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Missional and Formational? Missional Church Spiritual Formation Christian Formation

Missional and Formational?

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2007 by Mark D. Roberts

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Missional and Formational?

Part 1 of series: Missional and Formational?
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On Wednesday of this week I’ll be offering a workshop at the Renovaré conference in San Antonio. The theme of this conference is: The Jesus Way: Recovering the Lost Content of Discipleship. Conference headliners include Eugene Peterson, Max Lucado, Emilie Griffin, John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, and Richard Foster. I’m honored to be included on the undercard as one of dozens of workshop leaders. I’m participating in a “track” of the conference sponsored by the Presbyterian Global Fellowship. This track is called “Transformational and Missional: The Jesus Way for Church Life and Leadership.” Other track presenters will be Todd Hunter, Rich Kannwischer, Will Mancini, and Dallas Willard. My workshop will focus on biblical texts that inform our understanding of the relationship between missional and formational aspects of Christian discipleship.

Yes, I realize I might have lost some of you with this lingo. The words “missional” and “formational” are not exactly found on the lips of most folks, even faithful church members. So let me explain what I am planning to talk about on Wednesday before I summarize some of my conclusions here. (You don’t even have to visit San Antonio in the middle of a heat wave to get the main points of my workshop!) (Photo: The Jesus Way logo, from Eugene Peterson's book, The Jesus Way)

Missional: “Missional” is an adjective that I first heard in the 1990s. Since then it has gained in popularity. In fact, “missional” runs the risk of becoming faddish, and therefore way overused. Plus, the more folks use it, the more it can lose its precise meaning. Some time ago I wrote a whole blog series on the topic: The Mission of God and the Missional Church. You’ll find a thorough discussion of the meaning of “missional” there. For now, I’ll simply say that “missional” is an adjective used to describe the church as a participant in the mission of God. The missional church exists, not primarily for itself, but for God and for others. The word “missional” comes from the Latin word missio that means for “having been sent.” The missional church is not only a church that sends or supports missionaries who are sent to distant places to do the work of God. Rather, the missional church sees itself as God’s missionary wherever it is located. The missional church understands itself as having been “sent” by God to do his work right where it is.

One among many biblical texts that defines the missional character of the church is the so-called Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Formational: “Formational” is an adjective that is related to the notion of “spiritual formation” or “Christian formation.” Formational activities would be those that help us to grow as Christians, not only in our knowledge of the faith, but primarily in our Christ-likeness. Biblical passages that point to the process of formation would include:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son [proorisen summorphous tes eikonos tou huiou autou], in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. (Romans 8:29)

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you [mechris hou morphothe Christos en humin]. (Galatians 4:19)

You may have noticed that each of these verses contains a word from the Greek root morph-. God has destined us to be conformed [summorphous] to the image of his Son. We are to be transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewing of our minds. Christ is to be formed in us [morphothe]. In Greek, the word morphe means “form.” It can refer to the external shape of something, but also to its essential character. It has this sense when used in the New Testament to describe the basic nature of something. Morphe itself shows up in Philippians 2:6-7 in reference to Christ:
who, though he was in the form [morphe] of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form [morphe] of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form. . . .

Missional and Formational? In my Renovaré workshop, I’m dealing with the relationship between misional and formational in Christian churches as well as in the lives of individual believers. If a church sees itself as missional (sent by God to share in his mission), in what sense might it also be formational (helping people to become more like Christ)? If a church is focused on spiritual formation, how might this impact its missional consciousness?

At first glance, it seems as if missional and formational are apples and oranges. One has to do with the outward effort of a Christian community. The other has to do with the inward transformation of individuals. There are surely many churches that focus on one or the other, without incorporating both emphases. This suggests other questions. Should a church be both missional and formational, or can it choose one or the other? Is it possible for a church to be truly missional and not be formational? Or truly formational and not be missional? How might missional and formational emphases complement each other?

My approach in my workshop, and in this blog series, will be to examine specific biblical texts that deal with missional and/or formational aspects of the Christian life. I expect that we’ll be able to see, not only that missional and formational go hand in hand, but also how they depend up and fulfill each other. A church that is truly what a church should be will, in my opinion, but both missional and formational. Moreover, it will see itself as essentially missional and formational, whether or not it uses these particular terms.

