A large percentage of our beliefs are passed on to us from the groups we belong to – such as families, friendship groups, nations, cultures, schools, colleges, the military , political parties, and our local church. Communities have formed both our formal and informal beliefs, our doctrines, our prejudices our hopes and our fears. If beliefs are critical to our emotional health and beliefs are formed in community then fairly logically having the right kind of community will be a big help in emotional transformation.
Destructive communities such as dysfunctional families, tyrannical businesses and religious cults are highly damaging emotionally. Constructive communities such as loving families, successful businesses and healthy churches are very positive emotionally. Communities can form right beliefs, build faith and help make us strong and healthy Christians.
We learn, change and grow best in an adventurous, faith-filled Christian community. We can learn on our own but we generally end up re-inventing the wheel. We can learn in a classroom but it often lacks the ability to touch the deepest parts of us. The best way to learn is personal discipleship in a faith-filled community.
How did the disciples get to increase in faith? How did they learn? How did they go from astonishing incomprehension at the start of His ministry to men of God and founders of the faith at Pentecost? These were the most successful spiritual learners in history so lets look at how they learned and maybe we can learn the same way.
How They Learned…
1. The disciples made themselves teachable apprentices of Jesus. The decided to be learners not know-it-alls.
2. They were prepared to give up significant comfort in order to learn. (Matthew 19:27) .
3. They broke with their usual patterns of living that reinforced their current belief systems. They left their fishing nets or tax offices and followed Him.
4. They planted Jesus’ teaching in their hearts. They probably learned the same lessons over and over again because years later they could reproduce them word for word to their hearers.
5. They had a strong desire to inherit the Kingdom of God. In fact it dominated their personal ambitions. (Matthew 18:1-5)
6. They expressed a strong desire for specific personal growth e.g. "Lord, teach us to pray".
7. They accepted Jesus' authority over them and simply went where He went, ate what He ate and did whatever He commanded. Even when Jesus rebuked them they did not sulk.
8. They believed that what Jesus said was true, absolutely true and sought to align their beliefs with His. (John 6)
9. They watched what Jesus was doing. They saw miracles and had their view of reality enlarged.
10. They asked lots of questions and sought to understand.
11. They discussed among themselves what Jesus said and did. (Matthew 16:7, Mark 10:26)
12. They accepted Jesus' high view of the authority of the Scriptures. (Matthew 5:17)
13. They took risks in order to learn such as Peter trying to walk on water or their various attempts at healing.
14. They lived with high levels of ambiguity, confusion and mystery. They seemed to accept mind-stretching confusion as the price of learning anything worthwhile. (Mark 9:32 , John 10:6 etc.)
15. They very gradually moved away from being competitive to co-operative. They stopped trying to outdo each other and instead, by the time of the resurrection appearances were trying to encourage and edify each other. They became an encouraging, learning community.
16. They tried to do what Jesus was doing. They started with baptizing people in large numbers(John 4:1,2) and continued to exercise their faith in healing and deliverance ministries and did so with some success (Luke 10:1-24).
17. They increasingly accepted responsibility for ministry. At the beginning they were fairly passive followers by the end they seem to have roles assigned to them. Eventually Jesus was able to deliver the Great Commission to them without incongruity. (Matthew 28:18-20).
The Learning Organization
Jesus and the disciples formed a learning organization, a community filled with disciplined learners in which beliefs were transformed and spiritual greatness produced. It is almost impossible to be deeply transformed outside of community or as part of a community that is antithetical to one's new beliefs and growth. Small groups of friends seeking God together such as the Holy Club at Oxford under John Wesley and the Haystack Prayer Meeting have produced mighty revivals.
Eight Creative Tensions
1. Emotional safety - Spiritual adventure
2. Clear basic doctrines - Room to experiment and discover new things about God
3. Clear and definite leadership - Being without compulsion, exercising Christian freedom.
4. Sense of history, common purpose and tradition - Open to new methods & new territory, adaptable
5. Know they are part of the solution – Humbly dependent on God.
6. Homogeneous and united leadership - Great diversity in membership
7. God has brought this community into being - The drive to add more to the community
8. Not focused on money - True abundance, care of the poor.
Emotional Safety – Spiritual Adventure
Its impossible to grow very far in God or go on much of an adventure if the atmosphere is emotionally unsafe and you do not know when you will next be criticized or hurt. Christian communities must be safe for learning to occur. On the other hand they also need to stretch people because it is when we are stretched that we learn best. So we also need spiritual adventure.. Some churches over-emphasize emotional safety to the point of coziness and become nurseries. Others over-emphasize spiritual adventure and become demanding, strained and critical. Thus emotional safety and spiritual adventure need to both be present in every learning community.
Clear Doctrines – Room to Think
Clear basic doctrines are needed for spiritual stability. A learning community needs its “times tables” and alphabet so to speak. Well-established doctrines such as the Trinity and salvation by faith are not up for grabs. Good churches teach solid foundational truths at great depths. Good Christian communities also build on the foundation. They try to find out new things for this generation and discover truth about missions, counseling etc. Good churches explore God’s truth so that as Martin Luther said “More truth may yet break forth from God’s Word”.
