Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The American Dream & Community

Does the American Dream hinder small group life? Does it stymie the experience of community and mission?

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French philosopher who traveled America in the 1800s to observe our culture in its early stages of development. He wrote, "[Americans] are extremely eager in the pursuit of immediate material pleasures and are always discontented with the position that they occupy. ... They think about nothing but ways of changing their lot and bettering it. ... One usually finds that the love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything that Americans do."

Translated into today's lingo, the American Dream is about having more money so that we can get more stuff.

If our natural reaction to this statement is something like "What's wrong with that?" then we need to look inside our hearts and see what's going on. Over the years, I've seen how Christian culture actually promotes this mindset. The activity of the Kingdom of God is measured by how much you are or are not "blessed." Of course, blessing gets translated as financial blessings, never mind the fact that the Beattitudes in both Matthew 5 and in Luke 7 do not in any way equate financial increase with the blessings of Jesus. If we are honest, it's hard to deny the reality that American prosperity has caused us to read the Bible through the lens of privilege, as if people of privilege have done something right in order to have all of this stuff. We are living the dream. And anything that stands in the way of that dream should be set aside.

On the other had, shouldn't we be asking if the American Dream is really a veiled nightmare. Has the American Dream so consumed us that we are being consumed by consumption. Has consumerism become an unconscious habit that it has created a way of life that we no longer call into question. And thereby it shapes our spirituality without our even knowing it. Might we be caught in a never-ending cycle of consumeristic spirituality?

Consumerism impacts debt, time and energy. Dept increases (See stats for yourself). The more stuff we have, the more time it takes to take care of it. And as we purchase more, the more energy we need to invest into what we own, usually coming in the form of mental energy. All of this contributes to increased stress. This stress leads us to try and fix things. We think that the problem is the debt, time, and energy. So we focus our efforts on fixing those issues so that we can 

To say that this does not impact our ability to live in community and join in with God's mission in the world is to ignore reality. We try to add small group life on top of this cycle, but we remain consumed by consumerism. We might even take a class on how to manage our money better or how to simplify and get rid of our stuff so that we have more time and energy. But if we focus on fixing debt, time and energy, we are feeding the cycle of consumerism. We are not addressing the lie that drives the system that we live in. Of course we need to have wisdom in our finances and we need to manage our time and energy well, but if we don't address the source of the pain, we are only taking pain-killers to manage it.

How do we change this? How do we chop away at the root of consumerism. According to Walter Brueggemenn, one key way is through practicing Sabbath. In comments on the Sabbath command in Exodus 20, he writes in his book Sabbath as Resistance, "There had been no Sabbath in Egypt, no work stoppage; no work stoppage for Pharaoh who worked day and night to stay atop the pyramid. There had been no work stoppage for slaves, because they had to gather straw during their time off; no work stoppage of anybody in the Egyptian system, because frantic productivity drove the entire system. An now YHWH nullifies the entire system of anxious production. ... The limit is set by the weekly work pause that breaks the production cycle. And those who participate in it break the anxiety cycle. They are invited to awareness that life does not consist in frantic production and consumption that reduces everyone else to threat and competitor. And as the work stoppage permits a waning of anxiety, so energy is redeployed to the neighborhood. The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is to counter anxious productivity with committed neighborliness. The latter practice does not produce so much; but it creates an environment of security and respect and dignity that redefines the human project" (27-28).

Practicing Sabbath is so much more than taking a day off so that we can go to church and do a lot of church activities. So many turn the Sabbath into spiritual anxiety whereby we are trying to produce something for God. And so many do this with their groups. Getting together in a small group becomes an anxious chore where we seek to make something happen.

Sabbath practice is about entering into the rest of God and making time for the gifts of each other. This is God's indirect way of undermining consumerism and the American Dream.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Agape Love: Theory or Experience?