Missional and Formational in the Old Testament

Part 2 of series: Missional and Formational?
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As the mission of God unfolds in the Old Testament, he enters into covenant relationship with key partners is mission. In each of these covenant relationships there are both missional and formational components, and they are closely related.


God chose to be a central player in his unfolding strategy for redeeming the world. In Genesis 12:1-3 we read:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God did not only use Abraham in fulfillment of his plans, however. The Lord also transformed Abraham in the process. In Genesis 15, for example, God revealed to Abraham that his heir will be his own son, even though this was impossible given his wife's old age. He chose to believe what God said, and God "reckoned it to him as righteousness" (15:6). God worked with Abraham to help him grow in a trusting relationship. Then, in Genesis 17, the Lord revealed to Abraham more of his grand plan. God promised to give Abraham many descendants and to place them in a special land. Abraham's part in this covenant relationship was to make sure that every male in his household was circumcised, including Abraham. His obedience showed an exceptional quality of devotion to God. (I've sometimes wondered how difficult it would be to get male converts to Christianity if conversion was necessarily followed by circumcision rather than baptism!) Genesis 18 shows a curious dimension of the Lord's relationship with Abraham. When God reveals his plans to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness, Abraham argues with God, appealing for mercy for Sodom. This shows how Abraham has grown in boldness with God, and perhaps also in compassion.

Perhaps the most striking incident that reveals the Lord's shaping of Abraham is in Genesis 22, when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on one of the mountains in the land of Moriah. We can only imagine Abraham's inner turmoil as he led his son to what seemed to be his death. Abraham's faith in God was tested to an extreme degree and he passed the test with flying colors. Since the Lord knew Abraham's heart even before the incident on the mountain, I can only conclude that this test of faith was for Abraham's growth. With the examples I mentioned here, we see how God was in the process of forming Abraham's soul even as he was using him in the unfolding of his mission to redeem the world. (Picture: Rembrandt's painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac, 1635.)

Moses In the life of Moses we see a similar intermingling of missional and formational. It began when the Lord revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush, calling him to return to Egypt to set Israel free from bondage. When Moses protested that he was not up to the job, a fascinating conversation ensued, in which the Lord condescended to work with Moses' fears and insecrutities, while building his confidence both in God and in himself (see Exodus 3).

Later, after Moses had been used by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, they were attacked in the wilderness by the Amalekites. When the Israelites defended themselves, they were successful, but only as long as Moses held up his staff. When his arm became weakened, and he lowered his staff, the Israelites would begin to lose. So Moses, who had become quite a strong and solitary leader, learned to depend on others for help (see Exodus 17).

Then, in the next chapter, Moses was visited by his father-in-law, Jethro. He observed his son-in-law working morning to night judging the Israelites' petty disputes. Speaking frankly to Moses, Jethro said, "What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (18:17-18). Jethro went on to suggest that Moses appoint trustworthy men to judge the minor cases, leaving only Moses as the "Supreme Court" of Israel. Moses received his father-in-law's counsel and delegated much of his judging to others. I wonder if the experience of getting help from his assistants in holding up his staff prepared Moses to take the steps recommended by Jethro.

At any rate, Exodus shows us how God not only used Moses, but also shaped him as a leader and a man of faith. This kind of missional-formational combination is seen throughout the Old Testament, not only with the leaders of Israel, but also with the Israelites themselves.

Missional and Formational: Factors in the Formation of Jesus

Part 3 of series: Missional and Formational?
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It’s always risky to try and speak of the forces that formed Jesus and his ministry. Partly we face the problem of his uniqueness as someone who was both fully human and fully God. But efforts to account for Jesus’ own formation necessarily stumble over the lack of historical evidence for his life before his ministry. The gospels provide us with so little to go on here. (To be accurate, I should say that the canonical gospels offer scanty information on the early life of Jesus. The so-called “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” fills in the blanks for us. But, unfortunately, most of what we read in this gospel is more legendary than historical.)

