At Sunday School they were learning about how God created everything, including humans. Johnny was especially interested when the teacher told about how Eve was created out of one of Adam’s ribs. Later in the week his mother noticed him lying down, seemingly in pain. “Johnny, what’s the matter?” Johnny responded, “I have pain in my side. I’m afraid I’m going to have a wife!”
We are now in our 3rd week of this current sermon series- The 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations, based on the book by former United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase. Two weeks ago, we began with Radical Hospitality. Last week, we moved on to Passionate Worship. Today, we stop and consider Intentional Faith Development.
Where you and I might be satisfied with a recliner and refrigerator, God refuses to settle for any dwelling short of a palace. After all, this is his house. No expense is spared. No corners are cut. This might explain some discomfort in your life. Remodeling the heart is not always pleasant. We don’t object when the Carpenter adds a few shelves, but he’s been known to gut the entire west wing. He has such high aspirations for you. God envisions a complete restoration. He won’t stop until he’s finished. And he won’t be finished until we have been shaped “along the…lines…of his Son”.
1 Corinthians 9:19-24 Though you are free and belong to no man, make yourself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews, I became like a Jew to win them. To those under the law, I became like one under the law to win them. To those who are not having the law, I became like one not having the law to win them. To the weak I became weak to win them. I have become all things to all men so that I, by all possible means, might save some. Do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that others may share in its blessings. Don’t you know that in the race, all runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such way as to get the prize.
In this passage, Paul talks about trying to be mindful of the needs of others- under the law, NOT under the law, weak…whatever they were, he tried to learn to be like them so he could better help them come to know the power and love of Jesus. He closed with, “run in such a way as to get the prize.” In other words, keep strengthening, keep growing, keep intentionally developing your faith, so that it may better impact both you AND others.
We need to know we’re not alone, that when we face life’s difficulties we’re surrounded by a community of Grace and we don’t have to figure out entirely by ourselves how to cope with family tensions, self-doubts, periods of despair, economic reversal, and the temptations that hurt ourselves or others. We need to know the peace that runs deeper than an absence of conflict, the hope that sustains us even through the most painful periods of grief, the sense of belonging that blesses us, and stretches us, and lifts us out of our own preoccupations. We need to learn how to offer and accept forgiveness, how to serve, and be served. The church should be…ready?…a school for love, where we learn from one another…how to love. We need to know that life is NOT about having something to live on, or in, or around, or under, or over…but something to live FOR– that life comes not from taking FOR ourselves, but by giving OF ourselves. And that happens through Intentional Faith Development. So why would we do that? Let’s look at it.
Faith development is God’s Spirit working in us, perfecting us, giving us the mind of Christ so that we are able to give love as we grow in our knowledge and love of God. Intentionality is deliberate effort, purposeful action and high priority placed on growing in Christ. Christian disciples should strive to develop and grow in their faith through study and learning. Studying the Bible in a group can open our eyes and reveal things to us that we never would have discovered by ourselves.
Jesus encourages us to develop our faith that way: together…with others, following a long line of those who lived and believed before us. Learning in community is exactly the model of learning He used as He taught his disciples. They 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. And they did all this while gathering around dinner tables, on hillsides, and at the temple. Such things can’t be learned apart from relationships. Such things can only be learned with other Christians. Faith is best learned with others.
God’s gracious offer through Radical Hospitality invites and welcomes us. God’s transforming presence in Passionate Worship opens our hearts to Jesus’ pardon, love and grace. It creates in us a desire to grow and learn more. But growing in Christ requires more than weekly worship. It’s through Intentional Faith Development- studying and discussing the Word of God- that God’s Spirit works in us, perfecting us in the practice of love and letting us grow in the knowledge and love of God.
Growing in Christ takes a lifetime. It’s dynamic, which is why Methodist founder John Wesley called people to practice faith through learning in community, so that we all can see God more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly…day by day.
Intentional faith development isn’t just about self‐improvement, but about putting ourselves in a position where God can shape us. It’s about intentionally opening ourselves to God’s Word, God’s call. God uses other people- their strengths and weaknesses, their doubts and fears, their big questions in life, their strong convictions– to shape and change us. We all can remember a time when it was only through the presence and the encouragement of a friend that we dared to do something that otherwise we would never have done. Someone who believed in us more than we did ourselves, someone who helped us stretch, to reach something we would otherwise not have reached. Intentional faith development causes us to grow in our love of Jesus. As we grow in that love, it leads us to offer Radical Hospitality to those outside the faith. That leads us to a Passionate Worship that better connects us to God…not only on Sunday morning but throughout the week.
Faith Development comes through learning…both by yourself AND in community…it’s a two-pronged sort of thing. Churches that practice Intentional Faith Development look for ways to help form faith at every age. They look for needs not met and ask how they can better meet them. They train people. They explore new ways of forming learning communities– blogs, chat rooms, e-mail Bible studies, and downloadable materials. We need to continue to seek and find more ways to help people grow in the knowledge and love of God. Because ideas change people, and people change people; and God uses both of those things together to work on our behalf- to shape our lives in the image of Christ.
There are many ways to be practice Intentional Faith Development – Sunday School, Bible studies, retreats, short term topical studies, prayer groups, Vacation Bible School, training classes, camps, youth groups, shared interest small groups, mission trips, mission projects…the list goes on. My challenge to you is this- we can all be intentional about our faith development by committing to attend at least one Bible study or small group in the next 6 months. Try it- try ONE Bible Study or small group. Commit to it. Make it a priority. Give it your best…not your leftovers. See if it doesn’t make a difference. Healthy, vibrant churches are those which have a large percentage of adults who are furthering and deepening their relationship with Christ, who are growing and being intentional about faith development. They understand that the purpose of the church is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. They practice radical hospitality and passionate worship, And healthy, vibrant growing churches are intentional about their faith development.