Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Helpful Ways to Develop Fellowship

1. Listen
One of the prerequisite skills for fellowship is the ability to listen. In this, we need to learn to model Jesus, who is always listening attentively to and for us.

Christians who intentionally want to develop their fellowship skills will focus on those they are with, giving them their full attention and responding only when prompted to.

Cheap listening, which is much easier, is often worse than no listening. Consider these characteristics of cheap listening:
  • We listen with obvious impatience waiting for the moment we can speak and share our wisdom or story. It is all about us. Our listening and responses communicate a disdain for someone else’s story, pain, insights or joy. 
  • We pay attention only long enough to develop a counter-argument; people often listen with an agenda, to sell or petition or seduce. Seldom is there a deep, open-hearted, non judging reception of the other. By contrast, if someone truly listens to me, my spirit begins to expand.
2. Contact With Other Christians
We sometimes presume that maturing means becoming independent. Mature Christians are never “Lone Rangers.” Maturity, especially spiritual maturity, means developing a mutual dependence with close friends. We have each other’s backs. We protect each other’s weaknesses. We help with each other’s blind spots. We share strengths and protect weaknesses. That’s maturity. No one can make it alone, only the immature assume otherwise. 

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us to: 
. . . not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 
Hebrews 10:25
3. Reciprocation Begets Appreciation 
When we fellowship with others, we allow ourselves to be served by others and we have the privilege of serving each other. Since we all have a part to play in the big picture of God’s kingdom, we are each allowed to practice the unique mixture of gifts, talents, passion and personality that God has given us. Watching others thrive and being allowed to thrive ourselves is a wonderful by-product of this discipline.

4. Focus on the Goal of Improved Fellowship with the Father
When the time spent with other believers allows us to see God more often in our daily actions and interactions, we begin to communicate with Him and about Him more fully.

For more on developing fellowship, check out Ascending Leaders' free downloads tab and select the six-session small-group experience titled Community: Inviting Relationship.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Christmas Invites Community

“…And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby jumped in her womb.” Luke 1:41.

Eugene Peterson describes the Incarnation with this colloquialism: “The Word [Jesus] became flesh and moved into the neighborhood,” (John 1:14, The Message). 

Although 21st century urban neighborhoods do not always offer the close community this conveys, it does give us a sense of Jesus’ humanity and presence. What happened when Jesus took on human form was an expansion of a community that existed among the Trinity from before eternity. Dallas Willard describes it like this: “God is in himself a sweet society of love, with a first, second and third person to complete a social matrix where not only is there love and being loved, but also shared love for another” (Renovation of the Heart, p 184) 

In our social media era, we’re familiar with communities that form beyond the bounds of geography. Like-minded folks form groups to encourage, support, perhaps inspire one another. We all know the sense of community that forms among individuals who have experienced a similar grief or tragedy. We get a sense of that in the lead-up to the Christmas story.

Relatives—likely separated by a number of years—experience overlapping, unplanned pregnancies. Elizabeth has not told anyone she’s pregnant, yet Mary shows up unexpectedly on her doorstep, also expecting. At the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth’s unborn child responded with a prenatal flip. Something like a hearty hello and warm hug among friends who haven’t seen each other in a while. But it was more than the joy long-separated friends experience when meeting again.

Even before his birth, John the Baptist recognized Mary’s unborn child as the Messiah he would be announcing and preparing the way for. His sense of community exhibits no sibling rivalry, no competitive spirit, no jealousy, but pure delight.

The nature of John and Jesus’s community is evident throughout John’s life. Called on to baptize Jesus, John demurs, but points to his relative as One greater than himself, the Lamb of God. John showed no animosity when his followers left him to follow Jesus (John 1:35-51). 

John’s sense of community/brotherhood overcame human tendencies of pride and competition. Theirs is a community that even withstands questioning as John sought reassurance that Jesus was, indeed, the Promise Israel had been looking for since Eden (Genesis 3:15).

A relationship with Jesus is that kind of community between Him and you: one of ultimate trust, intimate communication and unconditional love. May that deepening communion with Jesus express itself in your life with great joy and grace toward others in this Advent season and into 2016.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Spiritual Hiking

By Judy Hagey
AL Communication Assistant

On a recent trip to the mountains of Colorado, I did some hiking with a son and daughter-in-law. We identified a point on a nearby mountain that we wanted to reach. It seemed to promise a relatively easy climb in exchange for a panoramic view of the valley below. Or at least that’s what we were told. 