For the most part, the early life of Jesus is best left to fictional attempts, such as the fine efforts by Anne Rice (Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana is her latest) or the wildly inventive, funny, and profane novel by Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Most serious scholars realize that the early years of Jesus are inaccessible, and therefore shouldn’t receive undue attention.

Nevertheless, we can know some things about Jesus’ experience prior to the launch of his ministry at around thirty years of age. And we can speculate about how this experience might have formed him as a man and also his ministry as the kingdom-inaugurating Son of Man/Messiah. As long as we recognize that our speculations are, well, speculative, then I think it’s both safe and worthwhile to think of Jesus’ own formation and its relationship to his mission.

We do know that Jesus was born into a Jewish family that observed the Torah carefully. He and his parents, along with siblings (or half-siblings) would, for example, have been faithful in praying daily prayers, attending the synagogue, keeping the Sabbath, and making occasional trips to Jerusalem in order to offer sacrifices in the temple.

We also know that Jesus had a rather outstanding mother. No doubt she was chosen as the mother of the Son of God because of her character and faith. Surely she had a major role in helping Jesus to know who he was and what his life was all about.

We know relatively little about Joseph, Jesus’ human father. From the story of the conception of Jesus, we know that Joseph was a righteous and compassionate man. We also can see that he was willing to risk his honor and even his life to follow God’s call. Joseph was a carpenter, as was Jesus, who followed in his father’s footsteps. Jesus no doubt was apprenticed to Joseph, learning his father’s trade by countless hours at his Joseph’s side. It’s quite likely that when Jesus spoke of making disciples, his own experience as Joseph’s apprentice shaped his understanding and practice.

We can only wonder how Jesus’ years as an apprentice and then carpenter formed both his own personality and his ministry. A successful carpenter needs to be exacting and careful. “Measure twice, cut once,” my grandfather used to say. A skillful carpenter sees in a pile of wood a table or chair, much as a sculptor sees a masterpiece in a block of marble. As a craftsman in Nazareth, Jesus would have needed to operate with exemplary integrity as a businessman. Moreover, it’s like that his work brought him into contact with people from Sepphoris, the nearby city with strong Roman influence. Though he lived in a small village, Jesus was aware of the wider world, including the might of Rome.

I'll have more to say about Nazareth and Jesus in my next post in this series.

Missional and Formational:
Factors in the Formation of Jesus (continued)

Part 4 of series: Missional and Formational?
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In my last post I mentioned that Jesus, as a carpenter, would have had to operate his business with integrity if he were to succeed in a small village such as Nazareth.

Speaking of Nazareth, Jesus spent most of his early life in this village, experiencing the pluses and minuses of small town life. We know almost nothing about his years in Nazareth. But we do know that when Jesus began his ministry, the home town folks were not expecting it. In fact, they were relatively unsupportive of Jesus. At one point, some of his former neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff, probably because they feared that his kingdom message would bring the wrath of Rome down upon their heads (Luke 4:16-30). Yet even when they weren’t trying to kill Jesus, the folks from Nazareth were, by and large, unwilling to believe that he was anything more than a messianic pretender. When he spoke in their synagogue, they took offense at him, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3). (Photo: Nazareth today, a larger town than in the time of Jesus.)

Nevertheless, Jesus’ experience growing up in the synagogue of Nazareth was surely foundational for him. There he heard the Law being read and expounded. There he learned how to read and speak Hebrew (a cousin to his first language, Aramaic). In the synagogue, Jesus would have heard the Psalms read and prayed regularly. And since his family wasn’t wealthy, and therefore didn’t own biblical scrolls, it was in the synagogue that Jesus heard the sacred texts that profoundly shaped his sense of mission, as well as his relationship with his Heavenly Father.

About this relationship we know very little. It would seem likely that the intimacy Jesus experienced with his Father during his ministry didn’t begin at his baptism, but was a part of his life as a relatively ordinary Jewish man.

