Discipleship transforms the whole of life

The focus of discipleship is changing

Cross against lightSometimes courses and other forms of teaching seem to have been geared more to helping individuals become good church members than to live effectively in the world: 'This is what Holy Communion is about'; 'This is how you can share your gifts'; 'This is how you can be a better small group leader'. 

Many churches have discovered afresh that discipleship is much wider than that.

It involves allowing every part of life to be under the influence of God.

Everything a Christian believes and does is an aspect of discipleship; the goal of discipleship is to grow ever more Christ-like in every aspect of life.

Time to Talk of God, a report of the Methodist Conference, The Methodist Church, 2005, p19

Jesus provides the classic example

He lived distinctively as he went to homes, marketplaces, festivals, weddings and designated places of worship. He spoke about marriage and divorce, taxes, government, wealth, work and disease. He got involved in discussion and debates. His statement, 'Love your enemies', was highly political in a country where their Roman rulers were hated.

He taught his followers to pray: 'Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as in heaven.' This was a prayer that the entire planet - the whole of life on Earth - would be under God's authority, just as God's will holds complete sway in heaven.

Christians are called to be part of the answer to this longing for the kingdom

They are to live out their discipleship at home, at work and in their leisure, as well as in the church. As they do so, they spread God's influence. In the apocalyptic passages of the gospels, Jesus urged his followers to be aware of, and think deeply about the signs of the times. Believers are to seek a Christian perspective on global warming, human rights, 'wars and rumours of wars' (Mark 13.7) and other issues that face the world today.

Just as the Father sent the Son to the world and the Son has sent the Spirit to be active in the world (as well as in the church), so God calls believers to be in the world too. They are to join the Spirit in advancing God's kingdom.

A simple version of the pastoral cycle may help emerging Christians to do this

The 'pastoral cycle' is a way of listening to God in four stages (see Paul Ballard and John Pritchard, Practical Theology in Action, SPCK, 2006, ch6).

  • Experience is the starting point. What is the present situation and how do you experience it?
  • Exploration involves prayerfully asking, 'What's going on this situation? What's going on behind what's going on? What are the factors shaping the present situation and how it's experienced?'
  • Reflection is about trying to see the situation from God's point of view. What would make God thrilled? What would make him weep? If Jesus was here, what would he advise you to do? Regular private and corporate Bible study will help new believers acquire the mind of Christ.
  • Action is a response to asking, 'What do we need to do as a result of our exploration and reflection?'

This cycle can be a continuous process. When you take action, you begin to change the experience – the current situation. New dynamics come into play which you explore, reflect on and act upon, which again changes the situation. Christians need help in putting this pastoral cycle into action - an issue we discuss in Discipleship may involve rethinking worship, learning and spiritual practices.

All this puts transformation at the heart of discipleship

London Eye closeupJesus did more than just live in a culture and serve people. He called individuals to change how they lived - think of the rich young ruler in Luke 18. Jesus' followers were to become salt and light in their culture (Matthew 5.13-16). Personal transformation should bring transformation to society.

Church is where believers can be equipped to do this

Not least in the modelling of good practice in how Christians arrange their corporate life. How many church councils provide good examples of managing conflict fruitfully - examples that can be a help to council members when they face conflict in the workplace, for instance?

The church has been inward looking and failed to take the lead in transforming society

There have been times when the church has taken a courageous stand to promote God's kingdom. But sadly, too often in the West the church has been inward looking and failed to take the lead in transforming society. How many churches, for example, have been at the forefront of moves to install better access for people with disabilities?

Will fresh expressions of church have a stronger outward focus?

Or, as some fear, will they be socially conservative - good at finding a home in today's culture, but less good at challenging it? Canon Professor Martyn Percy has asked whether fresh expressions are colluding with today's consumer culture. They are built on choice when the Christian life is about duty and obligation. Choice encourages individuals to do what they want rather than bearing the cost of being committed to a local community and to the wider church.

Fresh expressions may use the language of social engagement and environmental concern. But does this language mask a deep-seated selfishness - a selfishness that will only support social concern projects which are interesting to me, instead of projects that lack glamour yet are just as valid? (You may want to read Martyn's chapter in Louise Nelstrop & Martyn Percy (eds), Evaluating Fresh Expressions, Canterbury Press, 2008, pp27-39).

The question highlights the importance of discipleship

Many people today do make big sacrifices when they are grabbed by the thing they are committed to. Sports people will train for hours and carefully control their diets. Parents may return home from work exhausted but still make time for their children. Our culture is not entirely averse to commitment and duty.

