I have been writing to you about the book The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations by Robert Schnase. Previously, I have discussed the concepts of “radical hospitality” and “passionate worship.” The next concept is “intentional faith development.” Let’s consider what that means.
Intentional Faith Development
Vibrant, fruitful, growing congregations practice intentional faith development. Christ’s gracious invitation through radical hospitality invites and welcomes us, and God’s transforming presence in passionate worship opens our hearts to Christ’s pardon, love and grace, creating in us a desire to follow. Growing in Christ requires more than weekly worship through, and it is through intentional faith development that God’s spirit works in us, perfecting us in the practice of love as we grow in the knowledge and love of God. Learning in community replicates the way Jesus deliberately taught his disciples. Jesus taught in community so that we would learn to discover his presence in others. The practice of learning in community gives disciples a network of support, encouragement and direction as we seek to grow in Christ. As we consciously appropriate the stories of faith with others, we discover that our questions, doubts, temptations and missteps are not unusual – but are part of the journey. Others help us interpret God’s Word for our lives. The fruit of the spirit that we see in Christ cannot be learned apart from a network of relationships. In the intimacy of small groups, we learn not only from writers and thinkers and people of the past through scripture and books, but we also learn from mentors and models and fellow travelers in our congregation. We give and receive the care of Christ by praying for one another, supporting each other through periods of grief and difficulty, and celebrating one another’s joys and hopes. The sanctifying grace of God bears the human face of our fellow disciples. Additionally, learning in community provides accountability for our faith journeys; by covenanting together, we stay stronger in our convictions and habits.
Story – “The Middle Doors”
The pastor and staff of a mid-sized congregation noticed that while the church received many new visitors and a high percentage of them were joining the church, nevertheless attendance remained steady month after month. For several years, the church had seen growth in attendance, and they couldn’t figure out why it was leveling off now. The church practiced hospitality with excellence, with visitors and new members feeling welcomed at worship and into membership. But then, after a few months, visitors and new members would drift away, become less consistent in attendance, and fall away altogether. To understand the situation better, the pastor visited with some members who had joined in the last several months.
He discovered that people felt welcomed and supported when they first visited the church, and continued to feel a sense of belonging in worship. But when they tried to become part of Sunday School classes, men’s organizations, choirs, and Bible studies, the groups felt cliquish and uninterested in welcoming new people. Even after some months of trying, they felt at the margins in these small groups and ministries. One woman said, “Before I moved here, I was the kitchen chief in my old church for years. I didn’t expect to do that again here, but I hoped to join the cooking team. When I showed up to help with dinner, they handed me napkins and told me put them on the tables, and then I just stood around by myself the rest of the evening. I felt like they didn’t’ need me or want me.” The pastor and staff soon realized that the “front door” was working well as people felt welcomed and invited. But they were slipping out the “back door” because they were discovering that too many of the “middle doors” were closed tight. They began a series of teaching events and lessons in the adult classes, mission teams, service organizations, choirs, and Bible studies to try to move the culture of hospitality deeper into the life of the church. After some months, they noticed that the small groups began to grow, and with them, worship attendance began to trend up again. Most new members will not feel like they really belong to the church until they find meaningful connections in small groups beyond the worship experience.
Are our church’s “middle doors” open?
Intentional faith development uses the word “intentional” as it refers to deliberate effort, purposeful action toward an end, and high prioritization. It describes the practice that view the ministry of Christian education and formation, small group work, and Bible study as absolutely critical to their mission and that consistently offer opportunities for people of all ages, interests, and faith experiences to learn in community. The practices of the faith are too demanding without the support from others.
Insights into Intentional Faith Development:
- People want fellowship and to learn about the faith, but they have trouble squeezing it into their lives; creative scheduling and planning can help!
- Disciple Bible Study changes peoples’ lives.
Bible study changes churches. When church leaders take their own spiritual growth seriously and immerse themselves in scriptural study, in prayer, and in fellowship, they understand the purpose of the church and the point of ministry differently.
- We could consider breaking out of usual patterns and expectations of place, frequency and curriculum to reach new people.
- We could consider practicing Intentional Faith Development by offering home groups, “brown bag” lunch Bible studies, and other mid-week faith studies at a variety of times –focusing on the schedules/interests of the people they seek to serve.
- We could update current methods of communication about faith development studies.
We could start new groups based on visitors, new members and people not yet attending the Church.
- We could create classes/studies with special topics to attract the interest of unchurched people.
Question to ponder:
What kind of learning opportunity would you like to attend at UPCC if it were offered?
Grace and peace,