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of Jesus’ pre-ministry life, in addition to his conception, was his remaining unmarried. Yes, yes, I know that it has been popular in recent years to think of Jesus as married, thanks largely to Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code. If you’re looking for a sober conversation about his marriage or lack thereof, I’d refer you to a series I’ve written called, aptly enough, Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence. The historical evidence for the marriage of Jesus is almost entirely fanciful. But the strongest argument in favor of his marriage does deserve to be taken seriously. It is this: Virtually every Jewish man in the time of Jesus would have been married. Thus, by remaining single, Jesus distinguished himself from his peers. No doubt his singleness, in addition to his eyebrow-raising conception, led some to be suspicious of him, or even to heap scorn upon him.

Though in crucial ways Jesus was unique, his first thirty years or so were, in many ways, ordinary. When he hit his thumb with a hammer, he felt real pain, and no doubt cried out (though avoiding words that some of us might use). Jesus knew the joys of family life, but also the sorrows. Given the absence of Joseph from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ adult life, it’s highly likely that Joseph died before Jesus commenced his ministry. Thus he knew what it was like to lose a father, and to comfort a mother who had lost her husband. Perhaps this experience contributed to his compassion for the suffering, or shaped the compassion that was his by virtue of his divine nature.

Well, I’ve offered plenty of speculations here, so it’s time to stop. In my next post in this series I want to look at some events in the life of Jesus as they’re found in the Gospels and reflect upon how Jesus was being formed through them.

The Formation of Jesus for Mission

Part 5 of series: Missional and Formational?
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Today I’m returning to the series I began last week: Missional and Formational? So far I’ve looked briefly at some connections between missional and formational in the Old Testament and in the early life of Jesus. Today I want to focus on a couple of passages from the Gospels that shed light upon the formation of Jesus for his mission.

The Baptism of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus appears in the three synoptic Gospels. In each of these texts, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. At this time, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, taking the form of a dove. A voice from heaven identified Jesus, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). (Photo: a painting of the baptism of Jesus in a church in Mahon, Minorca.)

The testimony of the heavenly voice must surely have encouraged Jesus, even though we would expect that he had some idea of his special identity prior to his baptism. Nevertheless, to hear that he was God’s Son would have powerfully formed Jesus sense of self and mission. Since “Son” was, in this context, primarily a royal or messianic title, Jesus would have understood his identity as related to the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for the coming of the kingdom of God.

The Temptation of Jesus

Following the glorious moment of his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and nights. During this time, he was tempted by the devil. The substance of this temptation had to do with what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of God. Would Jesus seek his own glory, advantage, and power as the Son of God? Or would he choose the way of faithful servanthood and sacrifice?

I find it interesting that Jesus’ first “official” action as the Son of God was to get away from the people to whom he had been sent so that he might spend extended time alone. Of course he wasn’t quite alone, because, according to the Gospels, he was tempted by the devil for forty days. During this time in the wilderness, Jesus began to sort out the implications of his identity and calling. He said a definitive “no” to temptations that would have distracted him from his mission.

In all of my time associated with churches and other Christian ministries, I have only known one church that wanted its new leader to begin his work by spending extended time in solitude and prayer. This church sent its brand new pastor away for a personal retreat as his first official duty. Every other Christian organization of which I am aware is only too eager for its new leader to get down to business: meeting people, learning systems, preaching sermons, etc. etc. etc.

It does seem curious to me that we don’t feel more obliged to imitate Jesus’ own beginning in ministry. I wonder how things might be different if, when a church calls a new pastor, the first task required of that pastor is to take two weeks away from the congregation for prayer and discernment. Perhaps that pastor would confront and defeat his or her own temptations, rather than giving in to them while working way too many hours trying to please everybody in the congregation. I wonder . . . .

It is clear, however, that before Jesus began doing the things that characterized his mission–preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, casting out demons, training his disciples–he was being formed for his mission. His Heavenly Father clarified his identity. The Spirit led him into a period of testing so that he might grasp the implications of that identity. To use the language of this blog series, in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, formational preceded missional and was essential to it.

Prayer and Mission in the Ministry of Jesus

Part 6 of series: Missional and Formational?
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If you read through the Gospels looking for connections between formational and missional, you’ll discover plenty of them. In today’s post I’ll cite and comment on one pregnant example. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Mark:

35   In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:35-39)

First of all, note that Jesus got up very early, went to a place of solitude, and spent ample time in prayer. When Peter told him that “everyone” was searching for him, we might have expected Jesus to be thrilled that his ministry was becoming popular. But instead of responding to his adoring audience, Jesus decided instead to move on to “neighboring towns” so as to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.

