Episode 22: Sermon-Based Small Groups

Our Guest for this Episode – Paula Taylor:

Paula Taylor is the Associate Pastor of Discipleship at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in Southern California. She has a passion for helping people find their true identity in Christ. Over the past 22 years on staff at SBPC, Paula has developed church wide strategies for small groups and spiritual formation. In addition to serving in the local church, she speaks and consults nationally on leadership development and discipleship. Paula earned her MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and Certifications in Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction. As a Spiritual Director, she desires to see the people of God live and lead out of the overflow of a soul intimately connected to God’s love. Paula celebrates 45 years of marriage to her husband, Bill. They take great delight in time spent with in their two daughters and three grandchildren.

Episode 21: Undoing Indifference in Discipleship

Our Guest for this Episode – Matt Neely: 

I am in my 24th year of appointment as an United Methodist Pastor and have served a variety of congregations. I have discovered that in all different kinds of churches they say they want to make disciples, and do to some extent, but the intentionality has never been a deep part of their culture. The Texas Annual Conference began a renewal strategy called Vibrant Church Initiative and through that I became introduced in a wonderful way to a process of disciple making through Ascending Leaders. It is so exciting to see a process that take into account the individuality of each congregation AND understands that it is NOT a one and done program.

The Faith Story of Rachel Young

I want to say at the outset that I vacillate between Stages 2 and 3. I have hit significant “walls” now at ages 24 and 34. These walls have a similar pattern: getting caught up in the work of Stage 2 without the intimacy of Stage 3, then burning out and getting discouraged in my spiritual journey. Moving past these walls into Stage 3 has required surrendering my ego and my agenda, and each time I have experienced God’s healing.  Every time I hit and then move past a wall, my experience of Stage 3 gets deeper and pushes me toward the sacrifice and obedience of Stage 4. Rather than share my whole story, I’m only going to take you from my childhood into my mid-twenties – into that first wall and what followed.

Stage 1: Come and See

My parents are deeply committed Christians. Each of them grew up going to church, but both had powerful conversion experiences in college, in which they experienced what it’s like to have a personal relationship with Jesus. My father is a retired Presbyterian pastor.

I never consciously responded to the Stage 1 invitation, but my whole childhood was infused with the invitation to “come and see.”  Church was part of my weekday life. It was where I went to visit Daddy during the week and where I was loved by a multitude of people – church secretaries, Sunday school teachers, nursery workers, and friends of my parents. Worship services, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and reading Bible story books all taught me about Jesus.

Stage 2: Come and Follow Me

My parents tell me that when I was four years old, I asked Jesus into my heart. As best as I could understand it, I told Jesus I wanted him to be a part of my life and save me from my sins.

I don’t remember this conversion moment. But, I also don’t remember a time when I didn’t want Jesus to be a part of my life.

Growing up as a Presbyterian, I had ample opportunities to grow in my knowledge of Jesus. Even in the small churches my dad pastored, attending Sunday school was a given. And I really liked learning about faith. I enjoyed learning Bible stories and memorizing Scripture verses.

I still have my student Bible – it has notes scribbled all over it and the binding is breaking. Several times as a child & teenager, I tried reading through the Bible, but I usually lost steam after getting through Genesis. I tried to keep a quiet time, in which I would read my Bible and pray.

I also had ample opportunities as a child and teenager to take part in church activities – weekly worship, church potlucks, youth group, service opportunities, summer camp, and a Christian version of the Scouts called Pioneer Clubs. Church involvement was a given in my family, and I didn’t mind. Church was a safe place, with people who cared about me and whom I loved in return.

It was probably no surprise to anyone that in college I declared a major in religion. My very favorite course was called “An Introduction to the Christian Faith.” It covered major themes and subjects related to following Jesus. The information wasn’t new, but I soaked everything in – I took reams of handwritten notes and loved to study.

And it wasn’t just about study. I sought to live like Jesus – to be a kind and compassionate person of integrity. I knew it was important to serve others, so I volunteered in nursing homes in late high school and throughout college. However, I did not like stepping outside of my comfort zone. Then, the summer before my senior year of college, I heard a clear call from God to “go” outside my comfort zone. I took my first international mission trip as a result. I also decided to spend my first year after college as a Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer and moved to Hollywood to work with an urban ministry.

Stage 2 is a comfortable stage for me. Study fits so well with who I am. I love being productive, doing things for Jesus and for my faith.  But I discovered after college that study and serving lose their luster when I am faced with a crisis. And that’s what Hollywood was for me.

Stage 3: Come and Be with Me

I spent three years in Hollywood, living with fellow volunteers working for the Hollywood Urban Project. For so many reasons that I don’t have time to describe, I hit a faith wall there in Hollywood.  The challenges of living in this neighborhood wore down my spirit. Plus, the Gospel I had learned so much about in college felt insufficient in the face of the deep pain of poverty ravaging the lives of my neighbors. So what if these people went to Heaven when they died if they had asked Jesus into their hearts? What about their lives today? How in the world could Jesus make a difference?

