Discipleship is changing as society changes

Changes in society are bringing changes to discipleship. This doesn't mean that the core of discipleship - to become followers of Jesus - is any different, nor that our theology is at the mercy of social trends. But it does mean that how pioneers and others help individuals in their discipleship is altering.

Society is different

Clay globeLots has been written about this (and some of the changes are discussed in Fresh expressions reach out to post-modern society).

We would highlight three changes. People are more subjective, more pragmatic and more sensual. Discipleship needs to take these changes into account.

Some experts speak of a 'massive subjective turn' in society

(For instance, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution. Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality, Blackwell, 2005, pp1-11). People's lives are no longer based on external rules, duties and obligations, but on relationships and subjective experiences. There is less emphasis on sacrifice, discipline or on suppressing aspects of your personality to conform to the 'oughts' of a higher authority. Individuals pay more attention to how they feel and to what they think makes sense - to their subjective views of the world. Experiences are greatly valued.

Part of discipleship, by contrast, entails learning the 'oughts' involved in fruitful relationships, practicing a sacrificial life and learning how to follow Jesus as an authority figure (but who exercises authority in a profoundly releasing way).

It is also worth noting that studies on ethical decision-making found that women have tended to remain relational and subjective - even when modernist culture endorsed objectivity - so found a balance between the subjective, the relational and wider truth claims. Rather than looking for another type of course to enable this balance, perhaps there are resources for this within our communities already.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

Discipleship includes an 'objective turn' towards a disciplined life, with obligations to other people and a sense that there is some external truth, even though Christians don't always agree on what that truth is. Much of discipleship travels away from the 'subjective turn' of modern society. Individuals will be helped to make this counter-cultural journey if at the same time discipleship can engage positively with the desire for subjective experience - if it can encourage the subjective while it brings in elements that are 'objective'.

Discipleship has the potential to connect with the subjective bias of people today when it is rooted in the experiences, for example:

  • of a community of love, joy and celebration;
  • of God encountered through worship, prayer and study;
  • of meaningful service of others.

See also

Society is more pragmatic

As Tony Blair used to say as Prime Minister, 'What counts is what works.' Pragmatism has become more highly valued, partly as a result of the 'subjective turn' in our culture. If what matters is how I feel about things, then the question 'Does it work?' is bound to be more prominent.

Often 'Does it work?' is the question: 'Does it work for me?' Does it satisfy me? Does it fulfil me? Does it provide what I am looking for? Does it meet my needs? It is a question about how I experience the world rather than what I should do for the world. In a pragmatic culture, individuals will want to know if Christianity works. Discipling people will be most effective, therefore, if it starts with the practical questions people are asking and shows that the Christian faith has some answers.

This is the approach of the New Testament. The letters provide theological answers to pastoral questions. Only later did the church use this and other Biblical material to develop systematic doctrines, such as the Trinity and why Jesus died on the cross. The starting point was practical rather than theoretical. In today's pragmatic culture, discipleship needs to be practical too. Understanding theory - in the form of doctrine, for example - should build on these pastoral foundations.

See also

Society is more sensual

There is a huge - some might say an over-stimulation - of people's senses:

  • hearing - constant music and growing diversity of music styles;
  • sight - computer graphics, high-definition TV, flat-screen videoed adverts in public places, and so on;
  • taste - the spread of ethnic foods, for example;
  • smell - such as the use of aromas in retail outlets;
  • touch - which has evolved into strong forms of feeling in extreme sports and experiences.

The challenge for those making disciples is to engage with this sense-stimulation, on the one hand. Teaching that over-relies on logic and reason may seem barren and too one-dimensional in today's society, whereas the use of video clips, music and the like - all of which are becoming more common in Christian circles - will be likely to engage people.

On the other hand, pioneers need to be alert to the numerous people who feel over-stimulated. There is so much noise and movement in our culture that individuals often feel 'sensed out'. They long for some space and quietness. Discipleship that builds in periods of stillness and contemplation will be likely to reach these people's hearts.

