Discipleship requires commitment to a Christian community

Disciples should belong to a Christian community

HandsThey need the support of other Christians to grow in their faith. Jesus has shown pioneers how community is the context for making disciples. He created a community of followers who travelled with him, living and learning as they went. They grew in faith individually, but they did so largely in the setting of community as they prayed, learnt and ministered together.

One of the striking features of the earliest church is the sense of shared life

There are many accounts of Christians meeting with one another and expressing their faith collectively. Paul's letters were addressed mainly to Christian communities. The Lord's Prayer is a shared prayer: 'Our Father...'

Acts 2.42–46 is a particularly powerful picture and one that many fresh expressions are seeking to re-create.

The portrayal may be somewhat idealised... But anyone who is familiar with movements of enthusiastic spiritual renewal will recognise authentic notes: the enthusiasm of the members of the renewal group, with a sense of overflowing joy (2.46), desire to come together frequently (2.44,46), eating together and worshipping (2.46-47) and including the readiness for unreserved commitment to one another in a shared common life.

James Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, Epworth, 1996, p34

It is important not to lose sight of the central place of community

For the followers of Jesus today, especially in our individualistic age when people may struggle with the commitments involved in a rich community life, the Christian faith involves finding life in community. This has a missionary purpose. God is revealed in relationships more than through individuals acting on their own. The image of God was given to the man and the woman together, as they related to one another (Genesis 1.26-27). Christian communities are to model relationships that non-believers find attractive. You may want to read God works through communities.

The church's main task in society is to be a community that lives out the Christian story for others to see

One of the most influential theological books of the 20th century was A Community of Character, published in 1981. In it the American, Stanley Hauerwas, argues that Christians should see their lives as an adventurous extension of the true story of the kingdom. The church embodies the Christian story in a distinctive way of life. The corporate life of believers shapes the behaviour of individual Christians so that their lives together witness to the truth and power of the gospel. The church's main task in society is not to work for social change, but to be a community that lives out the Christian story for others to see.

Hauerwas has been criticised for downplaying the Christian struggle to engage with society and transform it, for focusing too heavily on church. Yet despite this, there is much to ponder in his claim that the church is effective in mission when others can see the Christian story accurately reflected in its corporate life.

Forming authentic community is vital

Mind the Gap - Alpha mealWhen asked how disciples are nurtured at Somewhere Else, the bread-making church in Liverpool, Barbara Glasson said:

Through friendship, laughter, being real with each other, finding a way to engage in honest conversation, honouring questions, encouragement and mutual learning.

Roger Walton (ed), Chris Hughes (ed) and Alan Bartlett (ed, Real God, Real World, London, SPCK, 2009

Authentic disciples need authentic communities

Authentic communities in which people are loved unconditionally. These discipleship-making communities should be safe places in which people can explore, question, be challenged, celebrate, fail and experience affirmation, grace, mercy and forgiveness. Within such communities,

...discipleship almost happens at an accelerated pace.

Martyn Atkins speaking on expressions: the dvd - 2

Eating together is a hallmark of fresh expressions. If you play expressions: the dvd - 1 and ask people what they see, one of the first answers will always be food! This was not deliberate on the part of the filmmaker; it is what he found.

The Vine youth congregation in Stafford always shares a meal. Revd Jeff Reynolds explains:

Although it is a chaotic buffet meal, it is no less table fellowship. The principle that food is part of Christian hospitality and understanding is demonstrated at each Vine session. This nurtures discipleship as we share outside of the more structured sessions.

Jeff Reynolds

Authentic communities can take different forms

  • Some are quite solid. Members meet in the same place at the same time, weekly, fortnightly or monthly.
  • Others are more fluid. Central meetings are less regular and more ad hoc, but individuals get together spontaneously between meetings and keep in touch on line.
  • Others are dispersed. People live in different places, but occasionally come together. One example is the Northumbria Community, whose members live in different parts of the UK (and increasingly the world) but are united round a common rule of life (see George Lings, Encounters on the Edge, issue 29: Northumbria Community: Matching Monastery and Mission, Sheffield Centre, 2006).
    Contemplative Fire describes itself as 'an intentional and dispersed community of people who are seeking to be fully present to the kingdom of God here and now. Contemplative Fire celebrates natural beauty, deep connectedness and the play of wisdom. We believe that the risen Christ is calling us to "travel light and dwell deep" as his companions on this extraordinary journey.'
  • Others are virtual, meeting exclusively online. St Pixels, for example, is 'an online church in 3D, where you can meet others, talk about serious and not-so-serious stuff, discuss what you do and don't believe, go to regular services, and join a pioneering worldwide community.'
Another option is the concept of modular church: that someone's total church may be made up of different types of expressions. For example, they may live out part of their faith by volunteering at a soup run led by one church. They may visit the Cathedral for worship, and be part of a fresh expression for discipleship and community.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

