by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
It is somewhat platitudinous to say that the arrival of the New Year invites fresh reflection on priorities and renewed commitment to them. I am hardly alone this time of year making resolutions to order life more faithfully around my highest commitments. This is true of my personal life as well as my life in the church. I have spent much time over the past weeks prayerfully reflecting on first-order concerns for our parish family. The beginning of 2024 offers an opportunity to reemphasize vision and focus.
A continual stress point in our collective visioning is that we seek to be a church whose members are loving and equipping each other to grow in Christlikeness. We seek a deepening discipleship culture. The end goal of discipleship is to empower us more and more to bring others along in the life of Christ so that they may in due course be loved and equipped to do the same. We want to obey our Lord’s Great Commission to “make disciples” for the sake of the world. This is the life-giving work to which our Lord calls us in this New Year and in this season of renewed visioning for St. John the Divine.
One major learning I have perhaps only slowly come to appreciate over the years is that the business of building a discipling culture is much easier to talk about than to do. Yet this challenge in no way diminishes my own personal commitment to this vision, and I am feeling a sense of renewed vigor in re-engaging this vital work. I have “the bit in my mouth.”
Biblical and historical examples are always helpful in understanding what we mean by a discipleship culture. Some will helpfully point to the 18th century and two important Anglican clerics whose legacies illustrate the point. George Whitfield is known as the driving force behind the First Great Awakening in Great Britain and especially in the American colonies. Whitfield was an inspiring preacher and dynamic public figure who traveled tirelessly preaching to mass revival gatherings. Many came to Christ through his charismatic presentation.
Whitfield was a contemporary and friend of fellow clergyman John Wesley who was an effective preacher himself but without Whitfield’s magnetism and popular notoriety. Both men were driven by a passion to bring the gospel to all people. On the surface and in their own time, only one was a great success: Whitfield. But it was the offspring of Wesley’s committed ministry, the Methodist Church, that survived and spread to become a global denomination.
What ended up being the difference in influence between these two great church figures? While Whitfield’s ministry focused on preaching the gospel from “up front,” presenting the gospel before large crowds to effect mass conversions, Wesley methodically developed a system comprised of small groups whereby lay people were trained and equipped to help others grow in Christ. Wesley was committed to building a society that embodied the biblical and important Protestant concept of ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the big church”). And the rest is history.
Of course, what Wesley was doing – and what we want to be doing – is nothing more or less than what Jesus did with his own disciples. It is impossible to overstate the significance that Jesus in his ministry did not mobilize the masses to spread the Kingdom of God by sheer force of his charisma (surely, he could have!). Rather he invested the majority of his energies in a small group of twelve. And Jesus did not train them to be followers. He trained his disciples to go and make new disciples. That is, he trained them to love and equip others with knowledge of him.
That is the measure of a genuine discipleship culture, and it is not an impossible feat. Our Lord has shown us his own example and promised that we will be his disciples precisely in this way (Matt. 28). I am convinced that to be Lights for the City invites much more than successful professional programming or polished pronouncements of church leaders. It invites ordinary men and women to share life together, seeking Christ in all things, and developing confidence and capacity to bring friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues into his life more deeply. Even writing these words, I am filled with energy and excitement about a renewed commitment to that kind of culture, one I firmly believe our Lord intends to deepen among us. Stay tuned…
Our Lord’s pastoral plan, as every page of the Gospels plainly tells us, is based upon his calling, training, and direction of the Twelve. This is his constant consideration... Nine-tenths of the work of pastoral priesthood, seeking to bring all to Christ, is the training and direction of the Remnant... All this, flowing from the faith of the Remnant into every corner of parochial organism, is the only true “church work.”
— Martin Thornton, The Heart of the Parish: A Theology of the Remnant
The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen (Baker Academic, 2004)
This is easily a favorite book in my library of resources on how to read the Bible. Bartholomew and Goheen present as their thesis that Scripture is a unified and coherent narrative of God’s redemption of the world and ongoing purposes. Indeed, the Bible can be understood as a Six Act drama. I have had a number of parishioners over the years exclaim about how helpful this book is for their personal reading of the Bible, and our very own Cornerstone Fellowship course uses this book as an introduction to Scripture as well. I recommend The Drama of Scripture for all who resolve to deepen their engagement with the Bible in this New Year!