What if God was doing more than making everyone nice?
What if He was making ALL things new?
What if our lives were part of a greater story?
What if character included more than moving away from sinful tendencies and practices?
What if character unveiled a whole new reality? A hope filled reality.
What if that hope was large enough for nations?
What if it were possible for those nations to be transformed?
Much of modern discipleship has focussed upon making believers strong enough to survive culture rather than bold enough to transform culture. We have excelled in creating disciples, just not the kind that change cities and create shifts in societies - ‘whole world’ disciples fuelled with a passion to see everything everywhere captivated by the beauty of Jesus and living under the supremacy of Christ. We have relentlessly focused on the salvation or transformation of individuals and somehow missed the kingdom invitation that facilitates the alteration of institutions, even whole cities.
Often we have considered city formation and the discipling of all nations unattainable and have instead focused upon spiritual formation. We have settled for ‘inner world’ disciples. The divine dream is ‘whole world’ disciples.
Yet, there is a dangerous new breed who are committed to investing their lives in the neighbourhood and the nations. They understand that individual discipleship is simply too low a goal. They know that disciples are made in cities, not just in coffee shops. They practice spiritual disciplines, but they do so with a different mindset, one that is expansive rather than introspective.
They read Scripture to release, meditate to minister, and pray to partner. They know that life lies beyond them and they are willing to boldly go. They refuse to practice great reduction with the Great Commission. They refuse to make discipleship manageable. They are led by life-giving leaders who measure the level of discipleship in the Church by the level of transformation in the city.
Because changed lives change cities.
This booklet is written for them.
I became a believer aged fifteen.
By then I had already been a disciple for some time.
Moments and environments in my life had produced paradigms filled with absence rather than presence; practices rooted in failure rather than favour, pathways that repeated the patterns of the past rather than reached for the abundance of the future. I had been handed a legacy, an empty way of life, and invited to inscribe my own story. So, fighting the baggage of abandonment and abuse, I began the journey of self invention in the hope of discovering a new story.
Rather it disrupted me. It intervened in my invention and invited me into a living story. It’s a story that didn’t start with me. It started way before. By the time it arrested my attention and invaded my loneliness it had been changing nations for generations.
The story of Jesus Christ filled my heart and fuelled my hunger. I immediately focussed on giving the One who had rescued me my affection, my attention, my devotion. For years I prayed hours each day. Spare moments were given to prayer. I devoured Scripture. It set a foundation in me for which I am deeply grateful. I still feed off it today.
At the same time as being introduced to Christ, I was (probably for the first time) invited into community. I say community. It felt more like a gang. We rubbed each other up the wrong way, and somehow we rubbed off on each other. In the middle of the mess we found grace, in the middle of the grace we found mess. It was broken and beautiful.
Through biblically functioning community I was introduced to writings of depth, and through those writings I was introduced to some amazing mentors. Most were those who have gone before us. My early heroes were David Brainerd, Brother Lawrence, Thomas A Kempis, Praying Hyde, Edward McKendree Bounds, A.W Tozer.
I loved praying the prayers of these saints and found myself on a relentless quest to get closer to the heart of God. It was wonderful for my spiritual growth yet left me socially isolated. I spent much of my time alone with God and didn't really know how to build or deepen relationships with others. Truth to tell, it still is a struggle in some ways.
Anyway, it was less than ideal preparation for introduction to institutional community and my years at Bible College. When I went to Bible College I was stunned at the lack of depth, and the lack of fervency around prayer, not to mention the lack of hunger for Scripture. So I did what I always did, I withdrew into my alone time with the one friend who deeply understands. I found new heroes, fresh voices such as Henri Nouwen, Eugene Petersen, Dallas Willard to guide me in the life of the interior. I felt near to the heart of God and came to greatly enjoy days in His presence.
This was my practice for almost three years.
I say almost, because something happened one day as I was praying. I remember it vividly. I was experimenting with some variations on the Jesus prayer/breath prayer and this particular day I was offering the prayer “...Father I just want to touch your heart, Father I just want to touch your heart.” Clearly I heard my Father's voice speak the words, "Son, people are my heart."
“Son, people are my heart.”
It was hard to hear.
Obvious… but still hard to hear.
I knew what He was driving at and I didn’t like it. He had interrupted my devotional time and got me all emotional – the wrong kind of emotional.
I loved meeting Him away from the crowd. Yet I knew He was inviting me to meet Him among the people. I didn't like it. Mainly I didn't like it because I didn't like people. It always felt awkward, almost unnatural. The rhythms of recreative silence, of solitude, these were my comfort zone. Scripture and prayer were my safe place. I just wanted to be alone with God, to be intimate with Jesus. I hadn't yet learned that intimacy is available in the noise.
“Son, people are my heart.”
In that moment God took my inward journey and turned it outward. I had assumed that intimacy was only available away from people. He invited me into intimacy among the people. From now on I would lean into the largeness of His heart rather than the narrowness of mine. From that moment my Father would train me differently. He would train me to recognise His presence among the people, to pay attention to His voice among the people, to learn a lifestyle of submission (literally coming under His mission) masted to His movements among humanity.
It is a journey I am still taking and exploring.
I am grateful for that moment, yet there are times when I crave the silence, the solitude, the union… times when I have longed to trade leadership for discipleship. In all honesty, it’s felt like surrender to yield my preference to His purpose. And yet I have watched God recreate. I have watched God use the awkwardness of my story to bring life to the city... I am learning that intimacy with the living God takes us to new places of vulnerability and into the living story of recreating all things.
I think it will be a lifelong journey.
Why am I telling you this?
I see something happening in the church that concerns me.
