Christ calls people to discipleship in the world — in their daily lives wherever that may be — but sometimes sermons and pastors' personal stories send a different, and unintended, message.
I never would have thought that one of the the most disastrous things I could do as a pastor would be to tell my story! As a seminary student at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS), I was strongly encouraged and rigorously required to tell my story over and over again. From the biographical essay submitted with the application for admission to the final endorsement essay at the end of senior year, I had to tell my story — my call story — again and again in numerous contexts, for various reasons.
Through repeated telling, I came to own that story. I have told it again and again in the parish: in Bible studies, in confirmation class, from the pulpit, and in casual conversation. It's a good story, if I do say so myself. It's a story of estrangement and redemption, of being lost and being found. It's a story of one man's persuasive personal experience of God's powerful life-changing presence in his life. It's a story about answering God's calling. And I've used it time and time again in what I have hoped is an inspiring example of faithful discipleship.
When I preached recently on Ephesians 4, I felt inspired to tell that story again in all its splendid detail. As I pondered Paul's words to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called" (v. 1) and focused on the question, when have you felt called by God? I knew, I just knew, that there was nothing better I could do in that night's sermon than share my own call story.
So I told the story about my prayers being miraculously answered when, after a night of fervently begging God to reveal the divine plan for my life, an information packet from one of our church's seminaries (complete with application form) arrived in the mail the very next day. I told about the total stranger who approached me completely out of the blue, telling me, "You should be a preacher, stop running from the Lord!" I shared how his words cut me to the heart, resonating with my own inner feelings of doubt and indecision. I told about the many people in my home congregation who shared their words of affirmation, encouraging me to become a pastor. I shared how frightening and fulfilling it was to take that leap of faith and how blessed I feel to stand where I am today, blessed in having answered the calling to which I have been called. I wrapped up my story with the nonrhetorical question, "So how have you felt called by God?"
Confident that I had inspiringly opened the door to excited conversation, I watched in ever increasing horror as the congregation sat in total silence. Even those who normally are quick to respond with wise observations or witty insights had absolutely nothing to say. All hopes for an insightful conversation were quickly deflated as my dialog-sermon fell absolutely flat. "Why don't these people feel called?" I thought. "Don't they know that God has called them?"
Fast forward to a Bible study later in the year during which I led a group of men in conversation about the Old Testament prophets and their proclamation of God's judgment and promise. We were reflecting on the prophetic message that the people have turned their backs on Yahweh, on the covenant, and have been unfaithful to Yahweh by worshiping other gods. Our conversation turned to the present and questions such as when have we modern-day Christians become so shaped and molded by the surrounding culture that we have turned our backs on God? Where is that line, and how do we know we have crossed it? How do we remain faithful in answering the call of God?
With visible, heartfelt sincerity, one younger man, a medical professional, began to tell of his own struggle. He told the group of his strong desire to faithfully follow Jesus, to be faithful to his calling by leaving everything behind, denying himself, taking up the cross, and following our Lord. But he has a family to care for, financial responsibilities, pressing realities in this material world that keep him from answering God's call — seemingly making it impossible to be faithful to the calling to which he has been called.
A Worthy Call?
In that moment, lightning struck as it occurred to me that perhaps our people, the folks in the pews on any given Sunday, know that they are called. They know that we are all to live a life worthy of God's calling. They acknowledge our Lord's blatant insistence that each individual leave everything, take up the cross, and follow him. And they recognize all the many and various ways that they have fallen short and failed to be faithful to that calling. Some, perhaps many, would dive into a life of radical discipleship, renouncing all worldly possessions and responsibilities in order to give fully to God and the church of all their time, talents, and possessions. They would do that in order to lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called. But life's realities of family, home, career, and more make that impossible. Therefore, perhaps many truly and honestly are in a severe quandary, wondering what to do, not knowing how to answer God's call or how to live out their faith on a daily basis.
If this is indeed the case, then it would seem that we pastors have done a very poor job of helping our people understand and respond to their calling. Someone once told me that if we set the bar too low, people will trip on it and fall. If we set the bar high enough, they will leap over it and soar. These are wise words. However, if our people cannot see the bar, they won't even jump, because it's unclear in which direction they are to soar.
I wonder if we pastors have created this quagmire of uncertainty and guilt-ridden indecision. Perhaps the telling of our grand and miraculous call stories, combined with a traditional congregation-centered picture of discipleship, has created a culture in which real discipleship is only that which has the congregation or the church as its focus. Perhaps in using our own stories as examples of discipleship, we have unintentionally put ourselves on a pedestal, sending the false message that only pastors and other rostered leaders are called.
I think we need to be much more aware of how our words and examples might be interpreted. We need to intentionally focus on encouraging people in their own personal callings out there in the world — in their homes, their workplaces, their daily vocations. The church is not necessarily the place where discipleship happens but the place where disciples are born. It's the place where disciples are empowered for mission and ministry in the world, in daily life; even at home, at school, at work.
