How do we, as Christians, build up others? I’m asking this with both our secular contacts and fellow believers in view. Is there a special evangelism and discipleship program, ministry strategy, or sermon series available to do the trick? Are there seminars to attend, disciplines to engage, or educators to invite to teach spiritual formation skills?
As we look for answers let’s turn to the Bible and to Paul: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
It’s interesting to note how Paul began this segment with a construction analogy in Ephesians chapters two and three—building the new temple—but he then shifted analogies to the human body in chapter four. In 2:21-22, for instance, he began by speaking of those who are the “household of God.” Jesus was presented as the one “in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place by the Spirit.”
This temple offers a place for Jesus to “dwell in your hearts through faith” in order to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (chapter 3:17&19).
Two elements tie both analogies together: Christ and love. Or, rather, Christ’s love that fills the temple and moves the body. Where Christ is present, love is active and “building up” takes place.
Yet I have to say that finding love in many churches is easier said than done. Christians famously work to offer products—Sunday sermons, home-groups, potlucks, training programs, and one-off events—while not featuring mutual love. We’re often better at carving cisterns to collect religious rainwater than in responding to the artesian outflow of Christ’s heart.
What sort of love do I have in mind? How about Christ’s whole-life devotion that culminated in his willingness to die for us on the cross.
This past weekend I was part of a group discussion about how to live out the Christian faith. The occasion was birthed by earlier events where I, with others, offered five-day “Intensives” on living a relational faith. By now I’m less optimistic about the approach because the love we talked about for five years didn’t work out so well in practice. The ideas were bold and attractive but the practice was weak and uneven. Talking is easy. Living the talk is hard.
Yet this weekend seemed much stronger than those past events. Why? And how? In part I’m sure it’s because we emphasized process rather than benefit-building. We started with dialog about Galatians 2:20 … “I am crucified with Christ.” What did Paul actually mean?
So we didn’t complete a set of lessons by the end of our four-days together. Instead we engaged in honest sharing—focused on Christ—in place of transmitting knowledge. We were more heart-to-heart than head-to-head.
That’s not to say we didn’t have topics to consider. We did. We even had an outline to follow. But we explored it slowly, with major digressions, as we sat in a circle on couches or slouchy chairs. We had meals together. We went out for coffee and talked some more. And then we bought some cookies and ate them while we talked some more. We enjoyed each other.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light. Dave and I began the second day with a frank exchange, privately, about our lack of teamwork the day before. We weren’t happy with each other, but we talked. Humility was in play on both sides so we could speak truth in love. And it worked.
The biggest lesson of the entire weekend came in our offering space for Christ’s Spirit to be at work among us. We didn’t rush. We poked and probed big ideas and measured some of the competing values we all heard from childhood.
Here’s the strategy. Paul promised that the Spirit will always be present among Christians: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
And Jesus also taught that all humans are heart-based: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery…” (Mark 7:21). It’s also true that “out of the heart” believers experience the fruit of Christ’s love, joy, peace, and more.
So, as one of our weekend participants—Jonathan from Texas—observed a couple of times: “We have so much to ‘unlearn’ before we really start to hear the Truth!” Yes. The Spirit takes time to soften hard hearts.
Conversation was key. Jesus, after all, first came to us as God’s “Word” … a word of Truth that sets us free. But we needed time to listen. So at this Intensive we started each day with almost two hours in John’s gospel. Then all that followed was framed and influenced by that starting point.
So our group this weekend was built up in love. We didn’t have a product to show for our time together but we were all stronger for having talked; with Christ speaking among us through the Bible; and with the gifts we all offered each other. It was growth by talking and caring.
The weekend was a model of Spiritual Formation. And all of us are invited to the room. Come together to meet, read, talk, and let the Spirit have his own time and space to work!