The following is an adaptation of a letter I sent to a few friends today about a new Apprentice Group that we are starting. Some of you reading this have already been through the experience. If so, please consider leaving a comment below and share your thoughts on Apprentice. If you haven't been in a group, you live in the Midland area, and this sounds like something you'd like to do, email me.
Over the past two years, the best thing I have been involved with in ministry has been participating in and leading others through Apprentice Groups. I've never been a part of anything else that's as effective at helping people grow in their relationship with Christ, regardless of where they are in their spiritual life or how long they've been a Christian.
Some of us who have gone through the experience together so far came into it feeling spiritually stuck; we had been active Christians for decades, but had even become numb to how lifelessness had crept in to the most important relationship in our lives.
Others have come into these groups as a way of taking their first spiritual steps as Christians; regardless of how rough our pasts may have been, or how opposed to Christianity we may have been in the past, some of us have gotten very solid footing for our first Christian steps through these groups. When asked how the experience had changed their relationship with God, one participant simply said, "Now there is one."
Still others have come into these groups already growing spiritually, and have found in our experiences together reliable guidance for how to continue growing and satisfying their desire to know God in a real, practical way, as we learn to actually live as Jesus' disciples (apprentices).
Our experiences in Apprentice Groups are based upon coming to realize that we do not change by simply gritting our teeth and deciding to do better next time. This is true from small things, like trying to lose 10 pounds and keep it off, to larger things such as becoming the kind of person God created us to be and experiencing the fulness of life that Jesus said he came to give us. When we're talking about our lives in Christ with the Holy Spirit involved in the process, there is a way in which change happens naturally, even easily, though it always requires our cooperation. The brief version is that change happens in us when the Holy Spirit works and we tweak these three factors:
- Our thoughts: In Apprentice Groups, we specifically look at this question: Is the way that we think about God aligned with or contrary to the way that Jesus thought about God, and the way that God is revealed in the Scriptures? This makes a huge difference in the course of our lives. Regardless of how long we've been Christians, or how many Bible studies we've done, every one of us in these groups has had our thinking challenged by the way that Scripture instructs us to think about God. A big part of how we seek to modify our thinking in these groups is through memorizing full passages of Scripture together.
- Our habits: Most of the advice we've been given as Christians on how to shape our lives often comes down to two things: pray and read your Bible. While we can't overstate the necessity of those two things, they do not form a life that we actually live as we follow Jesus. Rather, along with many other habits, for apprentices of Jesus they should be part of an overall lifestyle arranged around our desire to learn from him. Therefore, during each week in between each of our Apprentice Group meetings, we have one Soul-Training Exercise to engage in. Some are things we usually associate with our spiritual lives, like specific ways to pray and read the Scriptures, but others are ways to more generally shape our overall lives to cooperate with the Holy Spirit's work in us. (For example, the first week's exercise is sleep!) In other words, the goal of these exercises isn't so much to add things to your already-too-full to-do list, but rather to train us in arranging the lives that we already live around our apprenticeship to Jesus.
- Our relationships: Although we're tempted to think that this is the least important of these three factors, by the end of our previous groups, participants have said that this was the most impacting aspect of the entire experience. One participant summed it up by saying, "I've come to realize that I don't spur myself on to holiness. I need other people to do that for me." To put it another way, we cannot be spiritually healthy Christians apart from spiritually healthy community, and many of us are unknowingly desperate for this kind of community in our lives. This is precisely what John Wesley meant when he said: "There is no holiness without social holiness."
The material for Apprentice Groups comes from three books by James Bryan Smith, with each one emphasizing one of the three factors above:
- The Good and Beautiful God deals primarily with comparing our thoughts about God to those of Jesus and how God is revealed in the Scriptures.
- The Good and Beautiful Life is based on the Sermon on the Mount and deals with the habits that make up our lives, and if arranged according to the teaching of Jesus, can actually lead to us becoming people who live lives free of greed, lying, lust, worry, etc., and who live in ways where we become people who do the things that Jesus taught and did, such as blessing people who curse us.
- The Good and Beautiful Community addresses our relationships and the things we do together in our life with God, such as forgiving, worshipping, serving and living generously. Although each book has its specific emphasis, the group's experience is designed to affect each of the three areas from the beginning of the group until its end.
Some of you reading this have already been in an Apprentice group with me or someone else in our church. The rest of you should! But- I realize that some places where I've had readers in the last month (like Atlanta and Kenya) are legitimately too far to travel to Midland each week to meet with us. So, regardless of whether it's with us or with someone else (or starting your own), here are the normal commitments for Apprentice Groups.
- Make being there a priority. Some groups commit to 25 weeks together, and state right off the bat that none of the participants will miss more than three of the sessions.
- Read one chapter from the book each week. Whether you spend a lot of time in books, or they're a completely new concept to you, you can do this. The chapters are very readable, not too long, and well-written (no pictures, but you do get some good stories).
- Do the Soul-Training Exercise for each week. Like anything else, the more you put into this, the more you'll get out of it. Some require time and planning, others don't.
- Memorize Scripture together. We take nine weeks to memorize Colossians 3:1-17, two verses at a time. Regardless of what you're thinking, you can do this. It's something that I've come to believe God is tremendously in favor of, and therefore helps us to accomplish.
Again, if you're near Midland and this sounds interesting, email me. If you live somewhere else, you can check this partial list of churches with Apprentice Groups, or look into starting one at your own church. If you've already been in an Apprentice group, leave a comment and describe it for yourself.