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. —Eph 3:17-19 

The summer after I graduated from Texas A & M, I was helping my dad on a construction job. He was purchasing a piece of machinery that would dig holes in solid rock. The salesman spent some time with us as we tested out the machine. During our conversation, he asked what I did. After I told him that I had just graduated from college, he responded, “Oh, no experience. There is nothing like experience.”

Business & FinanceLuckily, I’m not the type that is easily offended by direct words. And I knew that I was green. I knew that I needed experience, but I was not afraid of being young either. I just did not realize that graduating with honors and all of the knowledge floating around in my head actually qualified me for so little. I spent most of that summer driving a tractor for twelve hours a day, and my first full-time job all of $18,000 with no benefits.

Knowing love is a little like job experience. It is not something that we can read about in a book or go to classes to understand. Love is known as we experience it. Theoretical knowledge is not a bad thing—neither was getting my undergraduate degree—as it can help you sort out your thinking. It helps us articulate various aspects of God’s love and how it is different from human love. It gives us the ability to preach sermons about how God loves us. But if we stop there, it is very possible to actually miss out on what love is.

Consider this: the Bible is primary made up of stories about the experience of a people who encounter God and follow him. And the parts that are not stories, the Psalms, prophetic literature and the epistles, are addressing specific situations that the people of God face as they try to follow God. In other words, it is very difficult to find pure propositional teaching in the Bible that clearly defines who God is.

Even the statement “God is love” is set in a specific context in 1 John. Love is a word that requires “filling” if we are going to understand what it means. John fills it by stating that love is seen in Jesus. More specifically, it filled by Jesus’ actions on the cross. The Son of God is the full expression of the love of God.

If we want to know love, then we must know the Son. We must encounter the Son through an experience of his presence. This means that we are drawn into the life of love that the Father has for the Son by the Holy Spirit. This is more than abstract theology or theoretical knowledge. It is a lived experience or it is not knowledge.

In the modern world, knowledge is something that we attain through a logical process of testing a proposition and determining if that proposition actually has facts to support it.

If we import this way of thinking about knowledge into our knowledge of love and of God, then we will assume that learning about God is down in a logical vacuum that is void of experience, emotion or interaction with other people. Knowledge of God then becomes an exercise of trying to figure God out—assess his attributes and then define who God is and who he is not.

But knowledge of God is personal knowledge, the kind of knowledge that only comes through encounter. When we encounter God, it is experiential. Emotions are usually involved. And most often God uses people in some form or fashion.

We grow in the knowledge of love as we receive love, give love and live in love. We won’t be able to figure love out and then move on as if we got an “A” in the Love Class. We can only know God as we learn to love him and receive his love. Knowing God is a journey of knowing love, an unpredictable, uncontrollable, relational journey. We have to let love (and God) be free without trying to define it and determine what it is. Relationships just don’t work that way. And neither does a relational God.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Missional Church & Being Apostolic

Missional refers to being "sent." It relates to the apostolic nature of the church. The Greek word apostolos means a delegate, envoy, messenger. In other words, "one who is sent." We tend to think of the word "apostle" as a term we have inherited directly from the New Testament, and therefore we think of it terms of a group of early church leaders who were conveyors of Christ's message. "The church is build upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets." (Eph 2:20) We also see it as a function of leadership in the church (Eph 4:8).

But the term apostle in the first century was a everyday word, used by everyday people. Documents outside the New Testament use the term to refer to things like "the sending out of troops" or the "sending out of a ship." (BAGD)
Animals & Wildlife
This can help remove the religious connotations from the reference that the church as "apostolic." We are simply saying that the church is sent out into the world to be what Eugene Peterson calls "a colony of heaven in a country of death." (Practice Resurrection, 12) The church is not called out as an enclave from the world. It is called out in the midst of the world. The church is a gathering people who live distinctively in the midst of the "principalities and the powers of the air." Peterson writes, "Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurted kingom of God in this world."

