Toward the end of the last decade, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church made a confession that resonates with many pastors: “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders. We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
What was pastor Hybels really saying? He was acknowledging that all the energy and methods Willow Creek (and a myriad of other churches) had invested in simply didn’t produce the type of discipleship maturity Jesus talked about.
Most pastors will admit this same thing. We do church quite well, but we’re disturbingly inept at the actual practice of transformational disciple making.
History of conversion
In his important book, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, Alan Kreider unpacks how, in the church’s first 300 years of existence, leaders held three key dynamics in tension when it came to the converted follower of Christ: belief (worldview and theology), belonging (the people of God as one’s primary family), and behaviour (living in obedience to the ethics of the kingdom and rejecting the lust, the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life).
The rise of Christendom in the fourth century “converted” conversion, says Kreider, into something that increasingly involved mere intellectual assent to certain beliefs. Western Christianity moved from holding belief-belonging-behaviour in tension to emphasizing belief alone: if you believe the right things, the right way, taught by the right people, you’re converted.
Over time, the Christian world adopted this as gospel, and relegated belonging and behaviour to the back burner (or to the special calling of the monastic). In theory, belonging and behaviour were still important. But they became second- and third-class passengers on a heaven-bound flight.
In fact, belonging almost missed the plane entirely when it got confused in the departure lounge for nationalism and patriotism. The full fruit of this was the entirely false and unbiblical notion of the “Christian nation.” This geographically bound vocabulary is never part of the New Testament’s understanding of the people of God.
In a well-motivated response during the post-Reformation period, several Christian groups sought to reclaim the belief-belonging-behaviour balance. But some swung the pendulum the other way, elevating behaviour to obtuse heights, making belief a third-class passenger on a legalistic flight to self-righteousness. It crept in slyly, but soon people began to understand their conversion as something founded on the clothes they wore or things they didn’t do, rather than in the power of grace to overcome all our filthy rags and even our most lurid secrets.
Add a millennium and a half of history to this story and it’s not surprising that we – even in the evangelical-Anabaptist world – end up where we are: aware that we’re not really seeing as much “real” conversion as the first church experienced, and disheartened by a Christianity equated not with full-scale life change and freedom, but worship-style preferences and anti-whatever stances.
Living as citizens of a different kingdom
And so we end up at the place of Willow Creek’s courageous confession. It’s not that the church hasn’t provided good teaching (we’re drowning in books and information), or worked hard to help people belong (though it’s mostly about where we attend Sunday morning, rather than how we understand primary family).
But we’ve only haphazardly apprenticed believers to lead a “new life in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We fail to emphasize a manner of living, freedom, and soul-rest (Sabbath and shalom) that says we’re citizens of a different kingdom.
Consequently, people seek miraculous interventions for Christ-like character formation, leading to a misunderstanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, who is both a patient counsellor and hard-nosed personal trainer.
This affects the fruit of Christian living and discernment. Converts to Christ from the first centuries might wonder if we believe in Jesus, but not most of what he said! Have we unwittingly placed ourselves on the flip side of this statement: “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32, NLT)?
Jesus made no distinction between belief, belonging, and behaviour. When Jesus’ followers embody this full conversion, they discover not only belief (truth) and belonging (you are mine), but a new way of behaving (obedience that leads to freedom).
Orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) meet here, in Jesus Christ. In the life of the one who abides in Christ, there’s a freedom for which many in our fellowships ache.
Why do most churches have calendars belching with activity and masses of gifted pastors, yet lament about discipleship as the missing piece? Why don’t we see more freedom from the “old life”? Why are so many Christians blessed in every conceivable way, yet keenly aware of a cavernous void, frustrated with their churches for not meeting their needs?
If we want to be churches with the capacity to see the wholeness of conversion in people’s lives, we must be equipped and prepared. Many of our churches invest loads of resources to be “relevant” communicators of God’s good news in Christ. But are we as invested in converting people post-service in a post-Christian world? Are we creating space and relationships for the long journey toward freedom that people are searching for in an increasingly lonely, diverse, addicted, distracted, and fractured society?
