How can Fellowship Baptists frame the mission and ministry of congregations around the life of Jesus, the One we follow?
By Terry Maples,
Field Coordinator, CBF Virginia
Christ-‐followers today look to the life, teachings, and practices of Jesus to frame their discipleship efforts. Jesus was shaped and formed by his Jewish roots, as were early Christian communities. Upon reading the stories of early New Testament churches, one thing is apparent: no singular set of spiritual practices informed community life, i.e. this is the one and only way to organize and conduct our common life together. That said, we can be reasonably sure community practices took their cues from Judaism.
The Jesus movement and the first Christian communities flowed out of Jewish and Hebrew understandings. Early believers embraced a covenant relationship with God through Jesus and they embodied the imperatives of Israel’s community practices. Dorothy C. Bass, in Practicing Our Faith, identifies these imperatives (p. 125, bullets added for emphasis):
- to redress social inequities,
- protect the vulnerable,
- keep the power of privilege in check and under critique,
- steward gifts of earth as a God-‐given trust held in common,
- extend hospitality to the stranger and sojourner, and
- consider the enemy’s welfare on the same terms as one’s own.
While some formal practices of Judaism were left behind, Jesus’ teachings regarding wealth, poverty, and justice for the poor were preserved as essential components of the Gospel. Jesus turned the people’s understanding of power and wealth upside down – the greatest is the one who serves (Luke 22:24-‐27). Pride of rank is rejected; all come equally to the table!
All are included; God shows no favoritism.
More than 2,000 years later, do our faith communities reflect the rich Jewish heritage Jesus practiced and modeled? As Christianity gained status, leadership began to change and by the fourth century some of Jesus’ teachings were disintegrating. Again I turn to Dorothy Bass (p. 127, bullets added for emphasis):
To state it without nuance:
- stability won out over change,
- hierarchy prevailed over egalitarianism,
- male-‐held office triumphed over gender equality,
- power was more centralized than dispersed, and
- social, political, and economic privilege lodged with the few rather than the many.
What happens when the radical impulses birthed by Jesus lose their hold on his disciples? Saying things are much more complex today and avoiding the reflection necessary to address the gap between Jesus’ teachings and our practices is simplistic and side-‐steps the difficult and time-‐consuming work of theological reflection. Honest reading of scripture reveals the early church’s context was riddled with many extremes—not unlike the ones we face today. Into a violent, multi-‐cultural, and chaotic world the first Christians brought unique practices honed by Jewish heritage and the Jesus’ Way.
Faith communities have a tendency to “institutionalize” ways of being and doing church. What is lost on us is that early Christians were full of faith and willing to experiment with inherited practices and traditions they brought with them from their Jewish roots. Communities comprised of people from all echelons of society invited everyone to participate. Each one’s unique gifts and abilities focused on human needs. Early Christians were comfortable initiating new practices they believed were congruent with the life and teachings of Jesus. Ongoing reflection and adaptability kept these Spirit-‐led disciples pliable and open to being shaped and formed in new ways as required by their context.
One of the reasons I love CBF’s Big Idea—Forming Together—is its inherent call for Christ-‐ followers today to remain open to Spirit’s leadership. Believers must consent to being transformed (no longer the same) in order to develop the spiritual vitality necessary to address today’s circumstances.
Most of us have been shaped and formed by Christianity in the West, and for many of us, by a Deep South understanding of what defines Christianity. Faith practices along with life experiences make us who we are and form our expectations for what it means to be a Christ-‐follower. I believe many of us are ready to confess our faith is incompletely formed and needs conversion. When our declarations of faith separate from authentic discipleship (the process of becoming like Jesus in thought, word, and deed) faithfulness is reduced to being “good” church members. Shaping loyal church members is not a bad thing per se but focuses on minimal expectations and not on exhibiting God’s character. Clinging to what no longer works in church-‐life results in consumer mentality instead of covenant fidelity. Followers who seek and work for what they want have misunderstood and distorted what life in community means. We must change our flawed thinking and seek conversion. Today’s church needs new practices to help us get disconnected from culture-‐driven goals that yield individualistic faith. We must exercise both inward and outward transformation. We need practices that call us to participate in making justice “flow like a river.”
What exactly is a practice? Dorothy Bass says, “Christian practices are things Christian people do together over time in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.” Some people call these spiritual disciplines. I prefer “practice” because the word is more accessible to the average person. For example, the Winter Olympic Games are underway at the time I’m writing. I love the human-‐interest stories that help us understand the years of practice necessary to compete on the international stage. Coaches often say, “Practice does not make perfect; practice makes patterned” and develops muscle memory.
As one who played high school basketball, I know from experience this is true. I practiced thousands of free throws that enabled me to shoot over 80% in games.
Every congregation has practices. We have patterned ways of doing things, and the patterns teach (for good and bad). For example, worship is practiced in every congregation. Practices evolve around worship, and we send powerful and formative messages by how we worship, who can lead worship, who can proclaim during worship….you get the message. If a woman is never allowed to preach, your practice teaches it is inappropriate for a woman to preach in “our” pulpit. If youth only provide worship leadership on Youth Sunday, we send a powerful message about the role of young people in worship. If we stay away when the senior pastor is out, we communicate our personality-‐driven worship loudly and clearly.
So, you see, practices do make patterned. We confess many of our practices are so ingrained we are oblivious about what we teach or fail to teach. Churches today must re-‐ appropriate their rich heritage and intentionally and imaginatively bring practices into conversation with the world in which we live. We need new practices to reawaken our imagination. We need new practices to discern fresh ways of embodying Christian faith for today. New practices are essential to challenge old practices that settled into institutional think and culturally driven understandings. New practices can enable people to be more faithfully committed to Jesus.
Look once more at the two lists from Dorothy Bass. Which one describes the practices of your congregation? Faithfulness today demands we re-‐appropriate the Jesus approach. Without this re-‐evaluation, we run the risk of reducing the Gospel to something manageable but less faithful.
Our highly individualistic society has forgotten, sometimes marginalized, the imperatives coming out of our rich heritage. What drove Jewish understanding was their conviction the world is a whole and everything is an interconnected web designed by God. For early believers everything fit together like a puzzle—each piece touching the other to create the big picture. The price we have paid for neglecting this vision of interconnectedness is obvious: social exploitation denies humans their God-‐given dignity and the myriad ways we fail to care for God’s good creation. Fake substitutes and “us vs. them” thinking separate and evaluate/judge based on cultural standards and severely limits our capacity to love neighbor as we love God. False messages that elevate one issue (like the economy, national security, race, sexual orientation, ideology, etc.) are opposite the huge heart and mind of the Savior of the World. Our myopic vision fools us into believing it is okay to destroy for gain or a perceived “nobler” goal. It never is…. Christ-followers must know their heritage, their current context, and where they are going for God. Believers will never be uniform in how we handle life’s challenges. We will never be of one mind in all matters of faith. We won’t live out our Christian mandate in exactly the same ways. Therefore, we need practices that tether us to Jesus and help us embrace God’s all-‐consuming love.