Unplugged and tuned in

When was the last time that you stepped off the treadmill of a busy ministry, a jam-packed work schedule, a congested calendar simply to be alone? For me, it had been way too long. So, I spent an extended period of time this summer simply being quiet and listening. I spent weeks in solitude on the porch of a little cottage that my grandfather built in 1941 overlooking the South River near Annapolis.

I unplugged from emails and phone calls in order to study the Scriptures, read, and simply be quiet before the Lord. And I noticed that it literally took me two full weeks of this one-month sabbatical before I could relax and slow down enough to realize how fast I had been going and how dangerously close to utter depletion I had come. But something deep within had been silently lobbying for my attention over the busyness and noise of a ministry schedule that had me doing things – important things – but nonetheless doing, such as a teaching and ministry schedule that took me on six international trips in the previous seven months.

Fortunately, I managed to slow down enough to feel the rapidly-beating pulse of my own “evangelical functionalism,” a term I use to describe what we often perceive as the core of the salvation message: In our ministry and missions efforts, we focus on enabling others to make a decision for Christ. Strategies are sought to leverage those efforts for greater efficiency, developing into the logical template for measuring success. Perhaps you have read reports of mission events that included the seemingly obligatory comment, “In addition to the church building we constructed, we saw over 100 decisions for Christ.” Wonderful. Praise God.

But is this the best way to determine mission effectiveness? Of course, we are called by Jesus to go and “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). But is fruit best summarized in a decision, or in something else?

I had a conversation recently with Dr. Susan Muto, director of the Epiphany Association in Pittsburgh. She has written or co-authored nearly 100 books on formative spirituality. We were speaking about someone in leadership and she casually asked, “Is he Christ-formed?” Wow. What an insightful question. No, it’s not the standard inquiry one may use to determine if someone is in our tribe, such as the more common questions, “Is he born again?” or, “Is she saved?” But “Is he Christ-formed?” is a question that gets more to the point that the fruit we seek goes far beyond a decision.

Of course it is helpful for us to have signposts that mark significant steps in our spiritual journey, and the need to repent and believe is at the heart of the message of Jesus, who told us that there is great joy in heaven whenever someone repents (Luke 15:7,10). But when we emphasize being formed in Christ we recognize that the gospel is a message of transformation, not just information. So, the Great Commission involves not just getting the word out but seeing it planted in the lives of others.

If our call was merely a matter of getting out the word, success could be measured by the number of heads counted at a seminar or hands raised at a crusade. But transformation comes through more enduring models of ministry, even though measuring its fruitfulness is less precise. Our model is that of the One who came and lived among us, spoke our language, breathed our air, and showed us the way. Discipleship, not simply the gleaning of decisions, is the path of transformation.

When Dr. Adrian Van Kaam described the Nazi regime during the occupation of his native Holland in World War II, he wrote, “As a result, inspiration, reflection, awe, wonder, vision, contemplation, creative love, and imagination – all that makes us distinctively human had to be sacrificed to the idols of dull functionalism lauded by the hyper organized bureaucracy….” During my time of sabbatical I was reminded that one does not need to be a part of a harsh occupying force to be functional and hyper-organized. In fact, I could have kept on going, doing, teaching – functioning – and it would have been deemed productive and successful by others on the outside looking in.

But that’s the point isn’t it? Christ-ward formation occurs over time, in deep and hidden places that often shun the showcase – places of which sound bite success stories are untold and impressive photographs for brochures remain untaken. Places where the kingdom of God grows like leaven.

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