In this series on Open your Window, we have been looking at why so few Christians have wide-open windows of faith as demonstrated by their lives. We have seen how anxiety in our culture and the Christian’s reaction to stress has reduced their ability to live by faith as demonstrated through Covid. The last factor which I want to deal with is the way churches function today. The scripture portrays followers of Christ as different from others who are not in love with Jesus. The scriptures also portray churches as the means to develop these disciples.
What are disciples?
These apprentices or disciples of Christ live differently. Their lives are typified by contentment, so they are not bothered when they don’t get their way; they know their Lord is in control.
- They believe things will work out despite circumstances, not because of them. This results from their faith in a sovereign God.
- They are full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control which produces healthy relationships with all people.
- They are loving with those who are like them as well as those who are very different.
- They live their lives in such a way that there are no secrets and others are drawn to them because of their vibrancy for life.
- Finally, they freely demonstrate compassion with others, so they freely share what they have and know with them.
2 Peter 1.3-8 states it this way:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Peter 1.3-8
Peter tells us that the lives of Christians would be demonstratively distinctive from others whose lives have not been transformed by Christ. He echoes what Jesus tells his followers throughout the gospels and what Paul writes in his letters (see Colossians 3.1-17). The entire New Testament is written to followers of Christ whose lives are being transformed from the inside out. Their lives are qualitatively different.
When we come into the transformative relationship with this Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ we become new creatures. Paul says simply, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5.17). Jesus knew, that if the heart were transplanted, then the externals would demonstrate the inner transformation. Paul and the remaining apostles understood this, however, others tried to make this new life about managing the external rather than transforming the internal.
Paul reiterated this transformation presence and power of Christ when he writes: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Galatians 6.15). Paul states that it is not the external (what we do), but the internal (this new creation) which makes the immediate and eternal difference.
Do churches produce disciples?
Churches today too often drift in the same direction as they did in Paul’s day. They tend toward sin management rather than heart transformations. There is a tremendous difference between the two. The difference is as followers of Christ we are to be transformed by the Spirit within our hearts. This is a qualitative process; we are literally changed from within.
On the other hand, sin management is where we attempt to control our behavior through teaching, guilt, or peer pressure. We tend to agree or hang around with people who act like us because we find affirmation in the way we behave. Behavior becomes the product of our will rather than the extension of our heart.
So why do most churches fall into a sin management approach?
In the short term, it is much easier to measure change in behavior rather than change of one’s heart. Through programs and scripted approaches, individuals can be produced who conform to norms of behavior. As a church grows, it is simply easier to offer programs to change behavior through ministries for parenting, students, small children, singles, retirees, marrieds, single moms, serving the poor, tutoring, building healthy relationships, managing finances, dating, collegiates, pre-marital, grief recovery, mentoring…etc. The list of potential ministries goes on and on as our churches grow in their resources and impact.
Don’t hear this as condemning any of these ministries. My concern is that too often we are trying to teach individuals to behave in a specific arena of life, rather than developing a heart that is solely focused on loving God and others. As our hearts are thus transformed, we can then let our loving behavior flow out of that into every arena in which we find ourselves.
How are disciples produced?
There are several deep Christian thinkers who have challenged and helped me process this question. All of them believe in the church and were committed to the church thriving in their generation. Most of them died trying to help the church produce disciples. Before I give you a list, let me suggest disciples are made in close connection with other disciples. It is in the context of close relationships that the submission to and the love of Christ is manifested in another’s heart. It comes from exercising the heart muscles in the love of God and the love of others that life change occurs.
Furthermore, as different as each of us are in our history, personality, and appearances; so we are different in the manner our heart is transformed. In other words, you can conform one’s behavior to a norm through a program containing large numbers of people. But if you want to transform another’s heart with the love of God, then you must walk with them through life and live with them in the midst. This simply doesn’t fit the program-driven church model which is so popular today and so different from what the New Testament paints for a local body of believers.
I am not surprised when the apprentices who are developed in a program-driven model fail to believe that their lives are secure in Christ regardless of circumstances. Nor am I surprised when they cannot love those who are much different from themselves or serve those who are mean to them. Their will can not overcome their heart’s desire, which is to protect themselves. There has been little heart transformation.
Here is a very short list of books I have read (or reread) during the last three years which have caused me to rethink “HOW” we do church today in light of what I have observed around me. This list is by no means exhaustive and surely has built upon many of the great works I have read by other Christian thinkers throughout my last 50 years. However, they kickstarted my thinking on how our churches today struggle to make disciples as the New Testament describes. They are not organized, structured, focused, or evaluated to produce apprentices of Christ.
- The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. Christ’s desire for his followers is for their hearts to be transformed so their lives and behaviors naturally flow from an agape-shaped heart. And how the Church can produce such disciples.
- Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. How is the heart transformed to love God above all else and live in proper relationships with others? He gives guidance into spiritual formation and heart transformation.
- Life without Lack by Dallas Willard. What does Psalm 23 teach us about how our faith and lives can be fulfilling and content in Christ?
- Hearing God by Dallas Willard. God desires a relationship with us and thus designed us to be in communication with him, so how do we hear from God? In other words, how do we live our lives in constant communication with him?
- Preparing for Heaven by Gary Black. So how should we live if we know and believe that we will one day die? What will death and life after death be like? Gary walks us through Dallas Willard’s final moments on earth to illustrate Dallas’ teaching on these subjects.
- Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God by Larry Osborne. Larry dismantles many of the sacred cows in the local church surrounding spiritual growth. He highlights how often churches unbiblically attempt to conform behavior. As a pastor with a passion for growing disciples, his observations are especially poignant.
- Simply Christian by NT Wright. Wright outlines why the workings of the created world are echoes of the God of the universe. And the greatest experience in life comes through experiencing love and intimacy with others. These yearnings are ultimately fulfilled in knowing God’s love, which we must engage with him.
- The Way by E. Stanley Jones. 365 Devotionals to walk one through how to experience life as Christ intended us to live out of our relationship with him
- The Way to Power and Poise by E. Stanley Jones. 365 Devotionals to demonstrate the power and poise of Christ in our everyday lives.
- Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Petersen. Petersen says it best when he writes, “There comes a time for most of us when we discover a deep desire within us to live from the heart what we already know in our heads and do with our hands.” The book describes how this is done.
- Unoffendable by Brant Hansen. As a Christian radio talk show host, Brant is public on how we must be different from those around us. With a great deal of wit, courage, authenticity, and wisdom he shares how his heart had to be transformed to not be offended by many callous or crazy listeners. As Christians, we can also emulate Brant’s journey.
- The Pursuit of God by AW Tozer. Christians are intended to live their lives in conscious awareness of God’s presence. We are to enjoy this pursuit which results from experiencing God’s presence throughout our lives. He is pursuing this kind of intimacy with us.
My prayer is that all of us will first see others who can help us open our windows of faith and as we do, we too will take on the responsibility to help those God brings into our lives to do the same. We simply cannot keep doing the same thing that we have always done in our lives or in the church and expect different results. We must change how we and our churches function. May these books and these blogs give us the wisdom to know what and how to change.