Apprenticed to Jesus: Part I
“Our profit margin is life change.” William Vanderbloemen quotes these words from Ed Young in his article, “How to Make a Profit at Your Church.” The full quote goes like this:
William, never forget that the church is a non-profit but it has a profit margin. Our profit margin is life change.” – Ed Young
Vanderbloemen notes that, at his church, he insists that every line item in the church budget be measured against this metric. “Measure programs for their life change,” he says, “and you’ll never wonder what is worth funding and what needs to be cut.”
He goes on to say: “Show your people the profit margin of the church. Show them how much the church is changing lives, and they will never wonder why we are here.”
Reading Vanderbloemen’s remarks caused me to ask myself: “How much life change are we seeing at the church where I serve? Are people growing ‘in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18)?” I’m not sure I know.
If spiritual formation (“life change”) is a desirable pursuit – and I believe it is – how might it happen?
This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on this question. Your contributions are welcome, and I hope that you will help me think through this matter. I am calling this brief series Apprenticed to Jesus, and I will explain in a future post why I have chosen this title. For now, let me offer an initial reply to my own question: How might we pursue spiritual formation?
Community: A Necessity for Life Change
I want to begin by underlining the necessity of participation in a Christian community. The Constitution of the church I serve says that “A Christian’s personal response to God is in community” (Book of Order, W-1.1005). It explains that “from the beginning God created women and men for community and called a people into covenant. Jesus called, commissioned, and promised to be present to a people gathered in his name. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, orders, and empowers the new community of the covenant.” (You may notice the Trinitarian structure of this statement: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is intentional.)
I believe that life in community is essential for spiritual formation. In my January 18 post entitled Alternative Community I quoted N. T. Wright, who says, “The particular solution God proposes [to sin] — that of beginning a family and promising them a land — shows that what is wrong [in our world] concerns, in a central way, the fracturing of human relationships and the fracturing of the relationship between humans and the non-human creation” (Paul in Fresh Perspective, pp. 34f.).
Life change comes about only as we commit ourselves to restored relationships, only as we live in community with one another. So, any pursuit of spiritual formation must draw on the experience of sharing life together in the presence of God.
The Godhead itself is a community of Persons in relationship, and, since we are created in the image of God, we are most human when we are in community. Over the past few weeks, I have been reading Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, written by Stanley Grenz and John Franke. In a chapter on the Trinity, Grenz and Franke introduce a twelfth century theologian named Richard of St. Victor. Richard, in his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity, claims that, if God is good (and God is good), then God’s goodness must involve love. Self-love, he holds, cannot be love at its best, and I for one could not disagree with him. Therefore, “supreme love requires another, equal to the lover who is the recipient of that love” (Beyond Foundationalism, p. 181).
Likewise, supreme love must be received as well as given; supreme love is love in which each person loves and is loved by the other. This, of course, accounts for two Persons in the Godhead, but what about the third? Richard says that “for love to be supreme it must desire that the love it experiences through giving and receiving be one that is shared with another.” In other words, “perfect love is not merely mutual love between two but is fully shared among three and only three” (Beyond Foundationalism, p. 182).
The importance of Richard’s work is that he forges an understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity that is “relationally based.” He looks at persons in relation for clues to the nature of God. According to Grenz and Franke, Richard’s understanding of the Trinity suggests “the possibility of spirituality based on interpersonal community” (Beyond Foundationalism, p. 182).
This says to me that we bear the divine image most faithfully not as isolated individuals but as persons in relationship with others. If we want to see life change – in ourselves as well as in others – we are more likely to experience it if our personal pursuit of sanctity is balanced by life in community, in which we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [and] live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:15f.).
We need both, of course. Spiritual formation requires both solitude and community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…. [And] let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (Life Together, p. 77).
In our day and time, I am afraid, we err on the side of isolation, private religion, and individualism. We choose to go to or stay in a church only so long as it meets our self-determined needs.
I am convinced, however, that we will see little spiritual formation outside of committed relationships.
When Jesus launched his movement, he called disciples not only to be in relationship with him but also to be in relationship with one another. If we are apprenticed to him, will we not embrace his wisdom?
Photo credit: Beadmaker, Meiji Era Japan (1904) by Thiophene Guy