Breakout 2013 - church and disciples

Monday, 7 October, 2013

This year's Breakout Pioneer Gathering looked at the theme of discipleship, with a particular focus on moving from a community gathering to discipling. You can watch or read keynote speaker Stuart Murray Williams' first address below, or watch or read his second address.

The Breakout Pioneer Gathering is an annual gathering organised by seven different mission agencies including Fresh Expressions.

Stuart Murray Williams asks what we mean by 'church', explores how we make disciples, shares his own discipleship journey, considers what a disciple looks like and asks what we might gain by listening to church leavers.

Duration: 56:01   | Download Download video (flv) | Download Download video (wmv) | View on YouTube


Stuart Murray Williams: Well, hello, I've been aware of the Breakout conference for most of the time it's been going and I've thought about coming, but haven't actually been until this year, and I get in for free this year which is even better!

What do we mean by 'church'?

I'm sure you've heard that question multiple times over the recent years and I'm sure you'll be glad that we won't be dealing with this this afternoon! But I want to just mention this question, because in books, in conferences, in conversations over the last 10-15 years this question has come up over and over again. What do we mean by church? What are we talking about? What are the boundaries? I do think that remains an important question, though we're not going to look at it in these sessions I'm going to be sharing with you this afternoon, I do think it remains an important question, one that we'll continue to wrestle with, it isn't going to go away in fact it may become more acute as more of the fresh expressions of church mature and need to find their place within the ecclesial world. What are they? What will they become? How do fresh expressions of church relate to other forms of church in the mixed economy that we're talking about. So I want to acknowledge this question and recognise its significance, but also to park it for the rest of the conference. I doubt whether we'll be able to do that, I suspect it will come creeping back in at some point, but that's not really the focus for what we're looking for at this time.

How do we make disciples

And, as Ian said, the focus for these 48 hours together is that other, fairly fundamental question, what do we actually mean for discipleship? How do we make disciples? How do we nurture disciples? How do we sustain disciples? And it may well be, as Ian indicated… I wondered if Ian spoke much longer if I'd need to say anything, as he picked up what I wanted to say. But it may well be that that is the prior question. If we can work out what it means to make disciples, if we can learn ways, in our context, in our culture, of nurturing and maintaining disciples it might be that many of the church questions take care of themselves. Again, as Ian said, I keep quoting you again this afternoon, Jesus said “go and make disciples”. He also said, “I will build my church”. And I do wonder if we've actually switched things round a bit. Whether we've decided that we will build the church and we hope somehow that Jesus will make disciples. And if we reverse those back again, maybe that's the priority, maybe that's why the subject we're looking at today is so important. I will build my church; Go and make disciples. What does it mean to do that? How do we engage in that? So, maybe, starting with the discipleship question is where we should've started all along. And maybe that's been the experience of some of you as pioneers. Actually that has been the starting point and church has just sort of crept up on you. That was certainly the experience of some cross-cultural missionaries over the centuries, who were very, very reluctant to be involved in church planting. What they wanted to do was share the Gospel, see people become followers of Jesus and disciple them, and planting churches was a nuisance. They really weren't interested in that institutional stuff! But, they discovered that if you really want to sustain disciples, you will soon need a church but it's maybe that way round, which is something.

I'll just start by looking at a number of concerns; why are we asking these questions about discipleship? What is it about our experience that prompts us to say, “what kind of job are we doing?” What kind of resources do we need, what kind of strategy do we need to make disciples?

Cultural conformity

The first thing that a number of us will be concerned about is the level of cultural conformity within our church. Survey after survey suggests that there really isn't a difference in lifestyle between those that are followers of Jesus and those that aren't. Bits and pieces maybe, often quite superficial differences, but deep down there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of difference. Discipleship doesn't seem to have produced countercultural followers of Jesus, who are living differently. And that's really quite important, not just for our churches, but also for their mission. If we are not living attractive lives, if we are not living lives that are posing questions, then it's going to be harder to get any kind of hearing for the Gospel. And so the issue of discipleship is always interconnected with the issue of mission. They're not two separate issues, they're very much part of the same thing. And so there are concerns around disciple-making; because of our awareness that we're pretty culturally conformed. Our churches are not that distinctive, not that provocative, not that question posing. There isn't a huge amount of difference in those who are, and those who aren't followers of Jesus.

