Discipleship starts where people are

There is no 'one size fits all' approach to discipleship. This may seem obvious, but not all churches have approached discipleship in this way. Some have relied on courses with fixed topics in a set order. Others have developed their own material and approaches, but in a top-down way. Content has reflected the leaders' priorities. Discipleship is an ongoing process that occurs in lots of ways. The Spirit never leaves identical fingerprints on people's lives. The Spirit treats people as individuals. 'Making disciples' should follow the Spirit's example. The process should start where individuals are.

Discipleship should take seriously people's spiritual experiences

Hands offeringThis includes recognising that a growing number of people today have little grounding in the Christian story. Many will have no explicit faith, while some will have been brought up in other faiths. Discipleship may have to assume much less knowledge of the Bible and Christian practice than in the past. Whereas discipleship could once focus on applying the Christian story, more often today it has to help believers discover the story.

Many people have some sort of spiritual experience before coming to faith

In-depth interviews with 41 people in Scotland, for example, revealed that respondents recorded spiritual experiences more frequently and seemed to take them more seriously than interviewees for the book, Finding Faith Today, some 15 years earlier (cited in Quadrant, Christian Research: January 2008). These experiences can be understood as the Spirit at work in a person's life before they come to faith. Discipleship should build on these experiences and help individuals understand them from a Christian perspective.

Individuals are not blank pages on which can be printed the Christian story. They already have stories of their own. Some aspects of these stories will resonate with the Christian faith, while other aspects will jar with it. Just as good educational practice takes account of learners' previous experiences, so must making disciples.

Often people lack the vocabulary to talk about their religious experiences

As children they may have been to Sunday School, a church primary school or brought up in another faith, where they were introduced to religious belief in language appropriate for a child. But as they grow up, faith is less often a topic of conversation and so the language to describe it remains childish too. Individuals enter adulthood struggling to express their spiritual understanding and experiences in an adult way.

One of the church's tasks, through evangelism and discipleship, is to provide emerging Christians with the vocabulary to talk about spirituality as adults. 

Many new Christians lack confidence

Partly because of this lack of language. Building their confidence is a vital part of discipleship, especially in the early stages. 'Affirm what they know and don't embarrass them when they don't know' might be a good motto. This confidence-building is essential if, from an early stage, new Christians are to learn to minister to each other, assume leadership roles within the body and rely on the Spirit rather than become over-dependent on a Christian leader. A theme that we emphasise is Discipleship encourages a dependence on the Spirit.

Discipleship should start with individuals' questions

Question MarkTraditionally, much discipleship has been credally based - 'We'll teach people the whole gospel' or 'We'll teach people the doctrines we think they need to know.' But many newcomers to the faith may prefer to start not with doctrine, but with practical issues of everyday life. They may be asking lots of how questions - 'How can being a Christian help me with...?' For many people, relevance is a priority at this stage.

Much of the New Testament was written in response to practical life issues

Especially Paul's letters. Later, theologians used this material to develop systematically doctrines such as the Trinity. Might this suggest a sequence for discipleship today - start with the pastoral questions people are raising and later unpack key Christian doctrines?

It is often said that people don't enter the faith head-first

They don't begin with belief, then join the church and finally start to change their behaviour (believing→belonging→behaving). More typical is that they become believers as a result of being part of a Christian community (belonging→believing→behaving). But might the sequence often be belonging→behaving→believing? Individuals change their behaviour under the influence of a Christian group before they sign up to the faith. They are attracted by the practical relevance of Christianity before they assent to its beliefs.

David Horrell suggests that in Romans, Paul argues that Christian distinctiveness lies less in having distinctive values than in living out the values that other people aspire to but don't attain.

Paul's claim is not so much that Christians live by distinctive ethical standards but rather that they live up to and beyond the ethical standards that others share but do not follow.

David Horrell, Solidarity and Difference, T&T Clark, 2005, p162

For many people, part of the initial attraction of being a Christian may be that it helps them to become the better person that they want to be - to be more ecologically aware, for instance, to be more generous, or to be a better parent. Belonging to a Christian group supports the behaviour they aspire to, which may provide a platform for an eventual assent to core Christian beliefs.

Sometimes might the sequence be even more radically different

Different to the traditional believing→belonging→behaving? Might the order be in reverse: behaving→belonging→believing?

Some have spiritual experiences and want to explore that more; they have questions about belief. Others join a parenting group and so have a behaving motive. Others become part of a community and through belonging become part of a fresh expression. Perhaps it's better to not be prescriptive about a process but connect with people where they are.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

Perhaps a fresh expression runs an anger management group, which members find helpful (behaving). They gel together (belonging) and find the principles they've learnt so useful that they become open to exploring the Christian faith (a journey into belief). This underscores the value of focusing on practical life issues in discipleship, especially during the early stages. You may end up discipling people before they feel committed to Christ! (See also Discipleship may involve rethinking worship, learning and spiritual practices.)

