St. Francis of Assisi once said, “True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.” I’m discovering this idea to be helpful as I investigate my own journey of Christian formation.
Much of the discussion of orchestrating Christian formation in the local church in N. American seems to be adapted from cultural expectations. Some speak of a discipleship path, a four-phase process that any member can follow to ensure Christian maturity. The authors of Willowcreek’s Move, the solution to REVEAL’s problems, compare Christian growth to graduating from high school, passing through four phases (like four grades) to arrive at the destination. I don’t know about you, I’ve found a lot of high school graduates that don’t act like they’ve emerged into adulthood, but have found a way to pass through the different requirements, by the skin of their teeth.
Another rendering of Christian formation has more of a pessimistic tone. I read a blog post recently that said, in hyperbolic theorizing, “If I take my eyes of the gospel for one minute, I know that I am doomed.” A popular Acts 29 pastor’s version of Gospel-centered discipleship promotes “fight clubs” or small groups that help his congregation/friends be real about their struggles. In my opinion, “fight clubs” promote an acute martyrdom, “we are taking sin seriously, unlike these folks over here… we go to a fight club.” This author shared a case study from a “fight club” in which he confessed that he appeared to be converted by the gospel for the 1000th time. (Really: it didn’t stick before… maybe it is the gospel you are rehearsing) It is interesting how sometimes our talk of transformation appears to say, “It’s all up to God… and it is all up to me.” Which is it? As I mentioned earlier, the undertone of pessimism of whether growth can really happen at all without a ferocious focus on the gospel every minute or fight clubs is disturbing and impossible to maintain. It usually leads to guilt or cranky legalism.
Dallas Willard provides a different approach. He says that Christian formation is “relaxed obedience.” This does not imply one does not apply practices in character formation. Willard is famous for the axiom, “effort (towards Christlikeness) is not earning (as if someone is trying to earn favor from God).” Willard employs numerous practices and rhythms to stimulate Christian formation. Willard notes that growth is rarely recognized in the moment, which is God’s design. If we could measure growth in the moment, we’d be tempted to say it was something we did, like keeping our eyes on the gospel every minute, attending a fight club, or graduating through the discipleship path.
John Ortberg is helpful, here, as well. Ortberg argues that there is a flow that helps create the qualities of a follower of Jesus. This flow is something that one can step in and out of, regardless of their maturity “level.” This flow is the work of the Spirit, whose main objective is to make us fit for God’s new heavens and new earth. The Spirit provides us justification in the present (the hope that we are in Christ and therefore, in the right before God). Because we have justification presently, we should already begin to act like we are in the new kingdom in the present, as well. Christians find themselves in a time-warp, enjoying the bliss of a future kingdom, currently, all the while engaging in training to enjoy it fully in the age to come. Therefore, the flow is a good image to consider while engaging this time-warp.
The flow appears to answer the awkwardness of the graduation option, and is more optimistic about the work of Christ is our lives than the ferocious “not so sure where I stand with God unless I lose my voice during prayer or allow my accountability partner to lose his temper while confronting me about my sin” idea.
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“Relaxed obedience…” my favorite phrase of St. Dallas!