This is really important. Fresh expressions can so easily fall into the trap of trying to put on a better show than inherited churches, with multi-sensory experiences to match the best contemporary society can offer. Such efforts may not only be unsustainable but also counter-productive, increasing alienation rather than inculcating intimacy. And excessive use of PowerPoint dulls the imagination and distracts attention!
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression

The place of organisations in society is different

Shadows on snowThis is not often remarked upon, but people's lives have been getting more and more organised (see Gili S. Drori, John W. Meyer and Hokyu Hwang [eds.], Globalisation and Organisation, OUP, 2006, pp2-7).

  • The number of organisations has leapt dramatically, whether it is NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in Uganda (3,500 registered in 2000 alone) or registered companies in California (up five-fold between 1960 and 2001).
  • Organisations are reaching into the informal parts of everyday life, such as childcare - in many parts of the west, pre-school children are more likely to attend a nursery than to be looked after by their parents. The voluntary sector is less informal.
  • Organisations themselves feel more organised - more regulations, more targets and more accountability.

As society becomes more organised, many people increasingly prize those parts of their lives that feel disorganised. When the rest of life is highly structured, they appreciate the freedom and fluidity of personal life - 'We'll decide whether to go to the party at the last minute'.

This creates a challenge for discipleship

On the one hand, the church needs to be organised to engage effectively in mission, for instance. A soup kitchen for homeless people, a language class for local ethnic groups, financial support for refugees in eastern Africa - they all have to be organised. Organising and being organised is part of discipleship.

On the other hand, many Christians want to put church into the 'disorganised' section of their lives. They want church to be part of their personal space, free from imposed structures. Being committed and tied down is too close to the organised bits of their lives to feel comfortable.

So discipleship that involves pre-set disciplines and 'rules', and that requires commitment to a group or a course, may have little appeal. It jars with the desire to find space outside organisations.

Can fresh expressions be both organised and disorganised?

Can they organise where necessary, but in ways that still allow individuals space and freedom?

Possibilities might include:

  • creating a no-pressure culture - 'Here's an exciting opportunity to help with the soup kitchen, but it's up to you';
  • encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their spiritual lives, in conjunction with the Spirit. Instead of being told what to believe and do, they are invited to consider what the Spirit is saying to them and make up their own minds - a side-by-side approach to discipleship rather than top down (see Discipleship starts where people are). Organisations can be unpleasant because individuals don't feel in control. Can church provide a welcome contrast?
  • providing plenty of space for people to chill and relate to one another. Organisation would be balanced healthily by disorganisation;
  • providing short rather than long courses, so that individuals don't feel they are locked into an endless commitment.
'Park' fresh expression draws on the rhythm of the year, meeting more regularly and intentionally during Lent and Advent. On reflection, the group perceived their most positive memories and points of change tended to occur at these times. They thought about giving the whole year the feel of these times, but decided that it was the rhythm of intensive and more relaxed times that enabled this.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

What do you think about the balance between organisation and disorganisation? You may want to comment at the end of this page.

The place of church in society is different

Solitary chapel in the snowThe church is less dominant, fewer people attend and Christian values are less widespread.

This means that fewer new disciples will be people returning to church

Whereas in the past new churchgoers were largely those who had been brought up in the church and were coming back, this is increasingly less likely today.

Within a fresh expression, emerging believers may comprise:

  • some who used to attend church regularly (but fewer of these than in the past). Of these, many will have left church before they were teenagers. They could well have childish images of God and a limited vocabulary to express their spiritual experiences and aspirations. Discipleship may involve helping them to acquire more adult speech about God.
  • others who went to church schools. Their school experiences may vary immensely - from over-strict expressions of faith (in which school discipline and faith became intertwined) to an almost complete absence of faith. False preconceptions may need to be dispelled.
  • growing numbers with no faith background or from other faiths. Discipleship will have to assume far less knowledge of Christianity than in the past, and start much further back. The journey into faith and the maturing of faith may be a lengthy process. Pioneers may need to be ready for a long haul.

All three groups could easily be present within a single fresh expression. A pioneering venture among parents in a local school, for instance, could draw in people who used to go to church, or attended a church school, or who have no faith (or a different faith) background. Discipleship will need to be sensitive to these differences.