Biblical illiteracy

Secondly, there's the issue of biblical illiteracy. We increasingly are finding in many of the churches, both new churches and old churches that there is a lack of engagement with the biblical story. Putting it bluntly, people do not read their Bibles very much. Even in churches, in fact, especially in churches that claim to have a high view of scripture. It's quite remarkable looking into some of the research into evangelical churches, where there is a very high emphasis on the importance of scripture and then looking at how people actually do or don't engage with scripture. A very significant percentage of people in our churches don't open their Bibles from one Sunday to the next. There's a biblical illiteracy issue. Which means that the story that is at the heart of our faith is not playing the shaping role that it needs to. We are not being shaped by the story, by its priorities, its values, its expectations; it's not narrating our lives in the way that it might. Talk to most church leaders in most contexts and you'll find that whether they used the term Biblical illiteracy or something easier to pronounce, that's actually an issue that they're dealing with. How can we nurture disciples if the scriptures, the story at the heart of our faith is not being applied or engaged with?

Losing people

Thirdly, there is a reality that we're losing people. Now they may be less evidence in some of the fresher expressions of church as you haven't had them long enough yet to burn them out! But in older churches, burnout is becoming a significant epidemic I would say. We are losing very significant numbers of people who are dropping out because they are simply weary, they are burned out by over-commitment, by trying to sustain an unsustainable programme, and they are not finding in many cases the resources to nurture them and enable them to continue to grow as disciples. There is a problem of stagnation – people get stuck. There is a sense of weariness and boredom – I've done all this, now what? We are losing significant numbers of people. Unless we address this issue, it is going to repeat itself in the fresh expressions of church. It may be delayed a bit because there's still enough excitement and enthusiasm going for a while but we're storing our problems for the future unless we address some of these discipleship issues.


While you mention that I've written on the theme of post-Christendom, I'm assuming that is now familiar to most of you, if not all of you. Essentially, what post-Christendom is saying is that we're in a transitional phase, we're moving out of a culture that was imbued with Christian languages and symbols and assumptions and practices. I'm not in any way claiming that Christendom – that long era in European history when church was at the centre of society was very Christian, it was always pretty mixed. But nevertheless, there was a kind of Christianised culture and so within that Christianised culture, people knew quite a bit of the Biblical story, they shared certain assumptions and values and expectations, and even language. And in that kind of context, an hour a week on a Sunday morning with a bit of praise, a bit of prayer, a bit of preaching and communion might be considered just about enough to keep you going as disciples through the week. Especially when discipleship in that kind of context was very often equated with cultural conformity, with being good citizens. There wasn't much of a gap between church and the rest of culture. And so discipleship wasn't really identified as a key issue. There didn't need to be much intentionality about it, it seemed. It just seemed to sort of happen in a sort of discipleship by osmosis. You sort of live within a vaguely Christian framework, and all that was expected of you was that you didn't step out of line too far. Post-Christendom means that we're moving out of that; It doesn't mean that we've completely left it behind, but we're in this transitional phase and it means that we can no longer rely on some of these assumptions. We no longer have that shared language, that shared story, those shared expectations. And an hour a week on a Sunday morning probably is no longer sufficient, especially if we want to understand discipleship as simply more than just being good citizens. We want to understand discipleship as a loyalty to a different kind of kingdom; we're going to need something more intentional and more focused than that.

A 'discipling culture'

Fifthly, there's this term, a 'discipling culture.' Not only is there less support in our culture for faith and discipleship but our society now actively promotes values, expectations and different stories, and it does so consistently and persuasively. A few years ago up in Dundee Graham Cray and I were speaking at the launch of emerging ministries, which is the Church of Scotland's form of fresh expressions. And it was a lovely exciting occasion with a group a bit like this of pioneers and would-be pioneers who are going to be commissioned by the Church of Scotland to be involved in all kinds of initiatives. And one phrase in particular that Graham used on that occasion stuck with me, you may have heard him say it elsewhere. He talked about our culture as being a discipling culture. He's not talking about the church, he's talking about society, that our culture is a discipling culture. That there are forces within our society that are inculcating certain values and expectations which have been deeply embedded within us very carefully. That we're not in some kind of vacuum or neutral zone, we're in a contested environment. The story we tell as followers of Jesus is radically different to the stories that shape our culture. But those stories are pushed at us through all kinds of media over and over and over again until they become so obvious that we take them for granted. That's the power of a discipling culture. I think it's important to say that as we think about discipleship, that this is not some kind of internal church issue, this is about how we engage with our culture in missional ways, but also in discipling ways. So the question we're asking in this gathering is not simply 'how do we make disciples,' but 'how do WE make disciples,' because other people are doing it as well. It isn't just a neutral situation, there's lots of discipling going on, how do we engage with that? How can we counter some of the other stories that have been told that are very attractive and very persuasive. What do we need to invest into disciple making, given the amount of investment that's going on in our society. And how might we out-narrate the other stories? How can we tell a better story? So I'd suggest that might be our starting point for the conversation in this gathering.