The church is apostolic in its nature, but what does it mean to be apostolic in its practice? What we are should determine what the church does. And what the church does should shape what the church organizes. (See Craig Van Gelder's The Essence of the Church for his threefold description of the  church as 1. The church is. 2. The church does what it is. 3. The church organizes what it does.) In other words, we must start with the question of what the church is and not immediately jump to questions about how to be apostolic.

But nonetheless, it seems that most of our conversations about the missional church immediately jump to the How questions. We leap to a critique of how the church has failed to be apostolic (missional) and then we develop of strategies that will release the "apostolic impulse."

While I'm in favor of such strategies, the How questions are not primary. We start with the What questions: What does it mean to be missional? What does being apostolic mean in our culture today? What does it mean to be a sent people? However, too often, I find that we try to answer the What questions wrongly. We come to the What questions with an expectations that we will get to the How questions very quickly. We want to know how to be a sent people so that we can obey and do it.

This often results in a lot of good activity, in a myriad of Gospel-looking ministries. We read the Bible about how God has called us to things like evangelism, to social justice, to caring for the poor and the widows, to feeding the hungry, along with confronting issues like sickness, abuse, social inequality, racism, and sexism. So we put our shoulders into the effort and get to work. We are a "sent people" doing what God cares about.

We tend to make missional about fulfilling a list of missional actions that God cares about so we can measure the impact we are having on the world.  We know that the church is sent by God. We know that we are to live like Jesus, to care about what Jesus cared about when he walked the earth. We know that there are great needs in our world and that the church is God's agent to bring the Gospel to those needs. The Bible says so. Let's get busy doing it. 

On the surface this might look good, but we are answering the What questions in the wrong way. It feels like the old adage "running around like a chicken with its head cut off"? On our farm, we would raise, about 50 chickens every year and I got to witness this first hand. It's what happens when the body of a chicken is detached from it's head.

When we answer the What questions rightly, we see that jumping to the How questions can lead to a lot of good stuff but also to detachment from the head of the body of Christ. First we must go to the Who questions.

Mission depends first and foremost of all on the union and the communion we share with the Father in Christ through the Spirit. We do not send ourselves. We do not activate our sentness. A messenger (apostle in the generic sense) of a king is a messenger at all times, but the messenger does not send himself. His ability to be an effective messenger depends upon his relationship with the king. And under no uncertain terms does the messenger ever write his own message. Likewise, the king of the kingdom of God has sent the church, but this requires a living experience of communion with the king within the existential realities in which we live.

It's as if we assume that we have been and are good at being in union and in communion with the the head, the one who sends and goes with the body. We act as if all we have wrong is the fact that we do not act as a "sent" body. As a result, we make ourselves the agent of our mission. Yes, God is a missional God, and yes we have a theology that states how God sends the church, but we are left to ourselves to figure out what it means to be sent. 

Instead of jumping to How questions about how we can be missional or how we can have an impact upon our world, let's put the How questions in their proper place. Missional is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Union with Christ is essential to our mission. Without this, we are left to ourselves, doing mission as if God is a distant being who told us what to do when he wrote the Bible but is not involved in our midst right here and now. 
  • What is the church?: The church is the body of Christ, sent by God to live in the midst of the world to participate with God in the Gospel life.
  • Who sends?: The Father sent the Son and upon the ascension of Christ, the Spirit was sent into the world to continue the work of the Son, as the ongoing presence of God. Our sentness is rooted in our union with Christ by the Spirit. Whatever we do is based in the fact that the Spirit is already doing it.
  • What, when, and where are we being called participate with God in mission?: We answer this question as we learn to discern what the Spirit is doing in, through, and around us.
  • How do we organize what we do?: Again, we answer this question as we develop the capacity to follow the guidance of the Spirit.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Rules of Agape Love?

