Discipleship encourages a dependence on the Spirit

It may be helpful to read this page in conjunction with How might we sustain our fresh expression?

Top-down learning risks creating dependency

Arms outstretchedLearning is central to discipleship, as the origin of the term (from the Latin word to learn) underlines. Discipleship is a life-long process of discovering more about Jesus and how to follow him in every aspect of one's life. The traditional model of learning in the church often creates dependency. Teaching 'comes from the front', typically from the minister. This 'I'll teach, you follow' model is frequently reproduced in discipleship groups or courses. The leader is the expert who will show the group what to think and do.

There is a place for top-down instruction, but in Discipleship starts where people are we have suggested that top-down approaches should be balanced by:

  • a responsiveness to the personality and concerns of the individual;
  • respect for the person's right to disagree;
  • the use of appropriate discover-for-yourself methods;
  • trust in the Holy Spirit. Trusting the Spirit is especially important.

Why is trusting the Spirit so important?

There is a danger that the process of being discipled encourages trust in another person at the expense of trust in the Spirit.

This may be a particular risk in fresh expressions

Inevitably, new Christians will be greatly influenced by the pioneer who was involved in bringing them to faith, or - if someone else has led them to faith - who is respected as the overall leader of the fresh expression. Just as parents have a huge impact on their children, Christians who are instrumental in the spiritual birth of a believer have an immense influence on that person, often for years to come. Their view of God and what the Christian life entails shapes the new Christian's spiritual outlook.

Maturing in the faith can be rather like adolescents separating from their parents

New believers need to establish some distance between their understanding and experience of the faith, and the expectations of people who helped them to start out as Christians. This should be part of the growing up process. They may end up with similar views to the Christians who helped them into the faith, but this should be the result of their own unique encounter with Jesus. Rather than relying over-much on what they learnt from those who launched them on their spiritual journey, believers need to find out how to discern the Spirit's voice for themselves.

Believers need to find out how to discern the Spirit's voice for themselves

This will include discovering how to hear the Spirit directly through Scripture, through other Christians, through the worldwide church and church history, and in many other ways. From the plurality of voices claiming to speak for God, individuals who mature in the faith will learn how to hear God's specific word for them at any one time.

Is there a danger in fresh expressions that pioneers will stay too long?

This will make it harder for their emerging Christians to grow up in the faith.

The New Testament puts a strong emphasis on avoiding dependency

CloudsThis comes across through the ascension and in how the Spirit keeps moving Paul on from his new church plants.

Jesus left his disciples when he returned to heaven

This was all the more remarkable because just before his departure, we are told that some of the disciples - the Greek could read 'most' - still doubted (Matthew 28.17). If they had been in the church today, many leaders might have said that they had yet to mature in the faith - 'They need another discipleship course!' But Jesus concluded that the best thing to do was to leave his followers, trust the Holy Spirit to continue the work he had started and let them grow in confidence as they founded the church.

Leaving was central to St. Paul's missionary work

It is striking how often the Spirit worked through circumstances, as well as direct prompting, to drag Paul away from his new churches. The longest he stayed in one place was at Ephesus, where he remained for two years. (Acts 19.10).

Later, Paul visited his new churches to encourage them, and of course he wrote to them when the need arose. He provided ongoing support. But physically leaving his fledgling congregations seems to have been a vital part of spreading the church. It freed up Paul to plant further churches.

Is there a difference here in vocation between pioneering planters and founding members? Pioneering planters start things off and gather a group of people with different skills, abilities and spiritual gifts. Whereas founding members, whilst initiating the fresh expression, may also be called to stay with the community for many years.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

A number of benefits may flow if pioneers today leave their church plants

Emerging Christians would be encouraged to rely on the Spirit from an early stage. If pioneers knew they were likely to leave soon, they would intensify their efforts to equip new believers to flourish without them. They would use methods to foster this early on during a person's journey into faith. For example, if a 'seekers group' was meeting to explore spirituality by looking at the stories of Jesus, after two or three sessions the pioneer might ask another member of the group to facilitate the session. The pioneer would remain as an ordinary member of the group. After two or three more sessions, the pioneer might attend less regularly, perhaps inviting another member of the group to read a simple commentary on the story before the next meeting. A bit later, the pioneer might withdraw completely, but stay closely in touch with those who had emerged as leaders of the group.