Many churches do point people toward small groups. This is good and does bear fruit that restores some of the belief-belonging-behaviour balance; at least in theory.
In practice, however, many small groups don’t press toward or even expect the transformational freedom Jesus talks about – because, often, the transformative Jesus isn’t central to our activities. In our small groups, is there a collective hunger to be confronted, comforted, and still further converted by the community of the Trinity?
We seem content with taste-test versions of the kingdom. How can we raise the bar? How do we become people who thirst for what the old hymn writer called “more and deeper communion”? The danger for most churches, in the words of the late Dallas Willard, is “pitching its message too low.”
But there is hope. People are discovering (and rediscovering) the works of Willard, Neil Cole’s Life Transformation groups, and Freedom Session (see sidebar). They’re turning to resources such as the writings of Bonhoeffer, the ancient practices of John Wesley’s class-meetings, the Examen of St. Ignatius, and the Daily Office. Many believers are moving into the freedom of the converted life.
In many ways, we find ourselves with the same opportunities as the pre-Christendom church. We increasingly reach those who are ignorant about the biblical story, not completely unaware but blind to the roots of their bondage and its fallout, and without the types of friendships that support through the hard stuff of life.
We are surrounded by people, even in our churches, thirsting for the converted life – that new life that should be found among those who know the One who truly, and only, sets free.
One congregation’s journey to freedom
A couple years ago, our church in Surrey, B.C. went through a challenging stretch. Gracepoint Community Church’s issues – like any family’s – were complex. But our fracturing of the belief-belonging-behaviour dynamic certainly contributed to our dysfunction. It left us reeling and in need of recovery. We were hurt, caused hurt, and scattered sheep far and wide.
Yet in the midst of this, the Great Shepherd was active. He raised a few key leaders passionate to see individuals healed and made whole.
A key tool in this process was Freedom Session. Birthed by pastor Ken Dyck of Cedar Grove Baptist Church, Surrey, B.C., from his experience of dealing with hurting Christians in the early 2000s, Freedom Session has rapidly become a core component in our life as a disciple-making community.
Freedom Session is an intense, year-long, 12-step healing-discipleship journey that helps participants develop tools to become self-feeding disciples and contributors to others’ journeys, and to discover freedom through steps of obedience from the sins, infirmities, bondages, and addictions that have kept them trapped – sometimes for decades.
“Freedom and healing is God’s idea, not ours,” says Dyck. “Programs like this don’t heal anyone – Jesus Christ does.” In our North American context, he says, where most basic needs are met and people lack very little, the greatest necessity is emotional healing.
Our church has witnessed this healing. People with deep wounds – or even wounds they didn’t know they had – meet Jesus, find safety in belonging to the family of God, and begin to adjust their behaviour to the teachings of Christ. The cuts are deep, the work hard, the healing real, and the fruit abundant.
Freedom Session has been integral in fostering healing, not only among individuals, but within our entire fellowship. We’ve graduated approximately 50 people over two years, and the presence of these disciples with their new authenticity, joy, grasp of grace, sense of confessional community, and freedom has worked liked leaven through the dough of our church’s journey of recovery.
Our Freedom Session leader, Gord Wookey, observes “a renewed sense of belonging. Those who have gone through Freedom Session have shared so deeply and have become so transparent with each other that, on Sundays, they’re excited to see each other. As they talk, there’s a new sense of belonging and purpose.”
We’ve heard formerly selfish husbands publicly confess their renewed love and commitment for their wives. We’ve watched women, whose lives were shattered by abuse, rediscover trust. We’ve heard people disappointed with church say, “This is what church really is.” We’ve seen servant-leaders emerge who walk with grace and truth. We’ve seen unlikely friendships formed among those who previously would never have taken time for each other. And, we have seen a hunger for more.
Gracepoint has often talked about authenticity; we are now more equipped and able to live it. We have seen all sorts of people discover that freedom begins with the conversion of our belief-belonging-behaviour around the person of Jesus, his body, and his teachings.
To find out more about Freedom Session, go to www.freedomsession.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Phil Wagler is lead pastor of Gracepoint Community Church in Surrey, B.C. and author of Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church.