Gathering Crowds – Or Making Disciples?

Playing AroundWhat is the basis of real spiritual community? A large number of people showing up on Sunday morning? Having a deep spiritual experience, whether in a worship service or in personal devotions? Or is it a dedicated commitment to live a certain way and follow the rules?

All of these elements show up in the story of Jesus. Lots of people certainly showed up to hear him preach. At times, Jesus seems like some kind of homeless mega-church pastor. So many people come to hear him that he often has to run away or get in a boat just to find some breathing space! Yet, it seems clear that Jesus’ most important ministry is not with the crowds.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, there are regular signs and wonders, healings, and deep times of spiritual reflection and religious experience. Yet, as important as these dramatic moments were, personal experience for its own sake does not seem to be the most essential part of Jesus’ message.

Jesus asks very hard things of his followers. He tells them that for a person to enter the kingdom of heaven, their righteousness will have to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees – those best known for following all the commandments of Torah down to the letter. Yet, Jesus is not slave to rules and regulations. He and his disciples regularly break the Sabbath in order to accomplish their mission of love. Jesus challenges the ruling authorities, and is eventually executed as an outlaw.

Jesus is neither a crowd-pleaser, experience-addict, nor a legalistic rule-follower. What is he? What lies at the heart of his ministry?

Jesus’ ministry is not about breadth of numbers, but depth of commitment. It is not about highs of ecstasy, but patient endurance and willingness to suffer for truth. The model that Jesus offers is not a list of rules that makes me feel safe, but rather a dangerous invitation to become his disciple, his friend. He calls me to become like he is and walk as he did.

As a friend of Jesus, my work is not to gather crowds; I am to make disciples. Jesus calls me to break my addiction to religious experiences, to move beyond the fluctuations of hormones and emotion and embrace true love. I can no longer justify myself through head-knowledge and checklist morality. Instead, the Spirit invites me to embrace the mystery of who Jesus is, allowing him to humble me and fill me with his character.

What would it look like to live in communities where this kind of disciple-making could take place? Instead of measuring our faithfulness by numbers of worship attendance, what if we focused on the people that we are able to actively mentor and partner with in discipleship?

As an alternative to the rule-book mindset we find in much religion, what if we emphasized the radical power of a living relationship with Jesus? (He’s risen from the dead, not entombed in a book!) What would it look like to be part of a community that honored spiritual experiences, but valued the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – even more?

Spring Is Here – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #63

Dear friends,

It’s over. The darkness, the ice, the cold, the wondering whether winter will ever give way to spring; it’s all over. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more, the sun came out, a warm breeze blew and the blossoms began to open with the promise of a new beginning. This is what spring feels like: a new year; another chance to play, learn, grow.

This is what spring feels like: A convergence of like-hearted friends from across the eastern United States – Indiana, Tennessee, Detroit, DC, Philadelphia, Missouri, and parts of Ohio. A gathering bubbling with hope for the new thing that we sense the Holy Spirit doing in our lives, our communities, and our neighborhoods. A circle of friends who are ready to take risks together. We’re embracing failure as a chance to learn, and watching for opportunities to multiply the ways we get it right.

At the Spring Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship this past weekend, we explored the ways in which we are called to live in the power of the Spirit. We faced our fears and need for security, our busyness and obligation, and the relationships that we are so afraid we might lose if we take the radical steps that we sense Jesus calling us to. We took a long look at the challenges before us, and then turned to God to show us the way of faithfulness, peace, abundant life in the Spirit.

A door is opening. We are arriving at a new moment of fresh possibilities. This is a time when the positive change and renewal that, though even a few years ago seemed impossible, are now emerging as the holy work of our time. Where the old structures have become empty forms, the Spirit is inviting us to imagine new ones. Where the last century’s ways of seeing, feeling, thinking, doing are breaking down and no longer seem to function, God is empowering us to look with new eyes, to have our minds renewed and our hearts filled with wonder and creativity.