Discipleship should take account of differences in personality

FingerpaintIn today's culture, which celebrates diversity, people are more sensitive to individual differences than in the past. Support for discipleship will be more effective if it takes variations in temperament into account.

Personality affects how people respond to different approaches to discipleship

'Sensing' personalities, for example, pay attention to physical reality - what they see, hear, touch, taste and smell. They tend to be concerned with what is actual, current, present and real. They like facts and trust experience more than words and symbols. They will benefit from discipleship that relates to experience, is factually based and leads to immediate activity.

Disciple individuals in more varied ways, helping a wider range of people to journey towards Christ

'Intuitives' on the other hand tend to pay more attention to impressions, and to the patterns and meaning of the information they receive. They would rather learn by thinking a problem through than by hands-on experience. They like to work with symbols and theories. They warm to visionary spirituality that encourages dreams and abstract thought.

If your temperament leans towards sensing, your approach to discipleship may veer towards being pragmatic, practical and factual - you emphasise the factual truth of the gospel. This may leave intuitive people cold. They may long for more opportunity to play around with ideas, for language that relies on metaphors and symbols, and for space to think an issue through. You may mistake their response as indifference to the gospel, whereas in reality it is your approach to discipleship that they are struggling with.

Being aware of these and other personality differences may encourage you to disciple individuals in more varied ways, helping a wider range of people to journey towards Christ. Personality differences are important for discipleship, they affect people's spiritual outlook and they make a difference to prayer.

Read more

Differences in personality may influence what you do in larger gatherings

When people involved in your fresh expression gather together, it may be helpful to make allowances for different temperaments. For example, individuals have various learning styles. Some like to listen, others prefer to talk about the subject, while others learn best by doing something - acting it out or drawing it.

See also

In response to these differences, approaches to teaching and learning might be varied so that, over several weeks, a range of temperaments are catered for. Corporate prayer can be led in different ways to allow for different styles of praying. Might worship occasionally involve different zones or stations - one where people can write a prayer perhaps, another where they can meditate on a verse from Scripture, a third where they can discuss a piece of religious art, and so on? This can be an effective way of taking into account people's varying personalities. (You may find it helpful to read Tim Lomax & Michael Moynagh, Liquid Worship, Grove Books, 2004).

Discipleship should be within people's culture

Hi-tech worshipThis was very much the practice of Jesus. He shared the everyday lives of the people he ministered to. He engaged with contemporary issues as diverse as marriage and taxes, helping his hearers to think them through from God's perspective. Most people who were transformed by him continued with their existing jobs and ways of life.

Contemporary culture, especially film and music, offers plenty of starting points for Christian reflection. Simon Rundell, for instance, at the Blesséd fresh expression in Gosport, has written a discipleship course, Journey of Faith, which is based on modern films and learning experiences that use the whole body.

Culturally appropriate discipleship may be easier in a fresh expression than inherited church

Traditionally, discipleship was part of a process of socialising new Christians into a pre-existing church. Fresh expressions, on the other hand, often disciple people who are in the process of forming church. When you draw new believers into an existing Christian community, the temptation is show them 'how we do church'. Discipleship can be about passing on the norms of the church - about showing entrants into the faith how this particular group of believers have applied Christian values. 

It is assumed without question that the Spirit wants new Christians to live out their faith in the same way. But that may not be the case. The Spirit may have very different ideas about how these new believers should express their faith in the world and share their common life together.

Discipleship in a 'green field' context, in which a new expression of church is developed, makes it easier to start with the question, 'What would it mean for you to live as a Christian among your family, friends and workmates?' As emerging Christians prayerfully seek answers from Scripture and the Christian tradition, expectations need not be framed so heavily by the assumptions of a pre-existing group of believers.

Christ modelled discipleship as engagement with the kingdom of God and as obedience to the Father (John 5.19). But these were grounded in a commitment to the community of disciples and their shared life. Discipleship started in day-to-day events, working with the issues as they arose rather than within an existing mode of religious practice.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre

The key principle is to develop discipleship approaches that fit the context

This does not mean selling out to culture. But it does mean that pioneers and their fellow leaders will constantly ask:

  • what are the core values and main tenets of the Christian faith?
  • what challenges might they pose to the lifestyles of the people we are serving?
  • how can we help our emerging believers become inwardly transformed by the Spirit, so that they can discern how to apply Christian values in their context?

Discipleship should start where people physically live their lives

Call centreAt the time of the first Christians, family, work and leisure (in so far as people had any) were located mainly in the home. So when the early Christians met in people's homes, they were meeting in the physical context where they lived most of their lives. Much the same was true of life before the industrial revolution. The village church was close to where people lived, worked and socialised. But the industrial revolution pulled this apart. Work and home became separated, with church remaining near to home. As people have got more mobile, the physical location of church has become steadily more distant from work, social life and often home.