Christian communities can nurture spiritual life in various ways

WorshipFor example, through:

  • worship and communion;
  • prayer;
  • reading and bible study;
  • spiritual exercises and rhythms;
  • pilgrimage;
  • opportunities to use one's gifts;
  • reflective living;
  • engaging in mission;
  • sacrificial service;
  • watching the lives of other Christians;
  • experiencing failure and trying again.
Can fresh expressions also reclaim the teaching in Matthew 18.15-17 about how we are to react when our brothers or sisters let us down? One of only two occasions when Jesus uses the word 'church', this passage has suffered from centuries of abuse and neglect. But imperfect communities need to develop processes to handle conflict creatively and to help one another get back on the journey of discipleship when we wander off.
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression

These ways of nurture are expressions of the UP, IN and OUT dimensions of church.

See also

The other dimension, OF - connectedness to the whole body of Christ - is vital too, as we discuss in Discipleship requires the support of other Christians. We discuss the community context of worship, learning and spiritual practices on a separate page.

As we have stressed on other pages, it is especially important that Christian communities avoid creating the wrong sort of dependency. From an early stage, new believers should be weaned from an over-dependence on the more mature Christian(s) who led them to faith or have pastoral oversight of them.

If there is a group of new believers, experienced Christians should as quickly as possible withdraw from the group, so that the new Christians can learn to rely on the Spirit, on Scripture and on the mutual ministry of one another. We develop this in Discipleship encourages a dependence on the Spirit.

Christian communities should be life- rather than church-centric

Sign to happinessThey should concentrate on encouraging, equipping and supporting individuals to be Christians in their everyday lives. This may require some rethinking about what it means to be church. A teacher commented:

I spend an hour a week teaching Sunday School and they haul me up to the front of the church to pray for me. The rest of the week I'm a full-time teacher and the church has never prayed for me.

quoted by Mark Green, Supporting Christians at Work, LICC, 2001, p5

Contrast that with the church that had a traditional missionary map on one of its walls. The map showed church members serving overseas. They were prayed for regularly and encouraged with letters and emails.

Christian communities should encourage, equip and support individuals to be Christians in their everyday lives

Then it dawned on the church leadership that all members had a calling and a mission. So everyone was invited to bring a photo, showing themselves in the setting where they lived out their day-to-day discipleship. The church realised it was serving a multitude of mission fields. The woman serving on the supermarket checkout was prayed for in her work and witness. Preaching and teaching began to respond to issues that individuals were facing at work. The discipleship culture of the church changed. It moved from being church-centric to life-centric.

Might being life-centric encourage more radical communities?

Three friendsPerhaps two changes are needed in how we traditionally think about discipleship. The first, as in the example just given, involves focusing less exclusively on church-based activities and more on life outside church. The second might entail a shift from individualistic to corporate Christian living in the world.

Often thinking about everyday discipleship is individualistic

Our presumed model is that Christians go into the world as individuals. Worship re-invigorates them for the task. But it is not easy to witness effectively to Christ on your own. Individuals face all sorts of pressure - from organisations that employ them, their friends, the squeeze on their time and the sheer exhaustion of daily life. Forces that thwart the kingdom are highly organised in today's world. Individuals battling against them on their own, though helped by the Spirit, are at a huge disadvantage.

Could it be that God does not expect us to witness on our own?

As we have noted, in Genesis 1 the image of God is given to the man and the woman together. They reflect God as they relate to each other. In Genesis 2 the man alone was unable to create a garden fit for God to walk in. He needed the woman. He could only accomplish his work if he did it with someone else. Being in relationship lies at the heart of our humanity. So should it not be at the heart of discipleship too?

What might this mean in practice?

As individuals come to faith, many fresh expressions encourage them to join small, midweek groups for pastoral and spiritual support. The groups are made up of other members of the fresh expression. Rethinking everyday discipleship might mean encouraging individuals not to meet so often with members of the fresh expression. Instead, at work, or in their neighbourhood or in places of leisure, they might seek out believers from different churches and meet with them in cells perhaps of two to four people.

These cells would seek to be an effective Christian presence

Being effective in the setting where they meet might mean supporting a campaign for more flexible working hours in the office, starting a spirituality group in a leisure centre, throwing a street party and so on. Weekend church - if it met at weekends - might encourage people to share their experiences of being in cells (to learn from each other) and to pray for one another. It might provide resources on how to start, sustain and be an effective cell. Prayer groups of people from different churches already exist in many workplaces and in some neighbourhoods. But they tend to be extra to church life, which is focused on church at home. What would be new is that these cells would become small churches in their own right.

