Posted by: Philip Rushton | September 9, 2015

Is This Worth Our Time?: Why discipleship matters in a world full of pain

Most Wednesdays I spend my morning volunteering at the local low-barrier homeless shelter.   I usually hang out in the cafe and talk with people and hear their stories.  This morning the stories were particularly intense.   I heard first hand accounts of rape and assault, and there were quite a few tears shed.

As I left the shelter and started driving to my office at the church I felt a bit conflicted.  It was one of those moments where I wondered whether I was putting my energy into the right things.  Why do I spend so much of my time sitting in my office in a neo-Gothic cathedral reading books and preparing bible studies when I am surrounded by a world full of pain?  Should I be spending more time trying to alleviate poverty in our community?  Should our church be doing more practical outreach?  This morning I felt as if the last thing we need is another bible study or worship service.

A friend of mine brought up a similar question in a small group I am a part of on Wednesday afternoons.  She said that her grandson recently asked her why she thought going to church was so important.   She responded with a counter question which went something like this: “where else can we go to develop our character and cultivate a heart of love for the world?”

I found this response to be very helpful.  It reminded me that the church does have a vital contribution to the common good of society.  We need a place where we can be equipped and encouraged to grow spiritually.  Without discipleship our outreach will be ineffective.  We are unable to bear good fruit if we are not connected to the vine.

I sat in on a lecture with John Perkins a couple of years ago.  Perkins is well known for his work in community development in poor neighborhoods throughout the U.S.  Many of us were expecting him to talk about the practical ways in which we could go about alleviating poverty.  Instead, Perkins spent the whole time talking about the importance of discipleship.  At one point in the talk he said, “we are trying to fix the world without first being fixed ourselves.”  He reminded us that our ability to care for the needs of the world is contingent on our own spiritual formation.

Dallas Willard goes so far as to say that the church should prioritize spiritual formation over outreach.  It is a rather controversial statement and I am still not sure I agree with it 100%.  He defends this line of reasoning with the rationale that when we take discipleship and spiritual formation seriously, mission and outreach will begin to happen more organically and effectively.  He writes, “the most successful work of outreach would be the work of inreach that turns people, wherever they are, into lights in the darkened world.”  I suppose where I would disagree with him is that sometimes outreach work is how spiritual formation happens.  Nevertheless, he makes a good point.  We can’t just focus on external action without paying attention to how we are being formed internally.

Julie and I support the Pre-Emptive Love Coalition, which provides life saving heart surgeries for Iraqi children in pursuit of peace between communities at odds.  There are times when I wonder whether it would be better for me to send funds to them instead of tithing to my local church.  It seems more practical and urgent so I am compelled to support them.  But then I think about the fact that the founder of this organization gained his vision for this work as he was discipled at a local church in Waco Texas.  Behind many of the non-profits that are on the front lines of outreach in our world are people who have been discipled and formed through the ministry of a local church.

So this is not an either/or issue.  We need to support both types of enterprises.  The world needs churches and the world needs non-profits.  Churches need discipleship programs and they also need to be active in practical outreach.  As I straddled these two spheres of ministry today I was reminded that both are valid and both are dependent on each other.

Fall has arrived and many of our schedules are about to fill up.  Perhaps some of us may be asking whether church is worth our time.  We all need to find that appropriate balance of contemplation and action or discipleship and service.  Today, though, I was reminded that we probably can’t have the latter without the former.  Maybe another bible study or worship service does matter in a world full of pain.

 

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Responses

  1. Good job of presenting both sides of the issue. I’ve felt that tension before about giving money to church programs vs sending it to outreach ministries on the “front lines”


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