Discipleship may involve rethinking worship, learning and spiritual practices

Worship, learning and spiritual practices are central to discipleship but may need to be rethought in a fresh expressions context. Of course, worship and study can be undertaken by individuals on their own, but they greatly strengthen the Christian community (and individuals within it) when they are done corporately. Here we look at worship and study in gatherings of emerging Christians, and the outworking of both in the spiritual practices of individual Christians.

Worship may be very different to inherited church

Grass and flowerThe purpose will be the same: to journey as a community into the heart of God's love. As worshippers encounter Jesus, they become more Christ-like in their everyday lives. But the style of worship in fresh expressions may look quite different to what happens in an inherited church. We wonder if the following advice may be helpful for those who are responsible for worship in a fresh expression.

Listen to the context

To be authentic, worship must not only be true to God, it must be true to those offering worship. Worship must come out of people's hearts. It must be a genuine expression of their loves, longings, regrets, and so on. Real worship in this sense will not be in a format that feels alien to worshippers and so prevents them from expressing their inner selves. It will take a form that allows worshippers' hearts to touch God's heart.

One pioneer, whose fresh expression evolved from seeker events in a pub, described how the group had been experimenting with different forms of worship for a whole year: 'We still haven't found what works for us.' Developing worship that fits the context requires a lot of listening - to God and to the group. A pioneer should beware of importing models of worship from inherited church before being sure they fit the emerging Christian community.

Listening to God and the group will require pioneers to listen to themselves as well and ask: 'Is my assumption about worship being shaped by the context or by my past experience of worship?'

Connect worship to mission

Many inherited churches have made worship the focus of their lives, with the result that mission is pushed to the edge. Some fresh expressions risk doing the same.

If worship becomes an end in itself, immune from the missionary nature of the church, it becomes a fetish... Worship provides resources and motivation for mission by recalling Christians into the presence of the God who sends.

John M Hull, Mission-Shaped Church: A Theological Response, SCM, 2006, p27

One fresh expression with a focus on teenagers welcomed adults to support its work in prayer, financial support and practical help. These adults worshipped together on Sunday morning, while the teenagers met on Sunday evenings. The leaders found that so much time and effort were being put into the Sunday morning worship that the teenage work was suffering, and they risked losing their focus. So they rescheduled the adults' service to late afternoon, before the teenage event, with a social time after the adult meeting for adults and teenagers to mix together. Adult worship was reconnected to the mission of the church.

Just Church in Bradford concentrates on peace, justice and human rights. Members write letters on behalf of Amnesty International and other organisations as part of their worship. Mission and worship are brought together.

Some church plants have a weekly gathering, but vary what they do. Perhaps three times a month they worship together, but on the fourth occasion as a whole gathering they do something for the wider community, such as lay on a party for children in the local school, repaint an older person's flat or tidy up the garden of a residential home. The worship slot becomes a mission slot.

These are three examples of linking corporate worship directly to a church's mission. What other ways of doing this might fresh expressions discover?

Keep worship simple

To be sustainable, many fresh expressions need to be simple. If they become complicated, they start to eat up time and resources. Individuals become exhausted, the money runs out and the venture shrivels up.

One person (in Paris) described how her 'emerging church' met weekly over a meal. During the hors d'oeuvre worshippers exchanged news. Someone would then do a short talk on a topic such as forgiveness, which the group would discuss over the main course. Over the dessert they would exchange requests for prayer. After praying together, they would have coffee. The convenor's vision was that the students involved would return to their homes and do something similar among their friends and neighbours. Keeping it simple, she hoped, would make it easy to reproduce.

To be sustainable, many fresh expressions need to be simple

Simple worship has many attractions - not least it is economical on time. But if it is your staple diet, it can become a little dull. So it may be wise to complement it with periodic clusterings in a larger group (if that's possible), or occasional visits to other churches in the area, or attendance at Christian celebrations or festivals.

