A recent gathering of clergy and lay leaders from churches across Georgia engaged in extended conversation about the needs and opportunities for ministry in our time and place.
The normal needs for better communication, faithful stewardship of limited resources, and collaboration with partner churches and agencies were an expected part of the conversation.
A somewhat unexpected and positive emphasis was a deep-seated and widespread concern for what is now being called “spiritual formation.”
For those of us who cut our theological teeth on terms like “religious education” and “Christian education,” spiritual formation refers to the nurtured integration and development of all the dimensions of the faith journey – worship, study, service and community.
While being encouraged by the clear sense of need for careful attention to age-appropriate guidance for the nurturing of faith, the discussion prompted some reflection on a familiar feature of our lives that illustrates an important distinction.
Consider the difference between a fan and a disciple. I hope the devotees of celebrities and sports teams will forgive this oversimplification for the purpose of illustration.
A fan is a person who is passionately devoted to his or her celebrity hero or sports team.
Considerable money, time and effort will be spent to attend performances and games, and paraphernalia symbolizing the relationship will be purchased and worn or displayed.
Media featuring the object of devotion will be attended to. Arguments – good-natured and otherwise – will be engaged in defending the superiority of one’s team or hero. Being a committed fan is serious business, and it is the source of good fellowship and fun.
It is interesting to note that being a fan doesn’t change much with time and age. Devotion may ebb and flow, of course, but the relation of the devotee to the object of devotion stays rather constant.
The fan doesn’t join the team or even usually take up the sport. He or she continues to be an observer and to enjoy the performance or contest as an experience of entertainment.
The difference between a new fan and a long-time fan is most often only a matter of time rather than level of involvement.
A disciple, on the other hand, seems to be another kind of devotee. Attaching himself or herself to someone who represents a value or skill that one aspires to emulate, the disciple embraces a relationship that progressively moves toward the modeled practices and lifestyle.
Like the master/apprentice relationship of artisans, crafts and trades, the disciple/mentor relationship finds the devotee in a rigorous process of disciplined growth in the particular field of endeavor.
The work of the beginner is certainly valid, but the disciple cannot stay at a given level of development.
Each stage of growth is a step to the next level. Devotion to the master/mentor is not measured by cheers and paraphernalia, but by commitment to growth and development in the service of the enterprise.
Communities of faith would seem to have a choice of whether to focus on developing fans or disciples.
Our culture teaches us that marketing and program production do a pretty good job of drawing people to a product or a program that produces fans.
Our experience teaches us that deepening the roots of faith by rigorous attention to the more significant questions of life can lead to stronger, more sustained ministries both within and from the community of disciples.
Growing mature disciples is perhaps our best protection against the distraction of sideshows that use the language of faith to disguise all manner of injustice and discrimination.
The spiritual formation that I heard people asking for in our recent meeting is the part of our life together that puts us on the path of discipleship and keeps us committed to the rigor of careful thought, exploration and discovery.
What was it that the great commission said? “Go therefore and make disciples.”
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.