Some of the concerns around the issue of discipleship, some of the reasons why this is so high on the agenda, some of the concerns around cultural conformity and our churches, concerns about the lack of engagement with scripture at its power to shape us, concerns about the number of people we are losing and why we're losing them; we'll come back to that later. Recognising the reality of post-Christendom, that we need to be so much more intentional than we used to be about discipleship and that discipleship now doesn't simply mean conformity to culture and being good citizens it means something quite different, and how do we nurture that? And then there's awareness that we are in a battle zone, that we are in a culture that is extremely skilled and effective in discipling us, and we need to find ways of engaging with that.

As you mentioned as you introduced me that I am very used to a multi-voiced approach to church life which means that rather than listening to me hour after hour through the rest of today, I want you to do quite a bit of conversation. And you are round tables, which makes life much easier. So can I encourage you just for 3 or 4 minutes to have a conversation around your tables specifically around these concerns; which of these, if any, are most concerning to you, are there others that I haven't mentioned that you think are actually more significant?

So those are some of the concerns that perhaps have put discipleship on the agenda for us. Let me just say a little about where I'm coming from personally. I grew up in church -  I don't remember a time when I wasn't a part of a church community and when I got to about the age of fifteen I quite clearly remember wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life because now I knew everything about being a Christian! Fifteen, yep, that's the arrogance of youth of course. But I think it was also the product of a certain type of church environment; A church environment that basically understood conversion as the end rather than the beginning of the process. Now I'd made a personal commitment a couple of years before that to follow Jesus, I'd been baptised, I was now a Christian… oh, what do I do for the rest of life? It was also a church environment which very strongly emphasised knowing the Bible… well, actually by the age of fifteen in that context I knew my Bible pretty well. I read it, I thought I knew it reasonably well, again the question: now what? What else do I do? And a church environment as well that seemed to suggest that regular church going was the main mark of being a disciple. And I went to lots of meetings and so at fifteen I really did struggle with this question, it was a kind of moment of almost despair… what do I do know then? I've done all the things that I'm expected to do in my church environment. So I wonder whether there are certain questions that we need to ask about this whole issue of discipleship.


Do we need to change our language

I wonder whether a very simple thing we might do is to watch our language and think about the language we use. I have found increasingly helpful the motif of journey, of travelling, of pilgrimage. I wonder if that is really quite important in terms of the way we talk about faith, the way we talk about discipleship and the way we encourage people to get to know Jesus. And there's nothing very new in that, in fact before they were called Christians in the New Testament they were known as the people of the way, the people on a journey, the people who are going somewhere. I have a number of friends who are pretty reluctant any longer to use the language of Christian to describe themselves because Christian seems to carry so much baggage in our culture. It immediately seems to throw up barriers, immediately seems to say certain things about us that we don't want to say and some of my friends now are actually choosing not to use the language of Christian but instead are talking about themselves as followers of Jesus, which is more provocative in some ways and in some situations more understandable, particularly in a majority Muslim culture, where to say Christian rings all the wrong bells but follower of Jesus… oh that's interesting, tell me more about that. And that language about following Jesus again has that journey motif about it – we're on the way, we're on the journey, we haven't made it yet. I would've found that very helpful as a teenager, to think that making a commitment to Jesus was a beginning of a journey rather than some kind of end point. I wonder whether simply watching our language, changing our language if necessary might be helpful, whether that is something that is helpful for those who are just beginning to follow Jesus, to understand that this is a long journey, so there is an expectation built in from the beginning that there's a long way to go and there's a lot to learn. We're following.

Are we too ecclesiocentric?

