Learning How to Become Like Jesus
Karen Bables is "kind of addicted" to the Apprentice program she leads at her church, Christ Memorial Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.
"People are happy in this class. They find peace and joy. I love watching transformation take place before my eyes."
Bables, director of adult discipleship at Christ Memorial, introduced the Apprentice program there in 2009, when it was just being published. So far 80 participants have gone through the program, which utilizes three books by James Bryan Smith: The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community.
"Apprentice is a program to help people experience transformation in becoming like Jesus," she says. The books identify false "narratives" about God and the Christian life, often arising from muddy theology or cultural beliefs. These narratives are compared to narratives Jesus taught in the Bible; the books also include "soul-training exercises" to help participants embed the narratives of Jesus into their lives.
How the program works
At Christ Memorial, the program begins with a two-day retreat. After that, participants read a chapter and meet for two hours each week to discuss, reflect, and practice transformational exercises. (People who don't want to commit to the year-long program can study the material in small groups instead.) Bables and Cathy Dreyer, her co-facilitator, base the weekly lessons on Apprentice leader guides and include sacred dance, music, and artistic and creative elements to set a worshipful tone and engage the senses.
The weekly meetings begin with five minutes of silence and prayer. Participants then report to each other about their experiences with the soul-training exercises from that week's chapter, and discuss the chapter and reflection questions. Sometimes they study related Scripture passages, and the evening ends with a transformational exercise that relates to the week's focus—anything from prayer stations to times of confession to planting seeds.
"The transformation exercises quite often use an element that's visual or tactile," Dreyer says. "There are just so many different things that you can do that draw you closer to the lesson learned in the week."
Potential for transformation
"We've been talking about becoming like Jesus for years," Bables says. "Now we have a way for people to learn they can actually be and do the things they've been told they should be and do. All the components of change that [James Bryan Smith] describes actually work—and work differently for each person. Wherever a person is on his or her spiritual journey, there is growth."
"Many of us," says Dreyer, "were brought up Christian Reformed or Reformed. We were taught theological principles, we were able to recite catechism, and we knew Scripture, but somehow we held it in our hand. It was not knitted somehow within us.
"When it's knit inside you, it's different than holding it in your hand." Apprentice, she says, helps participants turn the corner from information to transformation.
"It helps participants understand that Christ dwells within them. If you could see even some of the people who have been transformed—they are the same people, and they do the same jobs, but something about them is different. It's Christ in them.
"How can you not want to be part of that?"
Throughout the program, Bables says, "I see the process that happens in people when we are faced with change: I see resistance, I see 'aha!' moments, I see tears when people understand the love of a good and beautiful God—a God who is for them, not out to punish them."
Helping program graduates continue to grow
Christ Memorial offers a newsletter for program graduates to keep the Apprentice concepts and terminology fresh in their minds. An Apprentice conference was held last year in collaboration with two other churches, and ideas from the program occasionally appear in worship. Several program graduates have become facilitators themselves or are now on a team to brainstorm other ways to continue supporting participants after the program's conclusion.
Graduates often become "missionaries" of Apprentice, according to Dreyer, and recruit new participants for the next class. Bables and Dreyer say the program is open to everybody, but there are high expectations for participants in terms of attendance, preparation, and intentionality.
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