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Five Practices: Intentional Faith Development
By Robert Schnase
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 Robert Schnase
All rights reserved.
What Does the Bible Say?
Intentional Faith Development refers to the ministries congregations offer outside of weekly worship that help people grow in faith and in their understanding of and love for God. These ministries include Bible studies, Sunday school classes, spiritual retreats, youth programs, and other small-group experiences that help us learn the Christian life in community with others.
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (Acts 2:42)
Learning in community replicates the way Jesus deliberately taught his disciples. His followers grew in their understanding of God and matured in their awareness of God's will for their lives as they listened to Jesus' stories, instructions, and lessons while gathering around dinner tables, on hillsides, and at the Temple. Jesus taught us to learn our faith this way, with others in community.
Following the formation of the church by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the earliest communities of Christians thrived as "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Notice the dual reference to learning and community.
Paul sprinkles his instructions to the followers of Christ with encouragements to learn, grow, teach, and mature. He presents faith not as something static, a possession, or an all or nothing proposition, but rather as something we grow into and strive toward, a putting away of one's "former way of life, [the] old self" to clothe oneself "with the new self" (Ephesians 4:22, 24). We seek to have in us the mind that was in Christ Jesus, allowing God's Spirit to shape our thoughts, attitudes, values, and behaviors. Growing in Christ-likeness is the goal and end of the life of faith.
The change God works in us through the Spirit results in a deeper awareness of God's presence and will and an increasing desire to serve God and neighbor. By God's grace, we become new persons. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This growth in Christ spans a lifetime. Paul writes, "Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own ... Straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal" (Philippians 3:12-14). Faith moves, grows, changes, matures.
"Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own ... Straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal." (Philippians 3:12-14)
As we mature in Christ, God cultivates in us the fruit of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and selfcontrol" (Galatians 5:22-23). These are the qualities to which the Christian aspires; these are the qualities God's Spirit forms in us as we deepen our relationship with God through Christ.
These interior spiritual qualities are all radically relational, and we only learn them in the presence of others through the practice of love. They are honed in community, and not just by reading books and studying Scripture. They become real in our lives in the love we give and receive from others and in the things we learn and teach with others. Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20). Jesus taught in community so that we would learn to discover his presence in others.
"Since we cannot make the journey backward into innocence, help us go forward into wisdom."
— Edward Tyler Prayers in Celebration of the Turning Year (Abingdon, 1978)
The notion of growing in faith is central to the Christian faith. Faith is not static but dynamic. It requires cultivation. Founder of Methodism John Wesley was as passionate about Christians maturing toward the fullness of faith as he was about inviting Christians into the beginnings of faith. He called early Methodists to practices that fostered faith through learning in community, which results in the steady withering of the old nature while nurturing the fruit of the Spirit. This steady maturing, full of setbacks, distractions, and missteps for sure, is the perfecting of the soul in love, growing in the image of God, fostering of an inner holiness. The end toward which we strive is having the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The song "Day by Day" from the musical Godspell expresses the Christian disciple's desire to grow in the grace of Christ and to advance daily in the knowledge and love of God. In the musical, the cast sings a beautiful prayer that asks God for three things: "To see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly day by day" (Godspell, Stephen Schwartz, 1973).
We learn the life of Christ and will of God by studying God's Word and through experience with other people of faith. By joining a Bible study or class, we place ourselves in the circumstances that are most advantageous for growth in faith. Bible study is not just about selfimprovement but about setting ourselves where God can shape us, intentionally opening ourselves to God's Word and call. God uses faith-to-faith relationships to change us.
Take time before your first session to think about these questions, and take notes as you read to remind yourself of your responses for the group discussion.
Your Personal Story of Faith
Think back to the first places you heard about the Bible, faith, and God's love for you. Where did this happen? Who did you first learn from? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
Who helped you say your first prayers as a child? What effect did this have in your childhood? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
In what ways did your early experiences, like these, shape your life of faith? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
As an adult, what has been your most powerful, life-affecting setting for learning about faith? What was the group like? What made it special?
Joining a Faith Community of Learners
What was your first experience in this congregation for learning? Who invited you? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
Was it a positive, welcoming experience? Did it affect your decision to be a member of this congregation? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
How have the groups that you've studied, learned and enjoyed fellowship with here affected your own maturity in faith? How have you found opportunities to make space for others to have that experience? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
Imagine new families who come into your congregation with little church background? What are three settings where they could get basic questions answered? questions answered? __________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________
How do all the opportunities besides weekend worship help members and visitors grow in faith? Try charting from childhood, through teen years, on to adulthood the classes and groups that help an individual grow in faith. Think about Bible study, prayer life, coping/recovery, and service opportunities.
Childhood ____________________ ____________________
Teens ____________________ ____________________
Adult ____________________ ____________________
What seems missing? On the way to your next session, think of three people you meet along the way that day and how they might find help on the chart.CHAPTER 2
What Is Intentional Faith Development?
"Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."
The practice of learning in community gives disciples a network of support, encouragement, and direction as we seek to grow in Christ. As we consciously appropriate the stories of faith with others, we discover that our questions, doubts, temptations, and missteps are not unusual but are part of the journey. We are emboldened to new ways of thinking about God and to new ways of exercising our faith in daily life. Others help us interpret God's Word for our lives, offering an antidote to inordinately self-referential or narcissistic interpretations that merely confirm our current lifestyles, attitudes, and behaviors. The fruit of the Spirit that we see in Christ (Galatians 5:22-23) cannot be learned apart from a network of relationships. 5:22-23) cannot be learned apart from a network of relationships.
