Robert Webber believes the road to the church’s future runs through its past.
In the third installment of his “Ancient-Future Faith” series, Webber, the Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary and president of the Institute for Worship Studies, draws on historic Christian practices of evangelism to map out a strategy for 21st century church leaders.
Webber’s book is, in part, a response to the 1999 International Consultation on Discipleship’s findings that the Christian church is “marked by a paradox of growth without depth.” Rather than focus on “converts” alone, who quickly fall away from faith, Webber finds in the early centuries of the church a faith-forming process that turned converts into mature, life-long disciples.
Webber notes how the church of the first-through-third centuries created a unified process of conversion, discipleship, Christian formation and assimilation into Christian community. The process ensured that converts came to “believe, belong and behave” like a Christian.
That process, however, began to erode after Constantine legitimized Christianity in the fourth century. Webber succinctly condenses 15 centuries of Christian practice that resulted in a privatized, compartmentalized Christian faith. Webber argues that the 21st century church “must recover the spirit of this process” used by the early church to make disciples rather than converts.
Webber suggests adapting the structure, content and “passage rites” of the early church’s fourfold process of disciple-making and applying it to 21st century churches.
–Evangelize into the gospel of Jesus Christ.
–Disciple into the church, its worship, its Scripture, its disciplines.
–Spiritually form into the ethic and lifestyle of faith.
–Assimilate into the church through a discovery of gifts, the Christian vocation of work and caring for the poor and needy.
For Webber, the key is developing intentional processes at each stage of the journey–a step most churches have neglected. Webber attempts to connect the traditional passage rites of baptism and confirmation as affirmation for growth through one of the steps. He notes how Rick Warren’s “purpose-driven” paradigm reflects this ancient process as seekers are moved through the “bases” toward maturity and service.
After an overview of the faith-forming process, Webber explores the various stages of disciple-making in detail, with practical suggestions for both mainline and evangelical churches to implement a faith-forming process and reinforce it through a series of passage rites (a complete description of these rites follows in an appendix).
Baptists might apply his process in the following way:
–Attract seekers and evangelize them into the gospel of Jesus Christ, followed by a “rite of welcome” and/or the rite of baptism.
–Engage new believers in a series of faith-forming disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and worship, followed by something similar to Webber’s “rite of covenant” (a signing of one’s name in the congregation’s book of membership).
–Spiritually form the ethic and lifestyle of the disciple, followed by a rite similar to confirmation–some public way to acknowledge and affirm the formation of Christ-like character.
–Assimilate followers into the ministry of the church through a discovery of gifts, the Christian vocation of work, and caring for the poor and needy. This stage would be followed by a rite of commissioning (not mentioned by Webber, but a rite that many evangelical churches could find helpful for raising the value of “sending” members as servants in the world).
Webber’s book offers some help and hope for churches who want to recover the qualities of the ancient faith, and create a new and relevant future. Toward that end, the last third of Webber’s book examines the cultural challenges facing the church and offers some fresh ways to engage a post-modern social setting with the hope of the gospel. His succinct summary of seven major cultural changes (Chapter 7) should be a sobering reminder that churches of this era minister in a decidedly new setting. Those who refuse to recognize it and adapt to it will find themselves and their message ignored.
Still, Webber views this shifting cultural setting with hope. “Our new culture bears a striking similarity to the culture of the first three centuries,” claims Webber. And it is these similarities that make our culture “ripe for this very old yet very new form of evangelism and Christian formation.”
Michael Tutterow is senior pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.