Secondly, I wonder whether some of our thinking about discipleship and some of our practices are too ecclesiocentric, too church focussed. Now I'm not saying that the church is not important, far from it, and in the session after dinner if you're still awake after the desserts they serve here I want to talk a bit more about the church as a disciple making community, so this is not in any way saying the church is unimportant. But I do wonder if our focus too often is very much on church life, church involvement, church engagement. I don't know how much you've looked into contemporary discipleship courses. They vary between them but my concern is they are so church focussed, they seem to be designed to make us into good church members, rather than helping us to engage with the whole of life. Yes there's stuff on personal spirituality, there's sometimes stuff on family life, but it's fairly restricted, much of it seems to be to do with the institutional stuff. Richard Thomas says, 'Jesus didn't die a painful death on a cross merely to turn us into good church-goers.' I find that quite a challenging statement. So I wonder whether we need to look at what our understanding of discipleship is, the resources we use, the expectations we bring and whether at least in some of our contexts it's all a bit too in house, and whether we need to broaden the perspective.

Do we take enough time?

Thirdly, I wonder whether we take enough time. The other thing I've noticed about so many so called discipleship courses is they are very short; they don't actually last very long. You're really expected to learn what you need to learn within about 10-12 weeks. And after that you're let loose and you somehow hope that the discipleship by osmosis process will take over. I wonder whether, as we move into post-Christendom we need to learn some lessons from pre-Christendom, from the ways in which the early Christians went about forming disciples and nurturing disciples. I'm not suggesting there is a complete parity between pre and post-Christendom, but I do think there are probably closer parallels than between post-Christendom and Christendom and we need to go back to early ways. And in the early church, for a number of centuries they had this process known as catechesis. And catechesis was a fairly long and demanding process of becoming followers of Jesus. It could take up to three years. It involved not only learning certain things to believe but putting them into practice. It involved periodic exorcisms, cultural detoxes, recognising that to come fully into the life of Christ and into the life of the Christian community and the life of the kingdom of God, you have to be detoxed from all kinds of social, cultural values. I wonder how exorcism may fit into our discipling processes; we may not want to call it that, but I think something of that order may be worth considering. Catechesis also involves sponsors, it involved people who walked with the catechumens through the process. This wasn't some kind of journey you could do on-line or by yourself, it was part of the community and a sponsor would walk alongside the catechumen and give reports on how he or she was doing; how were they being formed into the image of Christ? What progress are they making in discipleship? And over the last few years there has been, I think, a renewed interest in catechesis in very different traditions. The Roman Catholic right of Christian initiation of adults is one of the best known, but there are several similar kinds of initiatives in different traditions, I think we are beginning to rediscover something quite important there. Whatever the length and whatever the contents, I think what this is saying to us is that intentionality is important, discipleship does not just happen. I think and going back to my own experience, I grew up in a context where I'm sure the assumption was if you hang out with Christians long enough, if you go to enough Christian meetings discipleship will just happen and I don't think we can take that for granted. Something a bit more formational, intentional and persevering might be needed.

Are we specific enough?

And I wonder whether we're specific enough. I wonder whether we really get down to the nitty-gritty issues or whether sometimes our talk about discipleship is too generic. Are we contextual enough? Are we really engaging with the issues within our context, within our culture that we need to. What are the idols that need to be dethroned, what are the ideologies that need to be acknowledged and challenged? I wonder whether, if we concentrated on a much smaller number of really critical issues, rather than a kind of generic approach to discipleship, whether we might make some more progress. If we were really to learn how to be disciples and help one another to be disciples in some key cultural issues, maybe what we learn in those specific areas will begin to spread out to the rest of life as well. My suggestion is that one of the issues we might focus on specifically is the issue of consumerism. This will not come as a surprise to you, many people suggest that consumerism is one of the Gods of our age, one of the big stories of our culture, one of the ways in which we're being discipled by our culture. But I wonder if we've given enough attention to it. I wonder what would happen if our discipleship approach was to focus specifically on this issue of consumerism. If we were able to become, and help others to become counter-cultural in this area, if we were to crack this one, I wonder if that were to have a knock-on effect in all other sorts of areas. I don't know, but I just wonder whether sometimes our approach to discipleship is too generic, and not focussed enough, whether we don't get down to the nitty-gritty.

Ok, over to you again. Another three or four minutes… what do you think? Are these the right questions or are there some more important questions that we should put on the agenda for these two days. Three or four minutes and then we'll have a bit of feedback.

