On Sunday I had the chance to preach at the ministry I served at for years. Here’s my message on Luke 19:1-10.
The church is no stranger to theologies of ascent. Julie Canlis, lecturer at Regent College, suggests that Calvin’s voice ought to join the chorus of such theologies. In Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, Canlis argues that Calvin’s voice isn’t drowned out in this chorus but that it sticks out for various reasons, the primary reason being that his theology of ascent is grounded in the concept of participation in Christ.
Canlis suggests that Calvin’s understanding of Christian piety ought to be understood through the concept of Trinitarian koinonia. This koinonia begins with Christ. Christ makes a double movement, that of descent and ascent. In Christ God has come as man to humanity to stand in our place and as man Christ leads us back to the Father. According to Canlis, “The entire Christian life is an outworking of this ascent – the appropriate response to God’s descent to us – that has already taken place in Christ.” (3) Whether one is talking about desire for God, prayer, obedience, vocation, or worship, or ascent, all has been accomplished for humanity vicariously through Christ. Canlis devotes six chapters to unpacking Calvin’s understanding of this vicarious ascent in Christ.
She begins with a survey of various theologies of ascent, including the works of Plato, Plotinus, Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas. These thinkers all tell the story of humanity’s self-empowered (though sometimes assisted by grace) journey towards the divine, in which the individual is the primary agent of ascent. Calvin breaks the mold, making Christ the primary agent of ascent: ascent is not something that fallen humanity does, rather it is something that humans participate in.
She expands upon the theme of participation by beginning with creation. creation’s existence is infused with relationality. In fact, “Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains.” (54) However, humanity has exchanged communion for independence. This is the essence of sin. The solution to the problem of sin would be to reestablish humanity’s existence in communion with God.
Following the chapter on creation, Canlis devotes a chapter to exploring how Christ’s double movement of descent and ascent addresses the problems of fallen humanity. The Son descends fully into humanity, in order that humanity may participate in him. He then ascends, taking humanity up into participation in God’s own life. How is this participation applied to humans? Her fourth chapter is devoted to showing that the appropriation of Christ’s ascent happens through union with Christ, which is enacted by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit not only makes that union objectively true, but the Spirit’s actions in the Lord’s Supper is also the means of grounding and reconstituting that union. (171) The Lord’s Supper is the concretization of the relationship of union and ascent between Christ and Christians.
The fifth chapter is devoted to putting Calvin in conversation with Irenaeus. She argues that neither Calvin nor Irenaeus presents a picture of participation in Christ as something in which humans become less than fully human; rather, through participation in the divine life, humans experience a more deeply human reality. She doesn’t argue for Irenaeus’ direct influence upon Calvin, but notes that there are many important similarities.
Canlis’ final chapter is dedicated to unpacking the implications of the idea that for Calvin “ascent was not ascent of the individual soul but humanity’s participation in the triune communion” which is opened up by Jesus’ ascent. (230) She suggests that Calvin’s theology might have much to contribute to ecumenical dialogue, that it might provide a robust pneumatology that has normally been lacking in Reformed theology, and it might serve as an antidote to the individualistic and reductionistic spirituality so prevalent in our day.
There is much to appreciate in this book. Canlis does a fine job of showing that the concept of mystical ascent into the life of God need not be foreign to Reformed Christianity. Simultaneously, she shows that Calvin’s theology makes a unique contribution to this strand of Christian spirituality. She has also done a fine job in showing how important participation in Christ is to the rest of Calvin’s theology. Calvin’s doctrines of creation, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, the Trinity, and Eschatology cannot be understood apart from the concept of participation.
To say that Canlis has succeeded in these areas is not to say the book does not have its shortcomings. First, one might wonder whether her understanding of the Christian life is too individualistic. Yes, the Christian life might be grounded in participation in Christ, but her interpretation of Calvin on this point does not require that a Christian be in communion with other Christians. The topic of communion with other Christians is surprisingly absent in her discussion of the Lord’s Supper. Second, we may wonder why Canlis doesn’t do more to address her indebtedness to Torranceian theology. Her understanding of the descent/ascent, vicarious humanity of Christ, and grace are explicitly Torranceian. Torrance’s reading of these concepts in Calvin are rather controversial (to say the least), yet she does not address this controversy at any point.