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. —Philippians 2:3-4

When Shawna and I were engaged to be married. I was reading every marriage book that I could find. I wanted to be the best husband that I could be. So I read, I prayed about what I read, and I reread parts that stood out. And I read all of the right books, if you know what I mean.
One night I was sat confused about what I had just read from one of the most noted marriage authors. What he had said contradicted the advice of the book I had finished earlier in the week by another reputed Christian marriage counselor. I was getting stressed as I looked for the right methods of being a good husband. These books were laying out the rules for loving my wife-to-be, but the rules were different. I wanted to throw the books across the room.

Then I had a thought that changed everything, “If I value Shawna above myself, then we will probably have a pretty good marriage.” I had been reading these books from the wrong point of view. My focus was wrong. I was focused on how I could be a good husband, on how I could be a heroic man for my soon-to-be wife. That focus was causing me to miss the point entirely.

Now we have been married nearly 16 years and with that there have been some relational challenges. But every time we’ve had rough waters, I’ve found that I was not considering her more important than myself.

Isn’t this true of any relationship or any experience of community? There is no way to package up Phil 2:3-4 and boil it down to a set of universal principles that can be applied to any marriage. In fact, I have found that the way that I have considered Shawna more important than myself has varied through the years. It’s based on the law of love, the law of agape, which means self-sacrificial, other-oriented, choice-based love. When we are focused on ourselves, we miss the point of love because we are not seeing the other person. We are only looking at ourselves. Let’s look at this a little further so that we can get on the same page regarding this law of agape.
  • Other-oriented—which basically means turn our eyes to understand the other person. We allow them to be them without the need to fix them, teach them or to make them into anything but who God made them to be. We learn to listen to who they are and listen them into a new reality. We are not self-focused trying to get from the other person.
  • Self-sacrificial—By this I don’t mean self-depricating or self-loathing where a person puts others ahead of themselves because they view everyone else as being having more value than they have. It means that we love ourselves enough and see ourselves as having something to offer enough that we can sacrifice ourselves for the sake and the good of another person. 
  • Choice-based—Love like this cannot be forced or coerced. You cannot express agape because you feel that you must or because you are trying to be the right kind of Christian leader. It is something we freely choose to give another person.
This is the mind or attitude of Christ (Phil 2:5) which he displayed on the cross. This is how the Holy Spirit works in and through us today, changing us from the inside out so that we embody this kind of love for others. This is not about following some set of predetermined rules regarding what this love looks like. It’s “adopting this attitude” so that we can make room for the Spirit of God to shape us to be this kind of people.

What's the Point of Small Groups In Your Church?

Over the last 25 years as a writer, editor, trainer and consultant about all things small groups, and I’ve come across many different motivations for doing small groups. Some of the primary reasons provided for doing small groups include:

Church Growth. Small group ministry is a key ingredient to growing a church. All of the largest churches in the world have some form of small group structure. 

Closing the "Back Door" of the Church. Small groups are used as a way to connect people who attend on Sundays. This seems to be the prominent goal of most small group resources that are on the market.

Evangelism. Statistics have proven over and over again that most people are led to the Lord through relationships with either a friend or a family member. Small group evangelism is dependent upon friendship connections with the lost.

Church Health. Research on church health factors has revealed that small groups have the most impact on church quality. In fact, all of the healthiest churches around the world have developed effective small group systems.

Personal Growth. People grow in their relationship with God when they have the opportunity to process what they are learning with other people. Small groups provide the environment for this kind of processing.

Biblical Model. Ardent advocates of small groups adopt this approach to ministry because they want to return to the way of doing church demonstrated in the New Testament.

Going "Missional". Now groups—both small and mid-size strategies—are being adopted because pastors want to move their church in a "missional" direction.

All of these reasons for doing small groups are valid at some level. Most pastors like these reasons because they are very practical in nature. Each reason points to tangible results that small groups can offer. However, none of these reasons actually deals with the real issue that we face as leaders. Each one pointed to the church itself; improving the church was the end game.

Games & AnimeI've found that the reason we do small groups also becomes our focus, that upon which we place our primary attention.

