Jesus often used imagery from the natural world to describe the Kingdom of God - fish; wheat; birds and flowers; the largest, most aggressive weed in the garden; sheep, and goats. In part, this is incarnational communication par excellence, connecting with a people closely tied to the land through the everyday things of their experience - and to that extent we need to find new ways of telling the same stories in an urban context. But it is more than that: Jesus spoke about the Kingdom in organic terms because the Kingdom of God is organic. And while the Church and the Kingdom are not the same thing (the Kingdom is much bigger), the Church is (supposed to be) organic too - first and foremost an organism, not an organisation (organisms are, of course, highly organised, but the organisation serves the organism, and not the other way round). Even in an overwhelmingly urban setting, nature breaks through: whether it be one-step-removed - the BBC Natural History department or The Discovery Channel - or right-here-right-now - dandelions pushing through the concrete; a sparrow-hawk nesting in a cooling tower...so, let's not throw out those nature lessons completely!
There are 7 signs of biological life: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, and nutrition. And these markers relate to living disciples, and living churches, too. Here are some questions (thanks to my friend Alex for the wording), a check-list if you like, for healthy living:
Movement: An organism that does not move either starves to death, or is themselves eaten: either way, it doesn't survive long. Jesus said, "Come follow me" and "Go and make disciples" - a rhythm of movement. Right now, in that rhythm, am I primarily coming or going? And, how quickly do I respond to stimuli (see Sensitivity), changing the 'leading beat' in that rhythm?
Respiration: is the process by which every cell produces energy, and involves breathing in and out. The Holy Spirit is described as holy 'breath' in both the Old and New Testaments (ruach and pneuma); and he gives us life. Is there any part of my life where he does not have access? And, am I striving to create energy, or allowing God to create energy in me?
Sensitivity: to stimuli - hunger, danger, exposure to the elements - causes animals to move. Plants turn towards the sun. We need to be sensitive towards both God and other people - which am I more sensitive towards, and what steps am I taking to improve my weaker area? Is there any area where I have hardened my heart towards God?
Growth: Recently I complimented my neighbour on her beautiful garden; she said that God should have all the credit for making it grow - but I wanted to point out that she knew how to partner with him in that. God causes growth, but we create an environment in which growth is either encouraged or discouraged. Growth is a contentious issue in churches - I hear comments such as "Numerical growth isn't the only marker of healthy life, you know!" - and this is true; but, if there is no numerical growth in a church, it is not healthy - the choice is to address the issue, or grow gradually sicker until a slow and painful death takes place. Where am I growing? Where do I want to grow?
Reproduction: every species reproduces; mammals do so at a slower rate than most, and so (generally speaking) expend a great deal of energy in seeing their offspring survive to maturity themselves. Reproduction leads to something new - something that is both continuity and change. In whom am I reproducing myself (spiritually speaking) at the moment? (i.e., who am I discipling?) Who does God want me to focus on in this season?
Excretion: we build up waste products internally, and if we do not expell these on a regular basis we get very ill: initially, we feel bloated; then our skin changes colour and texture, becoming waxy; and, ultimately, we would die a horrible death...and the same thing happens spiritually. Spiritual excretion involves confession, repentance, and forgiveness of others; while holding guilt, rebellion, pride, unforgiveness, bitterness, etc. inside has negative impact upon us, physically, emotionally, and spritually. Do I have a regular discipline of confession and repentance? Do I have any conscious unforgiveness towards anyone in my heart?
Nutrition: healthy diet (primarily, though not exclusively, in relation to what we eat) is a huge focus in western cultures right now - potentially creating an opening for discipleship. We need to learn what is good, and what is bad, for us to take into ourselves - e.g. what we watch on TV. We also (and this is a major need in western churches) need to learn how to self-feed, and not be spoon-fed by someone else. Is my spiritual diet nutritious? What small but tangible step can I take to make this summer healthier than ever?
(These markers are one of a series of 8 principles of discipleship that were developed at St Thomas' Church in Sheffield. Known as LifeShapes, they are about to be published - initially with the USA context primarily in mind, so please excuse the packaging if you are in a different context - in resources for churches and individuals. For more information, or to pre-order, check out stream247.com)