Growing into your call as disciples
By Jessica Davenport
Good morning. It’s wonderful to be with you all. I am Jessica Davenport, the campus minister/associate director of the Illinois State University Wesley Foundation.
I didn’t really grow up in the church. My dad grew up Catholic and my mother was Methodist. When we moved to a small town in northern Illinois, we sought out The United Methodist Church. And while we were members and attended occasionally, we encountered this church at a point that wasn’t its healthiest. And my parents were hurt, our whole family was hurt and this wasn’t the first wound from a church. So we backed away and growing up, I learned from our mail that churches are places that notice you aren’t there … when you stop tithing.
Obviously, I am here today so that’s not the end of my story. I went to Illinois State University and came to the Wesley Foundation my freshman year because of a boy. I stayed at the Wesley Foundation though, for so many reasons. My pastor at the time – now boss, friend and pastor – valued theological thought and conversation.
She was more interested in hearing what students had to say than what she wanted to say and she gave us space to be leaders and hear God’s call in our lives. I learned what it meant to be welcomed with love, to lead a life following Christ and to have that be such a predominant part of my life I could not help but share it with people.
In that kind of space, we could all learn what it meant to be real, authentic people who were desperately seeking after Christ. And my pastor know me.
Throughout my time at the Wesley Foundation, I felt that I was called to work for the church. So I told my pastor, and then I told her to never talk to me about it again. At which point in this story people scoffed and thought “no, I would have a conversation right there,” but like I said, my pastor know me well enough to know that I am stubborn and independent if I can’t accept this call I’m sensing from God, I’m not going to accept it from anyone else.
So I remained active in the ministry, graduated, got a job teaching and then realized I was called to ministry. So right now I am up at Garrett-Evangelical, slowly chipping away at my Master’s of Divinity while working at the Wesley Foundation as a lay person.
God called me and I know that, but I am not sure I would have realized it or responded if it weren’t for ISU Wesley, and friends that cared enough to push me in the direction to which God had been pointing all along.
At ISU Wesley, our mission is that of The United Methodist Church – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and our tagline is Committed to Christ and Community. And as staff there, I understand my job to be supporting students in those commitments and getting out of their way so they can fully live into them.
As a result, we spend a lot of time talking about our call – together and individually. We know God has given us gifts and unconditional love and we can respond by living into our call. Some folks go into vocational ministry. In the past eight years, we have had nine, and hundreds of others serve their call by being a teacher, nurse, accountant, or having a job that supports them, so they can fulfill their call outside of work.
But we know we’re all called. God doesn’t stop calling people. So how are we helping to foster those calls?
My role is helping students hear and live out this call, and strangely I’ve learned a lot from goldfish.
If you give a goldfish a good-sized tank, clean water and food, its body can adapt and grow and honestly, it becomes quite the fish. If the tank is small, the goldfish not fed well or the water isn’t clean, the goldfish will stay small. Its growth depends on its environment. And while the goldfish isn’t the most elegant comparison for humans, our growth also depends upon our environment.
I need to make sure that I’m not limiting people from growing into their call by making sure our environment is one where people can hear God. God is all around us, so how can we limit the distractions and create an environment where people have the space, opportunity and support to respond to God and grow into their call?
All of our student leaders affirm and live into this as well. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what people need to be committed to Christ and Community; what people need to be and make disciples to transform the world.
This year, at our retreat, the students indicated the first thing is hospitality. There are many people who come through our doors like me – unchurched or de-churched. What can we do to make sure everyone who comes through our doors to seek Christ is welcomed like Christ would want?
We have determined it often involves cupcakes or snickerdoodles. Pinterest has made the food both welcoming and exciting. It takes a lot of courage to walk across campus at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. And when they arrive, a student coming up and talking to them, asking about their major, thanking them for coming, asking them if they have someone to sit by can make a huge difference. The students know that worship isn’t just about catching up with their friends or finding their “assigned” seat; it’s about God.
And there are students who don’t click with our ministry. But we certainly don’t want our lack of hospitality to get in the way of someone who is seeking God. And from that kind of hospitality, we can work on building an authentic community.
The next thing students pointed to was discipleship, learning Christian practice. When you have a lot of unchurch or de-churched folk, they might have only heard Scripture from a bullhorn evangelist being yelled at them on the quad. So we have to start with the basics:
- What does it mean to be a Christian?
- What is the Bible really and how can we read it as our plumbline, that enrichjes and sustains our faith life – not a bumper sticker or Facebook status?
And while discipleship is important, we also need apostle-ship, evangelism. That’s the third thing students pointed to at our retreat last month.
We know that the disciples were the devoted pupils of Jesus, following him, soaking up everything he had to say. But apostles are messengers – they share and teach the Good News. We know the mission of The United Methodist Church is: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” and we do that well. But we have some apostleship making to do.
Often times, when students hear the world evangelism, they recoil visibly. So we have to work and practice. Once they can articulate their story, when they get opportunities, they share it. They love the ministry and if they love it so much, other people will too – but they have to know about and they need to be personally invited.
Throughout all of this, I have learned that the biggest thing I can do is help break down the barrier of fear. One of the phrases that Jesus says the most is “do not be afraid.”
God calls us and God calls us to places and people that we would not have thought of on our own. And that can be scary. Living into our call is not always comfortable, it’s often not what others expect from us, and we need support and community and direction. We need somewhere that lets us dream – to dream the dreams God has placed on our hearts.
I’m so excited by the Board of Discipleship’s “wouldn’t it be cool if” slogan… if you haven’t gotten a chance, go stop by the table in the exhibition room because when you start asking that question – “wouldn’t it be cool if…” the fear dissipates.
I am not trying to deny realities. The students and some of us have seen the Pew Study on American religious life. We know anecdotally from our churches that there aren’t many folks my age or younger in the pews. We hear tales of a church waiting a few years, gathering ammunition to split.
Folks have gotten so afraid that I have been asked “what are you doing investing your time in a degree and a process for a church that won’t exist in a few years?” I don’t know what the future holds; none of us do. But I am reassured because I know that the Holy Spirit hasn’t gone anywhere. And I know that if I respond to that question with fear, I am not freed to answer God’s call in my life – and what God calls us to is stronger than any fear.
I know on Sunday we celebrate the Pentecost and we’ve been waiting patiently, but I urge you to not take that waiting too literally. The Spirit is here and the Spirit is not going anywhere and is ready for those who ask.
But that doesn’t get us off the hook for excellent evangelism, discipleship and leadership. In fact, we are challenged to be excellent. We know our current realities but God calls and gives us all kinds of gifts and we know our final reality lies in the hope of the resurrection.
It’s easy to respond with fear – I know I do that – especially when I am feeling sorry for myself and mourning the church that I think should exist. And over and over and over I read Jesus saying, “don’t be afraid” and when I can muster the strength to listen, I can get up, shake off my selfishness for a church that has never been and never will be mine, and listen, teach, learn and invest in authentic relationships with those around me and act like the Gospel, the Good News, really is good. Because I know it is. Because we know it is, because it has changed our lives and will continue to change lives. God, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.