stand here today, because of it. And yet, those of us who grow in grace realize that if we follow Christ for a thousand years, we will still need to learn as much on the last day as on the first, because our need for the sanctifying grace of God, gained through Intentional Faith Development, never ceases. Amen.

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