As we began our climb, we agreed to walk for an hour and see how close we were to our goal. After
an hour of what felt to these flatlanders of nearly vertical climbing, we estimated that we were about half way toward our goal. The view from our turn-around spot was still spectacular, but we hadn’t
reached the top. Although we were disappointed that our goal was still a ways off, we did not berate ourselves for the progress we’d made. The exercise and fellowship were worth the effort.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” we agreed, “if we could come back some time and just start up where we’ve left off? Not have to retrace our steps from the very beginning.”

Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts about your spiritual hike. How often doesn’t our spiritual journey feel like two steps backward for every step forward. The path to Christlikeness is most often a rambling, sometimes circuitous route—rarely a steady upward trajectory. And after we’ve fallen back, wouldn’t it be great to regain territory without having to retrace the same painful steps? 

Neither life nor mountain hiking works that way. Many life lessons need to be learned multiple times during our lifetimes. Trust is one of those especially difficult lessons for me. Regardless of how often God has proven himself faithful in the past, when faced with uncertainty over the future, I fall back on self-doubt and fail to rely on God’s promises and past provision. Climbing through, around, and over the rocks of doubt and uncertainty ought to strengthen me for the next challenge, but often I fall back—needing to recall the ways God has provided in the past and re-reading his promises in the Word.

Still, there is much to learn from our erratic climb. We didn’t wait until we’d reached our goal to enjoy the scenery. During periodic breathers, we peered through the pine trees to the valley below. We noted our progress as the valley appeared larger the higher we climbed. We talked along the way, shared memories, hopes, dreams. We admired the beauty and magnificence of the mountains. Likewise, our spiritual journeys ought to include times of simply enjoying the journey, savoring our relationship with God and other travelers.

I would not have attempted this climb alone—not that it was dangerous. But mountain climbing like spiritual traveling is richer when shared. In fact, traveling solo is really not an option for our spiritual journey. We need one another to help navigate the rough patches and share in even our smallest accomplishments. The community of Christ followers goes beyond good friends, to the strangers and those who are difficult to love. Our latest free download, Community: Inviting Relationship explores Christ’s habit of sharing life with close friends as well as some unlikely characters. May your journey bring you closer to Christ and fellow travelers during this season. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

How Does Your Church Flourish?

Is your church flourishing?

Maybe a better question would be, “What do you understand by flourishing?”

Most dictionaries give about a half dozen meanings for the word flourish. One meaning is an embellishment, a decorative addition either to one’s handwriting or a literary or musical piece. An extra. It’s not necessary, but it adds to the beauty or enjoyment.

Another meaning is prosperous, with prosperous usually defined as growing in wealth, honor, comfort, or “whatever is desirable.”

The meaning that is closest to Ascending Leaders’ understanding and intent of flourish as we use it in our tagline—helping churches, leaders and disciples flourish—is thriving. Some dictionaries identify it as blossoming and use agricultural illustrations to explain. “The crops flourished in the rich soil.” (American Heritage Dictionary). 

Christians are often admonished to “bloom where they are planted,” with scripture references like 1 Corinthians 7:20 used to support this advice.

I want to be careful about giving the impression that when we talk about flourishing we are only suggesting or encouraging people to make the best of a less-than-optimum situation. It is true that life this side of Jesus’ return is marred with the frustrating results of sin—life is not fully as it ought to be in God’s eyes. And we are not to fall into an escapism, but rather to live as Jesus’ salt and light, as his redemption present, in less-than-desirable circumstances. 

Yet what we envision when churches and their congregants flourish are conditions that make it possible for the church as Christ’s bride and the individual members to grow more deeply in love with Jesus and as a result to better love others—that is become more like Jesus. We’re talking about churches, disciples and leaders of increasing spiritual, emotional and physical health.

Plants that thrive have the right soil pH, adequate sunlight and moisture for their unique needs. Just as not every plant thrives in loamy soil, not every church or follower of Jesus thrives in the same environment. In healthy churches, leaders are attentive to the health of the church members, the church as a body and the broader community within which God has placed them. They discern together how best to encourage vitality.

This fall I have been blessed to lead multiple DiscipleForward workshops in California, west Michigan, and here in Houston. Together with pastors and ministry leaders we talk about the best ways for them to help the folks in their churches, especially adults, flourish. 
What kind of soil (environment) do they need? 
What types of actions will best feed and water (nourish) disciples? 
What interferes with their spiritual growth? 
What can we do to make our church a healthier place so that everyone thrives, keeps moving forward with Jesus and produces fruit?

Perhaps that sounds like an overwhelming task to you. Let me encourage you to impress upon your leaders that this is a team effort. The church is a body that needs to work together for the benefit of the whole. 

We have workshops coming up in Arizona, central Iowa, west Michigan and Houston yet this fall. Churches that have come with multiple staff and leaders are finding great advantage to a team approach to seeing their church flourish. I hope you live near one of those locations and can join us to learn together about effective discipleship.