by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”—John 1:4-5
As I have been communicating in various contexts this fall, our parish leadership has been engaged in important work on a refreshed vision for St. John the Divine and strategies for fulfilling that vision. I have been referring to this ministry as “SJD 2030,” a compelling “roadmap” for parish vitality, faithfulness, and impact over the remaining years of this decade. I am grateful for vestry and staff leadership, as well as other lay leaders involved in this work. I have also enjoyed speaking about “SJD 2030” with the larger church at the adult education hour over three Sundays of Advent. This seems the perfect time in church life for this extremely important ministry.
By now you are familiar with our three-fold framework for understanding our Christian life captured by the words Gather, Grow, and Go. We want to nurture and deepen a parish culture defined by gathering in Christ, growing together, and going forth for others. I wish to stress that these three dimensions of Christian and church life are mutually interdependent and reinforcing. For example, I firmly believe a congregation that prioritizes gathering to worship Christ and growing together as his disciples will be one that inevitably goes forth on mission for others in ever more impactful ways.
Over this fall, I have been reading Dallas Willard’s (1935-2013) highly esteemed book on Christian growth called Renovation of the Heart. With so many keen observers of our late modern period, Willard recognizes the reality of our post-Christian context. Yet he reminds his readers of the lesson of the New Testament church: Christians may be a minority in culture, but a well-discipled minority in the world makes a huge difference. The record of the early church reveals that “ordinary human beings in their ordinary positions in life were appointed and empowered by Jesus to be, each in their peculiar places, ‘the lights of the world.’ It would be no more possible to hide them than it is possible to hide ‘a city on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14).”
Of course, despite some similarities to the early church’s social situation, Christians today stand in a very different place from the New Testament. Our faith is not novel. It is not a new thing. Indeed, for many of our contemporaries, the church may be regarded as a tired thing. And as important as effective verbal and written communication of the gospel is, we are living in an era that is more about “show me” than “tell me.” As Willard writes: “We are beyond the point where mere talk – no matter how sound – can make an impression. Demonstration is required. We must live what we talk, even in places where we cannot talk what we live.”
We know already that “SJD 2030” will envision more and more people experiencing a life-changing relationship with Christ among us. It will also point us toward a vision where more and more people experience genuine belonging as we grow together in following Christ. But the theme of these bi-monthly reflections always leads us back to contemplation of ways in which we can be an even brighter light for our city. This will involve—as it has already—nurturing a corporate culture of entrepreneurial investment in new ministry initiatives to bless others beyond our membership in the city of Houston.
Yet the most profound hope in this vision extends beyond creating corporate outreach projects. It is that as we gather and grow in Jesus, each one of us will be better equipped and more passionate about going forth as “demonstrations” of Christ’s light wherever “we live and move and have our being.” My prayer for St. John the Divine is that each member will embrace Christ’s personal call to be a missionary in every sphere of daily living.
As the early verses of John’s gospel so beautifully articulate, Christ is the Light of the World that no darkness of sin or death can extinguish. By a pure gift of grace, we have been given this light ourselves. Our Lord wants each of us to be a visible demonstration of his light. The upcoming days of Christmas are a particularly important season to remember this image and this call.
At the end of the day, we want to be a Great Commission church (Matthew 28:18-20). As Willard writes, our “call is to be his apprentices, alive in the power of God, learning to do all he said to do, leading others into apprenticeship to him, and also teaching them how to do everything he said. If we follow that calling today in our Christian groups, then, as in past times, the most important thing happening in our communities will be what is happening in our churches.” May it be so!
"While the New Testament speaks often about churches, it is surprisingly silent about many matters that we associate with church structure and life. There is no mention of architecture, pulpits, lengths of typical sermons (or sermons!), or rules for having a Sunday school. Little is said about the style of music, order of worship, or times of church gatherings … Those who strive to be New Testament churches must seek to live its principles and absolutes, not reproduce the details." —Leith Anderson, A Church for the 21st Century
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (Grove Press, 2021)
I am always interested in people’s favorite Christmas movies, music, books, etc. My contribution to your consideration is a beautiful novella I just just finished by Claire Keegan. Set in a small Irish town during the 1980s, Small Things Like These involves an honorable working-class man leading a hardscrabble life at Christmas time. Questions about his own origins coincide with a disturbing discovery of another’s. In its way, the novella is a marvelously and movingly told adoption story.