Following God "out there" where people are, that's radical discipleship. And that's being faithful to the calling to which all of us have been called. We owe it to our people to equip them for this kind of discipleship, so that they may indeed leap over the bar and soar as if on eagle's wings.
But how do we do this? That's the million dollar question. How can pastors equip people so that they're empowered to live life in response to their God-given calling?
I think we begin by forming close personal relationships with our people. We must know our people! If we have no relationship with our people, they will not believe or trust the call to discipleship that God extends and we proclaim. Relationships are formed through contact, conversation, visitation, and presence. In some ministry contexts this will look like "old-fashioned" home visits. But it may also look like e-mails, phone calls, or even text messaging. Different generations of people experience a sense of connection in different ways. Pastors need to speak the diverse connective languages that our individual parishioners speak.
As we form close personal relationships with our people, we can affirm their individual personal call to discipleship, as well as the spiritual gifts God has given them in order that they may answer that call. This is perhaps the more appropriate context in which to share our own call stories — that is, our own experiences of wrestling with the sense of call, as well as sharing the means of discernment that worked for us. This act of sharing with Christian brothers and sisters, with whom we have personal relationships, removes the pedestal, and provides for mutual caring conversation which will facilitate one-on-one spiritual direction.
- Frogs Without Legs Can't Hear: Nurturing Disciples in Home and Congregation, by David Anderson and Paul Hill (Augsburg Fortress, 2003).
- From the Great Omission to Vibrant Faith: The Role of the Home in Renewing the Church, by David Anderson (Vibrant Faith Publishing, 2009).
- Reclaiming the "C" Word: Daring to be Church Again, by Kelly A. Fryer (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).
- Taking Faith Home. A congregational resource from Vibrant Faith Ministries (formerly The Youth and Family Institute).
An essential element of this conversation is permission-giving: giving permission to our people to minister, and permission to be engaged in ministry outside of the four walls of the church building. Essentially, this is taking the bold step of no longer playing the "guilt trip" card by highlighting discipleship failures, but instead proclaiming a gospel message of discipleship giftedness and empowerment. This is essential because our people who are busy will often hear the call to discipleship as just "one more thing" to add to an already full plate. In reality, though, the life of discipleship is a calling lived all day everyday, wherever the Christian finds oneself. It is not one more thing to take on, but the entirety of what and who we are called to be. We are freed in our baptism to live this life to the fullest, not just on Sunday, but each day; not only at church, but at home, work, school, everywhere.
Therefore, Christian ministry is, and must be, a partnership between pastors and people, and congregations and households. It is a partnership that sets its sights on transforming lives with the gospel, inside and outside the four walls of the congregation.
While the most effective place for this spiritual direction is in personal relationships, it can and should permeate everything pastors do and participate in: preaching, teaching, sermons, Bible studies, classes, newsletter articles, blogs, daily conversations, and small talk. In this way, pastors must "scatter the seed." However, pastors must also tend to and cultivate the emerging plant as the seed sprouts and grows. This cultivation must be done in small groups and one-on-one; for not all people are at the same place in their faith journey.
Jeff Elmquist is associate pastor for youth and family ministry, Bethany Lutheran Church, Rice Lake, Wisconsin.
Simple, Powerful Tool
I have found one very simple, yet powerful tool to help move Christians toward the kind of discipleship I have written about: the "four keys to practicing faith" as presented by Vibrant Faith Ministries (formerly known as The Youth and Family Institute).
Embedded in this tool is the idea that faith is lived daily through the "four key" practices of caring conversations, devotions, service, and rituals/traditions. These "keys" give a simple way for how to answer the call to discipleship. I have made these practices a part of my preaching and teaching on a weekly, and even a daily basis.
No longer do I find myself struggling to find examples for how people can live out their discipleship. The examples are right there:
- caring conversations which help disciples to share their stories, express love and forgiveness, and affirm the gifts and abilities of others in the congregation, workplace, and home;
- devotions which enable disciples to spend time with God in prayer, reading, meditation, and the "practice of the presence of God" through listening, watching, and waiting for God;
- service through which disciples put their faith into action through deeds done on behalf of others; and
- rituals and traditions which help touch and transform disciples through the means of grace and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit who refreshes, renews, and empowers disciples to answer God's call.
Each of these Four Keys can be fleshed out in various ways and take on different forms as they meet people where they are in their various places and stations in life. At the congregation where I serve, the Four Keys are lifted up every week in the Taking Faith Home insert which is in the bulletin and provides individuals and families suggestions for how to practice faith throughout the week.
Pastors and people have found that the efficacy of the Four Keys in empowering individuals, families, and the congregation for discipleship is limited only by each pastor's and lay person's creativity which, when open to the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit, is limitless.
This article appeared in the January / February 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 1).