Connecting with the wider church, as we have noted in Discipleship requires the support of other Christians, is vital for discipleship.

Learn from other Christians

The wider church has accumulated 2,000 years' worth of worship resources - from all round the world. Even when taken from the Middle Ages, some of this material can be used in a very contemporary way.

Ian Mobsby has described how in the London-based Moot community,

...ancient forms of Christian contemplation, reframed into post-modern language and sensibilities, become the resources for prayer that works in terms of bringing centredness and peace.

Ian Mobsby, The use of New Monasticism as a model of church

Some pioneers are afraid of traditional liturgy. But others would say that in some settings, if suitably adapted, liturgy can really helpful. Toby Wright at St John and St Andrew, Peckham, describes the Eucharist as

Absolutely central. As a modern catholic parish, the Mass lies at the heart of our expressions of worship.

Toby Wright

Ben Edson at Sanctus in Manchester believes that

Communion is central to Sanctus1. It is the way that people feel part of the community, and for some has been a rite of passage into the community. It helps sustain community and focuses us on the central focus of our discipleship - the person of Christ.

Ben Edson

The Methodist report, Share this Feast, emphasises the importance of communion for the church's mission:

The nourishment we receive is not for ourselves alone, but in order that God may empower us to go out into the world, find out what God is doing there and join in.

The Methodist Church, Share this Feast, MPH, p38

Inherited forms of worship can be used in ways that are sensitive to the context. They need not be a straitjacket. For example:

  • they can be used very selectively. A meal-based church, for instance, might have a favourite blessing. Saying it together expresses the group's oneness and allows it to conclude the evening in a familiar (and therefore safe) way. Occasionally using a formal confession might introduce a welcome note of variety;
  • they can be adapted to suit the group, as the Moot example illustrates. A meal-based church might take a traditional prayer invoking the Holy Spirit, rewrite it in contemporary English, and from time to time use it at the start of the evening to request the Spirit's presence as the group worships;
  • they can inspire new compositions. A member of the group might write a 'collect' (a prayer for set occasions) to celebrate someone's 40th birthday;
  • they can be used inventively to conform to the expectations of the denomination or 'stream'. This is especially the case in denominations where only an ordained minister may preside at communion. Difficulties can arise if such a person is not readily available. Ways round this, that preserve the integrity of both the fresh expression and the denomination, are discussed in The UP dimension of church.
There is growing interest in 'ancient/future' and 'deep church' perspectives on worship, much of it healthy and ensuring that fresh expressions are not disconnected from the broader tradition of the church. But ... beware eclectic pillaging of many traditions and beware also incorporating into your community practices that carry unrecognised and unwelcome ecclesial or spiritual freight!
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression

We still have much to learn about how to worship in a fresh expressions context. Are the above suggestions helpful? Have you got other suggestions? There is space to comment at the end of the page.

Learning should be practical

StressIt goes without saying that learning is vital for growth in discipleship. A good test for the effectiveness of Christian learning is whether individuals are becoming better followers of Jesus. Learning about the Christian story, as revealed in Scripture and reflected on by Christians over the years, is especially important as more and more people enter the faith with very little prior Christian experience. Rather than assuming that people know the Christian story, fresh expressions often need to help people learn the very basics of the story and discover how God can speak to them through it.

Should fresh expressions be more ambitious about practical learning?

Parenting a teenager with anorexia is as much part of Christian discipleship as giving away part of your income, but how many locally-based Christian support groups and courses exist?

If Discipleship transforms the whole of life, then Christians need support in managing every aspect of their lives - such as:

  • choosing a school for their children;
  • handling conflicts at work;
  • overcoming stress;
  • managing a pension;
  • supervising others at work;
  • engaging with global poverty when you have limited time and power;
  • managing a divorce;
  • overcoming an alcohol or drug addiction;
  • approaching mid-life (or retirement);
  • caring for the environment without feeling overwhelmed.

The list could be endless!