In the flow of this short episode, it seems as if Jesus’ unexpected decision to spurn popularity in favor of fulfilling his true mission was connected with his extended time in prayerful solitude. Though we’re not told the content of his conversation with his Heavenly Father, the narrative suggests that this allowed him to discern his next steps in his mission.

As a pastor, I have often thought about this passage from Mark’s Gospel. One of the greatest dangers for pastors and other Christian leaders is popularity. The more popular we become, the more we are tempted to play to the crowds. To more people like us, the more we can become drunk on the elixir of human approval, and therefore less likely to discern God’s direction for our lives and ministries. One way to avoid this trap, it seems to me, is to imitate Jesus’ example of extended time in solitude and prayer. I know many pastors and Christian leaders who do this on a regular basis. But I also know how hard it is to maintain this discipline, especially when the demands of ministry and family cry out for attention. In fact, the more popular you become in some area of ministry, the more difficult it will be for you to find time to get alone with God.

When I was Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I found extended time of conversation with God to be absolutely essential to my leadership, my personal well-being, and my family life. I was blessed to live only about twenty minutes from a three-mile stretch of secluded beach. For many years, I tried to spend at least an hour at least once a week walking along the beach and praying. I can’t tell you how many times I began these ambling prayer sessions by telling God that I wanted him to do something, only to discover that my initial requests were not consistent with God’s will for me or my ministry. As I prayed, the Spirit of God was forming and reforming my own spirit, helping me to desire the things of God and to discern what those things were. (Photo: My favorite prayer spot in Southern California, the beach of Crystal Cove State Park.)

I don’t think that what I’ve just described is only for pastors and other “official” Christian leaders. All of us need to find times and places where we can be alone with God for long enough to bear our souls so we can begin to listen. If Jesus needed to do this, how much more do we need the same!

Discipleship as Formational and Missional

Part 7 of series: Missional and Formational?
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In my last post I showed that formational and missional realities were both present in Jesus’ own ministry, as he took time away from the crowds to pray, and these sessions of prayer guided Jesus in his mission.

One such pray time occurred just prior to Jesus’ selection of his key disciples. According to Luke,

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles (Luke 6:12-13)

Don’t you wish you could have listened in on that prayer session? I do. I wonder what Jesus talked about with his Heavenly Father. Surely a substantial chunk of their conversation had to do with those whom Jesus should choose as his disciples.

The Disciple’s Job Description

In Mark’s description of this sequence of events, he does not mention that Jesus prayed before selecting his followers. But Mark does add a telling description of the job description of a disciple:

He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

What is the substance of the disciple’s job description? It has three elements, according to Mark’s description:

1. Be with Jesus.
2. Proclaim the message (of the kingdom of God).
3. Have authority to cast out demons.

Two of these elements are missional: proclaiming and casting out demons. One is essentially relational and formational: being with Jesus.

Mark is spelling out here what would have been intuitive to Jews at the time of Jesus. Disciples were apprentices who learned in relationship with a master. There was no learning apart from relationship, no growth in mastery except as passed on personally from the master to the disciple. So it was for those who would follow Jesus. They would learn to participate in his mission as they were with him.

Notice that the formational aspect of discipleship was essentially relational. The same is true for those of us who are disciples of Jesus today. We are formed, not by our own efforts, but through our relationship with God. As we spend time with him, in prayer and Bible study, in quiet and celebration, in solitude and in community with other disciples, we are shaped so that we might join him in his mission. For those of us who are more action oriented in our discipleship, we must remember that the core of our job description includes being with Jesus. Formation is essential for mission.

The Call to Discple-Making

Even as Jesus called people to be his disciples, so, after his resurrection, he sent these people out to make more disciples. In the classic statement of the Great Commission we read:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

In the original Greek of this text, the imperative “go” is actually a participle that is related to the main verb “make disciples” (28:19). The phrase could be literally translated, “Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations.” Of course, in context, the disciples would have to go away from the mountain in Galilee if they were going to make disciples of all nations. But the chief point wasn’t the going, but the disciple-making. (Photo: A painting by Duccio of "Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee" 1308-1311.)