Growing numbers may have less trust in the church

Often this will be because the church is associated with a bygone age that has largely disappeared - with the world of empire, trade unions, manufacturing industry, male hierarchy and the traditional family, in which mothers stayed at home. This is a world that began to pass away in the 1960s and now for most people looks woefully out of date. For those who see church as part of that world, the invitation to be church as an element of their discipleship may be a difficult pill to swallow. In these cases, as many pioneers are doing, it may be easier to speak the language of Christian community and gathering than of church and congregation.

Often the church is associated with a bygone age that has largely disappeared

In time, however, it may be possible to reclaim the term 'church' as emerging Christians become aware of the worldwide body of Christ and of the long tradition of faith into which they are growing. Church is a helpful word because it is widely used within the Christian family, and as such reminds believers that they part of this much bigger whole.

The role of discipleship within church is different

SignpostIn the past, new believers were socialised into an existing church. A lot of discipleship involved teaching them how Christianity was practiced in this particular church - 'This is how you share in the Eucharist.' 'This is why preaching is so important.' 'This is how we exercise spiritual gifts.' But in a fresh expression, emerging Christians won't be joining a pre-existing local church; they will be helping to form church.

This changes the context of discipleship a lot. Instead of inducting them into an established Christian community, the pioneer will be helping new believers to discover what an authentic Christian community would mean in their context. The pioneer becomes a midwife for church rather than being a gate-keeper who opens the way in.

This may require that pioneers:

  • abandon some of their preconceptions of church. Even for the most radical person, if you have been brought up in inherited church it is hard not carry over at least some assumptions of what church should be like - we have to meet weekly, for example. But are these assumptions valid, and do they apply to your fresh expressions context? (You may want to read God has put dying to live at the centre of his kingdom).
  • have a clear understanding of the Biblical nature of church. A helpful view is that church is basically what happens when people encounter the risen Lord. As a result of that encounter, we can expect growth in four dimensions - UP towards God, OUT in service of others, IN in deepening fellowship and OF in a growing sense of being part of the whole body of Christ. If these are the minimum requirements to be church, there can be plenty of flexibility in how church is expressed. (See Are fresh expressions proper church?)
  • introduce new believers to some of the different ways of being church, to stimulate their imaginations. Pioneers may want to point to examples from church history, from around the world today and from fresh expressions. But the prime reference will be Scripture - 'As we read the New Testament, what is the Spirit saying to us about the type of community we're forming?'

The status of disciple-makers is different

BiblesAs we are often being told, in our post-modern world, authority figures are treated with less deference than in the past. Frequently they are regarded with suspicion, as people who can't be trusted. Even if they are trusted, the 'subjective turn' of modern society means that individuals attach greater weight to what they think makes sense than to the received wisdom of someone 'in charge'.

In this sort of culture, a traditional 'you learn from me' approach to discipleship may well not work. Emerging Christians will want their views to be treated with respect, they will assume they have the right to disagree and they will pick and choose from truths that they are introduced to.

Against this background, discipling others requires:

  • building healthy relationships. Relationships lead to trust, and people will follow another person if they trust them. Marketers know that the best advertisement is the recommendation of 'someone you know'. Often we trust the views of relatives and friends, even if they haven't a clue what they are talking about!
  • a 'we'll learn together' approach, in which the more mature Christian expects to learn from younger ones. This requires an attitude that says: 'Let's look at the Bible and pool our insights', rather than: 'Let's look at the Bible and I am going to teach you what it says'. The wisdom and knowledge of the longer established Christian will carry weight precisely because it is not imposed on others, but conveyed within a relationship of mutual sharing. (See Discipleship starts where people are).
  • strong trust in the Spirit. If mature Christians are confident that the Spirit will lead people into truth (John 16.13), they need not be over-anxious about the part they play. They can drop insights into the pool and let the Spirit take charge of the ripples. They are freed from having to assert their authority lest the learners don't get it. They can hand ultimate responsibility to the Spirit. (See Discipleship encourages a dependence on the Spirit).

Individual believers are very different

MoneyWhile this has always been the case, people today are much more sensitive to diversity than in the past and the differences between individuals seem to be increasing.

This is partly because people have become more unboxed from their backgrounds

Before the Second World War, individuals were largely 'traditional'. Their identities were heavily influenced by their social and family backgrounds, and by the places where they were brought up. Their upbringing determined the rest of their lives. This is still quite common - for example, in the Black Country.