Despite these shortcomings, Canlis ought to be commended for writing a book that makes an important contribution to mystical spirituality from a distinctly reformed position.
Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension by Julie Canlis (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), xii + 286 pp.
I’m not one of those guys. Yes I played sports in High School. Yes I loved sports. Yes I spent all of my free time at the gym….
I worked HARD at football b/c I didn’t have as much natural talent as some other guys. I worked HARD at soccer b/c I wasn’t as fast or accurate as some of the other guys. I worked my butt off to be good at sports. It didn’t come naturally by any means.
Here was my schedule – go to school – go to practice – Spend an hour after practice working out at the school gym – eat dinner – go work out at the gym – find time to get a 4.286 gpa. How the heck did I do that! As soon as I graduated high school I slowly found myself lacking the motivation to work out as much. Yes I would be able to go on crazy work out spurts. Call it being intense, call it binge working out, call it what you will, they never lasted more than 2-3 weeks before I fell back into laziness. Why?
I lacked motivation to maintain discipline!
Think about it. In High School I wanted to be the best, or at the very least competitive. I had a goal set before me. Even more importantly I wanted to help my team win the championship. (By the way we won league and made it to the CIF semi-finals in football.)
Tangible goals that I really believed in motivated me to stay disciplined!
I think the same holds true in Christianity. Why do so many of us struggle to spend time with God through scripture and prayer? Why do so many of us find it a chore to get up 30 minutes earlier to spend time with God but don’t have that same problem when it comes to working out?
At times I will enter my “workout binge” stage. Usually the goal is I want to lose a few pounds or I want to look really good. But those goals are shallow. Even I don’t believe in them enough to put all of my effort into fulfilling them. I think that happens with our time with God as well. We are told that its good to spend time with God, so we should make every effort to do it. We “binge devotion” i.e. read our bibles and pray for 2 weeks but then fall back into our old habits. That is partly b/c we are never given a tangible goal that we really believe in.
What is our tangible goal that we can really believe in? Whatever it is we have to believe that it is of utmost importance. In sports I believed that winning CIF was of utmost importance. Second we must believe that its something worth giving all of our time and energy towards. Third it must happen in community. If I didn’t have a team spurring me on I doubt that I would have been so disciplined in sports.
Is there something in our Christian faith that matches us with these three things? I certainly think there is. So what is that goal?
God’s glory among the nations is an “epic” enough goal to get our butts out of bed every morning to spend time with him.
What if each of us knew that without that time with him we wouldn’t accomplish our goal? What if we believed that those 30 minutes per day could change our lives and could change the world around us. What if we really believed that those 30 minutes could mean the difference between life and death for somebody in an unreached people group on the other side of the world.
God’s glory in the nations is a tangible goal that I can really believe in and give my life to. I don’t feel that way about “my own personal growth.”
Seeking transformation for the sake of transformation is a dead end. Seeking transformation for the sake of God’s glory among the nations is powerful motivation…
The Essence of Coaching – Cultivating a Passion for Developing Leaders
“Faithful leaders will make disciples, but great leaders focus on making other leaders.” -Tom Wood
Here is a simple truth, if leaders are going to grow they NEED someone to coach them. Some leaders will not have a coach so they will turn to books or podcasts to be there coaches. These can be great things but a coaching relationship with an actual human being is way better!
A lot of time leaders serving in churches find themselves overwhelmed by all the stuff that they have to do; as a result the leaders suffer and the ministry suffers as well. Since this is true it is the coach’s responsibility to encourage and support the leader. Sometimes encouragement will take the form of reminding them of who they are in Christ or walking with them along difficulties that they might be having in life. Other times it will take the form of supporting their ministry. You might need to guide them through the skills of leading a Life Group. You can do this by giving them advice, resourcing them, or asking questions to help them think through the issues themselves. Whatever might be the case, the coach’s heart will always have a passion for developing their leaders in whatever way is necessary in that season.
