Several years ago I was visiting a friend of mine’s church when I noticed signs posted on almost every surface in the church proclaiming that congregation’s “theme” for the year. “Christ Church – It’s all about relationships!” the signs said.
I confess that my initial response to this theme was less than positive at the time. It seemed so trite and insular . . . not unlike the appeal to the church as “family” that put a positive spin on interpersonal relationships in the body of Christ. At the time I was serving a congregation which was so focused on internal relationships – the friendships of church member to church member – that there was no connection to the surrounding community. In that context I simply couldn’t envision how discipleship could be reduced to a slogan such as “It’s all about relationships.” It seemed too simplistic, and somehow disconnected from teaching of Christ to take up our cross and follow him. At the time I simply couldn’t see how it was more than a feel good slogan that avoided the demands of radical discipleship.
This summer, however, I started to catch the vision for what Christ Church understood 10 years ago – that effective and vital discipleship is directly connected to the concept of relationship. In the practice of ministry I began to see in a new way that making disciples is ultimately a relational activity which invites folks into building relationships with God, one another, and the world. What should have been easy to see back then started coming into focus when I began to experience the power of relationship to bring people to Christ – a power I had always known and preached, but never truly understood in my own mind.
It started coming to me through a program we put on this past summer called VIVID. VIVID was a summer experience for kids in kindergarten through 8th grade focused on the visual arts, music, and the environment as a means of helping kids connect with our creator and our call to be co-creators in the world. The VIVID story is too long and involved to go into here, but part of the vision of that program was to try and create a point of intersection between local kids and the wonderful community of adult visual and musical artists that are moving into the neighborhood. As I was interpreting this vision to my congregation, I found myself often using the language of relationship to explain why this program had potential to be beneficial to our church.
“This program may or may not directly lead to new members,” I would explain, “but it starts developing relationships with folks in the community that we don’t know or have a normal connection with. This is about creating relationships with both kids and adults, and opening the door so that when they enter into a search for God sometime later in their life, they will think about our congregation.”
What I realized I was doing was making a cost-benefit analysis not in terms of adding members or increasing worship attendance (the normal metrics of ministry that we so often focus on) but rather on the ability to create relationships of ANY sort with a new group of people. Some of those folks might eventually come visit our church, and some would not, but over the long term folks would experience a church that wanted to be in relationship with them, and as such they would be presented with the Christ whose arms are open to all and beckoning all to come. It was clear to me that we couldn’t “make disciples” (as our denominational mission statement commands us to do) until we first created the space for relationship in which formation could occur. Our ability to be the church God would have us be was all about making relationships. Thus, when I tallied up the volunteer count for our VIVID program at the end of the summer, I discovered that of the 65 or so volunteers over the course of the summer, easily 3/4 of them were folks who had no direct connection to our church before the program began, and what we experienced was several (not masses, but a few) persons who started coming to church as a result of those relationships.
“This relationship thing has potential,” I thought, but in all honesty I still didn’t think much about it in discipleship terms . . . until I started thinking again about the mission and vision of our congregation late in the summer as we began to revision our Sunday morning children’s ministry. Our Sunday School, like many in traditional churches like ours, was (and is) struggling under the weight of former glory, trying to maintain an age-level program in a context where attendance is spotty at best, and both teachers and kids find themselves frustrated. For over a year we’ve been talking about creating a new vision, and with the success of VIVID it made sense to tackle that issue now. One of the things that was clear was that we needed a clear understanding of what the task of the program would be, that is, we needed to revision Kid’s Sunday School from a a series of classes that taught bible stories but ultimately was an opportunity for kids to be entertained while their parents attend their own adult studies toward a programmed focused on disciple building with our children. In the course of thinking about that vision for the program, I began to pull apart the nature of discipleship, framing it as I often do in terms of Christ’s command to love God and neighbor. Discipleship in a congregational context was, I thought, focused on learning about God, loving our neighbor, and living in the way of Jesus (that is, living a life that was formed and guided by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ). Yet, in the midst of that vision I began to realize that I was missing on a key component of Christian community – the fellowship of the believers (described in Acts 2 and 4). It was clear to me that the act of building relationships in the body of Christ could and does serve as a means of grace by which we are formed in the image of Christ, but it didn’t fit into my system of thinking about the task of disciple making, nor did it fully embrace our experiences of the summer where we saw fruit from relation building with others outside our congregation. All of this was rolling about in my head until I had an “aha” moment.
“It IS all about relationships,” I thought. Discipleship at it’s core is about the building of relationships in three areas – our relationship with God/Christ, our relationships with one another in the church (Christian community), and our relationship with the community/world. ALL of these are concerns of discipleship, rooted in the call of loving God and neighbor. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be a person who is actively working on developing a deep and abiding connection to God through the relational disciplines of conversation and listening (prayer and contemplation), learning about the other (studying the scriptures), and mutual submission to the other (fasting and other spiritual disciplines). To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to a be a person who recognizes that the discernment from God has always come through the witness of a community of believers empowered by the Holy Spirit (Christian community) and that Christ is known in the sharing of table fellowship and communal rituals of remembrance (the sacraments). To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to recognize that the call to follow is also a call to go into the world to embrace others with the amazing grace of God, creating the possibility of new relationships which lead others to become disciples as well. “Discipleship IS all about relationships,” I realized – with God, the body of Christ, and the world. That is a vision I could understand, could share, and could be understood.
This notion of discipleship as relationship, I’ve realized, is what some contemporary theologians are getting at in their work on the Trinity, and the notion of the relational God. For those of us who are Trinitarian in our theology, we believe in a God who is ultimately one but who is in three persons who are intimately related to one another. That relationship is core to the identity of God, and provides a way of thinking about what it means to be a person who follows that God. Without the importance of the relational connection in the Trinity we simply have some sort of strange metaphysical mystery without much purpose. But when we think about a God who is at his/her core relational, a God for whom relationship is the norm, then the Trinity begins to provide an intersection for us to recognize the importance of relationship and community in the Kingdom of God.
What’s been interesting to me as I’ve been thinking about all of this is the additional intersection between the focus on discipleship as relationship and the United Methodist Church’s Call to Action toward church vitality. While I’ve been critical of the Call to Action at times, I’ve continued to hold up the single definition of church vitality contained in the original report. Church vitality is, according to the report, “…the dynamic state of engagement that connects people to God, one another, and the world in profound ways.” Discipleship is envisioned as the connection (relationship) with God, one another, and the world. Vitality is the force (grace?) which leads persons to recognize and participate in those relationships.
This fall, as our church is thinking about a vision to guide us, we’re going to be talking about how “It’s all about relationships.” This isn’t an inwardly focused, “it’s all about us” theme as I wrongly thought so long ago. No, this is about recognizing that being disciples is about growing in our relationship with God, developing the love of brothers and sisters in faith so that all the world will know of Jesus through our love for one another, and then going out into our community and the broader world to share that love. For us, at this time and place, it IS ultimately “…all about relationships.”