We need to make sure that our reason to do small groups and therefore our focus lines up with Jesus' agenda. To discover this, I had to look beyond the church itself and discover the bigger intention of God. The first words of Jesus recorded by Mark are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14, NRSV). Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, something much bigger than the structures of the church that would follow his ascension. He pointed to something that extended beyond the realm of the religious struc- tures. He came preaching the kingdom of God, calling people to align their lives with the good news of the kingdom. The kingdom comes first in the order of God, not the church or small groups.

Jesus instructed us, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). I often find church leaders seeking first the development of their church through a small group structure. They seek church growth, closing the back door, evangelism, church health, personal growth, a biblical model, and missional strategies. All good things, but the good is often the enemy of the best. Many times, the good results that we seek stand in the way of the kingdom of God. Jesus says that if we seek the kingdom, he will take care of all our concerns. This means that he will take care of the concerns of church leaders: growth, evangelism, health, interpersonal con- nections, personal growth, and being a biblical church.

In a dialogue with a prominent church growth consultant about prioritizing the kingdom of God in my teaching on small groups and church leadership, he expressed that the goal of seeking the kingdom was too idealistic. He commented that we just need to know what to do. We seem to assume that we already have a good theology of the kingdom and all we need are practical strategies that will produce results. After all, don't we seek the kingdom through things like church growth, evangelism, and the like. If we develop small groups that close the back door, aren't we seeking the kingdom?


But maybe not.

I don't think it wise to assume that we know how to connect the dots between our theology of the kingdom and our small group practices. And if we jump straight to pragmatic approaches for building small groups that get results (numbers) then we must question if we are building groups on the right foundation. So in this light, let me propose a few things that the kingdom means for us as we develop groups:
  1. The kingdom is about life, the way we live, not just about the way we do church. The two are not mutually exclusive, but if we focus on church first, then we may actually be working against "abundant life." What does it mean to develop groups that promote life and not just a small groups program?
  2. The kingdom is about the restoration of all things, not just about advancement of the church or the building of great small groups. Again, the two are not mutually exclusive, but if we start with church, then we may actually be building the church in a way that competes with the restoration of all things. What does it mean to focus on the restoration of all things when we are responsible for the development of a small group system?
  3. The kingdom is about the ways of the king, the non-violent, cross-dying messiah. What does this have to do with the way we develop groups?
  4. The way of the king in this kingdom is the way of the Spirit. Jesus said, "I will build my church." This means that God is active in the building of the church. What does this mean for small groups?
I'll be exploring these questions over the next few weeks on Tuesdays, as that is the day that I have dedicated to small group blogging. I'd love to hear others' input along the way. 

Photo Credit: Focus tease abstract mind teasers mystockphoto.com

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Missional Church & Failure

Richard Rohr often states that we learn a lot more from our failures than we do from our successes, a claim that he applies to our personal journey in life and with Jesus. But it also has bearing upon leading the church on mission. Christian leaders often enter into ministry with a theological worldview that is shaped by a theology of triumph. The common assumption is that the goal of the missional leader is to lead people from one triumph to the next. As a result, leaders pursue success, action and control. They set vision, analyze current realities, and then establish strategies. This is a model of leadership shaped by the Enlightenment paradigm of scientific predictability. In this paradigm, there is no room for suffering, no room for failure, only triumph.

Mission can be, and is often led from a theology of triumph. Leaders know the mission of God. Leaders strategize the mission. Then leaders implement the mission. And as a result, mission is done as if God does not exist. Again the Enlightenment paradigm shapes how we think and act.

ReligionOne church leader told me that her pastor caught a vision for missional life. He bought a few books, passed them out to his key leader and they set out a strategy to make this vision work. He attacked it like he had done all of the other previous church strategies in the past. And he assumed that he could succeed in like manner. All he did was add a ton of stress to his leaders.

