Creating a Space that Fosters Spitual Growth

Two values are essential for forming the kind of community environment we try to create for vibrant spiritual growth.

Invitation has to do with the sense of being included in the community, welcomed, and valued – not for what you can do but for who you are.  It is about feeling like you belong and that others want you there.

Challenge has to do with being needed for the community, having a vital role to play, being valued for your work.   It is about recognizing that you have something important to contribute in terms of achieving goals and purposes.

Jesus created an environment that was wonderfully invitational yet clearly challenging.  To make sure we are on the same page, here are some statements of Jesus that reflect either invitation or challenge.

  1. Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.  (Invitation, Matthew 11:28)
  2.  Let the dead bury the dead, but you go out and proclaim the kingdom of God. (Challenge, Luke 9:60)
  3. Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Invitation, Luke 1:16)
  4. Anyone who wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all. (Challenge, Mark 9:37)
  5. Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (Invitation, John 7:37)
  6. If anyone wants to be my disciple, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Challenge, Matthew 16:24)

Sometimes, Jesus used invitation and challenge in the same sentence.

  1. Jesus said, “Come and follow me…” (Invitation, Matthew 4:19a)
  2. “…and I will send you out to fish for people.”  (Challenge, Matthew 4:19b)
  3. “The time has come.  The kingdom of God is at hand…” (Invitation, Mark 1:15a )
  4. “…Therefore repent and believe the good news of the gospel.”  (Challenge, Mark 1:15b)

It is important to recognize that in Jesus’ ministry, invitation precedes challenge.  We need both if we are to create discipling communities that are consistent with Jesus’ approach to making disciples.  We lose a lot if we sacrifice one for the other.  They are not opposites.  The two go hand in hand.  And the goal is to create an environment that is both highly invitational an significantly challenging.  We must extend invitation because every human being is unimaginably important to God.  As Jesus welcomed, valued, served, and loved people, so must we.  And we must provide challenge because we have been given an unbelievably important job.  God has entrusted us with roles and responsibilities for advancing His Kingdom.

Mike Breen puts these on a matrix – and this can be very helpful for shaping a ministry that helps people grow as disciples.  In studying this, I find it helpful to consider a sports analogy.  Applying invitation and challenge builds a successful sports team.   We’ll use soccer.

invitation challenge

Phase 1: Recruiting a team – High invitation.  Low Challenge.  The coach begins moving around the school. Whenever he spots a potential athlete, he walks up and says to the young man and says, “Son, you look like a ball player.  I can see that uniform on you now.  We’ll have tryouts in two weeks. What do we need to do to get you there.”  The goal of the coach at this point is to gather a crowd from which to build a team.  He’ll appeal to teachers, meet with, and arrange rides to gather a team.   Jesus recruited disciples.  Most of the calling stories are highly invitational.  Early in the Gospels, we see him inviting people into a new life with two phrases: 1) Come and see. (John 1:39) 2) Follow me (Mark 1:18).

Phase 2: Selecting the team – Low invitation.  High Challenge.  If you’ve ever been through try-outs, you know how stressful it can be.  If fifty show up to try-out for twenty spots on the roster, thirty will be told, “Sorry, you don’t have what it takes to make this year’s team.”  Ouch.  To make the team, you must be up to the challenge.  Now, it is very important to point out that Jesus didn’t hold try-outs.  But he did select twelve disciples from among many disciples in order to invest intentionally in them.  Others had been with him just as long (see Acts 12:21-23).  Some people were probably disappointed and felt excluded.  High challenge is like that.

Phase 3: Forming the team – High invitation.  High challenge.  Once the team is selected, everyone is needed, everyone has a spot on the team, and everyone is important.  If the coach is unable to get this across to the team, they won’t win many games.  Anyone who follows sports know that teams with talented players can lose games if they don’t learn to operate as a team.  Without a sense of challenge players won’t work hard on skills or try their best, winning and achieving on the field won’t matter.  Without a sense of invitation, players will be reluctant to take chances or step up if it seems unsafe, and talented players on the team become self-serving.  Both pieces are needed for the players to begin to be able to play together, encourage one another, trust one another, and sacrifice for one another.  We see Jesus creating this kind of environment.  He gave extra time to the twelve, worked with them, taught them privately, brought them along with him wherever he went, and sent them out as his representatives to do what (before hand) only Jesus had been able to do.

We try to create this kind of environment when we gather as a missional community.  For example, when someone is new to the group, we want them to have a high invitation experience.  But very quickly, we want them to know that we have work to do – so we calibrate in a little challenge by inviting first timers to help with the dishes after our meal if they are able.   Oddly enough, that little bit of challenge helps people know they are valued and welcomed.   Sharing prayer requests can be challenging.  Learning to pray out loud with others is a challenge, too.  It makes us feel vulnerable.   Bit being prayed for an cared for – being in that highly invitational environment – is so encouraging and uplifting.

The experience of invitation and challenge in our meetings helps us when we go out to serve.  Inevitably, going out puts us outside our comfort zone (it’s different for everyone, but here are a few hurdles we’ve struggled with: prayer walking, interacting with people from other cultures, delivering cookies, gathering food for a food pantry, going with our kids to an unfamiliar play ground, or talking with people about Jesus.)  In those times, we get strength and help from one another to try.  And we learn and grow when we try new things.

For leaders, I am learning how important it is to read the group and calibrate the amount of invitation and challenge.  For example, too much challenge when people are weary discourages.  Too much invitation evaporates the sense of purpose and focus.

What can you do where you are to foster an environment of invitation and challenge?

About Pastor Jesse

I am someone loved by Jesus - a disciple, husband, father, pastor, and engineer. God has a mission and invites us into it. I want to do my part to encourage and equip people for life on that mission!
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