Three Biblical models
The leadership of Mennonite Church USA has identified Christian formation as our number one ministry priority. I affirm this emphasis because the purpose of the church is to form disciples of Jesus Christ for the world.
Below I offer three biblical models through which congregations may understand the process of spiritual development as they seek to nurture the growth of followers of Jesus.
Model #1: The gathered-and-sent pattern of discipleship
The gathered-and-sent model adopts the pattern of life demonstrated by Jesus’ ministry with his own disciples. This model focuses on the formation of the follower of Jesus (disciple, apprentice) in two alternating and mutually reinforcing movements: gathering in the Lord’s presence as a community of sharing, learning and replenishment (Mark 6:30) and being sent forth into the world to serve in his name (Mark 6:7ff.). These two movements are mutually reinforcing because authentic and purposeful Christian gathering directs the growing disciple to being sent, to participation in God’s world mission. On the other hand, authentic and empowered sending or participation in God’s mission, necessitates continued gathering. God’s Spirit energizes the Christian community with these two symbiotic impulses: Centripetal movement (towards the center/Christian community) and centrifugal movement (away from the center/toward the world).
The gathered-and-sent model encourages each follower of Jesus to be engaged in ministry to the world in some way appropriate to her or his life stage. Gathering times then become opportunities to celebrate, share, support and replenish and where disciples gain further equipping to return to their various venues of service. This is the cycle Jesus demonstrated with his own disciples (Mark 6:30).
The Faith Mennonite, Zion Mennonite and Casa Betania congregations in the Newton, Kan., area enact this gathered-sent model in a creative way. These churches postpone their usual morning worship and Sunday school one Sunday each year. On this Sunday, the people go out to serve the community in various work projects. After the work day, they gather for worship at 4 p.m. That worship includes people sharing stories about the day, work done and relationships made. The DOOR Project also has an intentional pattern of interspersing kingdom labor with gathering for worship and shared reflections. These are just two examples of this rich symbiosis for cultivating disciples.
Model #2 I-we-all: the self in disciple perspective
The I-we-all model focuses on the formation of the follower of Jesus in three relationship dimensions: relationship to self, to faith community and to the world (that is, I, we, all).
Psalms 66 and 67 reflect awareness of each of these dimensions. The two adjacent poems in the Psalter are linked by the word “bless” (Psalm 66:20, 67:1). Most importantly for our purposes, they are composed of alternating units that intersperse the three relational realities: A unit emphasizing the first person singular (“I, me, my”) alternates with units concentrating on the first person plural (“we, us, our”) and units focused on an even wider inclusive group (“all”). The structure of these alternating units can be outlined briefly as follows: 66:1-7—“all”; 66:8-12—“we, our, us”; 66:13-20—“I, me, my”; 67:1—“us”; 67:2-5—“all”; 67:6-7a—“us, our”; 67:7b—“all.”
This structure suggests three interconnected meanings of the follower of Jesus that are essential for spiritual formation. First, each person must come to understand himself/herself as an individual before God or Jesus—as an “I” (e.g. Galatians 2:19b-20). This “I” in biblical perspective is the self made in God’s image, precious in God’s sight and empowered for right living. Second, each “I” is also part of a “we,” a faith community of nurture (e.g. 1 Peter 2:9-10). God calls individuals to be part of a people, named Israel in the Old Testament and the church or body of Christ in the New.
Third, the “I” and “we” participate with God and Jesus in mission to “all,” that is, to humankind and creation beyond the self and faith community (e.g. Ephesians 1:9-10).
Several passages illustrate the I-we-all concept. In Genesis 12:1-3, God addresses the individual (the “I”) Abram/Abraham, forms him into a community (“a great nation”), which becomes God’s partner to bless all the families of the earth. This Abrahamic identity was adopted by the church in Acts 3:25. Similarly, in John 15:9-17, Jesus directs the love God has placed within each (“I”) of his “friends” to the willingness to lay down their lives for one another (“we”), and beyond that, for the ultimate purpose that they will go and bear fruit in the world (“all”). Jesus’ prayer in John 17:1-26 likewise includes three sections displaying the same three relationship dimensions as Psalms 66-67: (1) vv. 1-5, Jesus prays for himself (that is, the “I”); (2) vv. 6-19, Jesus prays for the group(s) of his followers (that is, the “we”); (3) vv. 20-26, Jesus prays for future believers who will come to faith through the “we” (that is, the “all”). Finally, 2 Timothy 1 recognizes these three parts of the spiritual self. Timothy is personally indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He is nurtured by the faith models of his mother, grandmother and mentor Paul. And he is entrusted and equipped with the message of salvation for the world. God enables the ongoing spiritual development of disciples through these three interconnected and mutually enriching dimensions of personhood.
The I-we-all model encourages churches in their Christian formation programs, activities, resources and learning approaches to be attentive to including components that foster the experience of God in relation to self, church and world.
