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Reflections at the Intersection of Mission and Spiritual Formation

As an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene I regularly participate with clergy colleagues and lay leaders at District and General Church gatherings. These gatherings, among other things, focus on the mission and purpose of the church with implications for the proper attitudes and behaviors of those of us who lead and influence others. Sermons are preached, goals set, admonitions given, models held up for emulation.

Reflecting on recent experiences at these events, I notice that our leaders and presenters typically emphasize two things: evangelism and prayer. These categories could be broadened, with the former including “mission, witness, compassion, outreach, and church planting” and the latter including “spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, personal holiness, and devotional life,” but at the end of the day it tends to come down to bringing people to a point of first-time personal decision for Jesus and prayer for those people (or for the motivation to reach out to those people).

It seems to me that this dual emphasis reflects two key strands in the DNA of churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Mission, including evangelism, is one such strand that consistently shows up when the church self-consciously reviews its past and casts a vision for the future. I hear it in such statements as, “We need to be passionate about reaching lost and broken people;” “The church is a mission station;” “Every Christian is an evangelist;” “The future of our denomination is in new starts;” “The church doesn’t have a missions program; it participates in God’s mission in the world.” Based on the texts and themes of sermons, the time allotted to and topics of major presenters, and the statistics gathered and shared for purposes of accountability, adding new converts and in this sense growing the church is clearly a primary emphasis.

But prayer is also emphasized and reflects a second strand of Wesleyan-Holiness DNA—life from and grounded in the Holy Spirit. I hear it in such statements as, “We need a revival among us;” “God accomplishes amazing things when God’s people pray;” “You can only share with others what you have received;” “Prayer needs to be the foundation of all the church’s activity;” “Don’t neglect your personal devotional life.” It has a pervasive presence at District and General Church functions, although a more limited role compared to the primary emphasis on evangelism. Occasionally it informs the text and theme of a sermon or presentation, but mostly it is a “preliminary” or “periphery” activity, referred to in brief statements that assume everyone knows and understands what is required.  Empirically, its secondary status is confirmed by its absence from data gathered and shared for purposes of accountability.

My particular interest is the intersection and interrelationship of these two important strands of DNA. Along with others who are writing about a “missional spirituality” , I see these two emphases as critically and mutually informing.  To encourage further theological reflection on this interplay in our contexts, let me make a few observations from the perspective of one whose life and work emphasizes the second DNA strand, and invite you to think with me about some of the implicating questions.

We seem ambivalent about the priority of Christian formation and discipleship. The Church of the Nazarene’s mission statement of “making Christlike disciples in the nations” indicates a desire to go beyond just making and cataloging converts. Christlikeness is a biblical descriptor for holiness of heart and life, and being a disciple means following the way of Jesus, not just receiving Jesus as personal Savior. But is this what is understood when we hear the words of the mission statement? More importantly, is this what can be clearly inferred from what is said, practiced, reported, and asked for at our review and accountability gatherings? To the contrary, it seems that the meaning and force of the mission statement often gets reduced to leading people to make first-time decisions for Christ and incorporated into the church organization so they can, in turn, lead others to make first-time decisions for Christ. I believe this to be an important and necessary part of the church’s mission, but by no means does it capture the full range of functions necessary to make Christlike disciples. I also believe that the work of personal evangelism will ultimately be unsustainable and unfruitful for the Kingdom if it becomes a goal in-and-of-itself, disconnected from the full life of discipleship to which the church is called. Which brings me to a second observation.

Our ecclesiology might be too thin. The Church of the Nazarene as a denomination emerged from a movement that did not originally consider itself a full-fledged church. The Holiness and Pentecostal revivals led to associations that sponsored missional activities in addition to the functions carried out by the established churches. It was significant, therefore, when the Church of the Nazarene finally added to its Articles of Faith in 1989 a statement on “The Church”—an affirmation of the importance of ecclesiology—and significant also that it took so long to do so—a reflection of an assumed understanding of church that was mostly defined over-and-against other churches. Much more could be said about this, but let me draw attention to one feature of District and General Church gatherings that might expose a thinness in our ecclesiology attributable to a failure to take into account the implications of full formation in Christ: the emphasis on starting new works and planting new churches. It’s not so much the initiatives in-and-of-themselves that are problematic—they are strategic for ongoing church growth and renewal. Rather, it is the way these initiatives rise to the top of our value system to the neglect of other, equally as important and necessary initiatives. In a North American context the unexamined cultural assumptions are significant: When things start to get old, or complicated, or conflicted, we start over. We prefer new things. We like the prospect of being unencumbered with history or tradition. Might we in the church, in our enthusiasm for the frontline work of gaining new converts and starting new churches, unwittingly devalue the difficult yet critically important backside work of forming old converts and old churches? If we do, then we will continue to lose through the back door most of what is gained (temporarily) through the front door. Spiritual formation and discipleship involves the painful work—Paul in Galatians 4:19 likens it to giving birth—of Christ being fully formed in us, we who have been converted to Christ but now need to be converted again in the midst of the real messiness that all communities of faith experience over time. Which brings me to a third and final observation.

