The University of Valley Forge is a Liberal Arts University (UVF) located about 45 mins outside of Philadelphia in Phoenixville, PA. UVF has a rich heritage of making an impact on many generations in spiritual development and leadership since its inception in 1938. Yet simultaneously, UVF also has a tumultuous history of challenging leadership that led to many seasons of volatility that threatened its mission of “preparing individuals for a life of service and leadership in the church and in the world.”
Today the University seeks to revitalize its established mission since its genesis of making disciples in returning to its roots of being a “Spirit-Filled, Loving Community that Makes Disciples.” UVF has refocused itself on the mission of making disciples as a distinguishing purpose of the University through the application of biblical principles in disciple making. Our endeavor has been to answer this all-important question:
How can a biblical conception of community be reimagined in a Christian college setting, for the purposes of inviting students into a journey of discipleship?
In our pursuit of this purpose, we have discovered that the application of some important biblical principles of a dynamic and loving community can have an incredible impact in the task of making disciples.
The Great Commission
We must first devote ourselves to the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-19, that the mandate, for all followers of Jesus is to “make disciples”:
18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
If the mission given by Jesus is to make disciples, then a Christian University like ours must be consumed and preoccupied with answering these three questions:
- Who is a disciple?
- What does a disciple do?
- How do you make one?
A Spirit-Filled, Loving Community is essential in fulfilling the great commission of making disciples on a Christian college campus. Our students come from diverse backgrounds of race, ethnicity, cultures, theological framework, church affiliations, mental and emotional health dispositions, and much more. Therefore, you can imagine the challenge of making disciples of such diverse young people. We are discovering the significance of Jesus-centered community in the presence of the Holy Spirit, while learning to love one another in community.
To accomplish this, we focused our attention on the contexts where discipleship takes place in Scripture, through watching the doings of Jesus. These are not contexts just to come and hear teaching, but also to engage with one another in relationship, experience each other’s giftings, serve together, and learn to live out the call of the mission in community.
Discipling Contexts at UVF
Throughout scripture, an observation can be made of four contexts of discipling in the presence of Jesus. Jesus discipled people through situations and in a variety of contexts: He did this in “large group” contexts, “small group” contexts, “one-on-one” contexts, and “alone with Jesus” contexts. When distinguishing between these contexts, there are not always clean-cut lines between them, but all four contexts are important for learning to follow Jesus. Sometimes, students come from churches that only teach one or two of these contexts, which can be limiting to their communal experience of discipleship.
At UVF, these four contexts of discipling are both systematically organized and organically experienced throughout the year. While we cultivate opportunities for students to experience these contexts, they also gather on their own volition in these contexts in community. One of the greatest pitfalls of this is programatizing these contexts rather than valuing the communal and dynamic experience of people in relationship. It is about learning to be with Jesus, to experience the Word of God and the presence of Jesus, through being in community together.
The first context of discipling is the large group context; this is the gathering of any large group of believers where the presence of Jesus is experienced corporately (Matthew 5:1,13:2). We see Jesus having large group gatherings for teaching the Word as well as ministering frequently throughout His public ministry. Additionally, the Old Testament describes the gathering of the people for public reading of scripture, worship, and offering sacrifices corporately (Exodus 24, Ezra 1:1-8, 1 Timothy 4:13). It is here that we experience corporate worship, and you can sense the presence of God in a unique way. At UVF we practice this formally in our large group chapel services, but both formal and informal large gatherings happen in dorms and other contexts frequently throughout the semester. Life Formation class is also offered in a large group setting where around seventy-five our students take a journey for fifteen weeks, meeting twice a week, and walking through the many dimensions of following Jesus together. There is something distinct about the way that God dwells in a large group of his people that cannot be replicated in smaller gatherings and is essential to the life of our University community.
Secondly, the small group context takes place whenever people gather in smaller group settings. Although this context is often referred to systematically, it does not only mean meeting in things like “church small groups.” It also can include meeting with a few people for coffee, for a training, or sharing a meal; anywhere that you meet with other believers to help build one another up is a context for learning how to follow Jesus in a small group. An important part of small group is learning to serve and minister with smaller groups of people as we frequently see in the ministry of the disciples. At UVF we implemented weekly small groups that are student-facilitated, where students learn to follow Jesus through studying the Word and praying together. This system has been operating for three years now and has had great impact in the growth of our community. Although our formalized small group context is important to our community, informal gatherings of small groups are just as important as our students learn to practice the Acts 2:42-46 principles.
The one-on-one context is a highly effective way that Jesus discipled, and we encourage this through the equipping and training of our students, staff, and faculty to participate in and practice. When someone comes alongside of you, they can help you follow Jesus better. This may be through mentorship, coaching, or even simply the conversations you have with people that cause you to walk away feeling closer to Jesus (Matthew 18:20). A tool that can be used for one-on-one discipleship is Spiritual Coaching. Spiritual Coaching helps people discover for themselves how to follow Jesus rather than just being told what to do and being led by another person. UVF has formalized a way of training spiritual coaches, and these coaching principles are both taught and practiced throughout the year.
Alone with Jesus
Lastly, this context of discipling refers to spending time with Jesus in prayer, not just speaking to him, but also listening and staying in his presence (John 15:5). This time of remaining and abiding is a highly intentional context both promoted and practiced as one of our main discipling contexts at UVF. In abiding, our community often struggles with allocating time and focus with Jesus because we may struggle with being alone and quieting ourselves in these times. Our community is encouraged to press through and stay with Jesus in relationship and intimacy in extravagant time, even though we may not hear or feel anything. The Word of God in John 15:5 promises that we will produce spiritual fruit and multiply disciples through remaining in His presence because Jesus is the source of our strength, and apart from Him we can do nothing. When we learn to stay in the presence of God throughout the day, we will experience an increased sensitivity to His presence, perhaps in unexpected places, and in many circumstances throughout the day. This occurs because there is spiritual activity when we learn to remain. Why? Because it is the promise of God; and He never fails on His promises. This promise is: If you remain in Christ, he will remain in you. Abiding in extravagant time with Jesus alone is heavily taught, encouraged, and practiced as one of the most important contexts where we learn to and experience power to follow Jesus.
In all four contexts of discipling, it is imperative that followers of Jesus learn the practice and rhythms of “come, hear, do”: to actually learn to do as they gather in the presence of Jesus, hear His Words, and put them into practice by being obedient.
Through practicing these contexts in community for 2-3 years, students are able to experience the beauty of Jesus in a deeper way. The following video was created to display just a glimpse of five students’ lives that have been transformed through being in Spirit-Filled, Loving Community that Makes Disciples.