The late Robert Webber is best known for his writings on worship, but he thought and wrote about many areas of church life, seeking an ancient-future way forward in the post-modern age in which we live.
One of his last projects was called Journey to Jesus. It represents his attempt to adapt for today’s congregations the way the Church in the third century provided a path of conversion and Christian formation. In the book, he outlines a fourfold process that:
- Evangelizes the seeker
- Disciples the new believer
- Spiritually forms the maturing Christian
- Assimilates the new Christian into the full life of the church
The book is called, Journey to Jesus: The Worship, Evangelism, and Nurture Mission of the Church, and in its second chapter Webber says that there were four theological themes around which the ancient church built their process for what many today would call “making disciples” –
1. The theme of Christus Victor
“Jesus is Lord.” This confession of the early church announced that by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus has defeated all the powers of the world, flesh, and devil and sat down his throne to reign. For the ancient Church, Christus Victor stood in dramatic contrast to “Caesar is Lord,” and it thus set those believers apart from their culture’s dominant ethos. This confession formed their primary understanding of what Jesus came to accomplish, and was the main theme of the liturgies by which they worshiped.
Robert Webber says,
The entire process of salvation…is based on the conviction that by his sacrifice Christ has defeated the powers of evil. Conversion to Christ is a turning away from an allegiance to evil and choosing to be under the reign of Christ. This theme is reflected in baptism. As the converting person stands in the water he or she is asked to show a sign of the rejection of the devil. The convert turns to the west (the symbol of the domain of Satan) and spits as in the face of the devil. A powerful way to symbolize the end of a relationship!
“The image of mother suggests that new Christians are not left on their own in a world of principalities and powers, but are brought into a community of people from whose bosom they are nourished and given all that is needed to survive,” Webber writes. This was a prominent theme and image in the writings of the early Church Fathers.
Church as “Mother” suggests that she fulfills her role by being the womb in which God’s children are born. The waters of the womb symbolize the waters of baptism, through which we are born again.
Another maternal characteristic of the Church is her nurturing role in the lives of her children. We are nourished at her breasts, held in her arms, encouraged in her love.
3. The theme of evangelism as a process
While not discounting the possibility of instantaneous conversion, this perspective understands that even the most dramatically transformed individuals enter into a life that requires development and nurture. Webber quotes Irenaeus, who speaks about how Christ has sanctified all the various seasons of human life: “He came to save all through his own person; all, that is, who through him are reborn to God; infants, children, boys, young men and old. Therefore he passed through every stage of life.”
He builds his thesis around four stages of development recognized in the ancient church: (1) The Seeker, which presupposes an interest in the Gospel; (2) The Hearer, which presupposes a degree of commitment; (3) The Kneeler, which presupposes a time of spiritual preparation for baptism; and (4) The Faithful, when the person is fully incorporated into the life of the Church.
4. The theme of the power of symbol
Robert Webber tells us, “Conversion and growth in Christ and the church are accomplished not only by words, but also by words made visible through performative symbol.”
This sacramental perspective is rooted in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation: God can and does work through the material of his Creation to communicate his grace to our lives. As Webber puts it succinctly: “God’s saving presence is made a reality through physical signs.” Therefore, as people walked within the ancient Church on their “journey to Jesus,” each major step along the way was marked by rites performed in the context of the congregation, recognizing and celebrating God’s work in making us anew in Christ.
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In the post-modern world in which we live, Robert Webber recommends that Churches adapt and follow a pattern like this, a “structured Gospel,” as I have called it. He sees parallels between the Church today and congregations during the decline of the Roman Empire. They lived in a pre-Constantinian world before Christendom and we live in the days of Christendom’s demise, and Webber suggests that the approaches of evangelizing and nurturing new believers that the Church took during the modern era no longer speak to the realities around us.
A renewed emphasis on helping people take a well-marked “journey to Jesus” within the Church may help clarify the Gospel and the life to which it calls people in the context of a post-modern, post-Christendom world.
Ancient evangelism occurred in a setting hostile to the church and its values; it developed in the context of a clear self-understanding of the church as the eschatological people who are under the reign of God, the people who confess “Jesus is Lord.” It was evangelism with teeth, not an “easy believism” or a “cheap grace”; and it was a spiritual journey of discipleship, spiritual formation, and entrance into a new community.”