In contrast, we must ask an alternative question: Is it possible that the way one discovers the mission of God is through what the “modern” control paradigm would label as failure? Whether through the struggles of unjustified attacks by parishoner, transitions that come as we engage people from different cultures, or the fact that our preaching is no longer connecting with people, we are faced with realities that we cannot control. And as a result, we cannot avoid failure. Instead of moving from one success to the next, we discover the reality of the mission of God in our context and in the current time through failure. Because failures train us to ask different questions, as opposed to relying upon all that we have found successful in the past.

Failure and suffering paves the way for leaders to enter into the life of God. “God is love,” and love is defined by the suffering of Christ. Self-sacrificial love is the way of God. That which the Enlightenment paradigm would call failure is how God’s character is manifest.

This is not to glorify suffering or failure for its own sake. Nor is it a rejection of success. It’s simply a redefinition of success, as it recognizes that the resurrection comes on the other side of the cross and applies that principle to leadership. We discover the mission of God, and thereby enter into one’s local context in this specific time with the appropriate action. While not predetermined or planned action from a boardroom within the church, this action is discovered along the way, as the people of God engage their local context, embracing the suffering that comes as a result. We fail their way into mission.

Failure and suffering creates within leaders a sense of urgency because failure paves the way to die to what we think we can do in mission. Entering into an experience of death generates a hunger for something new, and in this place leaders discover new ways to engage and generative ways of leading others to engage.

Photo Credit: Psalm 73:26 Christian Photo Files Free | Free Photo Files

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Beyond "Applying the Bible to Our Lives" Christianity

I grew up in small church in rural North Texas called Foote Baptist Church. The pictures below depict the actual building restored back to it's early 20th century look. When I say "I grew up" I mean that. I spent a ton of time in that old school house church building. It was just part of my childhood. And listening to sermons was part of my childhood. There was not children's church. That was the day when we sat with the adults.

As I've reflected on the sermonizing of my childhood, I realized that there was a basic pattern to them. It went like this:
  • Part 1: The Passage and What it Said—In this part, the pastor would identify the passage and explain what it was about.
  • Part 2: The Meaning of the Passage—Here would come the interpretation.
  • Part 3: Application—Here is where we were challenged to implement the passage to our lives.
This approach to sermons was based upon something called decision-based ethics, which assumes that when we hear the truth that we should be able to apply the truth by making a decision to change our lives. The Bible commands it so we should obey those commands. If we make the right decisions, then we will live our lives in accordance with the Gospel.

The problem with this is that it requires "us" to be the agent who enacts the Gospel. Our decision to obey is the focus. It detracted us from see how the Spirit was forming us that went deeper than our surface decisions.

As I reflected on my childhood at Foote Baptist Church, I've realized that the way I learned to respond to God did not line up very well with the assumptions of the preaching. Even though the preaching typically ended with some kind of call to action or decision, this is not how I was formed in my ethics. The reality of my ethical development as a child at Foote Baptist Church did not come through a command-obedience, decision-based ethics. Instead, my ethics was formed through the story of Foote Baptist Church and the practices that were are part of that story. This was the story that we told in our life together, the story lived by patriarchs of the church like Smith and Pauline Roberts, the story of people like my parents who served there. It was the story of faithful people who worshipped, who loved, and who sacrificed for one another. Ultimately this was based in the story we heard in our every week in our sermons, the story of the love of God displayed by Jesus on the cross. But somehow we did not understand the importance of the story and how it formed us, so we focused a lot of attention on application and decisions.

This story and the corresponding practices that flowed with that story, shaped my character. It became part of who I am. I learned the story of God by watching is play out in the character of the people called Foote. The people with whom I shared life shaped me.

The problem was that I did not have words to describe how my ethical formation really worked. I learned a set of rules—applications and decisions—of what good Christians did and what good Christians did not do. As I grew older, I focused more and more on those rules. And I focused more and more on my being the primary agent in my journey as a Christian. The story became all about me and what I did or did not do.