Of course the disciples of Jesus faced several challenges that Jesus himself didn’t have to overcome. They were to make apprentices, not of themselves, but of Jesus. Yet they were to be the agents of apprenticeship. Thus, they would draw people into relationship with themselves so that the new disciples might “be with Jesus” and learn to do his mission.

Discipleship, therefore, has an essential formational element. All disciples of Jesus in all centuries are to be with Jesus, in part by being with the community of his other disciples. Formation in the church has to do, not only with the shaping of individuals, but also with the forming of communities that engage in the mission of Jesus. Moreover, mature disciples are to teach new disciples “to obey everything” that Jesus commanded his first disciples, including making more disciples. So discipleship also has an essential missional element in addition to an essential formational element. Formational and missional are inseparable in true discipleship of Jesus. Both are also quintessentially relational. Disciples are related to Jesus, to other disciples, and then to those they have been sent to reach with the good news of the kingdom.

If we focus on discipleship, understanding it as a kind of apprenticeship, then we will avoid the apparent tension between formational and missional. I have been in discussions with church leaders who argue about whether the church should focus on educational or evangelism. But when we see Christian education as discipleship, then the evangelistic component is built in. We are to educate our people to be disciples who have been trained to make other disciples, in part by sharing the good news.

A focus on discipleship also avoids the ostensible conflict between the relational and missional dimensions of church life. When I was Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, we began to be more intentionally a church that accepted our identity as missional church. We knew we had been placed in Irvine, not just for ourselves, but for others. This was troubling to some members of the church, who feared that their needs would be forgotten in this missional emphasis. But they failed to grasp the extent to which the relationship is an essential dimension of Christian mission. A missional church isn’t just, or even mainly, a church that does outreach programs. Rather, it is a church that is bound together by the Spirit as a community of discipleship. Members are related first to God and then to each other in Christ. These relationships, when rightly understood, are not just for the benefit of those who enjoy them. They are also a primary platform for mission. Disciples in relationship with each other reach out to draw others into the community of disciples. That’s what Christian mission is all about.

So, we would be well-served if we focused on discipleship, not only because this was Jesus’ final marching order for his church, but also because discipleship weaves together the formational, relational, and missional aspects of church life.

Missional and Formational in John 15, Part 1

Part 8 of series: Missional and Formational?
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Today, I want to examine a text in the Gospel of John that is profoundly missional and formational. It shows that you can’t have one without the other. Moreover, this passage reveals crucial elements of what it means to be missional and formational disciples of Jesus.

Remaining in the Vine

Here is the first part of John 15, a discourse of Jesus with his disciples shortly before his Passion:

“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.” (John 15:1-8)

In this passage, Jesus speaks of the “formation” of the branches of the grapevine. He is this vine and we, his disciples, are the branches. The missional dimension of this text is developed through the metaphor of fruitfulness. Jesus’ Heavenly Father is the gardener who “cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit” (15:2). Implication: God wants us to be fruitful for his kingdom. In fact, we are supposed to “produce much fruit” (15:8). This is our missional calling, and the mark of true discipleship (15:8).

So how are we to bear fruit, even much fruit? Now we get to the formational dimension of discipleship. We do so by “remaining” in the vine, in Jesus. The verb translated as “remain” (meno in Greek) means “to remain, to abide, to make one’s home.” Thus, we will fulfill our mission to bear fruit for the kingdom only when we are attached to and remain connected to Jesus. Once again, we see that the formational aspect of the Christian life is essentially relational. We are formed for fruitfulness when we are connected to Jesus, drawing our nutrients from him.

In particular, we are nourished by Jesus’ teaching, by his words. He says, “But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!” (15:7). Our relationship with Jesus isn’t simply some subjective experience or even some objective spiritual connection. It is also a matter of receiving his teaching and letting it “remain” in us. We will be shaped for the mission of Jesus by his truth as it makes a home in us, change our vision and values. (Photo below: pruned grape vines . . . not very attractive)

The Christian life is simply one of abiding in Jesus, letting his words abide in us, and bearing much fruit. There is also the pruning part of this passage . . . not my favorite part, by the way. Jesus says that his Father is the gardener who not only cuts off unfruitful branches, but also “prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more” (15:2). When gardeners prune a plant, they are literally shaping that plant, deciding which branches to take away and which to leave. They are pruning with a vision for what the plant will become. They are forming the plant for maximum fruitfulness and/or beauty.

