This article is part of a three-part series. In PART 1, I talk about my journey to discovering the crisis in adult discipleship. Today, I would like to talk to you about two common responses to this crisis and why they haven’t been as successful. In PART 2, I talk current formation solutions.

In the previous two installments of this exploration, we discussed the challenge the church is facing in the effort to disciple its people. Most attend their church a little less than twice per month and for one hour. The opportunity to engage people’s lives in deep and meaningful relationship is simply getting more and more difficult. Valiant effort is spent on equipping, and small group ministry is often asked to bear more weight that the average leader can withstand.

So, what is the solution? I will not be so bold to say that I have solved the issue. Discipleship in the church is and will remain a challenge, and it will take the experience, research and work of the whole body of faith to make the progress for which we all hope. Nor will I oversimplify the conversation. We have to face the complexity of our lives, and what it means to walk with Jesus in the modern world.

But, I can say that what we need is new modes of doing the old work of discipleship. For a very long time, the only invitation the church could make was “come here”. Come to our building for worship and teaching. Come to our house for relationship, Bible study and prayer. I do not think we will ever fully get away from invitations like this. Jesus’ own calling of the disciples was similar, “follow me” (Matt 4:19), he invited. Mark’s Gospel says that he “called to himself those he wanted, and they came to him”. (Mark 3:13) Invitation is inherent in making disciples. We invite people to join us in our life and faith, and as disciple makers we heed the invitation to enter the lives, questions and struggles of those who hunger for maturity.

However, in a increasingly distributed and complicated world, where the deeply committed member of a church attends about half the time, we need new strategies. The church has always adapted in the past, for instance the use of buildings for invitation and gathering, the adaptation of music and culture were each huge technological innovations in earlier generations of the church. I think it is time to use new technologies to do the old work of discipleship in fresh ways.

Please hear what I am not saying. While advocating for the use of new technologies, I am not advocating for easier access to more information, more media, or new ways to gain access to more teaching. There is already vast amounts of information and expert teaching available to at the mere touch of a finger on a screen, and a lot of it is being consumed. The data shows that people in our churches are streaming the material in mass quantities. Yet, we are not collectively or individually becoming more like Jesus. Why? Because we cannot make disciples by making it easier for our people to hear our sermons and consume good doctrine.

Discipleship Requires Relationships

Discipleship is so much more complex than the dissemination of Biblical truth and seasoned wisdom. While both of those can help and are part of the recipe, information alone does not transform. In the Fuller Center for Spiritual Formation we use a more complex formula – Instead of “information = transformation”, we talk about “transformation = informed practice in a reflective community over time”.

An Example: In the 1980’s I had a dear friend at my church. Before getting his law degree, he pursued a masters in theology, arguing, “To be as mature as possible requires education”. My friend’s heart was sincere, and he was and is a deeply mature follower of Jesus, but I argued with him over that point with a lot of energy. You see, my grandfather was the Godliest person I ever knew. He was a dairy farmer from upstate Vermont with a sixth-grade education from a one room school house. Yet, all his adult life was about giving dignity to the poor, and those our culture overlooks and casts out. He and his wife lived full-time among the physically and developmentally challenged adults – giving them home, faith, the dignity of work, security and community.

I asked my grandfather about his faith one day. He told me, “I just read God’s word every day, and try to do better living it than I did yesterday”. For my grandfather that was always about God and the people he was called to love. He was mature because he both new God in Word and prayer, and he also activated his faith in the context of deep relationships.

In Fuller Formation Groups, we always say that no one has ever been invited to follow Jesus alone. Yes, there are times when we have to make personal decisions, and activate our individual agency to engage a life of faith. But, God’s design for our lives is that we love and worship Jesus shoulder to shoulder with others. We support each other, preach to one another, help one another, care for one another and send each other into our work in the world.

This is the church at its best – when communities live together in mutual faith and hope in formed by the Scriptures: struggling together, supporting one another and living in lavish forgiveness.

The issues may not be that we aren’t meeting enough together. It’s that even when we gather, we act as though what we need most from each other is just additional information (or advice!) instead of faithful presence, thoughtful listening, prayerful love, mutual-vulnerability, and wise companionship.”

New models for Deep Relationship: How can technology be part of the solution?  

In a world where singles and families struggle to find their way consistently to the buildings where their church meet, we need new ways of connecting. Technology allows us to shift our invitation. Yes, we will always invite people to worship in gathered spaces, in all the beautiful diverse ways that happens. But, technology, wisely deployed, can allow our invitations to be part of the spaces our people inhabit every day – their families, neighborhoods and work places. Careful use of the tools available to us, enable us to live alongside one another, in close community, even when we don’t find ourselves in the same room every week.  

