Whenever we talk about faith formation, spiritual growth and development, or becoming disciples, an abstract cloud often hangs over the discussion. We are talking about life experiences that generally are concrete, but the experiences are driven or impelled by internal dimensions that are hard to conceptualize. Because of that often confusing tension, we search for tangible models that convey abstract concepts that reflect our understandings.
The idea that I had a couple of models enmeshed in my thinking about making disciples hit me rather suddenly as I was reflecting on my discussion with Steve Booth. I realized that I was using a couple of organic models for how a person achieves a full and abundant life. Both of these models are biblical in their origins but struck me as appropriate applications to “growth” toward Christlikeness. I emphasize “growth” because these are common models that relate to growth and development.
One model is that of a human body; the other is of a garden. The life in the body and the life in the garden are givens—they are inherent in the very “being” of the body and of the plants. Something in their very nature determines what they can become, but that “being” requires “becoming.” In both models we recognize that the presence of some factors promote growth and the presence of other factors can inhibit growth or actually destroy life. For optimum growth to occur, a delicate blend of nutrition and inoculation is required. Fertilizer promotes growth in the garden, and pesticides or weed-killers protect against the agents that inhibit growth, fruitfulness, and productivity. The same “feeding” and “protecting” is required for human growth and development.
Nature and the church are not very efficient. Not every seed becomes a plant, and not every plant grows to maturity and multiplies itself. Not every ovum is fertilized, and the millions of sperm almost seem like overkill in trying to fertilize one ovum. But the potential for life is ever present. Once a sperm and an ovum unite, a process is set in motion that has its own force, direction, and objective. It also has its own diversification or individualization. Stem cells produce specialized cells. Increasing complexity marks the progress. Growth becomes an interdependent exchange between the various parts. The need emerges for fundamental systems that provide guidance, control, coordination, nourishment, waste-management, and a whole lot of other complicated issues that will produce a full and abundant life.
Each of us is both a body (an individual living, active, growing, maturing organism) and a part of a larger body (a cell or a body part in the image of the church employed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12). We are both garden and gardener. The full and abundant life challenges us both at the individual and the corporate levels. For us to grow and mature into Christlikeness, we will have to take some positive actions (nourishment, practices, and fertilizer) and some defensive actions (elimination, abstention, pesticide, and weed-killer). And the reality is that no approach is very efficient. We are engaged in a life-long process, and the best fruit is yet to be.
Positive thinker that I am, the “Making Disciples” chart focuses on the nourishment side of the growth equation. We probably have sufficient emphasis in the church on what we must give up to grow. The reality is that we need both nourishment and discipline, gift and demand, grace and works if the fruits of our lives are to resemble Christlikeness.