In the intimacy of small groups, we give and receive the care of Christ by praying for one another, supporting one another through periods of grief and difficulty, and celebrating one another's joys and hopes. Sunday school classes, Bible studies, choirs, and other small groups are really little churches within the bigger church family, and they are the most likely places for us to learn to "rejoice with those who rejoice" and "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15).
And learning in community provides accountability for our faith journeys. We learn in community because others keep us faithful to the task of growth in Christ. That's why churches offer Sunday school classes and Bible studies and small-group ministries. The practices of faith are too demanding without support from others.
Other Christians help us:
exercise love and forgiveness,
and explore and respond to the will of God for our lives.
Why add the adjective intentional to describe the practice for churches that are vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations? Intentional refers to deliberate effort, purposeful action toward an end, and high prioritization. It highlights the significance of faith development and contrasts those congregations that take it seriously with those that offer it haphazardly and inconsistently, without new initiative, plan, or purpose.
Intentional Faith Development describes the practice of churches that view the ministries of Christian education and formation, small-group work, and Bible study as absolutely critical to their mission and that consistently offer opportunities for people of all ages, interests, and faith experiences to learn in community. They consciously and deliberately cover the whole age spectrum, fostering faith development outside of worship during the course of the year for children, youth, young adults, singles, couples, middle-aged adults, and older adults. They support and maintain existing Sunday school classes, studies, choirs, and women's and men's organizations, but they also continually fill the gaps with short-term, long-term, and topical small-group ministries and start new classes especially designed for visitors and new members.
Churches that practice Intentional Faith Development know the secret of small groups and constantly offer new possibilities for people to engage Christ by engaging one another.
"We began a 'Prayer Pager' ministry about two years ago. Members stop by the office and pick up a pager to deliver to someone they feel needs to know they are being prayed for—those who are sick or in hospice care, the families of those who have died, people receiving chemo or radiation treatments, and people who are just going through trying times.
The person receives a 'page' every time someone thinks to say a prayer for them. We publish pager numbers in our weekly bulletins and send updates through our email lists regularly.
Many of those who have carried the pagers report almost constant activity during times of high stress. Others talk about the pager 'going off' at just the right times. It has been an amazing thing to hear the stories and see the power of prayer at work in peoples lives. For us it has been just another way to stay connected in a world where loneliness is often experienced in places filled is often experienced in places filled with people."
— Rev. Gary Carter, First UMC (Kennett, MO)
"You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self ... and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self."
The practice of Intentional Faith Development takes a thousand forms. Some churches offer pre-packaged, high commitment learning experiences, such as DISCIPLE Bible Study, Companions in Christ, Beginnings, Alpha, the United Methodist Treasures of the Transformed Life (forty-day church-wide study), Rick Warren's Forty Days of Purpose, or Bible
Study Fellowship. Others rely heavily on retreats, marriage enrichment weekends, or mini-retreats that they plan and resource themselves. Others overlay small group work with ministry and mission and train people as Stephen Ministers, pastoral care teams, visitation teams, choirs, praise bands, prayer circles, or Volunteers in Mission teams. Others deepen the quality of fellowship and learning in traditional settings such as adult Sunday school classes. Others emphasize support groups that address critical needs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, divorce recovery workshops, grief support groups, or Alzheimer's family support organizations. Even small churches can offer robust ministries of learning, growing, and maturing in faith by creating new opportunities for longterm members and newcomers to learn in community. It only takes "two or three gathered in [Jesus'] name" to experience the presence of Christ and to grow together in faith.
And when church leaders take their own spiritual growth seriously and immerse themselves in the study of Scripture, in prayer, and in fellowship, they understand the purpose of the church and the point of ministry differently. Peter Drucker has said that "the purpose of leadership in the church is not to make the church more business-like, but to make the church more church-like." While church leaders should apply their knowledge of business, accounting, real estate, the law, and banking to enhance the church's effectiveness and accountability, they cannot lose sight of the purpose of the church, which is derived from the life, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
How can church leaders make good faith decisions for the congregation without proper grounding in the faith? Whether the church should build a new youth center, fund an overseas mission trip, or support a local soup kitchen is a decision not reducible to a mere cost-benefit analysis. These decisions require hearts of faith that explore the will of God as well as minds that review the financial reports. Vibrant, fruitful, growing churches are led by lay people and pastors who intentionally work to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ and in the knowledge and love of God and who understand the need for intimate Christian fellowship and intentional instruction in the faith.
* * *
The pastor of a small, open country congregation wrestled with how best to provide opportunities for Bible study and fellowship for members who have busy family schedules and live miles from the church. Attempts to host weekday evening studies at the church brought together the same few longtime members who always attended faithfully. The pastor supported these efforts but particularly wanted to reach some of the younger families who didn't participate as fully in such ministries.
One day she shared her dilemma and desire with one of the younger families and casually asked whether the family would consider hosting an hour-and-a-half study every other week in their home if she could get a few other families to attend. The family enthusiastically agreed, and a few weeks later they had their first home Bible study on a Tuesday night in the host's living room with three other families present. This worked so well that the pastor felt emboldened to ask another family on the other side of the county for the same favor of hosting a few others for Bible study. They graciously agreed. The pastor now leads two groups on alternate Tuesday evenings that reach about seven couples and families. Delight and joy energizes the conversations, and the families look forward with eagerness to their times together.
"Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
The pastor learned several lessons from her experience. First, people desire fellowship and to learn about the faith, but they have trouble squeezing it into their lives. The more the church can do to accommodate, the better. Second, if congregations keep the end in mind (offering quality learning in community), their leaders may have to break out of usual patterns and expectations of place, frequency, and curriculum to reach people.
Excerpted from Five Practices: Intentional Faith Development by Robert Schnase. Copyright © 2008 Robert Schnase. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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