My journeys, our journeys

As I was thinking around this session and wondering what would be helpful to focus on I began to be a little bit wary of somebody talking in abstract terms about discipleship as if it were something that were out there or up there. I began to think about what has actually sustained me as a disciple. What has nurtured me? And I just thought I really ought to talk a little bit about that. Not in any way to say I've got all this sussed and if you do what I do you'll be fine, but actually because I think we need to model talking about our own discipleship as we disciple others. That's something that the sponsors used to do in this catechesis process. They were not there as detached experts taking people through some kind of process, they journeyed together, they shared their own struggles, their own areas of difficulty, the resources they found helpful, it was very much an open, shared thing. And I do wonder whether one of the things we may need to wrestle with a little bit is to what extent are we vulnerable in this whole process of disciple making. Are we prepared to journey together as fellow learners, rather than thinking that discipleship is something we do for those who aren't as advanced in faith as we are. And I just want to say a few things about what has sustained me over the years, as I say not because I think I've got everything worked out and not because I think that what sustains me will necessarily sustain you, but just as an example of the kinds of things I think might be helpful to talk about.

I'm going to start with an example of something very traditional and perhaps very obvious; I am sustained by prayer and Bible reading. I'm sorry if that doesn't sound very fresh expression, but it just happens to be true. I'm not entirely consistent but I do set aside time most days to pray, to read the Bible, to reflect, to worship. I spend 30-40 minutes most days doing that, and I find that to be the bedrock of my discipleship – I've done that for forty years and I can't imagine living without that. I don't always want to do it, I sometimes find it much more life giving than others, but for me that has been a foundational spiritual practice. I'm not saying that everyone should do that, I'm saying that's what I find helpful. What do you find helpful?

Something else that I've increasingly found helpful over the last few years are retreats. Now I have to say, I'm not a very natural retreatant, if that's a word; I'm not even sure if that's a word. My spellchecker says it isn't, but I thought I'd heard it somewhere. I'm not a natural retreatant, I'm an activist and the prospect of spending even a day retreating used to scare me. But over the last probably 5-6 years I've found taking one day a quarter away, just retreating has been a place of spiritual renewal, a place of refocusing and re-orientating.

The third thing that I find sustains and nurtures me is reading. Now that doesn't do it for everybody; I enjoy the quiet carriage on trains. I know you can't evangelise people in it – you're not allowed to, you're not allowed to talk, but I find it to be a place of nurture as I read, without interruption for two or three hours sometimes. I wonder how much we're encouraged to read, I don't mean just reading discipleship books or even Christian books but reading, reflecting on culture.

The fourth area that has been quite important to me is something that I remember being taught very early on; I don't think I got much discipling in the context I grew up, but one thing I remember being told was confess your sins as soon as you're aware of them. Don't let things fester. And I know that's been a process throughout my life that when I've sinned I've wanted to confess it and deal with it as quickly as possible, I find that to be tremendously important so that things don't just build up.

A fifth area that I know has nurtured me in many different ways has simply been conversations; Talking to people, listening to people. I've been blessed with a whole range of colleagues over many years in different contexts and I've learned an enormous amount just from informal conversations, so I would suggest that what we're doing together over these 48 hours is actually discipling one another. Not in any kind of formal structure, but just through our conversations, through what we say, what we hear and how we reflect together. I'm sustained by what I would call narrative worship. Well, here's a confession: I don't find most Christian songs very edifying. In fact, I would be happy not to sing another hymn or chorus for the rest of my life. I know that just is heresy to some people, it would be heresy to my wife who is a musician, liturgist, worship leader and loves singing; it doesn't do much for me I have to say, particularly some of the drivel that we're expected to sing. But what I do find helpful is narrative worship. And that can sometimes be in song, but worship that helps me to re-tell the great story of God and to re-orientate myself within that. Communion I think is part of that because when we take bread and wine together we are telling the story, or at least one of the central parts of the story. I wonder whether narrative worship is something that's very important in our discipling. I'm also conscious that I grow in my discipling through my engagements with those who are not Christians, through conversations, through encounters, through reflecting on those encounters. One of the dangers that I know I can fall into is as someone who spends their time as a consultant working with churches – I can spend all my time with Christians, very easily if I'm not careful. I've had to take some very decided steps each week over the past few years to make sure I spend time with people who aren't Christians, that I have a network of friends who are outside of church. And I think that's important in terms of discipleship too.

And the other area, looking back, that I know has been significant on my own journey has been taking risks. Now of course that's no problem is it for you lot – pioneers, risk takers. But I know the times that I've stepped outside my comfort zone, the times I've taken risks have been times very often, perhaps not at the time but I realise afterwards, that was a time of significant growth, that I'm learning to be a follower of Jesus. So I'm saying those things not because I'm saying that my experience should be your experience, not as a template for anybody else, but just as an example that I think we need to talk about these things. We need to talk about the things that sustain us. And I don't find that many conversations going on in church life where we do talk about these things. And I think it's something that is important when we're journeying with somebody who's a newer Christian than us. That we can share something of our resources, some of the ways in which we are learning, not to impose on them, but simply to give some examples and to draw them out; what are the things that they are finding nurture and sustain them? So a degree of vulnerability may be important.

