We ask leaders seven questions to guide us to a process of personal and congregational transformation. The process and questions begin with naming God’s presence. If you’re thinking…“Why do this?” “Who needs one more thing to do?”
Let me frame the expectation.
- We’re asking you to lead a congregation to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
- We’re inviting you to be open to the transformative power of God in your life and the lives of the people in your local context.
The process we’ll outline over several weeks (perhaps months) is a journey of transformation – for all of us. It begins with a focus on the purpose of the church and the presence of God.
Naming God’s Presence
Today, we begin with naming God’s presence. This is the first foundational element of a transformational process. We know and believe God is with us. But, it’s a whole different task to actually pay attention to how God is moving. So let me ask you:
- Do you and leaders in the church experience God’s active presence in the congregation? How do you know?
- Can you articulate what God is up in the congregation?
- How is God moving through the congregation and its people?
This is not something we do once and move on. It is an ongoing, integral part of daily life as a disciple of Jesus. It is a simple, yet profound act of being in God’s presence and responding to God’s movement.
Awaken the City
While serving a church in Cincinnati, I had the privilege of starting a ministry we called Awaken the City. (It’s now called Summer Impact.) Every summer we hosted teams of people for a week at a time for the purpose of introducing them to ways to serve as disciples in the city.
On Sunday evening, we’d lead a prayer tour of the city. Every week, we’d pray for specific ministries, people, and situations. For between 90 minutes to 2 hours, we knew the city and her people were covered in prayer. As teams piled into mini-vans and 15 passenger vans to go from one location to the next, we were sharing what God was doing, the needs of the community, and asking God to open us to use us in service every day that week. We’d return for a worship experience where I invited people to respond to a simple question from Scripture that set the context for our prayer experience.
Often, the question that started the week was, “Where did you see the light of Christ tonight?’ The response on the first night was underwhelming. One of our interns would inevitably get uncomfortable with the silence and name a place where they witnessed Christ’s presence. Often a leader or pastor offered the next observation. At the start of the week, usually, 2-3 people wanted to speak. No more. No less.
Throughout the week, every day, we would practice this rhythm:
- Study Scripture and pray for our ministry partners
- Serve in the city during the day
- Celebrate through worship in the evening
From the Scripture for the day, a question emerged that individuals reflected on as they served. In the evening, during worship, we’d share our reflections.
Every week the same thing happened. Sunday: crickets. Minimal responses. By the end of the week, either on Friday or Saturday morning, we came together for a final worship experience. When it came time for me to invite reflection, I reminded the teams that there were 40-50 of us, everyone wants to speak, and we need you to depart in less than to be 30 minutes.
They never got the point. 🙂
The stories unfolded about their own life-changing, about the people they met who were different from them and learning that Jesus is what makes us all the same. Every summer I had the privilege of my bucket overflowing witnessing, hearing, and seeing how God’s presence was transforming lives.
Focus and Themes
At the end of every summer, I knew where we needed to focus for the coming year in our community and global outreach ministry. One year we needed to develop a deeper relationship with a ministry partner working with children, the next year a local school, the following year, I realized we needed to be in the urban core fulltime. I also learned about where and how people found their place of passion to serve in the church.
The intent of Awaken the City was not to name priorities or develop a process for claiming a ministry passion. The intent was to help people engage in service in the city – in their local context. Over the years, I’ve shared this online in different forms. Inevitably, the same thing happens. We move from crickets to a concert of voices naming and witnessing God’s presence to people adapting it to their daily life.
A couple years later, I learned that a mainline denomination had done research, showing that God’s presence and God’s purpose were foundational elements of congregational vitality. I laughed and said, “Would you like thousands of stories to prove that is true?” When I finished my doctoral work on this very topic I knew the challenge we faced. How could others embrace something so simple, yet transformative?
First, we have to want Jesus to transform our lives. Letting Jesus into our lives means giving up control of where and how Jesus will show up and show off. It means letting go of what we want and sitting at the feet of Jesus long enough to hear his hope for us.
Second, transformation does not occur without reflection. Transformation necessitates reflection. Trevor Hudson, a South African pastor, notes, “Unless we value and practice reflection, little personal transformation occurs. Unreflected-upon experience seldom yields its life-giving secrets. Too many of us work and live without reflection, without gaining any objective perspective on our behavior or any understanding of why we do what we do.” When we pause to reflect, specifically on God’s presence, faith is articulated and becomes a lived reality.
Third, transformation has stalled for many of us. How do we know? Some people reading this are thinking a basic practice of Christian discipleship is another task to do rather than a way of living as a disciple of Jesus. Transformation necessitates a relationship with Jesus, each other, and your local context. If any of these relationships are lacking, you’ve likely stalled in growing to become more like Jesus.
We get it, it’s a busy season. We’re inviting you to lay aside the excuses that have appeared as obstacles and focus on the transformative work of Jesus.
A Vision for the Coming Year
Tim Bias offered, “At the end of next year, I want to hear how your life and the place where you live and worship are changing.” How will this begin? It begins when you pay attention to where Jesus shows up and by choosing to join in God’s movement in your local community.
That can’t happen if we don’t stop and pay attention to God’s presence. It can’t happen if we’re living vicariously through others.
It happens because we are in touch with the Spirit of God moving in our midst. As leaders, then you can come together and share how you’re experiencing God. Listen closely and deeply. You’ll start to notice patterns of where Jesus shows up and shows off in your life and the lives of those around you. Then, jump in and follow Jesus’ lead.
God with Us
During this season of Advent as we’ve invited you to reflect on God with Us, we’re seeing anticipated and unlikely patterns. The depth of hurt, illness, and loneliness is sobering. The power of music this time of year is a reminder that music is a language of the soul. Music evokes memories and emotions while moving within us. From the ordinary moments of being with kids to the extraordinary moments of sitting with others in hospice and the hospital, the abiding presence of Christ is evident.
The example of God with Us is an invitation to read, reflect, and respond to one scripture, one word, and one question for the day. At other times we might say, let’s focus on “Scripture, serving, and celebrating.” You may even say, let’s look at “Word, work, and worship.” It doesn’t matter what you name it. What matters is that you integrate reflecting on God’s presence into your daily life. And, in case you missed it. No, this isn’t something you do at special seasons or times of the year.
Can you imagine what might happen in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods if we focused on naming God’s presence? What might happen if we then joined God in ministry where we live, work, worship, and play? I believe our lives and our communities would change.
The question of God’s presence will stay before us in the coming weeks as the first foundational element of a transformational disciple-making process.
- Trevor Hudson, A Mile in My Shoes, p. 57