Our default mode of praying appears utilitarian. Change and transformation of individual lives and of communities of faith is ultimately the fruit of God’s grace. We cooperate with but are nonetheless dependent on this gift. And so it is right and proper that we pray whenever we are speaking about, promoting, or practicing mission. I am grateful that prayer is consistently featured in our District and General Church gatherings. I am concerned, however, that in much the same way that Christian mission can be reduced to personal evangelism, Christian prayer can easily be reduced to intercession. In this sense, we use prayer primarily to further our agendas: “Lord, bring us revival;” “Lord, help us to grow our church;” “Lord, help us to make new converts;” “Lord, give us more workers.” Might American pragmatism be at work here? Praying for others and their spiritual well-being is vital to missional initiatives, but as Jesus’ model prayer (Matthew 6; Luke 11) illustrates, it is not broad or deep enough to encompass Christlike praying. Perhaps the missing piece from our prayer patterns and habits when it comes to mission-oriented gatherings is a willingness to pray in non-performing, non-promoting, non-possessive ways. What if our District and General Church gatherings featured significant times of silently listening together for God?  Asking for God’s forgiveness and waiting for healing? Going to God for discernment rather than for blessing on an already-figured-out mission? A true sign of a greater integration of our missional and spiritual DNA just might be the creation of space and time for this kind of waiting on God in the midst of and as part of our other agendas.

Reader Comments (20)

Well said, Doug! I have been deeply encouraged by those within our tradition that have been able to find (or are pursuing- kudos to my own DS, Ken Stanford who is leading towards this) ecclesiological tension between mission and discipleship, and I pray formation continues to flow from our daily and corporate existence.

Good stuff, Doug. The discipleship/formational pieces are so crucial, and yet we often overlook them.



09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Jay Oord


09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Barnard

Thanks for this reflection! We need more of this in our tradition!!

09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Excellent post. We are very uncomfortable with "silence" and so what you are pleading for would take a totally different approach to prayer. It seems in a prayer meeting when the "noise" of people's voices cease, most people think it is time to exit the meeting. This is very sad.

We also have a need for understanding ecclesiology, incorporating an understanding of Holy Tradition, the history of the Church, and more emphasis on the sacraments.

Don't get me started....

09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Barth Smith

Wonderful insight.While not from the Nazareen tradition, my observation is that your concerns run through the whole of the Western church. I think we would do well to take another critical look at the patten that shows up in Jesus' life. Your final comment regarding space and time has much 'statistical' data that can be shared regarding this second priority of prayer and the effects of its lack on the state of the soul's who are engaged in this wonderful missional work.

09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Craig Babb


09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRussell Metcalfe

Thank you Doug for the challenge to broaden our understanding of prayer (both corporate and personal)and our vision of the manner in which God works to bring transformation to both individuals and communities.

09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDirk R. Ellis

Thank you for your post. You raise some important issues for the Church of the Nazarene to consider regarding the relationship between mission(al) and evangelism.

While I appreciate the focus on "being missional" that I hear from our denominational leaders at District Assembly, I'm not sure that these words mean the same thing to everyone who is using them. As you pointed out, evangelism and mission(al) are often used synonymously, or, mission is subsumed under evangelism. For some, the word evangelism is unfortunately equated with methodology that many pastors and congregants view as incongruent with a robust missional theology.

I think this confusion leads to the kind of pragmatism that you are rightly calling into question.