Consider the example of Paul and Timothy. Paul knew the value of coaching younger leaders. As you think through the coaching relationship between Paul and Timothy, a few things jump out. First Paul focused on developing Timothy personally (1 Tim 3:1-13, 2 Tim 2:1). Paul also focused on developing Timothy missionally (1 Tim 5:17, 2 Tim 4:2,5). Finally Paul focused on developing Timothy spiritually (2 Tim 3:14-17). As you can see Paul was deeply interested in developing Timothy’s whole life, and he sought to encourage, equip, and empower him.
The process of developing young leaders begins with knowing those leaders. And I don’t just mean you know what school they go to or where they work, I mean that you know what Jesus is currently doing in their lives. Paul practically lived with Timothy so he knew him well; because of that Paul was able to determine in what specific areas Timothy needed to grown in his leadership. Paul also knew in what specific ways Timothy needed to be encouraged in his spiritual walk. So today lets reflect on the following questions, hopefully they will help us develop our leaders better.
Some Questions to Reflect On:
- What are some ways that your mentors helped develop you in the past?
- What can you learn from your past mentors?
- Did your mentor have an accurate pulse on what God was doing in your life?
- Do you have an accurate pulse on what God is doing in the life of your leader?
- If so what is the lord currently doing in your leader’s life? Where are they growing? Where are they stagnant?
- Where does your leader need to grow in terms of Life Group leading skills?
Hey Friends! This week we start a new series about Lifegroups, specficially coaching Lifegroups. In this series I am going to be working around what Bill Donahue and Greg Bowman call the “Essence” of Lifegroup Coaching.
The Essence of Coaching – Cultivating Transformation
So recently I have been reading some stuff about coaching, specifically a book by two pastors at Willow Creek: Bill Donahue and Greg Bowman. The book has been really helpful for me so I want to share some of the stuff that I have been learning with you. Hopefully it helps!
As we go into this next quarter and year of coaching its important to stop and ask ourselves, what does it take become an effective coach? Better yet we should ask ourselves what is the heart behind this whole coaching thing that we are trying to figure out? Over the next few days/weeks I want to highlight some core elements or fundamentals of coaching. The first fundamental is that coaches embrace a culture of transformation.
As small group leaders and coaches our desire is to see people grow in Christ, we want to see them “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of fullness in Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13) If this isn’t your passion then you are in the wrong business. This is the vision that the apostles had for their followers, for instance Paul in Galatians 4:19 says that he suffers pains like those of childbirth until Christ is formed in them. Also in all of his epistles he is always talking about how he prays incessantly for these churches to know the height depth and width of Christ’s love for them so that they might become more like the Son. So you get the point… our desire is to see transformation. This is a super important fundamental to instill into the people that we are coaching because their Life Group will likely reflect the values we have emphasized in our coaching meetings.
Now as coaches we might run into some difficulties… some Life Group leaders will lose focus when it comes to moving people towards transformation in Christ. Some might approach Life Groups as merely a social gathering or merely a time to learn. These groups will not move into the direction we desire for them, namely personal growth that leads to greater faithfulness in whatever context God has placed them. So as a coach you will need to redirect them and help them focus at the task at hand: creating opportunities to encounter Christ so that transformation might occur.
Before we even approach the task of helping our leaders foster transformation we need to really believe that God is the one who changes lives, not us. We don’t make people grow and people can’t make themselves grow, that is Jesus’ job. Our responsibility (and the responsibility of LG leaders) is to pray, encourage, and challenge those we are shepherding. Point them to Jesus! Exalt him, make him bigger, more beautiful, and more glorious in their eyes and change will happen! Consider 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives growth.”
So once again the point is: God simply asks us to create environments that nurture growth.
So here is how we can do this in our coaching relationships:
- Modeling: What you do and how you do things will likely be the way that those under you end up doing things as well. (1 Cor 11:1)
- Words: Your words are so important. They have the power to build up or tear down. So use your words to encourage and build up. Have ICNU conversations! Always point them to God’s grace in Jesus!
- Prayer: This is obvious. Pray for the people you coach. For some reason God has made it so that our prayers are effective. If we don’t pray we are missing out in what God wants us to partner up with him to do in the lives of these leaders.