So there is a real possibility that new believers who have been grasped by Christ will make the journey from a choice-based life to one in which obligation plays a larger part, from what I want to what you want. Sensitive, careful and Spirit-filled discipleship will help them to travel that path, producing transformation at all levels - from the personal to society.

Practicing transformation as a whole community will help this to happen

On its own, a programme of teaching may not be enough to produce a radically different way of life. Transformation tends to occur when you actually do something. For example one fresh expression, Just Church, includes in their worship time for members to write letters on behalf of organisations such as Amnesty International.

This provides an immediate outworking of Scripture's call for God's followers to promote justice in society. By actually doing something, members are constantly reminded of the centrality of this call. Acting together as a church enables individuals to support and encourage each other to be a transforming presence in the world.

So, what do members of your fresh expressions do together?

Do they mainly socialise, worship, study the Bible and pray with one another about personal needs - an inward focus? Or, in addition, do they turn outward by collaborating in some form of loving service to those in need - perhaps spending a Saturday morning clearing graffiti in the neighbourhood?

What is the balance inward and outward-focused activities? What expectations are being encouraged by the particular balance you have struck? Might it be healthy for churches - whether inherited or fresh expressions - to spend less time in corporate worship and more time in corporate mission, to strike a better balance between the two?

Transformation involves a journey to holiness

Mountain, lake and skyGod is holy and longs for his people to be holy (Leviticus 11.45). Isaiah had a 'holy makeover' when he received God's call, transforming him into someone with a sense of divine purpose (Isaiah 6.1-8). Paul clearly understood that God calls believers to be holy (1 Corinthians 1.2).

Holiness is not about separation from a murky world

As many of Jesus' contemporaries believed (and some Christians have thought, too). Jesus challenged that view by immersing himself in aspects of life that the Jewish leaders considered distinctly unholy, such as eating with the unclean tax collector, Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10). Jesus modelled a way of being holy in the middle of settings that were unholy. He mixed with prostitutes, corrupt officials and people who were possessed by evil spirits. Yet he maintained his distinctive witness throughout. Discipleship involves learning how we can do the same.

Graham Cray has called for discipleship to be expressed through 'involved distinctiveness' - involved in the transformation of society, distinctive with the fruits of holiness. (Graham Cray, Disciples and Citizens, IVP, 2007, p104).

Mission is part of holiness

Throughout history, when the church has experienced renewal, holiness and mission have gone together. The early Methodists, for example, were committed to evangelism, social justice and personal holiness. They even formed holiness clubs to support their commitment to people outside the church. These clubs provided a place of mutual accountability to help Christians maintain holiness when engaged in mission in a messy world. Covenant Discipleship Groups today seek to remodel the Methodists' early class meetings in a way that encourages both holiness and mission.

Holiness entails dying to live

Individuals die to their selfishness in order that they can live for God and for other people. The Good Friday experience of taking up one's cross makes possible an Easter Sunday, when life flourishes more fully.

Dying to live is a fundamental gospel value, symbolised by baptism and deeply counter-cultural. It is at the core of discipleship. Individuals are transformed as they die to their old natures, and this enables them to work better with others to bring transformation to the surrounding world.

The balance of dying and living is important. Discipleship that is cost-lite fails to recognise that the call of Christ is costly (Matthew 10.38). A one-sided emphasis on the cost, on the other hand, underplays the sheer delight of witnessing the greater flourishing of life (John 10.10). Discipleship is full of adventure.

Dying to live requires a journey to the inner heart

Wooden heartThough the language differs, this has been a strong emphasis in almost all Christian traditions - from the monastic, to the Methodist, to various renewal traditions today.

Discipleship involves attending to your inner self, understanding better your motives and instincts. It involves heart-searching - 'Why do I habitually respond in this way?' - and prayer for greater self-control.

One of the emphases of the Anabaptist tradition – another tradition that has emphasised personal and corporate discipleship – is the need for 're-reflexing'. Discipleship is not so much about deciding how to behave as about becoming the kinds of persons who respond instinctively and reflexively in Christlike ways. How can fresh expressions help to train our reflexes?
Stuart Murray Williams, Urban Expression

Certain spiritual disciplines facilitate this inner journey, such as the disciplines of contemplation, self-examination and confession (to a priest or fellow Christian). Encouraging discipleship includes helping individuals explore these disciplines and adapt them to their personality and circumstances.

This journey to the inner heart is a crucial means by which the Spirit brings personal and then social transformation. As you encourage discipleship in your fresh expression, what place does the inner journey play?