Written by Michael Fones
Saturday, 22 September 2007 11:12
This post is a nice follow-up to the one just made by Sherry, I think. I had been working on this yesterday and today, and just saw her post when I prepared to upload this.
I just finished reading a book by George Barna, the president of Barna Research Group, Ltd., a marketing research firm that focuses on issues related to faith and culture. He's an evangelical whose company has conducted research for hundreds of churches and parachurch ministries.
His book, "Growing True Disciples," is interesting in terms of his insistence that the focus of Christian ministry is to encourage and facilitate discipleship. Similarly, Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi that the Church exists to evangelize, and the purpose of evangelizing, is, of course, to make disciples of Jesus. Barna's book looks at models of promoting discipleship used by different Protestant churches. All of the models demand a lot more from the individual than most Catholics are used to giving. The point that's made clear in the book is that discipleship usually doesn't "just happen," just as any significant change in the way we live doesn't "just happen."
Acts 2:42-47 describes (perhaps ideally) what the early church community looked like. What it describes is a group of people who are completely "sold out" to Jesus; who seek to not only follow his teaching, but to allow his life and power to flow through them. They have made following Jesus the focus and content of their life: all else is secondary
Early on in the book (p. 27), Barna lists the characteristics of a true disciple. They are challenging:
"Disciples experience a changed future through their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and of the Christian faith as their defining philosophy of life.
Disciples undergo a changed lifestyle that is manifested through Christ-oriented values, goals, perspectives, activities, and relationships.
Disciples mature into a changed worldview, attributable to a deeper comprehension of the true meaning and impact of Christianity. Truth become an entirely God-driven reality to a disciple. Pursuing the truths of God becomes the disciple's lifelong quest."
Of course, there's something missing here, yet is present throughout the disciple-making models he presents: a community of faith.
All of his models insist upon regular participation in a church community. It is through engagement with the word (and thus the Word), communal prayer, encouragement from other Christians, and accountability to others - as well, of course, through grace - that disciples are formed. As Catholics, we also include active, conscious participation in the sacramental life of the Church as a crucial, non-negotiable element.
While Barna's book has its flaws, and I don't agree with all of his presuppositions, I appreciate the unrelenting emphasis upon discipleship. He challenges pastoral ministers like myself to ask tough questions like, "Is my preaching, counseling, teaching, and leadership in and out of worship effective in assisting people to become disciples?"
I also have to ask myself if my life reflects the life of a true disciple. Do I consistently obey Jesus' commands and His Church's teachings? Do I love other people in practical ways that cause me to "pour out my life" for them? Have I put the attractions and distractions of this world in their proper place and focused my desire upon knowing, loving and serving God? Is my life "a living Gospel for all people to read"? Am I sharing my faith with others who do not know Christ?
In short, is my life bearing fruit worthy of a follower of the risen Lord?
One of the practices of most of the Christian communities that are successful in promoting discipleship is the setting of personal spiritual goals and practices that may help reach those goals. These goals must be practical, achievable, and specific; not simply "I will be more loving," but "I will stop gossiping about Mary Jane and instead spend time getting to know her better, choosing to discover her good qualities, and pointing out those good qualities as attributes that give glory to God."
That may be a little too specific, but you get the idea.
So that's my project for the next week or so: to re-evaluate my life and pinpoint some areas where I want to grow in my relationship to Christ and the Church, and come up with a gameplan. Maybe I'll share some of what I discover with you. Feel free to do the same.