I see people correctly running from pragmatism to the presence. I hear increasing emphasis on character growth and spiritual depth, a movement away from shallow. I love the emergence of intensive faith. It reminds me a little of my early journey. I love the recovery of prayer and the rediscovery of ancient practices. I am glad we are moving towards substance and presence.
I have been on that pathway. It can be hugely healthy.
But it can also produce introspective ‘inner world’ disciples rather than expansive ‘whole world’ disciples. It can create experts in the realm of spirituality without any accountability for bringing life to cities. It meets God on our territory and misses His voice at the heart of the city. It allows me to master rather than be mastered. It creates rhythms and practices over which I am in control. At its worst we use God to hide from God.
All of these are concerning, but not my main concern.
I'm concerned that we are choosing between inner world and whole world.
We are reducing His story to our piety.
Introspective spirituality: contemplating our world
My encounter that autumn day demanded a more expansive reality than my own piety. It confronted me with the awareness that God isn't just reordering my private world, He is recreating the entire world. His story is greater than our spirituality. He invites us to journey from our personal piety into His eternal beauty. Whilst His presence is always our delight, it is never our personal property. We find and meet him among the people. If we want His presence we usually have to lay down our preference.
Sooner or later our inner journey must become an outer journey, or we run the risk of compartmentalizing our world.
While the joys of contemplative spirituality are many, there are inherent dangers hidden within it. The dangers that concern me are twofold: it compartmentalises our faith and confuses our worldview. We speak of depth in a desire to avoid superficiality, but often, with more than a hint of inverted pride, as though depth were better than breadth, as though intensive were greater than comprehensive. Yet the divine dream is that the whole world be filled and fuelled with the knowledge of the glory of God.
This is comprehensive in its scope, breathtaking in its depth.
At its best, inner world discipleship creates connection. At its worst it creates a form of mysticism divorced from reality, and self affirming/referencing in its pursuit. Intimacy with Jesus becomes the watchword and yet intimacy was never intended to be separated from life. It is the greatest gift in life that, when naturally occurring and intentionally pursued, creates life.
While we want at all costs to avoid impact without intimacy, it is impossible to have intimacy without impact. Everything connected with God bears MUCH fruit. This ‘Much fruit’ is the evidence of substance. Much fruit is the evidence of connection to the Presence. Much fruit is the test of our discipleship. It is impossible to be connected to Jesus and not bear much fruit. The text demands more than the mysticism of inner world discipleship.
Active Spirituality: conquering our world.
Dismissing the contemplative approach, active spirituality engages intentionally with the world and understands the power of sacrament. When practiced well it is rooted in compassion, gives itself in intercession and works tirelessly for the re-formation of dehumanising structures. It recognises that the story of God invites active participation, and that God has prepared good works in advance to do.
Not sponsor. Not admire. Do.
I love the pathos of active spirituality. I love its rugged refusal to relinquish justice on the altar of personal growth. I love its conviction that God inhabits structures and stories... I love its redemptive pursuit of all things. Pursued well it brings life to all. Yet all too often, we seek to bring deliverance whilst being personally devoid of presence. Unwittingly our cause becomes our Christ, and our Christ becomes our cause.
It reminds me of Moses, intent on bringing deliverance without experiencing God’s presence. Poor Moses, reaching out to others in an effort to remove oppression and rewrite their story, only to discover his own brokenness overwhelming his efforts and intentions. Moses had a compassionate heart and a desire to see the marginalised included. Yet his early efforts to accomplish this in his own strength and power led to fatigue and brokenness in his own soul.
Only in the place of solitude does Moses re-enter the living story.
In that place, God re-initiates Moses’ calling to engage with suffering humanity, but this time to do so with the power of love. This time there would be signs and wonders accompanying the message of deliverance and expansive hope. In this way, prevailing love would conquer injustice. Moses eventually reluctantly realised that doing justice and loving mercy doesn’t work without walking humbly.
Active spirituality is an inferior story. A greater story must overshadow.
It is always insufficient - dare I say inhumane - to engage the cause and miss the Christ. Attempting justice without the Spirit of God at the centre is unsustainable, incapable of bringing life. It eventually depletes us, leaving us like Moses, alone, afraid and angry.
I’ve been down that road.
Our early days as community in Glasgow were marked by authentic movement; immersed in the recognition that we had been rescued and therein commissioned to bring freedom to others. It was not something into which the church was speaking. We didn’t know it was trendy. Freely we had received, so we freely gave. All we knew was freedom. And freedom is a very contagious thing.
I wanted to learn more about it so I went to college.
And I did. I learned that what we were doing was called ‘Incarnational Ministry’. All along I had thought it was loving Jesus and living in a housing estate. No. It was incarnational ministry. So I returned from college eager to practice this incarnational ministry. I was ready to practice the Presence among the people. The slight problem was that people did not recognise their moment of deliverance and I ended up depressed. It didn’t feel very incarnational, more like incarceration.
My efforts at active spirituality left me bruised and broken.
Expansive Spirituality: changing our world
Expansive spirituality extends us beyond the borders of what we know, what we have, and what we have seen. It enlarges us as it takes us beyond ourselves, frees us from measuring moral muscle and encapsulates us in the consuming mission of leading others into life. Expansive spirituality leads us somewhere new. It leads us to the living story.
As for me, I continue on my outward journey. Not simply contemplating God, but celebrating God in all things; seeking to demonstrate His rule and reign in all things. Not because ‘missional’ is the best approach to Church, not out of some sort of pragmatic desire to see church grow, (although, I’m a pastor, I love it when the church grows), not even really to lead people into life, but simply because that is where my Father called me to meet him.
It is what followers do.
It is my way of touching his heart.