Emerging Christians would grow in confidence as they learnt to take responsibility for their own journeys towards God. They would learn to trust the Holy Spirit. Instead of being dependent on the pioneer, members of the group would have to rely on each other - a tiny echo perhaps of the interdependence that exists within the Trinity. They would be schooled in 'every member ministry' from day one.

Neil Cole has adopted this principle in North America. He has seen over 800 small congregations form within six years (see Neil Cole, Organic Church, Jossey-Bass, 2005, p26). Ordinary people, who are recent converts, become church leaders in their own homes!

Pioneers should equip their new churches to stand on their own feet

Two feetJesus left his disciples with his teaching, what we now call the Old Testament, the apostles as leaders, a celebratory meal and baptism, and the Holy Spirit. He also provided continuing support through the Spirit. Likewise, Paul left behind in his new churches a basic knowledge of the gospel, the Old Testament, leadership, the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the Spirit. He too provided continuing support by visiting some of his new churches (Acts 15.36) and writing to them.

Following these examples in our day might mean that:

  • pioneers would not leave till there was evidence of the Spirit being at work in individuals' lives;
  • they would leave behind not just Scripture, but resources (or access to resources) for studying Scripture;
  • they would have taught the fresh expression to celebrate the sacraments. Where ordained ministers have to preside at communion and the pioneer is ordained, the pioneer might visit the fresh expression to preside at communion as part of his or her ongoing support;
  • they would have found one or more persons to lead the new church. The person(s) would need to have an openness to God, as well as a minimal set of leadership skills;
  • pioneers would ensure that the fresh expression had continuing support. The pioneer might provide this support initially, but not necessarily - someone else might do so if they were more gifted in this area, or if the pioneer had moved away.

All this means that judging when to leave a fresh expression will require careful and prayerful discernment. There are dangers in hard and fast rules. But might it make sense for leaving as quickly as possible to be built into pioneers' expectations and to influence the process of discipleship? More space would be left for the Spirit.

The vocation of the pioneer may affect timescales. Pioneering planters can leave earlier; staying may in fact damage both the leader and the community if they don't have the ability to lead in a more stable phase. However, founding members may become more pastoral as the community develops. Are some called to pioneer multiple communities and others to nurture a specific fresh expression?
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

But won't things go wrong?

Danger wrong way signPeople often fear that giving responsibility quickly to new Christians will lead to mistakes and possibly heresy. They are right. This is exactly what happened in the New Testament! In Acts we read about new churches being handed over rapidly to leaders who were young in the faith, while in the epistles we see Paul and others mopping up the mess.

But perhaps we shouldn't exaggerate the mess

Paul's new churches were sufficiently robust and orthodox to provide the foundations of the worldwide church we see today. The speed with which the early church grew outweighed the problems entailed. When fallen people are involved, mistakes will occur in any context. Don't forget: things often go wrong in churches that are full of mature Christians! Spiritual maturity is no guarantee of a peaceful life.

A key lesson from the New Testament

Paul both planted new churches and held these churches to account for their teaching and behaviour. His letters to the Corinthian church are a classic example. Of all the apostles, he was in the best position to put things right because he had a relationship with the churches he founded. Members would have been inclined to respect his views since he had been instrumental in bringing them to faith - Christians tend to have a special place in their hearts for individuals who played a key part in their conversion.

Pioneers need to keep in touch so that they can help put things right if things start to go wrong

Maybe the lesson for today is that having left their new churches, pioneers need to keep in touch so that they can help put things right if things start to go wrong. As the founder of the fresh expression, their voice will carry particular weight. This in turn means that if the wider church wants to ensure that fresh expressions remain orthodox in their theology and practice, special care is needed in selecting, equipping, providing support for and overseeing pioneers - both lay and ordained.