Good Leaders – Without Compulsion
Good communities have good leaders. Jesus led the disciples, the apostles led the early church and Paul led his band of missionaries. These are definite clear leaders who tend to call the shots and who are treated with respect. The leaders impart definite vision and set the clear bounds in which the learning community joyfully operates. Such leaders lead in freedom and refuse to compel people to follow them. Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him. In fact He seemed to drive many away. (See John 6). Leaders of learning communities are not obsessive, compulsive people who fret over every detail and create an air of dread and compulsion in their wake. They do lead and they lead in a clear and definite manner, however it is without any heaviness, without “lording it over” the flock, and without compulsion.
Sense of History – Open To New Methods
Learning communities are well-defined. Somehow tradition helps learning. Some of the most creative and successful missionary societies have long histories and a definite sense of tradition that gives them wisdom. We need a solid sense of who we are and what we are about, common purpose, continuity, clarity of vision, and wisdom passed down through the informal teaching and discipling structures of the community. On the other hand such long-lived organizations can become smug and bureaucratic. No mission statement or tradition can be so authoritative that it can overturn God’s will. When God speaks about a change in our culture then we are to listen and implement it. The learning organization uses its strong foundations to confidently plunge into new things for God. Learning communities are stable and continuous allowing people to learn deep lessons in relative security and to prudently and wisely explore new options for ministry and Christian living.
Aware They Are Part Of The Solution – Humbly Dependent On God
Learning communities know they are part of the solution not part of the problem. They know they have something to offer their members and even to offer the world. They are positive and they are going places. On the other hand they do not think they ARE the solution. They humbly point beyond themselves and say “Jesus is the answer!”. They combine humble dependence on God with a deep sense of mission and calling and the belief that they can do something for the world – with God’s help Homogeneous Leadership – Diverse Membership The leaders need to be united as a team. Too great a diversity of views in a leadership team can lead to conflict and stagnation. Mentoring leaders ensures they are brought into the culture of the leadership team. On the other hand membership should be very accepting and inclusive. Learning organizations should be able to tolerate a wide range of views and cultures in the membership.
Founded By God - Open To Others
The early church saw itself as a community formed by divine mandate for divine purposes. This sense of being formed by God and used by God gives a powerful dynamic to the learning organization. However the learning organization should not be unduly puffed up by this and thus become exclusive or spiritually proud or separate themselves from other believers who do not seem to share their sense of vision and mission. They should not draw boundaries around themselves too tightly. The early church in Jerusalem was a very open, humble and welcoming place. Learning organizations should always be open to new members and believe that there are yet more to be added to the flock, “others not of this fold”. They should also maintain open linkages of real integrity with the rest of the body of Christ. To draw the boundaries too tightly is to become a club or even a cult. A learning community sees itself as formed by God and involved in His purposes yet is humble and gracious and open to new people and to fellowship with the rest of the body of Christ.
Not focused on money – True abundance
A learning community has a healthy attitude to its financial needs. On one hand it knows what it means to be dependent on God, excited about His provision and free from the love of money. It is thus free to experience His transforming challenges to material comfort. On the other hand the learning organization truly cares about its members and their financial needs. The early church took great care of its poor and in the post-Pentecost Jerusalem church “there was none among them who lacked” (Acts 4:34). Thus it is God’s clear desire that His Kingdom should not contain any abject poverty. The New Testament regards God as the Master and money as the servant to be used for Kingdom purposes. Learning organizations need to be free from the love of money, living lightly, simply and adventurously but able to take care of people and their financial needs and use finances to accomplish God’s will on earth. Neither crass materialism nor financial disorder is God’s will for a learning organization.
Create a united leadership group that shares the same passion and direction. Pray for 6-8 people (say 3-4 couples) to start things rolling. Don’t decide on any forms or structures at the start. Just meet in a home and spend some time studying the Gospels and Acts together and looking at early Christian community. Allow the Scriptures to speak to you and the Holy Spirit to lead you into the forms the groups should take. Act on what God reveals to you. Invite others to join you after a while.
Changing Where You Are Discuss the eight tensions in a leadership team meeting. Pray for wisdom Start changing a few areas that most need change. Stop that which is not working or is not biblical Do more of that which does work - and is biblical Create adventure and a learning atmosphere. Allow risk-taking and experiments Introduce personal discipleship and mentoring.
From Theatre To Community
No-one is ever matured in a theatre. Successful Christian community will move us from being mere spectators to loving participants in the grace of God. Community involves risk and takes time. Community means living out the “one another” commands in the New Testament Community means we must “turn our chairs” and face one another and engage.
Community Makes Us Real
In a learning community we live out our Christian beliefs and they become real – to us and to others. We gain healthy Christian beliefs which lead to a healthy emotional state. People are matured in families, groups of friends, marriages and good groups. They are matured in communities that speak the truth to one another in love. People are not matured in a theatre, even by the best performers. When we turn churches into theatres we rob Christians of the chance to mature. So structures and beliefs and emotions and community and maturity are all part of one seamless whole.