The New Testament never says you can belong to only one 'local' church

Why shouldn't someone belong to two churches – one near home and another perhaps in the workplace? Might networks of tiny churches criss-crossing workplaces, pubs, leisure centres and other parts of society enable life-centric discipleship to make a bigger difference?

The Church of England's liturgical commission has recognised approvingly,

...that worshippers may attend more than one church regularly, for different occasions of worship, because excellence of different kinds is in different places.

Liturgical Commission, Transforming Worship: Living the New Creation, GS 1651, 2007, p25

One form of 'excellence' might be worship in a context where you spend an important part of your daily life. You might worship in two very different contexts because they are both important to you and have mission opportunities.

Discipleship includes learning how to multiply the church

Friendly talkPerhaps through the multiplication of cells at work and among friends, as well as in the neighbourhood. The aim shouldn't be to bring more people into the church just so that they can bring more people into the church, which would be a rather limited vision. (The emphasis on evangelism can sometimes sound like that.) Rather, the aim should be to draw more people to Christ so that they can join his mission of love and mercy in the world.

Reproduction should be an essential part of church life

The early church grew through reproduction, first in Judea and then across the known world. Reproduction has been at the heart of church growth ever since - witness the role of church planting in parts of the world where the church is expanding rapidly today.

See also

As people are drawn to Christ, fresh expressions need to learn how to reproduce. There are several possibilities:

  • the founder of a fresh expression could move on and start another one, taking a small team from the original fresh expression as support.
  • a new Christian could take a small team from the fresh expression and start a new one, under the supervision of the leader of the original fresh expression.
  • new Christians could be encouraged to meet with friends, work colleagues or family members, and if they were interested in exploring the faith, build a church round them. Adopting this approach in the United States, with people who had only just entered the faith, Neil Cole saw 800 small churches planted within six years (Neil Cole, Organic Church, Jossey-Bass, 2005, p26).

See also

Reproducing church is especially important today

In many parts of Britain church attendance continues to decline. The church as a whole contains a large proportion of older people. After around 2015, when these older members will start to die, the numbers in the church will fall dramatically. The church could become a much smaller agent of God's mission to the world. Fresh expressions could do much to reverse this downward trend. But at present many are small and few reproduce. Will fresh expressions make a significant contribution to the re-Christianisation of Britain only when they learn to plant new churches themselves?

Making new disciples needs to be both a Godly expectation and a core task

This is vital if fresh expressions are to multiply. This fusion of task and expectation will shape the life and outreach of the new church. For a good example of this, see Elaine Lindridge's comments about Mind the Gap:

We expect to grow, we expect new people to join, we expect to multiply.

Elaine Lindridge, speaking on expressions: the dvd - 1

The New Testament buzzes with stories of people becoming disciples and then inviting others to join the journey

Making new disciples will require Christians to be graciously confident in their personal witness. Peter urged the recipients of his letter always to be ready to respond to questions about their hope in Christ. They were to do this with respect and gentleness (1 Peter 3.15).

Andrew made a career of introducing others to Jesus (John 1.40-41; 6.8-9; 12.20-22). The woman at the well was so excited by Jesus that she immediately returned home and said to anyone who would listen: 'Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!' (John 4.29).

The New Testament buzzes with stories of people becoming disciples and then inviting others to join the journey. In Acts 2, Luke paints a picture of a vibrant church living out its discipleship. The chapter ends with the comment: 'day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved' (Acts 2.47).

Christians may need help in sharing their faith naturally

Though many believers speak about their faith instinctively and with care, some new Christians can be over-enthusiastic. They may need to learn wisdom and sensitivity. Other churchgoers feel reticent and awkward. They are not helped by today's culture, which values tolerance - 'Who am I to tell other people what to think?' They prefer to let their actions speak for themselves, which is not unreasonable. If your life does not reflect Christ, being known as a Christian may bring the faith into disrepute.

But a Godly life on its own doesn't automatically point people to Christ. Other people may imagine that the individual is just naturally a nice person and not think to probe deeper. The believer may have to say something to help colleagues and friends make the connection with the Christian faith.

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Are you harnessing the energy of new disciples?

The enthusiasm of new Christians is one of the most powerful spiritual aphrodisiacs to help in the process of reproducing the church. New believers can be so excited they want to tell their friends. Often people new to faith are also the most hungry to grow in their discipleship. Harnessing this hunger with the wisdom of more experienced Christians can provide a powerful stimulus for the growth of both new and not-so-new disciples. See Discipleship requires the support of other Christians.

Established churches have often underused the gifts, energies and enthusiasms of new Christians, particularly in the area of leadership. Encouraging every member to exercise their mission and ministry gifts will help fresh expressions to flourish as Christian communities and reproduce.

See also