Yes, another time for conversation. Round tables yet again – don't you like this multi-voice stuff? An opportunity just to talk a bit about that, do you think it's important? And might you even share a little bit about what sustains you? Just for 3-4 minutes.

What does a disciple look like?

What do we then mean about discipleship? How do we understand the term, the concept of discipleship? I think it's important we don't overcomplicate things, I think most of us have some idea of what we mean by that, although it would be quite interesting to see how common our understanding is across this room. There are words that are often used, words like apprentices or learners, some New Testament scholars have suggested that the language of faith in the New Testament might as well be translated as loyalty. So faith in Jesus is about allegiance, it's not simply about believing certain things or even behaving in certain ways; it's about ultimate loyalty, so a disciple is someone who is loyal to Jesus in all areas of life. During the Christendom era, during those long centuries when much was assumed there wasn't a great deal of intentionality about discipleship in those contexts. There was some, but that's the area I think we need to work on now as we move into a post-Christendom world. Discipleship is not just going to happen. And if you hear nothing else of what I'm saying in these two sessions, I think that is something I want to communicate as clearly as I can. Discipleship is not going to just happen – we have to be intentional about it. But how do we understand it, what are we actually aiming at, what does a disciple look like? I want to suggest four terms or concepts that I have found helpful in thinking about discipleship and I hope might be helpful to you as well.

Becoming human

The first of those is becoming human. Becoming human. Barney and I are both involved in a course that is run each year called crucible, and one of the weekend modules that we run is called becoming human. It's the module where we look at the issues of discipleship in particular. And we decided that becoming human was the focus we wanted for that weekend. Already in the course we will have talked quite a bit about mission dei, the mission of God. In this weekend we talk quite a bit about emargo dei, being made in the image of God. And I think we need both of those in our understanding. Yes, we are caught up in the mission of God, but we are also those who are created in the image of God. One of the questions we ask at the beginning of that weekend is what is your aim, what is your goal, what is your hope for your friends, your family. What would you love for them to be and to become? And the answer that many people give is that I would like them to become Christians. That's not a wrong answer, but our suggestion is that's not actually the end of the story, that really it's about becoming human. Now you hope there might be some connection between becoming Christian and becoming human, although I have to say it doesn't always seem to work out quite as simply as that. And in this weekend, we take time looking at the life of Jesus as the image of God, as he was fully human, and ask what does it mean to follow him? What does it mean to follow the Son of Man, the fully human one? We take time examining some of the de-humanising aspects of our culture.

'The glory of God is seen in a human life fully lived' (Irenaeus)

'We should give up the foolish task of trying to be saints and get on with the more important task of being fully human' (Bonhoeffer)

We look at some of those in the second session. We reflect particularly on a couple of fairly famous quotations, one from the early church, Irenaeus, who says that the glory of God is seen in a human life fully lived, which I think is a wonderful sentiment, that the glory of God is seen in a human life fully lived. Not the glory of God is seen in the life a loyal church member. But, a human life fully lived in all dimensions of life. And then Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who says we should give up the foolish task of trying to be saints and get on with the more important task of being fully human. I don't know whether you find that helpful but I do, I think there is something holistic about that, something which is life affirming, something that might help us avoid the ecclesiocentric focus of some discipleship thinking. It may also help us to avoid the sacred-secular divide that we can sometimes slip into.


