The prophet Jeremiah lived and ministered in a time of growing spiritual apathy and moral decline. Despite repeated warnings, God's people were drifting away from Him. As a result, instead of being a positive influence on the surrounding nations, they were becoming just like them. They had already fallen from the height and splendor of David and Solomon's time, now long forgotten. Little did they know that they were very close to seeing the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem. Before long the cruel Babylonians would carry away them into captivity. Jeremiah prophesied words of warning and also words of hope. He called the people back to God: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16).” The “ancient paths” were paths that were well trodden by people of faith throughout the generations. Instead, the people were taking detours, new paths that ended up causing them to become lost. Unfortunately, God’s people didn't listen. They continued on their own way ... and suffered the consequences.
God’s People in the 21st Century
Here we are, thousands of years later. Although the world is a much different place today, in many ways, we live in a somewhat similar situation. In the West, the influence of the church on society is in decline. The church has been pushed to the margins of our culture and few seem to be concerned. At times, "Christians" don't seem to be much different from their "non-Christian" neighbors. Is this what Jesus had in mind? Or are we missing something? Paul told the first-century Christians that they were like a letter, known and read by everyone around them. What do people read when they see the lives of Christians today? People’s perception of Jesus is greatly shaped by people who follow Jesus today, who represent him – for better or worse. Are we giving them an accurate view or distorted picture of Christ … as he really is?
The Great Omission?
Let’s go back to some ancient words of Jesus that were intended to shape how his followers lived until he returns again. According to speaker and author Dallas Willard, the "Great Commission" (Matt.28:18-20) which Jesus gave has become the "Great Omission." The church at large seems to be doing everything BUT the main thing Jesus gave us to do, which is to - "make disciples." The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus Christ (the word “disciple” is mentioned 269 in contrast to “Christian” which is mentioned 3 times). A “disciple” wasn’t a specially committed form of Christian. Disciples were the only Christians in the first century. Today, we desperately need Christians who will live the life of a disciple who has truly decided to follow Christ. A disciple is a learner, a student, and an apprentice to Jesus. We are called to be apprentices to Jesus … and his school is always in session. The gospel is not a fire escape from hell and a ticket to heaven when we die. It is about living the life of Jesus ... right here right now on earth.
Disciples have it as their goal to become like their master – Jesus. This was Jesus’ clear intended goal for his followers: follow me, learn from me, take my yoke upon you, follow my example, make disciples, teach them to put into practice everything I have taught you. Only as we experience genuine personal transformation will we see the social transformation we all seek.
Genuine transformation into the character of Christ really is possible. Growth and change involve a process and it is a partnership between God and us (see Phil.2:13). As we journey through life we all go through various trials and challenges. These are part of God’s plan to develop character in us (Jam.1:2-4). Thankfully, the Holy Spirit lives within us and is readily available to help us move towards what Jesus would be and do (2 Cor.3:18. Gal.5:22-23. Jn.15:8).
Spiritual practices (or disciplines) are activities that we engage in as disciples to participate with God’s work in our lives. We “put on” the new nature of Christ by engaging in regular activities that are within our power than enable us to become what we could not by direct effort (see Col.3:12-14. 2 Pet.1:1-8). We don’t engage in spiritual practices to earn or merit our salvation or forgiveness but in order to experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. GRACE is the opposite of earning, not effort. Spiritual practices are wisdom not righteousness. They are wise practices that train and transform our hearts. Athletes understand the importance of training. Paul compared our Christian life to the training of an athlete in several passages (1 Cor.9:25. 1Tim.4:7-8. 2 Tim.2:5). When we engage in the spiritual disciplines as training, we are doing so to change how we live. Most people want to change but fail – not because they are not trying, but because they are not training properly.
There are a great variety of spiritual practices: contemplative (including prayer, Scripture, meditation, solitude, silence, Sabbath, fasting, simplicity or journaling), communal (including celebration, singing, service, fellowship, generosity or confession) and missional (including sharing your story, proclaiming the good news in word or deed, showing hospitality, assisting the poor and needy, working for justice, loving your neighbor or serving your community). The aim is not to add more and more activities to our already busy lives but rather to join God in how we spend every day. It’s about living as apprentices of Jesus in our ordinary, everyday lives.
Return to the Ancient Paths
The small group of disciples that Jesus left on earth carried out their mission well. Without the benefit of modern technology they spread through the then known world until by the year AD 310 there were an estimated 20 million followers of Christ. How did they grow from such a small movement to become the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in such a short time? They were an illegal religion throughout this period, they didn’t have church buildings, they didn’t have the Scriptures as we know them, they didn’t have any form of organized institution as we know it today, and they actually made it hard for people to join the church. Obviously, there are some lessons we need to learn from the early church! Maybe we need to face some of our contemporary challenges with age-old wisdom. To move forward we may need to first look backward. When we drift off course, it's time to find our way again ... back on the ancient paths. Discipleship and the development of ancient practices are part of that journey.
Sample Discussion Questions
1. Discuss Jeremiah’s call to God’s people to return to the “ancient paths (Jer.6:16).” In what way is this relevant to the church today in our generation?
2. How do you feel the wider church of Jesus Christ is doing today? What is going well? What needs to change? Where have we drifted?
3. What do you think of when you hear the word “disciple?” Is there a difference between a “Christian” and a “disciple?”
4. How would you define the “gospel?” How could it be presented more clearly today?
5. Our mission at CityLife Church is to “raise up fervent followers of Jesus Christ …” What needs to change for us to become more effective in this mission?
6. Our vision as a church for the next few years is going to take on more of a qualitative than a quantitative approach. How do you feel about this?
7. Which spiritual practices have been most beneficial to your development as a disciple of Jesus? What ones have been difficult or least beneficial?
8. Discuss the unprecedented growth of the church in the first few centuries after Jesus ascended back to heaven. What can we learn from this period of history?
9. How can we as a Life Group be more effective as a “disciple-making group?”