Looking back, I was truly blessed by the story of Foote, and now I've begun to develop a language to describe the formation by the Spirit that was occurring under our noses. Here's a brief explanation.

Our walk with Christ is more about our being than it is about our decisions. Being is about who we are or our character. Character aligns with the story of a group's life together and is shaped by the practices of that story. When the story of cross-like love shapes the story of a church, it defines their character and the practices it adopts. As a result, the decisions being made will flow out of that character.

Instead of deciding to act the right way, we live into the practices of the story that will shape our decisions regarding how we act. 

N. T. Wright speaks to how individual Christians develop the character of Christ in his award-winning book After You Believe. By interacting with the writings of the New Testament authors and many writers who have identified how an individual develops a virtuous lifestyle, he demonstrates how a person does not simply decide himself into a faithful disciple by will and effort. Instead, he adopts a set of practices that over time forms his character into that of a faithful disciple. Wright makes the point this way:

"It was Aristotle, about 350 years before the time of Jesus, who developed the threefold pattern of character formation. … There is the first the “goal,” the telos, the ultimate thing we’re aiming at; there are then the steps you take toward that goal, the “strengths” of character which will enable you to arrive at the goal; and there is the process of moral training by which these “strengths” turn into habits, become second nature."

We need practices that can eventually develop into habits which will change our character. Think of it this way:

Choices turn into practices.
Practices become habits.
Habits cultivate character.
Character shapes our ethical decisions

At first glance, this might still look like we are focusing on decisions because the first line talks about our "choices." But the choice is largely based on the story in which we will participate. I grew up in a story called Foote Baptist Church. I did not make an overt choice as a baby, but subsequently, I've chosen to participate with others in other stories. For instance, when I went to Texas A & M for undergrad, I made a choice to participate in the story of a student ministry called the Baptist Student Union. That story of shared life with those people shaped my practices. I could have chosen to enter into another story and make another community my primary group, and that group would have shaped my practices in different ways.

If you choose to participate in the story of "climb the latter at work until you reach the top," then you will be shaped by the practices of a community that will develop into habits that will shape your character, that will determine your decisions.

If you make a choice to participate in the story of "I'm a victim of my circumstances," then you will be shaped by the practices of a community that supports those habits and displays that character.

Many such examples could be added.

The story you choose will correlate with the community with whom you share life. In other words, our character is shaped by the community with whom we share life because our character is shaped by stories not just decisions. The story of the church is a story that should be shaped by the cross. (We won't talk about whether this is actually the case in churches today; that's a different conversation.)

Making decisions that are cross-like rides the back of cross-like character. This character is developed through habits. And these habits are developed through practices. In order to change the character so that it lines up with the relational way we must develop new practices. Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way,

"To emphasize the idea of character is to recognize that our actions are also acts of self-determination; in them we not only reaffirm what we have been but also determine what we will be in the future. By our actions we not only shape a particular situation, we also form ourselves to meet future situations in a particular way. Thus the concept of character implies that moral goodness is primarily a prediction of persons and not acts, and that this goodness of persons is not automatic but must be acquired and cultivated."

This stands in contrast to many approaches of spirituality today that promote making decisions that are radical or zealot like in order to line up with the teachings of Jesus. That approach calls for Gospel heroes. What I'm calling for here are Gospel saints who live in a way with others that shapes their character.

This idea of character challenges us to go beyond trying harder to make the right decisions. It calls us to think about our life in Christ as something that we already are, while at the same time we are becoming. It's a paradox. It is not "automatic but must be acquired and cultivated." The choices we make now as a community will have a direct bearing on our ability to live out the life of Christ in the future. This is why we cannot simply think in terms pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and making it happen. This is not about effort. This is not about producing decisions that line up with God's will.

The Spirit is forming us through the story of our community that shapes our practices. Through this, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Of course, we make decisions and we apply the truth of the Gospel to our lives, but this is not the primary way to faithfully follow Christ. It's actually pretty far down on the list.