The second concept that I found helpful is the concept of re-reflexing. Re-reflexing. I draw inspiration, quite a bit from the Anabaptist tradition. And the Anabaptist tradition has, over the last getting on for five centuries now placed quite a lot of emphasis on discipleship. It has used the language of following and journey; I guess that's where I picked it up from. But it has also been shaped by the stories it has told. Not only the Bible stories, but the stories of those who have been exemplary followers of Jesus through the centuries. And the picture you have here is of perhaps the most famous of Anabaptist stories, and it's a story about reflexes. Some of you will know it, I suspect, but let me tell you the story. It's the story of a young man called Dirk Willems, who lived in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century in a small town called Asperen, where he was part of an underground church, a church that was illegal, it was not part of the state system and that had to keep hidden in its activities. However, it didn't keep hidden enough! It was betrayed to the authorities and Dirk was arrested and imprisoned, and was due to be tried for heresy. Dirk managed to escape. We don't know the details, whether it was one of these traditional knotted sheet jobs out the window or whatever, but anyway, he got away. And he ran for his life across the fields and it was Winter and across a frozen canal in the North of the Netherlands. Dirk had been imprisoned for a while and probably fairly thin; prison food wasn't great. And although the ice was relatively thin, he managed to make his way across this frozen canal. But his escape had been noticed, and pounding behind him was a burly prison guard who had clearly been on better rations than Dirk had been. Pursuing Dirk, he also goes onto the ice, but he is too heavy for it. The ice cracks and he falls through, into the water. What happens then is something that the Anabaptist community has pondered over the past 400 years. Rather than continuing to run and make good his escape, Dirk turns round and rescues his pursuer, turns round and pulls him out of the freezing water and up safely to the bank. At which point, the guard would probably have been quite happy for Dirk to continue running, he was grateful, he was cold, he was miserable, he wasn't interested any longer. But, others had caught up with the pursuit, you might see some other figures on the bank in this stylised picture. And they called out to the guard, 'Remember your oath, remember your oath of loyalty to the city: re-arrest that man.' So Dirk was re-arrested and he was imprisoned, this time in a more secure prison, in fact in the church tower in Asperen. The church has a prison – that's an interesting concept, isn't it? It would be nice to say that the story has a happy ending, but it doesn't. Dirk was put on trial, he was convicted and he was burned at the stake.

And the question that the Anabaptist community has asked as they have told that story generation after generation has been 'Why did Dirk turn back?' And other questions; was he right to turn back, what would I have done, what would you have done? It's actually a kind of discipleship story. But the thing I think they've concluded is that whatever the reason, this was a reflex action. When people go through the ice they go down quick. Dirk did not have time to do a Bible study. He didn't have time to consult his pastor. Pastor, what do I do with this situation? It was a reflex action – he turned, and he rescued him. And so the question for me that emerges out of this story is 'What had shaped Dirk's reflexes, that he responded in that way?' What kind of community did he belong to, and how was that community shaping his reflexes? And I've become increasingly interested in reflexes over recent years. I'm actually less interested now in what people say they believe or what kind of rules they follow. I'm much more interested in asking the question, how do we respond in emergency situations? How do we respond when we don't have time to think about it? Haven't got time to weigh it all up. How do we respond when we're put on the spot, and I suspect that shows what we're really like. That shows what our deepest convictions really are. And in the light of that I'm interested in asking, what kinds of reflexes are our communities shaping? I think it is a discipleship issue. What we know about the community that Dirk was part of was that they were passionately interested in the Sermon on the Mount. And so they would have read over and over again that instruction love your enemies, do good to those that would harm you. Is that what shaped Dirk? We don't know. But I think the whole issue of reflexes is really quite important and if we develop ways of thinking about discipleship that are all about making people believe the right things and know what the rules are I think we're missing something really important – there's something deeper than that, it's about reflexes.

Reflective practitioners

Thirdly, there's this term, Reflective practitioners. I teach at quite a number of theological colleges and this is a term used in many of them to describe the ambition that many colleges have for the ministers they are turning out. They're looking to turn out priests and vicars and ministers and pastors who will be Reflective practitioners. Those who can reflect theologically and with emotional intelligence on the kind of contexts that they find themselves in and the practices that they have. That's what ministerial colleges hope they are turning out. You will have to judge whether or not they have been successful or not in that. But I'm wondering actually whether rather than keeping this as some kind of descriptor for professionals, whether this might be a good way of describing all of us as disciples – Reflective practitioners. Those who are able to reflect on the things we a re doing and saying, reflect on the conversations we have, reflect on the incidents that comprise our lives, and ask, what does it mean to be followers of Jesus in the whole of life? Again, it's about this whole of life discipleship. Can we develop processes that will help one another to reflect on our practice? Again, this evening I want to talk about some things that we might do that will be helpful for that. But maybe making disciples is about equipping one another to be Reflective practitioners.


And fourthly, and unashamedly I think we need to think about disciples as missionaries. Again, that shouldn't be news to any of us in a pioneering context. But, if mission dei is the context for the whole of our life and our ministry then discipleship is simply about helping one another to find our place within the mission of God and to participate fully with what God is calling us to do within that. And so again discipleship is not just about personal holiness, it's not just about church engagement. It's about how we understand ourselves as participants in the mission of God. How we understand our neighbourhood, our workplace, our leisure activities, our family, every aspect of life as a context in which we can participate in God's mission. So our discipleship process, our way of thinking about how we equip one another to be fellow pilgrims is set in the context of mission.