Co-operating with other churches is becoming vital for effective discipleship

In today's world, practical knowledge is increasingly specialised and taught at a high level. It is no longer enough to run a parenting course, for example. You have to think about which parents - with children at what stage of development - the course is designed for.

Practical discipleship, covering a wide range of issues effectively, is becoming impossible even for large churches to manage on their own.

If you were to lay on a course or mutual support group for parents with children who have anorexia, for instance, you would have to do it with other churches. Only then would you have enough people to make the group viable and enough resources for you to afford specialist input. The same would be true of many other topics.

Collaborating with other local churches will be a priority for both fresh expressions and inherited church

If we want to grow mature Christians, who are feeding on solid food rather than milk (Hebrews 11.12-14), collaborating with other local churches will be a priority for both fresh expressions and inherited church (Discipleship requires the support of other Christians). Does this provide an opportunity for the 'mixed economy' to flourish, as new and long-established churches work together on discipleship?

Of course, lots of learning can also occur within the fresh expression itself - one-to-one, in small groups and at gatherings of the whole community. Not to be underestimated is the learning that happens informally through the 'hidden curriculum', as individuals watch how other Christians behave and talk about their faith. That is one reason why fellowship is essential.

Why not learn how to learn?

Leaders of small groups or of the fresh expression may persist with unhelpful models of learning simply because they are not aware of the knowledge we now have about how people learn.

Another reason is that many leaders have been trained to operate mainly in relation to one learning style. Those who have learned to preach monologue sermons may be reluctant to explore alternative learning approaches, not because they regard sermons as sacrosanct (though some do), but because they don't know how to do anything else. And some members of fresh expressions are equally resistant, feeling short-changed without a 'proper sermon'. Retraining, patience and encouragement will be needed if the mould is to be broken.
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression

 Input, Discussion, Decision, Action ReflectionFor example, one model of learning, which builds on the pastoral cycle discussed in Discipleship transforms the whole of life, looks like the cycle to the right:

You start with some input, which is discussed. Individuals then reach a decision about what they have heard. 'Do I agree?' 'Is it something I should keep in mind or does it require an action?' 'If the latter, is it a priority now?' They then take appropriate action and afterwards reflect on what happened. Further input builds on this reflection and takes people on to the next step.

A session in a course on anger management, for example, might have the aim of helping participants cope with other people's anger. It might start with input on 'transactional analysis' - someone who is angry often takes on a 'parent' role, which can encourage the other person to behave like a child. A helpful response will seek to recreate an adult-to-adult form of communication. Input might be followed by small-group discussion of a gospel story in which Jesus faced someone who was angry, such as the Martha and Mary story (Luke 10.38-42), or some of his confrontations with the Jewish authorities. Groups might be asked: 'In the light of the initial input, what lessons can we learn?'

Next, individuals would be invited to consider what they should do in response to what they had heard so far, and perhaps discuss this with others in the small group ('Decision'). They would try out what they had decided in the coming week and feed back at the next session on whether it had been helpful ('Reflection'). There would then be further input, and the cycle would be repeated.

It's worth stressing that 'Decision' can include pondering one of the ideas that came out of the discussion. Feeding back next time whether that 'pondering' had led to any further thoughts might be a disciplined way of helping lessons from Scripture take root.

Might using this approach to learning be an effective means of turning Biblical principles into action and encouraging fellowship in the process? Were your fresh expression to discuss this model, you might find that all sorts of suggestions emerge for developing the way you learn together. It might help you to identify strengths and weaknesses in what you do at present.

What about people's different learning styles?

Not everyone learns in the same way. Different learning styles suggests that there are at least four types of learner:

  • activists assemble the flat pack before reading the instructions;
  • reflectors will lay out all the pieces of the flat pack first;
  • theorists will read the instructions first;
  • pragmatists will build the flat pack and get excited by what the furniture can do.

Being aware of how people learn in different ways may help you to vary your teaching programme and materials so that they more easily engage a wider range of people.