Since the Second World War, however, more and more adults have become – to an extent – 'unboxed' from their social roots. Mass consumption spread across Europe in the 1950s, expanding consumer choice phenomenally. Growing affluence brought much greater choice of lifestyles. Alternative lifestyles on television widened individuals' horizons. A ballooning number of people have been to university where they have witnessed first-hand different approaches to life.

Upbringing has had a smaller influence on people's lives as their consumer choices have played a bigger role. These choices have expanded the range of groups with whom individuals can identify – from diving clubs to yoga, to those who prefer the same designer label, to those who share sexual preferences. According to the Deed Poll Service, the number of Britons changing their name by deed poll leapt from 270 in 1996 to 50,000 a year a decade later (The Times, 13 January, 2007). More people want to get control over their names, which are at the heart of their identities.

Though background still plays an important part, increasingly individuals are choosing their identities. As they do so, they are becoming more aware of what makes them similar to - and different from - other people.

'One size fits all' approaches to discipleship are increasingly hard to sustain

People are more and more conscious of diversity. This means that:

  • those discipling others may need to think carefully before using a standardised course. The course may work in another context, but will it be helpful in this one? Can a single course fit all the vastly different contexts up and down the country? It may have to be adapted, or material from one course may need to be spliced together with another;
  • discipleship may need more specialisation. As we become more aware of differences between individuals, we are also becoming more alert to variations in people's needs. If Discipleship transforms the whole of life, can the Christian faith begin to address the huge variety of needs that believers have - from support for parents of teenagers to answering questions about Islam?

    Diversity brings specialisation. But since no one local church can address on its own the great range of needs that exist, specialisation is likely to require churches to work together. If local churches collaborate, they'll have the resources and numbers to make specialised courses and support groups viable. Bishop Graham Cray commented:

    The critical question then is, if we have to be a more lightweight church in terms of plants and bureaucracy - not in terms of theology and spiritual vision - then will we find the way to live the mixed economy in the new realities? I'm quite convinced that means a townwide partnership of every church willing to take part; that we dare not compete with one another. We do need to complement one another's strengths. And one of the threads that runs right through that sort of ecumenism is actually fresh expressions.

    Graham Cray, The credit crunch will change the face of the church

    You may want to read Discipleship requires the support of other Christians.

  • allowances have to be made for differences in temperament. Individuals with different personalities will prefer to pray and learn in different ways. If pioneers impose their own praying and learning styles, some people may feel excluded or fail to engage. Ensuring that different personality types are catered for is an important responsibility. (See Discipleship and personality and Different learning styles);
  • the freedom of the Spirit should be respected. Each person coming to faith has all sorts of issues in their lives, and the Spirit doesn't seem to address these in a fixed order! The Spirit's priority for one person may be fiddling expenses at work. For another, it may be indifference to the poor. For a third, it may be their sexual relationships.

    Mature Christians should beware of displacing the Spirit by imposing their priorities for holiness on other people. They need to wait patiently while the Spirit acts in the lives of other Christians. Patient waiting is a mark of the Spirit and a strong feature of the Spirit's work - the Spirit waits patiently as believers make mistakes and resist God's will.

    This forbearance of the Spirit is reflected in the life of the church when Christians don't hasten the Spirit. Instead, perhaps having exhorted and admonished each other, they patiently wait for the Spirit to sanctify their fellow believers in the Spirit's own time. They show restraint - like the Spirit. (Archbishop Rowan Williams has written helpfully about this self-emptying of the Spirit in A Margin of Silence, Lys Vert, 2008).

The resources available to individuals are different

Hand on keyboardTechnology is opening up new opportunities:

  • to keep in touch through the week;
  • to access a wider range of resources (eg. Foundations21, a web-based discipleship programme);
  • to develop new aids to Bible study and prayer (eg. Sacred Space);
  • to express one's faith practically (eg. Relational Tithe).

We must expect discipleship to look increasingly different to the past as more mentoring takes place online (alongside the face-to-face), as Christians on the move at work join online Bible study and prayer groups, and as virtual reality creates new environments within which Christian communities can form. Virtual churches are already springing up in Second Life.