Model #3: Our stories and the story
(Deuteronomy 5:2-3; 6:4-9, 20-25; 26:1-11)
It has long been recognized that the Book of Deuteronomy is concerned about the transmission of faith from one generation to the next. The method of faith transmission put forth by the fifth book of Moses involves the interaction between the stories of people’s lives and the story of the people’s (Israel’s) life. In Deuteronomy and in the Our-stories-the-story model of spiritual development, faith is formed as personal experiences are experienced in conversation with God’s grand narrative of delivering and covenanting with a people.
More specifically, Christian formation through the lens of the third biblical model is the process of my story becoming shaped by the story. This means mapping our life journeys onto captivity and release, exile and restoration, death and resurrection. It is in this narrative reciprocity that we become followers of Jesus.
Deuteronomy 5:2-3 is a remarkable passage. As the biblical story is passed on, each new generation of the faith community “becomes” the Sinai generation, stands before the mountain, sees the fire and smoke, makes the covenant with the Lord. We are not “grandfathered in” to the people of God; we are storied in.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 describes the bringing of first fruits to the Temple. Each year when the Israelites experience God’s abundant provision of food from the earth, they are to present samples as an act of worship. On this occasion they are to recite to the priest the historical drama of God’s liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.
But when they tell the story, it is not to sound like a history lesson or to sound like a piece of family lore about Great Aunt Sue and Uncle Elmer. It is not to be an ancestor tale. Rather, when they tell the story, Moses says they are to place themselves in the story, as if they themselves were there in those events of long ago. That is, they are not to say, “The Egyptians treated our ancestors badly” but, “The Egyptians treated us badly and oppressed us and placed hard labor upon us. Then we cried to the Lord. The Lord heard our voice, saw our affliction and brought us out and gave us this land that flows with milk and honey.”
Moses says each new generation of God’s people is to claim that historical drama as its own. Each new generation must place itself in the story. Each new generation cowers under the taskmaster, dabs the blood on the doorpost, walks through the sea, gathers the manna, chokes on the quail and hoists themselves up the bank of the Jordan. Moses tells Israel, “You become God’s people as your stories are transformed by the story.”
The power of God’s epic relationship with Israel is further upheld by Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25. These verses appear particularly addressed to parents in the setting of home life. When children ask their parents the reason for the values that give meaning to their lives, parents are to tell them not only the rules but the stories. Verses 20-21 are important: “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out.” The meaning of God’s people-making law is connected to God’s people-making story, which is a story of deliverance. Parents (and, by extension, all nurturers of faith) pass on a spiritual identity through storying. Moreover, “talk about them” implies more than just rote memorization but conversation around the word. Faith is developed by the integration of one’s life-narrative and the biblical narrative.
Deuteronomy acknowledges the importance of two social locations for faith formation: the home and the gathered community. While Deuteronomy 6 highlights the home setting, Deuteronomy 29 accentuates the gathered community. Specifically, in Deuteronomy 29:2ff., Moses summons “all Israel” to hear God’s story of liberation and providential care. Moses says, “You stand assembled today, all of you, before the Lord your God—the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water” (Deuteronomy 29:10-11). This all-inclusive assembly convenes in order to weave their stories into the story.
The partnership of home and gathered community in the formation of faith is expressed in many of our parent-child dedication services. Also, the Talkabout materials in the Gather ‘Round curriculum encourage a holistic approach to Christian education in which family and congregation are linked together in the work of disciple building. Moreover, this third model encourages congregations to utilize mentoring, intergenerational contact and the sharing of faith journeys as components of spiritual development.
Finally we note that in Deuteronomy 6 there is a hint of a suggestion of informality to the setting of faith formation activities, whether in family or community: “When you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” There are two implications. First, we are encouraged to recognize that spiritual formation opportunities (like “teachable moments”) can happen anywhere, anytime. Second, churches may wish to rethink the largely school-adapted nature of our Sunday school furnishings and other décor and consider arranging the physical spaces used for events of spiritual nurture in ways that are homey, comfortable and conversation enhancing.
By placing faith formation at the center of our mission, the leadership of Mennonite Church USA is advancing a truly biblical priority. As conferences and congregations, camps and classes, youth groups and families consider pathways for spiritual development, it is helpful to have biblical models to guide our disciple-making.
The models presented here are certainly not the only possible biblical constructions. Moreover, they are conceptual models; each of them requires nuts-and-bolts refinement as well as contextualization in order to become actual Christian formation strategies in particular settings.
Today we are witnessing an explosion of interest in and resources for Christian spiritual formation: conferences, seminars, retreats, training institutes, workshops, organizations such as Renovare and Aprentis, websites, and new publisher imprints such as Formatio. The title Pastor of Spiritual Formation is appearing regularly on church staffs. All these show there’s a hunger for spiritual formation. May our efforts fall “like showers on new growth” (Deuteronomy 32:2).
Dave Stevens is pastor at Eden Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan.