Where we’re headed: The future of the church in the United States, Part 3

In this third of four aspirational predictions, I’d like to suggest that the body of Christ will begin to understand that leaving the world better than we found it probably isn’t a goal that any of our plans are truly capable of achieving. If the world is not as it is supposed to be because of human rebellion and the desire to establish an order that seems to accord with human wisdom, does it make any sense that we will be able to solve the world’s problems through human effort? It seems unlikely. Does that mean we should stop trying? To quote the Apostle Paul, “May it never be!” (Romans 6:2).

What it means is that we must learn to be disciples.  After all, “We do not faithfully convey God to the world by fixing the world. We convey Him to the world by continuing to be faithful as we confront a world so broken only God can fix it.” (Spencer, Thinking Christian) Our aim is to comprehensively embody Christ in all of our practices. Perhaps one way of evaluating our practices is by looking at how we hang together as the body of Christ. Are we, for instance, engaged in practices that keep us from developing the sort of factions that would leave us following Apollos, Cephas, or Paul rather than being a unified body of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12)?

Prediction 3: The body of Christ will learn to be disciples, giving us new ways to testify faithfully to God amidst the challenges of a fallen world.

Learning to be a disciple will not solve all the problems of the world, nor will it eliminate sin from the church. Rather, becoming disciples will give us new ways to testify faithfully to God amidst the challenges of a fallen world. Becoming disciples opens us up to the theological strategy of obedience by which we can offer a unified witness as the body of Christ.

Whereas the evangelical community has rightly emphasized disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, or giving, these (and other disciplines) are necessary, but not sufficient.  When practiced in isolation, we cannot hope to become fully formed individuals or communities. We will deny ourselves opportunities to follow God’s will.

“A great many people are afraid of the will of God, and yet I believe that one of the sweetest lessons that we can learn in the school of Christ is the surrender of our wills to God, letting Him plan for us and rule our lives.”

D.L. Moody

By leaning too heavily on a single discipline, we run the risk of not being able to master what Dwight Moody called “the sweetest lessons that we can learn in the school of Christ,” which is the “surrender of our wills to God, letting Him plan for us and rule over our lives.” To learn that lesson, we need to study, pray, give, and worship, but we also need to:

  • revive lost practices such as lament, which keep before us the ways in which the world is not as it should be
  • revitalize our commitment to repentance and confession, which remind us of our own contributions to the dysfunctions of the world
  • re-conceptualize the practice of accountability, which can help us address the ways in which we have arranged our organization around “assumptions, habits, cultural practices, policies, or institutions that threaten to conform us (whether individually or collectively) to the image of something other than Christ” (Thinking Christian), and
  • recommit to thinking deeply about God, His word, ourselves, and the world around us, which will help us to pursue God’s agenda rather than our own.

So, how can committing to be a disciple change our view of the world?  How does committing to follow God make a difference?

First, discipleship changes the way we think about the world around us and the relationships we have with God and others (our “social imaginaries”). When we can begin to change the way we understand the fundamental dynamics of the world, we will also begin to see that all of us are influenced and impacted by the “air we breath.”

Take, for instance, the vast difference in mindset that exists between voting for our representatives as part of a democracy versus casting lots to choose a new leader (as the Apostles did when replacing Judas in Acts 1:21-26). One is not necessarily better than another. It isn’t that voting is somehow less spiritual than casting lots. Voting, however, does entail that we orient ourselves in the world in a different way than we would if we were choosing leaders by lot. Those orientations help and hinder the way in which we understand God, ourselves, and the world.

For the most part, we participate in flawed systems which influence the way we interact in the world. Without a theological orientation to the world, those systems can limit us. We end up working within the limitations of a fallen world not because God is constrained but because we aren’t really looking to him as we ought. Discipleship helps us to understand why following God is crucial for those in the body of Christ (even when we don’t fully understand where he is leading us).

Second, in becoming disciples, we recognize the unique contributions we make as we interact with one another.  We are freed to be impartial (James 2:1-13), to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10), and to admit our mistakes and to be a community committed to living with truth in love (1 John 1:9; 3:18; Ephesians 4:15).

As we commit to being disciples we will come to see that the way we arrange ourselves together will both help us embody Christ more fully as a body and hinder us from doing so. We will need to fight not simply to involve God, but to allow Him to lead.

The coming generations of the church, I believe (and hope), will so commit to being a community of disciples that they will resist dynamics that deny God’s rule over the community by diminishing the gifts He provides. Those gifts come through the women and men He brings into the mysterious body of Christ (Ephesians 3:6ff). The coming church will acknowledge more deeply that the body of Christ is not made up of isolated individuals, but of connected members ordered and arranged by God to demonstrate His wisdom in a world that needs to see it.

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind

Image credit: JohnMark Smith