I’ve done a bit of gardening in my life, and I don’t like pruning, not one bit. Oh, it isn’t bad to cut off truly dead branches. But usually pruning involves cutting back live branches, taking away beautiful. Usually, the plant I begin to prune looks quite fine. When I’m finished, it is downright ugly. I often feel rather sad when I’m done with a pruning job, even though I know it’s necessary for the health and fruitfulness of many plants.

I like being pruned even less than I like pruning, however. In my experience, God’s pruning is rarely like a haircut, painless with immediately positive results. It’s more like what happens with plants. God takes away, often with some pain on my part, aspects of my life that have been fruitful. Sometimes I can’t see why God is doing this to me. Sometimes I feel angry with him. Sometimes I feel afraid or sad. But, in retrospect, I can see how God’s pruning helps me to be more fruitful for him.

I want to share an example of how God has been pruning me, but this post is going on a little long, so I’ll save it for tomorrow.

Missional and Formational in John 15, Part 2

Part 9 of series: Missional and Formational?
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Yesterday I began to offer some thoughts on the intersection of missional and formational in John 15. Here, Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. We will bear much fruit (i.e. fulfill our mission) if we remain in him (i.e. be formed through relationship with him). In the process of remaining in Jesus as a branch, his Father, the Heavenly Gardener, prunes us so that we might bear more fruit. I mentioned yesterday that this pruning process, however necessary it might be, is not one of my favorites. It usually involves losing something that one values greatly, and this is never much fun.

Perhaps the most obvious example of recent pruning in my life came a couple of years ago, when God was pruning away my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. Leaving this dear church was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in ministry, though it was pain saturated by love. I felt strongly that God was calling me to Laity Lodge, even though I wasn’t quite sure all of what he would do with me in this new ministry.

One of my major concerns was that God was cutting off my preaching and teaching ministry with a congregation. Not only did I enjoy communicating God’s Word to people on a regular basis, but I also believed this was a responsible use of the gifts God had given me. At Laity Lodge I’d have some opportunity to teach and preach, but not like I had at Irvine Pres. It was hard for this part of my ministry to be pruned. (Photo below: The congregation at Irvine on my last Sunday as pastor. Yes, I did take this photo in the worship service. You can get away with things like this on your last day.)

Within a few months of my working at Laity Lodge, an unexpected opportunity opened up with one of our sister ministries, The High Calling of Our Daily Work ( This web-based ministry had been running a daily devotional, based on a series published by Eugene Peterson. Not only could people view the Daily Reflections on the website, but also they could have it sent to their email inbox each day. But the High Calling was getting to the end of Peterson’s material, having gone through the whole Bible in five years. In conversations with the producers of The High Calling, it seemed good for me to try my hand at the so-called Daily Reflections. Though I felt nervous following Eugene Peterson, I did my best. The response from readers was positive, so I took this on as an ongoing project. (I predict it will take me at least ten years to go through the whole Bible.)

Though writing the Daily Reflections isn’t exactly the same as preaching, it is fundamentally similar. In both media I take the Scripture, study a passage, interpret it for people, connect it to their lives, and, through prayer, help them to grow in their relationship with God. At Irvine Presbyterian Church I was able to do this for about 650 people, for twenty-five minutes once a week. Now, through The High Calling, I’m able to provide reflections for about 7,500 people every day. Ironically, if you add up the words in a weeks’ worth of Reflections, you come out with almost the same number of words as in an average sermon. And I spend about as much time each week on the Reflections as I did on sermon writing. (Photo: The location of my Daily Reflections on The High Calling website.)