We are entering a time period where God is making all things new, and will do so in outward ways that no one can miss. It is a time for the culture wars to cease, as we labor together in the way of Jesus, which breaks down the dividing walls between “Right” and “Left.” It is time for the pitched battle between generations to come to an end, as well. The opportunity of this key moment demands the full gifts, personality, and keen imagination of every generation – Boomers, Xers, Millennials, and those younger and older, too. We’re all in this together.

This is the invitation that we are experiencing as God gathers the Friends of Jesus, across geographical boundaries, (non)religious backgrounds, and generational identities. It is an invitation to speed up our experimentation and slow down our lives, to be present to one another and to the living presence of Christ among us. Emerging from an age of big words and timid action, we sense an opportunity to allow our actions to speak louder than words.

We are just beginning to awaken to this new opening. Jesus is once again gathering a people, a community that will have an out-sized impact on the world around us. Like leaven in the dough, light on a lampstand, or salt in a meal, we are being invited to make a little count for a lot. We can participate in the new creation that Christ is accomplishing. This kingdom is established through his love for us, our love for one another, and the love that we demonstrate to the people we encounter every day.

These are the first days of spring. It is a tender time, and we don’t always know what we are doing. But we are trying to stay humble, adaptive, and attentive to the gentle nudgings of the living Spirit of God. Trusting in her, we long to be the grass that emerges from beneath the snow, eager to greet the light.

Can you sense this new season? Is the snow melting where you are? How can we join together, to partner in this new time of growth in the Spirit?

Your prayers are an important way that we are connected together in this time of great change. Crisis and opportunity seem to go hand in hand, and prayers for both are greatly needed! In this season, please pray that:

  • God will kindle the hearts of women and men throughout our land to take up the work of establishing new communities and ministries that demonstrate the emerging kingdom. Let us be the tender shoots of Christ’s love that emerge in these early days of spring.
  • The Friends of Jesus Fellowship will be strengthened and knit together in the Holy Spirit. May each of our existing communities be built up and taught how to become fellowships that make disciples, not religious consumers.
  • Our communities be connected to and supported by the wider Religious Society of Friends, and the Body of Christ as a whole. May our efforts as Friends of Jesus have a positive impact in catalyzing renewal within the wider Body, as well.

How God is drawing you into this work of restoration and rebirth? Let us know how we can be praying for you in this time of new hope and promise.

In love and friendship,

Micah Bales

Hindsight Is 20/20

There’s a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness. Sometimes, painstaking work over time can be an investment that yields benefits in the long term. I’m thinking of the civil rights leaders who spent decades offering up their own blood, sweat and tears before seeing any real substantial movement in their struggle for human dignity. Whether or not they lived to see it, these faithful women and men had set their sights on a goal that would change the world.

Not all of our objectives are so worthy of sacrifice. If I need proof of this, all I have to do is read back through my journals and papers from years past. I recently came across a sheet of notebook paper, on which my high school-aged self had written a list. The list’s title was: Things that will be accomplished this year. Some of these very-important things probably did get accomplished that year. Most did not.

Still, this to-do list from high school serves an important purpose: It reminds me of how limited my understanding is of what is truly important in any given moment. After all, in my senior year I changed my diet, began to exercise and shed 70 pounds in three months. This was the greatest joy of my teenage years. Yet, nothing about weight or health appears on my list of things to accomplish.

This is easier to see in retrospect. It’s hard to say which things that seem so important to me now are actually of enduring significance. Mostly likely, many of the areas of my life today where I stress myself out the most will seem, in ten years, fairly trivial. On the other hand, there will almost certainly be matters that I don’t give much thought to now, but that with hindsight are revealed to be the most pressing questions of my life. If only I could see these things now, rather than in retrospect!

Yet, there may be a blessing in my blindness. Knowing that I cannot see clearly, I find encouragement to turn my life over to the care of God. Rather than relying on my own sense of sight, I can seek the guiding light of Jesus. I have learned from experience that he will shine on the path that I am called to walk, whether I fully understand it at present, or not.

How do you discern when your personal priorities are in line with truth? Are you able to experience the present as a gift to be offered up to God, rather than as a problem to be solved by your own determined will? What are some ways that the Spirit has guided you in directions that you would not have chosen for yourself, yet which turned out to be precisely the way you were meant to go?