09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterGrant Zweigle

Thanks Doug for this thoughtful essay regarding the role of discipleship and formation in the Church. As a denomination "birthed" from revivalism we still struggle with creating space to communally practice the "means of grace" in order to form and shape faithful disciples. As you suggest, maybe a reorientation toward a life of missional discipleship and prayer could help us regain our ecclessial identity. The result could be a great focus on forming and shaping persons as faithful disciples.


09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Maddix

My comments were posted under the wrong name.

The comments I made were wrongly posted under the name: Michael. Please make the correction. I am from the Nazarene tradition, in fact am a "cradle" Nazarene.

09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBarth Smith

Great post, Doug. Your thoughtful comments regarding ecclesiology, prayer and the unexamined cultural assumptions of our North American context are very well taken.


09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean Coleman

Thank you for the careful and thoughtful post.
It reminded me that we are sent out clothed in the authority of the sender.
As participants in the Mission of God in this world, we must be clothed in his Spirit. We must take time to "get dressed'.

May this be our prayer from the Book of Common Prayers,

Lord Jesus Christ,
you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross
so that everyone might come within reach of your saving embrace.
So clothe us in your Spirit, that we, reaching forth our hands in love,
may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you,
For the honor of your name.

09.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRandy Beckum

In researching for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the New England District, I was struck by the number of scheduled times of prayer throughout the early assemblies. Morning prayer began well before the hour of breakfast. If I remember correctly, Morning prayer was 6 or 6:30, and there were prayer meetings going on constantly. I wonder why they had so much to pray about, and we seem to have so little? I also wonder if this had something to do with the fact that :real decisions: were made at these assemblies, and hence a greater need for God's guidance. I wonder when the last time an Acts 13 moment happened at one of our assemblies?

09.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Whitney

Doug, you offer a very gentle--yet prophetic--insight for the Church. Thanks for thinking these things through and for giving me something new to chew on for a while.

09.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJay Wilson

Doug, this essay is both profound and convicting. It encourages transition and essentially transformation from our results-oriented (in a numbers sense) ministry to relationship-building, and deepening service. I think often that the mentality has been "if you build it, they will come", and thus the key ingredient (relational longing and "being" with Christ) is perceived as either adequate for now, or something that can be "caught up" later. I will keep turning these thoughts in my mind for the upcoming year.

09.10.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Barfield

Thank you, dear brother, for stating with clarity the cry and longing of Christ's heart ---to draw us to himself. May we be drawn to listen first and with great longing. The great question posed to our class by Robert Mulholland in 2009 was... "are we being in the world for God" or "are we being in God for the world?" There is a huge difference. What comes first?

If we are acting under our own power "for God" then what we are doing is useless and may be contrary to the will of God. God forgive us! Jesus makes it clear that there are those who act "for God" but do not know Him.

Matt. 7:22-23 “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, in your name did we not prophesy, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

May Christ be lifted up in our prayers and may we be transformed in knowing Him. Lead us on in prayer, brother Doug.

09.13.2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindy North

Doug, Thanks for this. I wish I had read it prior to my sermon last Sunday!

In the Luke-Acts sequence it seems there are certain practices by the early followers of Jesus -- prayer, fasting, discernment -- assumed by Luke. You push us to confront the absence of them in our tradition.

When Paul and Barnabas were "sent out" it was only after prayer, fasting, and the laying on of hands (commissioning). I wonder if Luke would recognize the church today. That is, is the church practicing discernment through ever deepening relationships with God, one another, and creation?

Certainly the mission of God is about "growth and transformation" but it is "growth," "success", and "victory" chiseled out of suffering, peril and death. In his death we have died . . . and in his resurrection we have come to new life!

To bear Christian witness then, it seems, is to engage in the work of prayer, fasting, and discernment behind the scenes before one (even, as one) is poured out into the marketplace with a willingness to suffer for the glory of God. This certainly is not a slick program to entertain the masses.

You've forced me to look long and hard at how we're "doing" church in the corner of the world in which I live and minister.

09.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Barker

Thank you, Doug. I read again this post and it challenges me to be more balanced in my preaching and leadership. I need these kinds of reminders lest I forget the value of helping people become the preson God wants them to be.

Thanks, again!

10.3.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ. K. Warrick

Reading this post helped me to learn more not only about the Nazarene denomination but also about what God is calling us for and how we are supposed to live and serve others.

01.15.2013 | Unregistered CommenterHarvest Sermons

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