- Listening: This skill is easily overlooked. Listen to your leaders more than you talk at them. Listening to your leaders will show that you actually care for them as people, not just as leaders under you.
Some Questions to Reflect On:
- Who has been your most influential model for leadership?
- How do you see yourself leading like them? Unlike them?
- Of the four tools mentioned above (modeling, words, prayer, listening) which ones do you lean towards? What steps could you take to grow in the other areas?
Last time we evaluated where our groups are along the “Changing” pattern. Today we continue this mini-series on spiritual growth in Lifegroups. In this blog we will take a look at some of the things you could be doing for in your Lifegroups to help them move along the change continuum.
Pattern 2: Changing (Steps for Your Group)
So your group wants to change? Or maybe they don’t but you want them to change. Either way God wants them to change and grow, and that is what really matters. If God wants them to grow and become more Christ like then God will make sure it will get done. However this does not mean we sit back lazily and expect God to make us grow. God does the growing in our lives but he calls us to be faithful to that by opening ourselves up to being changed by him.
Lets Make it Grow!
Before we take a look at steps we can take to help our groups move along the various phases of the “change” pattern we need to get one thing VERY clear. There is nothing you can do to make yourself grow. Growth in Christ-likeness is an act (a miracle) of the Holy Spirit. A while ago I had a weird dream about Christian growth. I’m going to throw it out there and hopefully you catch point.
I was out on a huge grass covered field that stretched out as far as the eye could see. And there was a small sapling in the middle of the field. I had a pail and I was watering the tree. As I was watering the tree I was getting frustrated because the stupid sapling wasn’t becoming a tree. And then some guy walks up to me and says: “you can’t make it grow on your own.” And I replied “but this is how you make it grow.” Then I kept watering the tree but once again the guy said “you can’t make it grow on your own.” A little frustrated I told him, “no this is how you make it grow.” I knew in my mind that you make a tree grow by watering it. Thus if I was watering the tree it would grow. And for a third time the guy said “You can’t make it grow on your own.” By now I was pissed off and frustrated so I told the guy “No this is how you make it grow!” Then I woke up.
When I had this dream it was very personal to what I was experiencing in my life and in ministry, however we can extract a truth from it that applies to all Lifegroups and all Christians as they grow. We can know “how to make things grow.” We can know all the right spiritual disciplines or the complexities behind human psychology and human spiritual development, but ultimately its God who creates growth. Without God, growth does not happen. Reading all the right books, spending hours upon hours praying or fasting will not accomplish anything unless God works in you to grow. I’m not saying don’t do those things. After all, we water plants but the growth in the plant is not dependent on us. As Paul says to the Corinthians in his 1st letter: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
So having said that lets move on to how we can be faithful in “watering” and “planting” the seeds of change.
Phase 1 – Learn
- Learn Together: Duh… Here is what I mean though. Pick something to learn about that will get everyone in the group excited. I know we have a set curriculum for our Lifegroups, but there are always things you can add on to help and to encourage your members to grow through learning. For example last quarter Stacey Sturznacker and I added weekly bible reading to our group. Each week we would all read one book of the bible (an epistle) and then we would get together and share what we learned. We chose to do this because it was on everybody’s heart to be in God’s word more consistently. So by choosing something that people were already excited about we were able to learn together.
- Memorize Scripture: This is impossible for me…. But maybe its really easy for you. If any of you did Elevate (our summer discipleship program) you know how beneficial memorizing scripture can be. If you began to memorize scripture your together your group would become much better at speaking truth into one another. Have them memorize scripture and the watch how God will end up using those scriptures in the group!
- Pray Together: At its most basic, prayer is conversation with God. Talking and listening. So what could be better for our growth in Christ than talking to God himself? Here are three quick tips to prayer in groups. Keep it small. You can break of into smaller groups or you can only have a few people pray during prayer times. Either way you don’t want a million people praying. That will take all night. (Unless of course the Spirit prompts your group to spend the night praying instead.) Give it Time. Make sure everyone has enough time to share prayer requests. This means that you will have to keep the clock in mind when leading the discussion but it also means that you will need to keep some loquacious people in check. Don’t let someone dominate this prayer time each week! Guide it well. Cast vision for this time of prayer. Emphasize that God loves to hear our prayers and he desires to answer them for his glory. Emphasize why we pray and how our prayers are effective.
