BIBLE EXPLORATIONS: CONGREGATIONAL VITALITY
Becoming Christlike is a lifelong process
By Chip Hardwick | Presbyterians Today
Deuteronomy 30:15–20 was a lectionary text for Sept. 8, 2019.
It’s that time of year again, when church starts ramping up after summer’s relaxed schedule. Youth rooms are filled with laughter, Sunday school finds everyone from toddlers to adults reunited with their favorite teachers, and the return of small groups elicits joy all around. These activities represent different aspects of lifelong Christian formation, one of the seven marks of church vitality that we’re exploring together this month. Our passage, Deuteronomy 30:15–20, sheds light on this mark as a lectionary selection for Sept. 8 — take time to read it now.
With both Moses’ death and the entry into the Promised Land imminent, Moses challenges the Israelites to remember his ministry to them. He has set before them life and death, according to their obedience to God’s commandments. These verses help us understand why Christian formation is so important. Moses’ words illuminate the significance of our ministries of discipleship as they help us understand our tradition, challenge us to live into that tradition’s values and teach us the most faithful way to do so in today’s culture.
In his book “The Teaching Ministry of Congregations,” retired Princeton Seminary professor Rick Osmer affirms three tasks of Christian formation:
- Catechesis — Scriptural instructions, along with practices and traditions of our faith.
- Exhortation — Advice and encouragement.
- Discernment — Wisdom for current-day application.
Let’s start with how our passage highlights catechesis. Moses, like the best Sunday school teachers everywhere, reminds his listeners what our tradition teaches. Whether it’s a meeting with parents before a baptism, giving a devotion at a meeting, or offering an overview of Christianity to a class of new members, catechesis is often the task of Christian formation that first comes to mind.
However, catechesis isn’t the heart of our passage from Deuteronomy. Moses has his eye on exhortation. We wouldn’t be far off in thinking of it as a football coach’s last words before retirement: A string of challenges will lead to victories. Moses summarizes a paragraph full of warnings and promises with “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
Exhortation rings out every time a youth leader challenges her students to commit themselves more fully to Christ; a circle leader prays aloud that the Spirit would strengthen her members to live more faithfully; and a preschooler reminds his teacher that they need to say grace before snack time.
Discernment, the third task of Christian formation, is what confronts the Israelites now that they have heard Moses’ exhortation. What does it mean to “choose life” in their context? What steps must they take to obey God? As they approach a new land, their faith will need to bear fruit in ways they couldn’t have anticipated — and they’ll rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment.
Millennia later the Spirit inspires members and leaders of prayer groups, Bible studies and Sunday school classes to shape each other like iron sharpening iron, that together they would discern what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century. We may not know what’s coming next, but discernment, along with catechesis and exhortation, helps us face the future looking more and more like Jesus Christ — which, after all, is the ultimate goal of Christian formation and our life together.
Chip Hardwick is interim associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois.
- What would it mean for you and your congregation to follow Moses’ call to love, cling to and obey the Lord?
- Do your church’s formation ministries focus more on catechesis, exhortation or discernment?
- How could you use catechesis, exhortation or discernment to help a friend become more like Jesus?
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