There will always be space and appropriate calls to invite people to gather for teaching, training, learning and fellowship. Yet, we live in a time and space where we can journey and be present with the people we disciple in digital space.

Again, please hear what I am not saying. This is not about propping up an online worship service or delivering high quality content to everyone’s phones. It is about deliberately and wisely using technology to foster deep communities that practice their faith together, talk openly about what is working and not working in their lives and journeying together over time in hope. That has always been how the people of the church each grow closer to God and their community of faith.

Perhaps new technology can give the church new modes of doing the old wok of building transformative relationships – enabling us to build communities that wisely engage spiritual practices of the Scripture, reflect on it together in humility and companion one another over time.

How it works in a Fuller Formation Group

Let me first say that Fuller Formation Groups are what I call a “practice community”. We are building communities within churches and mission institutions that come together for about a year to learn and practice spiritually formative disciplines, reflect on them and how they fit in our lives and encourage one another in the joys and sorrows that are present in our lives. We have three goals: 

  1. That each participant would grow in greater intimacy with God. 
  2. That each person would develop a stronger relationship to people in their church, and a stronger commitment to their local church community. 
  3. That each disciple would have a clear sense of their place in God’s mission in the world – that they would see their family, neighborhood and workplace as they space in which they serve God and make him known.

Here is what it looks like. A Formation Group is made up of three elements: quarterly retreats, monthly spiritual practices that get discussed in community, and a monthly video based small group.

Quarterly Retreats:

Each cohort starts with a retreat – ideally in live space – and gathers in retreat roughly quarterly, four 24 hours retreats in all. The retreats are a critical element in building the community of trust necessary for transformation to occur. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability, willingness to try new things and be honest about what is and is not working in our lives. Spending 24 hours in a well-crafted retreat enables the community to grow in natural trust and relationship. Retreats are also a place to do spiritual practices that are best done in live space or in community. 

And before they gather for the first retreat, they have used a proprietary communication platform to introduce themselves to one another, learning front eh start how to use technology as a new modality for relationships.

Monthly Spiritual Practice in Community:

Each month the cohort engages a new spiritual practice designed to help grow intimacy with God, depth of community and/or understanding of our place in the work of God in the world. Each practice follows the same pattern – learn, practice, reflect, relate. In the first week we learn enough to practice the spiritual disciple with wisdom and enough understanding to be meaningful. In the second week we try the discipling on – in our own way and in our own time. In the third week we reflect on the practice – often writing and sharing our reflections with our small group. The use of sharing inside technology enables people to communicate and learn from one another in their own time, with space for reflection, questions and support. It is important to note that each week’s engagement is designed to take no more than 45 minutes.

Monthly Small Group Meeting (on-line)

Each small group of five participants gathers monthly for small group using video. Yes, even in places where people live near one another, we encourage people to use video technology for the small groups. Each group meets at a time they determine, and video enables the time to be past of each person’s life – form work, at home, and even while traveling. Using video enables an hour and fifteen-minute small group to take just that much time – no commute.

In the small group there is conversation about the month’s spiritual practice – what worked, what was hard, how they might use the practice in their life in the future and when they might need it. They also get to learn from one another’s unique ways of engaging. More that then, each groups shares life together, praying for one another, celebrating highs and mourning with one another the lows.

Relationships Require Discipleship

Earlier I said that discipleship requires relationship – and it can also be said that relationships require discipleship. We need to learn how inhabit the relationships that will change our lives over time. This is a key side goal of a Fuller Formation Group – teaching our people the art of spiritual friendship – journeying with others, companioning our friend’s relationship to Jesus and the joys and sorrows of daily life. This is the way our people will be made into the image of Jesus.

FFG’s and call the people to new forms of relationship that are supported and sustained by technology. It is heartening to see relationships flourish and become just as robust, if not more, than the ones we grew in the past modalities. It is about relationships that do more than gather, but accompany God’s people into the textures of our daily life, walking into the mission of God. The way forward is in relationships. That has always been, and will remain the context for a richly textured life in Christ.

I have great hope:

The work of forming our people to send them out to take their place in God’s mission in the world is worth all our energy, our best thinking and even our lives. I have been working in this space for most of my adult life, and I do not have it all figured out. I don’t think anyone does. The complexity of our modern context is making the work more difficult. Yet, my role in the Fuller Center for Spiritual Formation gives me eyes to see the vast number of women and men who are giving their hearts and lives to this work. It is beautiful and encouraging, and it gives me great hope. Let’s keep trying, keep experimenting, and keep learning from one another in humility along the way.

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