Phase 2 – Growing
- Discuss: Discussion is the crux of our Lifegroups. We center our Lifegroups around the Word because this is where we encounter Christ. Do what you can to keep the discussion flowing. If someone is dominating, help others chime in. If someone is intimidated to share then make sure the group encourages the fact that their opinions are important and valuable. In keeping the discussion flowing make sure you kill tangents. Kill them before they kill your Lifegroup. On another note, allow awkward silences. Silence is not necessarily bad. It might just mean that people are busy thinking. And who knows maybe someone who feels awkward jumping in during the middle of a heated conversation will feel a bit more comfortable sharing during these silences.
- Accountability: A group should feel free to open up and share what is going on in their lives. But first you need to make sure that you stress the importance of confidentiality in Lifegroups. As you stress confidentiality, you will build trust. As you build trust, people in the group will have the confidence that people in the group have eachother’s best interest in mind and are not interested in gossiping. So once trust is build, and the “relational bridge” has a strong foundation. Incorporate a time into your group where people share with one or two individuals (usually of the same gender) the things that God is working on them to grow. We have build this time into our Lifegroups, but you can mix it up and do it in different ways each week. Or else it can easily become a sin pity party. We want to avoid sin pity parties! We want to avoid them because we know that our sins are covered and paid for by the blood of Jesus. Because they are covered we don’t need to live in fear, remorse, condemnation or guilt. We are free to confess sin and expect growth.
Phase 3 – Belong
- Accountability Outside of the Group: One thing that we constantly repeat is that our Lifegroups aren’t meant to be accountability groups, nevertheless our Lifegroups can help us stay accountable. The primary way that we do this is through accountability outside of the group. One of the groups I coached last quarter instituted a system in which each member had another member that they kept accountable and that they prayed for throughout the week. By doing this the group freed up time to spend on discussion, prayer, and worship instead of accountability. So the situation was a win-win. The group had more time to devote to “Lifegroup” activities and everybody received more individualized accountability than would have been offered in the group alone.
- Service:I am firmly believe that the best way to grow is by serving. When you serve you get stretched and put out of your comfort zone. When you serve you often have to learn to rely more on the Spirit and less on yourself. (Of course you could try to do things on your own… good luck with that.) So if you can get your Lifegroup to serve together you will end up seeing growth in the group itself and in the individuals doing the serving.
Hopefully these tips helped! After all it’s our heart that God would create growth in our Lifegroups. I am confident that as we grow deeper in community and as we continue to spur one another towards remembering our identity in Christ we will see growth! And hopefully as you grow closer together and growth happens then the non-Christians in your lives will see the power that God has to change people. As always I’m praying for you, your groups, and the non-Christians around you!
Last time we started the “Changing” pattern. Today we continue this mini-series on spiritual growth in Lifegroups. In this blog we will take a look at some of the various phases that groups find themselves in during this phase.
Pattern 2: Changing (Your Group)
Change… we all aim to change. But stuff so often gets in our way! We might desire to change our health habits but end up getting a Venti Salted Caramel Mocha Latte from Starbucks every day (As I write I am drinking a Venti Salted Caramel Mocha Latte, don’t worry though its non-fat!) Or maybe we decide to change our workout habits, but instead of getting up early to work out before work we end up hitting the snooze button 1 or 2 or 6 times. So what is our problem? Our problem is that change is hard (that’s why I prefer bills to change! Haha I crack myself up!) Anyway change, especially spiritual change is hard, super hard. One of the major (actually it is the major) obstacle to lasting change is a lack of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives. Another major obstacle to change is a lack of understanding our identity in Christ through the gospel. Lifegroups help us address both of these obstacles. In Lifegroups we give the Holy Spirit free range to help us grow more Christ-like. In Lifegroup we come alongside one another and remind ourselves about our identity in Christ. But there is another obstacle to change. A lack of true community…..