Thank God, I had several significant mentors my first year in Hollywood. They taught me the importance of self-care – of attending to my emotional, spiritual, and physical health. To be healthy person who engages in mission and ministry, I had to be willing to move into increased intimacy with God and the empowerment that comes from it. I also had to be willing to be vulnerable and so move into the embrace of safe, spiritual friendships.

I remembered that back in high school I had experienced a taste of what it meant to respond to Jesus’ invitation to “come and be with me.”  I had gone on my first silent retreat in 12th grade and loved it. So, in Hollywood, I more intentionally incorporated silence and prayer into my life. I read poetry and novels more than nonfiction books about faith; I sought to be with God in places of natural beauty.

And then God worked an unexpected healing in my life. I found out about the opportunity to volunteer for six weeks on the Island of Iona with the Iona Community. Between my second and third year in Hollywood, I spent six weeks in Scotland cleaning toilets, hanging laundry, chopping vegetables, and, in my free time, wandering around this beautiful three-mile-long island. I established great friendships with people from around the world. I participated in morning and evening prayer in the Iona Abbey, and I especially loved the songs we sang.

As I flew back to Hollywood from Scotland, I noticed I had written a prayer by the medieval scholar Thomas à Kempis on the first page of my travel journal. I had underlined, “make clean, make glad, make bright, and make alive my heart.” And I realized that God had done exactly that – without my being conscious of it! I had spent six weeks in the company of God’s people, being with Jesus in ways precious to me (like being in nature and in music), and God had healed me!

It was most clear to me that I had made a shift from Stage 2 into Stage 3 when I began my seminary coursework a few weeks after I returned from Iona. I loved being back in school, but the classes that interested me most were not the classes I so hungrily consumed in college. Bible classes were all right, but the chance to think about urban ministry – and how to do urban ministry in a sustainable way – that was exciting!

I fell into a pattern of spending time with God while I ate my breakfast, sometimes by reading Scripture, other times by reading the words of my favorite spiritual writers. I prayed while I walked to the train station and in my car commuting to school. And, you know what? This heart shift made me a better missionary in my neighborhood. I wasn’t as concerned about outcomes (in producing something) as I was in establishing meaningful, compassionate relationships with the students I mentored. I learned that living like Jesus arises most naturally when we choose to be with Jesus. As we embrace and are empowered by the Holy Spirit, we also engage our world in a deeper and healthier way.

Why Lent?

By Natalie LaValley

We’re in the fourth week of Lent now. In some church traditions, Lent is a very important time, and in other churches, it’s not practiced. I happen to have grown up not practicing Lent, but in recent years I have found, as many others have, that it is an amazing opportunity for rededicating myself to God. The key is to approach Lent out of Christian freedom, knowing that you don’t have to fast from meat to go to Heaven, and God will still love you if you forget it’s Friday and eat barbeque (like I did – whoops).

Lent isn’t about not eating meat. It’s a season focused on reflection, confession, and renewal before God. In many ways, it’s also a season of rest. It often involves giving up something that normally occupies our time so we can be still before God. Social media fasts and limited screen time are becoming popular Lent fasts, and for good reason. I don’t know about you, but I’m so busy that I often wish I could just hit the pause button and reflect on what I’m doing with my life and how I could be living better. We waste too much time living with our grudges, bitterness, fears, mistrust, and insecurities instead of actually addressing them and doing something about them. Lent is basically an annual opportunity to do exactly that. And because it’s forty days, it’s much more effective than just making a resolution on New Year’s Day that you forget in February. Forty days is approximately enough time to start building a habit. Last year for Lent, being an overachiever, I was tempted to commit to some spectacular spiritual discipline. But I knew that I was struggling in my spiritual walk at a much more basic level; my daily devotions were in a shabby state. So I simply committed to having daily devotions in the morning and evening. By the time Lent had finished, I had rediscovered the value and joy of daily, focused communion with God. Even though I still miss some days, especially when a trip or event throws off my routine, it’s become a part of my daily pattern all through the year again.

We’d like to think that we can reform our spiritual lives any time. Why should I practice Lent when I could choose to practice a spiritual discipline any time of year? It’s true, I could. But will I really? I’m an idealistic person full of amazing visions I carry out to completion about 1% of the time. I need the accountability of other people practicing Lent at the same time to help me commit to my spiritual disciplines.

I’d like to think that I can have a perfectly balanced walk with Christ all year long, but, as Ecclesiastes shows us, it seems God made us to live through one season at a time. Right now, this season is Lent. Let it be a restful time of reflecting on your walk with Christ and preparing to celebrate His resurrection.

Follow us

© 2022 – Ascending Leaders – All rights reserved.


for Additional Scholarship

Your Cart

Cart is empty.