Fresh expressions should encourage healthy spiritual practices

ScrewdriverAs one fruit of practical Christian learning. These practices (often called spiritual disciplines) create pathways through which the Spirit can shape our lives. Theologians have described these pathways as 'means of grace'. They are the means through which the Spirit works.

Many Christians have committed themselves to a rule of life

This could include practices such as:

  • regular prayer, Bible study and worship;
  • generosity, including financial support for the poor;
  • acts of kindness;
  • special times of focus on God, such as through fasting or a retreat;
  • accountability to a more mature Christian (traditionally in the form of confession).
It is much easier to be a disciplined Christian if you are doing this with other people

In today's busy society with its many competing attractions, it is very easy for spiritual practices to be squeezed out. To counter this danger, a growing number of Christians are supporting each other in the observation of an agreed set of practices. This can involve commitment to a shared rule of life. It is much easier to be a disciplined Christian if you are doing this with other people.

To discover more about this, you may want to read Rutba House (ed), School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, Cascade Books, 2005.

Fresh expressions can encourage mutual support in a number of ways

For example:

  • The community as a whole might agree a rule of life to which individuals would commit themselves. In gatherings of the community, time might be set aside for individuals to share their struggles, progress and setbacks in observing these practices. From time to time, teaching within the gathering might home in on a specific practice.
  • Small groups might develop their own rule of life in cases where a fresh expression encourages small groups. Members might agree a simple list of practices that they will support each other in observing. Support might be available when the group prays together. Or during Advent and Lent, when churches have traditionally fasted, the group might pay special attention to these practices.
  • Individuals might be encouraged to join a dispersed monastic order, such as the Northumbria community. Individuals are scattered round the country (indeed, the world), but they share a common and flexible rule of life, and meet up from time to time.

Encouraging spiritual practices will improve the quality of discipleship

This is a vital task of the church. Neil Cole, who has seen hundreds of small churches form in a few years, has said that the key to this remarkable growth has been their resolute commitment to discipleship.

We want to lower the bar of how church is done and raise the bar of what it means to be a disciple.

Neil Cole, Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens, Jossey-Bass, 2005, p50

Encouraging spiritual practices helps to raise the bar of discipleship. Would this make mission more difficult by putting people off? A couple of non-believing professional marketers once commented:

if the church wants to be successful, it needs to compromise much less with society. Each time it compromises, it undermines what makes it unique. In terms of marketing, where unique selling points are everything, this is a disaster.

Worth pondering?

All this should be nourished by prayer

Lady meditatingIndeed, corporate prayer is foundational to fresh expressions - to their formation, their ongoing community life and the growth of disciples within them. A great range of styles and practices of prayer can be seen in fresh expressions - from high tech web-based prayer networks to ancient contemplative practices.

When a group of fresh expressions leaders were asked: 'How does prayer nurture disciples in your fresh expression?', this is what some had to say:

We don't spend a lot of our time in 'classic prayer mode'. However, we acknowledge the involvement of God in all we do and say, and 'include' God in our conversations or lives.

Each week we spend an hour or so in meditation/reflection/prayer together. This could look traditional and liturgical, it could look more alt-worship and/or could be more Ignatian in style... it could also be spent in silence or storytelling.

We have produced a daily liturgy/rhythm of Scripture, prayer and meditation.
Mark Berry, Safe Space, Telford

We promote the importance of more contemplative versions of prayer and personal discipline – with a vision that people can only be mature Christians by being able to discern a complex God in a complex world and culture – drawing on the monastic to inform being Christian in the present.

We do prayer development days – one-day training with nuns and monks or Ignatian-type people in convents or monasteries: hugely worthwhile.
Ian Mobsby, Moot, Westminster

We put a big emphasis on prayer in our fresh expression. We have weekly prayer and worship meetings, during which we spend time praying about specific issues facing the church, society, individuals, etc. We also spend time waiting on God and listening to his voice for direction.
Ruth Poch, re:generation youth congregation, Romford