Change or Die
In his book Change or Die journalist Alan Deutschman did some research into how people change. One thing that he found consistently in all people and groups that changed was community. “When people connected with a community that helped them, change was possible. Without community people rarely changed, and when they did, it didn’t last.” By using this book, Bill Search points out that community, especially communities of believers are a major factor in our growth and change process. If its true that community helps us change and grow, how much more will a Christ centered and Spirit led community help us grow?!?!
The Change Continuum
Bill Search likes continuums and I do too. So I think that Bill is right in saying that “just like the relational pattern of connecting, the growth pattern of change is a continuum.” When thinking about the change continuum we must keep two things in mind. First, in defining change we must keep in mind that change does not equal becoming perfect. That is a standard that none of us can attain, nevertheless we remain hopeful that God will one day make us perfect. We remain hopeful that God wants to draw us closer and closer to his son and also that God will make us more and more Christ-like in our spiritual journey. Second, when talking about change we need to know that some people will grow slow and stead, while others will shoot up like weeds. Your Lifegroup will contain both types of people. So you need to be mindful of that. These phases along the change continuum is meant to address the group as a whole, not necessarily individuals.
Phase 1 – Learn
Last time we talked about the notion that growing in knowledge does not equal growing spiritually. However growing in knowledge is a huge part in our process of change. This is a very important stage, especially for people who are new. When you are new, everything you learn can be exciting and awe inspiring. This phase will have people learning new things all the time. They will read the bible and find cool things. They might point out how cool it is that The Lord’s Supper is so similar to Passover or that Jesus was prophesied about in the Old Testament. And as they learn these cool new things they will want to discuss them in Lifegroup. However your job as a Lifegroup leader is to help shift the focus to the question “why does this matter?” (not in a mean and demeaning way) but in a “what does this mean to you?” way. Ask them how this impacts their lives and their view of who God is. Use their eagerness to learn in order to foster spiritual transformation.
How can you tell that you are in this phase? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is most of your group time spent during the “Word” portion of the night?
- Do most of your members enjoy the “Word” part of the night over the other parts?
Phase 2 – Grow
The growing phase is visible when the emphasis shifts from learning truths to applying them. This group will be more concerned about applying what God is showing them than merely learning more things. A group in this phase helps each person grow by challenging and encouraging one another to apply truth and they build that person up when they see that person living out the truths they are learning. For example someone in your group has been sharing that they are beginning to see the theme of patience running through the Bible. If you are in this stage you will ask the person: Who do you need to be patient with in your circle of influence? Is it your roommates? Your parents? Your girlfriend? When they come back and share the next week and they say that they failed at being patient, encourage them! If they say they were successful celebrate the fact that God is transforming them!
How can you tell that you are in this phase? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do your group members openly discuss areas in which they need to personally grow?
- Do people in your group share testimonies of the things God is doing in their lives?
- Do they ask to be held accountable for their actions?
- Do they confess their sins to one another?
Phase 3 – Transform
We can hope for and expect transformation to happen now through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although there are some sins that we seem to be captive to, the truth is that Jesus has defeated sin and has set us free. We just need to allow his reign to take over these parts of our lives. I want you to stop for a minute and think… in the last few months where have you been transformed? How has Christ been growing you? Ask yourself the question: “Who am I becoming in Christ?” These are the same questions you need to be asking your group if they are in this stage. Always remember though that in this stage you want to build up, not tear down. Because it is love and kindness that lead to repentance and growth not condemnation.
How can you tell that you are in this phase? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do group members point to areas where they feel they have experienced victory?
- Can the group affirm one another in the areas of change they are seeing?
- Do group members discuss what they are doing in order to grow in a certain area?
Evaluating Your Group
Next time we will be taking a look at how we can move up on the continuum of changing phases. But for now I leave you with a couple of questions and some food for thought. First go ahead and Read Colossians 3:1-17. How does this passage image impact your understanding about growth for your Lifegroup? Then ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the basis for our change?
- What are we to put to death?
- What are we supposed to put on?
- How is your Lifegroup doing in these areas (v. 12-17)
- Do the members of your Lifegroup understand the point or the goal of change?
I hope that these questions help you think through some key issues in our pattern of changing, and that you are led to pray for God to show up in your group to create the change He wants to see. I know I’m praying that for my own group and I’m praying that for yours as well.