In a humorous exchange with in irrepressible fellow pastor a few years back, we were discussing some mutual friends who had become part of the Christian community which I was pastoring, I explained itheir joining in my lofty theological hubris,  by attributed it to my Reformed theological integrity in preaching. He laughed at me, with the response: “Bob, people don’t join your church because of your Reformed theology, they join because they smell life.” … They smell life!

That subject came up over lunch again, yesterday, with a gifted pastoral friend. We were wondering why there are some people who are continually present in church meetings, but never seem to become contagious with the life of Christ, and never seem to become the agents of teaching and making disciples others? This is not a new phenomenon. The writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, wrote: “… you have become hard of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again …” (Hebrews 5:12 ft.).

That reality, so regularly present, raises the question of why some Christian communities are absolutely contagious and growing, with its participants energized and reproductive disciples of Jesus Christ … like streams of living water in their context, while other ostensible Christian communities are more like stagnant pools, green grown, and non-life-producing. Or, why do some Christian communities begin as life-producing colonies of God’s New Creation, and then settle down to secure their gains, ossify, and become static and ingrown, … making an idol of their institution or of their more fruitful past?

One of my ‘takes’ on this is that Jesus told us that he would be building his church, but that our task was to “make disciples,” i.e., to be forming those who come to God in Christ into mature disciples, and fruitful in their knowledge and the practice of that new life in Christ. You see this early in the history of the church, when the apostle Paul landed in the commercial center of Ephesus, found his way to the synagogue, told some people that in Jesus, God’s messiah had come, and when a score of folks responded, he spent several months teaching them and forming them (making disciples) of them. Then—aha! They were commercial agents and on their trade travels took that word with them, and the record says (check this) that all Asia (Minor) heard the gospel. Streams of living water …

What happens? Why do some churches become so quickly ossified, and inhabited by passive, (often-demanding), non-reproductive church members, who “go to church” (even participate in bible studies) but with no evident intent, thereby, to become more fruitful in their obedience to Christ? Why have so many of the venerable theological schools not included some training in the skills of disciple-making in their curricula for equipping church leaders? This, especially, as the purpose of fruitful and effective preaching, and of all church activities should be for the equipping and energizing of the participants to become, themselves, skillful in their contagious Christian lives?

At the same time, there are those emerging colonies everywhere, which don’t appear in the form of venerable church institutions, but which colonies in multiple forms are incarnating God’s passion for those who are still walking in the darkness, still communicating God’s love in Christ, in surprising and innovative ways, bringing hope and meaning and love into the lives of those empty lives that Jesus came to seek and to save. Jesus is dramatically building his church in surprising ways, in surprising places, and among surprising people—though not in stagnant church institutions. For-instance, some disciples in Europe are making contact with Islamic refugees, and the reports are leaking out, that there is an awakening to Jesus Christ in that large and unlikely and tragic populace! Some churches are life-giving in often totally unlikely contexts. To be continued …

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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