Of course I do miss the personal dimension of preaching, being able to look into the eyes of my congregation as speak with them. But I get a steady flow of email notes from those who receive my Reflections. I am beginning to feel about my readers much as I felt about my congregation at Irvine. Plus, I’m getting to know many of my readers personally when they join retreats at Laity Lodge. Moreover, some of those who receive my Daily Reflections write to tell me that they pass them on to friends and relatives. I’ve heard from some pastors who circulate them to their church staff members. I share this with you not to brag, but to let you know how God is blessing this new opportunity to share his Word with people.

So, I am now able to impact many more people for the kingdom than I did while Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. Numbers aren’t everything, of course. And there is nothing quite like being a pastor (though I don’t miss some parts of the job, let me tell you). But God has pruned me in the past two years so that I might bear more fruit for his kingdom.

Plus, it goes without saying that my effectiveness in writing the Daily Reflections is entirely related to how much I am abiding in Christ and letting his words abide in me. If I skip on the formational elements of this ministry, I will soon be writing empty Reflections that will not help people grow in Christ. Abiding in him means everything if I’m going to be an effective devotional writer, just as if I'm going to be an effective preacher.

What I’ve experienced in being pruned by God, and what I’m experiencing through studying, meditating upon, praying, and wrestling with his Word as I write the Daily Refletions, are parts of God’s forming me for his mission. I have been and am being formed so that I might be more fruitful for the sake of the kingdom. And I am more fruitful for the sake of the kingdom because I have submitted, however unhappily at times, to God’s pruning in my life.

In this example of pruning I have not talked about the extent to which my formation and my mission is not mine at all, but rather part of a corporate experience and ministry. I’ll share more thoughts about this in light of another passage in John’s Gospel. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.

Missional and Formational in John 17 and 20

Part 10 of series: Missional and Formational?
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In my last two posts, I showed how missional and formational aspects of discipleship are intertwined in John 15. When we remain in the vine, we bear fruit for the kingdom. The remaining-formational reality is inseparable from the fruitful-missional reality.

We see a similar pattern in two other chapters in the Gospel of John. In chapter 17, Jesus prays his so-called “High Priestly Prayer.” Here he speaks clearly of the missional calling of his followers: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18). Given that the word “missional” means, at core, “having been sent,” there isn’t a more clearcut missional text in all of Scripture. Even Jesus was sent by the Father, so we have been sent by Jesus to continue his work, his mission.

Two verses later, Jesus prays concerning what we might call the formation of his followers:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (17:20-23)

Notice what’s involved in the formation that will enable us to fulfill the purpose of our sending. First, we need to be one. We need to be unified to an extraordinary extent: “completely one” even as Jesus is one with the Father. That’s some serious unity! Moreover, we will be able to engage in our mission when we are in the Father and the Son, and when we have their glory.

Here we see, once again, the inescapably relational dimension of our formation as disciples. We are not formed by God as a sculptor forms a statue. Rather, our formation is more like a fetus within a mother. Our formation is essentially relational. But, unlike a fetus, we never outgrow our need to be connected to God for our growth and strength.

It’s also important to point out that the formation envisioned in John 17 is not so much individual as corporate. We who are disciples of Jesus are formed together into a community of unity and witness. We fulfill our mission together. Usually, the language of formation relates to individual Christians and our growth in Christ. There’s nothing wrong with this idea or this way of speaking. But the formation that matters for mission isn’t just individual. It includes God’s people together.

This, it seems to me, is something we must take seriously in our effort to become missional Christians. Too often, we in church leadership have focused so much on the growth of individual Christians that we have neglected the growth of the church as the body of Christ. Both kinds of spiritual growth are essential if the church is to be the missional community God has designed it to be.

John 20 records some post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. In one of these accounts we read:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:21-22)

Here, once again, is the basic missional charge, the sending of the disciples by Jesus, the sent one. Yet notice that Jesus did not send his followers out unequipped for this mission. He breathed on them, giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit who forms and shapes us as individuals and believers. The Spirit at work in us produces the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). The Spirit at work through us produces the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12-14). The Spirit alive in us forms us to be more like Christ in our personal lives and in our communities.

The closing chapters of John underscore the essential relationship between missional and formational. In particular, the sayings of Jesus found her remind us of the relational reality of formation: we are formed in relationship with God and in relationship with each other. As we are formed together into a unified community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to fulfill the mission into which Jesus has sent us, even as he was sent by his Father.