“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”
To grow up into Christ means to become more and more Christlike in the things we say and do, to become more and more like Christ in who we are. There are many ways to express this idea in scripture, including clothing ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14), being crucified with Christ so that Christ can live in us (Galatians 2:20), and letting the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Growth is a central emphasis of Wesleyan theology. In a sermon about Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” Wesley asks, “Are you transformed, by the renewal of your mind, into the image of him that created you? Then you cannot be conformed to the present world. You have renounced all its affections and lusts. Are you conformed to the world? Does your soul still bear the image of the earthly? Then you are not renewed in the spirit of your mind. You do not bear the image of the heavenly.”
To be transformed into the image of God is a daunting thought, isn’t it? For Wesley, humanity is created in the image of God, but sin has caused the distortion of that image. Thus, salvation is the gradual process of formation that renews that image within us. The process is known as “sanctification,” a movement that is empowered by grace and shaped by our participation with God in the process itself. It is a cooperative effort that leads us to Christian perfection, being so completely filled with God’s love that sin no longer has any place in our lives.
“…into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped,…promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
As personal growth happens, the community grows also. It is impossible to separate one from the other. Scripture contains many different expressions of this truth, also. The most familiar might be the metaphor of the body that is comprised of many members (Romans 12:4, 1 Corinthians 12:12). The community of faith is continually instructed to build one another up, to encourage one another. Acts 2 describes an initial church that shared “all things in common.”
To borrow an ancient analogy, if I am standing a great distance away from another person, and we both take a step toward the same point, we will end up a bit closer to one another, also. So it is in our spiritual growth; as we draw closer to Christ, we draw closer to one another at the same time. When we move toward a common destination, we get closer to each other no matter from where it is we start.
I think Jesus was alluding to this when he responded to the question about the greatest commandment. Having been asked to name one single commandment that would trump all the rest, Jesus proceeded to offer two: Love God and love your neighbor. He even went as far as to say that the two were similar, that they closely resembled one another. 1 John says it even more directly. If you say you love God but do not love other people, you are a liar.
And so it seems to me that discipleship growth has to be both personal and communal. The church practice that focuses on the personal is “Faith Development” and the church practice that focuses on the communal is “Fellowship.” Healthy discipleship means intentionally seeking growth opportunities in these two ministry areas.
Intentionality is important. I am not describing random tidbits that we pick up here and there. That’s always fun, and a good thing, when you just happen to hear something new, something you hadn’t thought of before or had never heard before. It’s almost always a good thing to meet a random stranger and strike up a pleasant conversation with them while waiting for the bus or standing in line at the store. Healthy discipleship calls for intentional growth.
And so, in examining your own discipleship it is wise to ask yourself what specific efforts you are making to grow each day, each week, and throughout the year. In terms of Faith Development, what books are you reading, what class(es) are you attending, what online resources are you exploring, what Bible Study(-ies) are you participating in, and so forth? In terms of Fellowship, what special church events have you attended, what conversations have you had with other disciples in your community, what new friendships have you developed, what longtime friendships have you nurtured?
And from a congregational perspective, what opportunities are being offered for Faith Development? Is there a variety of classes available, at a variety of times? Is the content of what is being offered appropriate and conducive to healthy spiritual growth? Is there a good congregational website that connects people to good online content? Is there a library of resources readily available for people in the congregation to seek out that personal growth?
And in terms of Fellowship, does the congregation value community free time in which people are able to simply be together for no other purpose than to nurture their relationships? Are there special events in the calendar planned to allow for people to really get to know one another? Do the administrative meetings of the teams and committees include times of relationship building and development of trust for one another?
Growth is always an important part of healthy discipleship. Sometimes it is hard; we seem to grow in fits and spurts. Sometimes we slip backwards a few steps before finding our footing and moving forward again. Some seasons feel totally static, like our spiritual lives have been somehow immobilized. This is all natural, and it happens to every Christian disciple from time to time.
The idea is to affirm the importance of intentional growth for Christian disciples, both personally and communally. It may not happen as smoothly as we would like, but somehow, when we put ourselves in places that are conducive to growth, we often discover that we grow. Imagine that!
Is the pattern of your life conducive to growth? How do you need to adjust it so that it is?