Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame told a story about his seminary days.
Rogers and a group of his friends took a road trip to hear a famous minister preach. To their brutal disappointment, the minister was on vacation that Sunday and a visiting speaker would preach.
The replacement droned on, and Rogers grew furious. It was one of the most boring, pointless messages he had ever heard, and he cursed his bad timing.
Then he looked at the woman seated next to him. She was crying her eyes out, hanging on the speaker’s every word.
The incident proved a profound lesson for the young Rogers, who understood that no matter how badly that speaker missed connecting with him, someone other than him needed to hear those words. It was a truth he never forgot, incorporating that experience into the philosophy of his classic TV show.
If you’ve been a reader of Cerulean Sanctum long enough, you’re familiar with my rant about spiritual gifts. To sum up: I think leaders in a local church must make it their priority to assist in helping congregants identify and use their spiritual gifts. Our failure to do this on an individual basis is one reason why our churches fail in their missions. God put those people in that church with those gifts for a reason. Not employing their gifts properly hurts everyone.
It’s the truth of the Body of Christ: different people, different gifts, and different purposes within the Body.
It’s not just differences in giftings and uses, either. As Mister Rogers noted, people will react individually to different messages and different types of learning.
My degree is in Christian Education from Wheaton College in Illinois. Later, the major was renamed Spiritual Formation. Now it’s called Christian Formation and Ministry. They ought to cut to the chase and call it Making Disciples.
Just as God gives each person a special role in the Body of Christ, so He also equips us differently and by different means. No one-size-fits-all approach to making disciples exists because we all form spiritually in unique ways. I know people who came to faith through reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. I can’t imagine a more dry path, but then, it’s not entirely about me. My own conversion was quickened in part from an intimate and personal message delivered to a small group followed by time alone. That may work for some but not for others.
My college learning on this topic focused more on how Jesus taught, but even He didn’t use one means. He drew his disciples through miracles, discussion, confrontation, paradox, and friendship. He taught them by stories, Scripture, His example, and through their own personal experiences. He knew each person and reached out to each with what best grew each. And he addressed the failings of each individually such as Peter’s reinstatement and Thomas’ need to see and feel.
I don’t believe most churches take the individual into account. Spiritual growth is seen as a blanket endeavor, with blanket approaches, and blanket goals.
The problem here is that in going for blanket growth, we miss one of the most important aspects of that growth: connecting with each other one-to-one.
It takes time alone with another to find out how he or she ticks. Knowing how best to grow someone means observing that person and adjusting how we work with that individual. Parents do this naturally with their children, yet we forget personal distinctions when we approach making disciples of people outside our own households.
God asks that we individualize the way we make disciples, because in doing so, we build a connection to another life. We are forced to slow down, to observe, and to show genuine care for that one person made not only in the image of God but also made in His uniqueness and depth. It is one reason why Jesus had to go away and send the Spirit, because one person cannot reach everyone at the level needed for maturing growth.
A church with a one-size-fits-all approach to making disciples is likely also a church that doesn’t have time to get to know people. The result? A church with a stunted community. Likewise, if the interpersonal relationships within a church are shallow, the making of disciples will be also.
The individual, with all his or her quirks and distinctions, matters to God. An education and discipleship program that does not take the unique gifts, talents, and needs of each person into account cannot be effective. Such a customized approach is time-consuming and costly, but it’s God’s intention. Our balking at the cost is our failure to see with God’s eyes.
In short, the only way to counteract the anemic nature of Christianity in the West is to prioritize the needs of the one to nurture a many that can truly reach all of the world for Jesus.