Physical distance has made it much harder for church to connect with everyday life

Especially work. How often do Christians long for church on Sunday to be relevant to their work on Monday! But this is not easy to achieve. Clergy frequently have little experience of the work most members of their congregations undertake - they tend not to see people in their work contexts. With members working in many different occupations, it can be difficult for ministers to understand each situation.

Why not have expressions of church at work and where people socialise?

Alongside weekend church, individuals might attend church at work or in their leisure centre or neighbourhood, or even in all three (maybe attending every other week)! There is nothing in the Bible to say that you must attend only one congregation. A fresh expression, perhaps meeting on late Saturday afternoons, might abandon the common practice of encouraging individuals to meet up with other members in small groups during the week.

Instead, they would be encouraged to meet with other Christians at work or where they make friends, and get support from these groups for their day-to-day living in these contexts. Perhaps they might share what they are learning when they meet on Saturday afternoons. Discipleship would be physically earthed in everyday life. This is a far cry from where the church is today, but as fresh expressions begin to form in workplaces, cafés, leisure centres, pubs and homes, might this become a new pattern of churchgoing in years to come, more suited to the fluid mentality of many young people today?

Discipleship should be side-by-side rather than top-down or bottom-up

Leap of faithIt is often said that top-down methods - in which the leader sets the agenda, for instance, and people are told what to believe or do - are not only out of synch with the culture of many people today, but are unable to take full account of where individuals are at. Yet to argue for a bottom-up approach might be to oversimplify. Jesus could be very directive in his teaching - 'Sell everything you have and give to the poor' he told the rich ruler (Luke 18.22). So could St Paul in his letters.

Often people want information or answers from individuals with greater knowledge - they don't want to discover it for themselves. Individuals whose lives are chaotic may welcome firm direction in how to become more disciplined.

We prefer the notion that discipleship should be 'side-by-side'

This contains the idea of mature believers drawing alongside individuals who are being discipled. It has the sense of newer Christians being engaged in a dialogue with more mature Christians, who can learn from these new believers as well as teach them. It echoes the 'encouraging' role of the Holy Spirit.

It is also in line with good educational practice. Educators sometimes speak of 'co-produced' knowledge or learning. The expert and the learner collaborate together. Experts don't funnel information into learners. They work with learners, sometimes giving information, sometimes asking questions, and sometimes helping learners to identify their needs and find for themselves ways of meeting them.

A side-by-side approach

This will involve:

  • listening to emerging Christians, and discovering the questions they are asking and what forms of support would be most helpful in their discipleship;
  • providing timely insights, but in a way that respects the right of the learner to disagree. A discipleship course, for example, would have plenty of room for discussion and disagreement. Jesus never coerced anyone;
  • balancing top-down information with discover-for-yourself approaches. Jesus' parables drew people into the story and left them to work out what it meant;
  • encouraging members to critique the community's beliefs and practices. If community life is beyond criticism, the fallibility of human beings is not taken seriously. Aspects of the community may become unhealthy or damaging without anyone speaking out.

    On the other hand encouraging the community to have a questioning mindset, while at the same time holding convictions that form the context in which to become more like Christ, is a tough psychological ask. It means living in the tension between humble uncertainty and confident faith.

    Not all pioneers may have the confidence to seek this, but it's a goal worth striving for. You may find it helpful to read Mark Mason, 'Living in the distance between a 'community of character' and a 'community of the question' in Louise Nelstrop & Martyn Percy (eds), Evaluating Fresh Expressions, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008, pp85-104.

  • trusting the Holy Spirit. Established Christians may think that young adults coming to faith should be taught early on about God's view of marriage and relationships, for instance. But the Spirit's priority may be that they develop a stronger commitment to the poor or be more honest with their expenses.

What might trusting the Spirit mean in practice?

Imagine that you are teaching about sexual relationships (or any other topic). You might adopt the tone: 'This is what many Christians have believed about this. These are the Biblical reasons why. Here are some reasons why this makes sense. But you must work out with the Spirit how you apply it. The Spirit may be speaking to you about lots of things. Why not ask God if this should be a priority now?' This would help new believers to share responsibility for their spiritual lives with the Holy Spirit rather than become over-dependent on the views of a more mature Christian.

Christian maturity involves discerning the Spirit's voice among a cacophony of human voices within the church - 'Which person is speaking God's word for me at this time?' Discipleship is not about getting people to join the agenda of other Christians; it's about each believer being helped to discern the Spirit's agenda for them.

See also

Side-by-side will mean changing the culture of discipleship

Changing the culture of how people have been typically encouraged in their discipleship. It will mean taking more account of previous spiritual experiences, starting with people's questions, making allowance for differences in personality and helping individuals work out what it means to be a Christian in their specific culture, including the workplace and life with their friends.