"Life in Christ Is Exciting!"
by Gretchen E. Ritola (January / February 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 1)
How discipleship occurs among Christians in rural America who are immersed in the Word and whose faith is integrated with their everyday world
Matthew's gospel alone carries the life-changing words of Jesus which have inspired the church for centuries: Go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20).
Three writers, from rural, suburban, and urban contexts, describe what that means now and in the foreseeable future. The articles are "Life in Christ Is Exciting!" by Gretchen E. Ritola, Membership or Discipleship? by John F. Bradosky, and Multiplying Leadership by Eva Gallardo.
One of my colleagues ends every written communication with "Life in Christ is exciting!" This is certainly true in rural and small-town congregations, where discipleship permeates the foundation and response of people's lives.
Colossians 3:16-17 says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." In John 8:31 we read, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples."
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." "Continue in my word." Disciples can be defined as those who sit at the feet of the Master and learn, so that they can walk in the way of the Master in their daily lives. The transformation of a congregation from "members" to "disciples" occurs as people are immersed in the Word and have opportunities to reflect on how that Word impacts their lives.
Changing the Questions
There is something very powerful that happens when people commit themselves to reading Scripture daily and when those who are leaders and teachers in the congregation engage in Bible study and prayer on a regular basis. This moves people from the question of "What do we want to do?" to the question of "What would God have us do?" or "Where do we see God working in our midst, and how do we participate in that work?" When people change the questions they ask, possibilities are opened, and ministry moves in new and exiting directions.
Small groups, where people meet on a regular basis to share concerns and prayers and to study Scripture, have real impact and are possible in any size congregation. Intergenerational groupings for Sunday School and other gatherings are also effective. This is practical where there may not be a large number of people in any one age group. It is a good format for people to learn from one another's experiences — to learn from the wisdom and perspective of the older people and from the openness to all possibilities found in the youngest children. Intergenerational gatherings also help to remind people that learning is a lifelong process.
|When people have opportunities and resources for immersing themselves in the Word, where there are relationships and conversations that connect the Word of God to people's everyday lives, where there is a recognition in daily lives of God's loving and gracious presence and activity, where that recognition flows into a sharing with others — there people's lives are transformed to lives of discipleship.|
Worship services are another opportunity for immersion in the Word. This happens when Scripture is powerfully proclaimed and when the preaching relates that Scripture to the situations of people's daily lives.
Sharing the Word and its relevance becomes possible in context, in being out among the people. When time is spent with people in their homes, where they work, at community events, and in being present wherever they spend their daily lives, one begins to see the situations that impact their daily lives, especially in a culture where things seem to be changing so rapidly. As relationships of caring and trust are built, people may venture to share the questions that are part of their lives. This opens the opportunity to share with people where the Word of God intersects with those questions.
As people are immersed in the Word of God, they live the words of Colossians 3:17, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus." They become immersed in awareness of the presence and activity of God and awareness of the grace of God inherent in God's presence and activity. When people become immersed in such awareness of God's grace-ful presence, they are moved to live out of that grace and share that presence with others. As those who receive this sharing in turn become aware of God's presence and love and then respond themselves, a cycle of experiencing and sharing God grows in the community.
Discipleship as Process
This sharing is a vital aspect of discipleship that intersects with evangelism. Discipleship is more a process than a program. It is evident in members' caring for one another through prayers, visits, phone calls, cards, and meals when someone is ill or where death has impacted a family. It is evident when people give their time to take care of someone else's fields or livestock, or to care for someone else's home or need for groceries, often before they have taken care of their own business. It is evident when they become aware of a need beyond their own community and give generously to that need.
It is important to hold up what people do and define it as discipleship. If people are simply told they need to be disciples, they may not always know what that means. But if it is pointed out how they are already doing the work of discipleship in concrete ways, they will begin to see that as a natural part of their lives. Congregations are strongest where people see their daily lives in the context of discipleship.
Ephesians 4:11-12 reminds us that God has given gifts to people that are carried out in a variety of roles, but for one purpose: for "equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ." In rural and small-town settings, where there are often frequent changes in pastoral leadership, this strength inherent in the gifts of the people becomes a real foundation of stability to the congregation and community.
What is a realistically possible vision for discipleship in rural and small-town settings? When people have opportunities and resources for immersing themselves in the Word, where there are relationships and conversations that connect the Word of God to people's everyday lives, where there is a recognition in daily lives of God's loving and gracious presence and activity, where that recognition flows into a sharing with others — there people's lives are transformed to lives of discipleship, and in their web of relationships this transformation touches far more people than most ever realize.
And that is exciting!
Gretchen E. Ritola, of Emerson, Nebraska, is pastor of St. Luke and St. Paul Lutheran Churches.
Some good resources for rural and small town congregations include:Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregations,
by David Poling-Goldenne and L. Shannon Jung (Augsburg Fortress, 2001)Rural Congregational Studies: A Guide for Good Shepherds
, by L. Shannon Jung and Mary A. Agira (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1997).Studying Congregations: A New Handbook
by Nancy T. Ammerman, Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William KcKinney, eds. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1998).