Of course, as we think about the practices of discipleship we might also want to think about the way in which Jesus made disciples. We could spend the whole of this conference looking at the discipling that Jesus does with his disciples, that may well be something we need to look further at. But those who've looked at it, those who've started it, those who've engaged with the Gospel story and asked, how did Jesus actually make disciples, what can we learn from that have said a number of things, let me just summarise them very briefly.

First of all they've said that Jesus seems to combine the formal and informal. So quite a lot of what goes on in terms of the discipling that Jesus does is informal – it's just as they travel along the road, it's just as they reflect on what's been going on. But there seem also to be some more formal moments. Times when Jesus takes them aside and seems to engage with something a bit more structured and organised. Sometimes it's intentional; sometimes it seems to be spontaneous. So sometimes there seems to be an agenda where Jesus has certain things he wants them to understand. Other times it seems to be responsive to issues that they're raising; maybe we can learn from that. One person looking at the subject summarised it in this way: that Jesus' teaching included formal discipling, modelling how to live, action, reflection, pastoral support and the freedom to fail. That's an interesting one isn't it. That may be an area that you want to pursue further, I just wanted to flag and it up and mention it that the way in which Jesus disciples his friends might have something to say to us.

Listening to church leavers

But I want to take the last few minutes just to look at one issue that I mentioned earlier – listening to church leavers. This is not an easy one, but I think it's important. We are losing, we have lost quite a number of people from our churches over the last many years and there has been quite a lot of research into why people leave church. There's a whole genre of Christian literature over the last twenty years which draws on research into why people have left church. And, as you can imagine there are quite a number of reasons, in fact every individual person has their own unique situation, but there are many common themes that emerge. And as I've engaged with that research, as I've thought about why people leave church, I've wonder whether there are some really quite important things that we need to learn. This is not to say that everything church leavers say about church I agree with, or we will agree with necessarily, but it is to say that actually listening to those that have left might help us, if we have the humility and courage to learn some things about how our communities are functioning.

One of the pieces of research that I've found most disturbing was the mismatch between what church leavers say about why they have left and what church leaders say about why they think they've left. It was almost a complete mismatch, almost no overlap at all. It really is quite disturbing. Of course it's difficult to listen to those who've left the church – it's difficult sometimes because they're angry, and the way they say things can be heard to hear. It's difficult if they've left our church because we feel betrayed, offended, let down, disappointed. But I do think it's worth making the effort. And as we look at the research, as we listen to those who've left and ask why have you left, what was it about the church that wasn't sustaining you, it's quite interesting to find out some of the things that they say. And I've tried to turn it round and ask the question, what are they looking for that they didn't find because that produces a positive list rather than a set of gripes. And I remember doing this a few years ago and drawing from various bits of research and putting together this list and the list is actually going to be emailed out to you and going to be photocopied for you to read when you have time, but it will be emailed out to you in case you might be interested.

But when I looked at this list I thought a number of things. First of all, I thought, wow, what they're describing is certainly a church I'd like to be part of, and secondly I thought what they're describing is achievable. It's not rocket science, it's not going to require enormous resources, what they're describing is an attractive and achievable understanding of church. And also, it seems to me to give a number of focal points for priority, and that are relevant for discipleship. Let me just read you the list. What were they looking for and not finding?

  • Churches that provide space for spiritual development rather than spoon-feeding their members.
  • Churches that focus on God rather than the minister or the programmes.
  • Churches that offer authentic community and friendship rather than institutional forms of belonging or insipid forms of fellowship.
  • Churches that engage creatively and sensitively with contemporary culture and social and ethical issues.
  • Churches that equip their members for the world of work.
  • Churches that treat adults as adults.
  • Churches that allow room for dialogue as well as monologue.
  • Churches that are self-critical, especially in relation to power politics.
  • Churches that allow doubts, anger and lament as well as joyful certainty.
  • Churches that are realistic about the rhythms and pressures of modern life.
  • Churches that have a holistic vision rather than a privatised spirituality.

Number one: churches that provide space for spiritual development rather than spoon-feeding their members. Number two: churches that focus on God rather than the minister or the programme. Number three: churches that offer authentic community and friendship rather than institutional forms of belonging or insipid forms of fellowship. In the light of this I wonder whether we need a moratorium on the word fellowship. And perhaps re-institute friendship. Four: churches that engage creatively and sensitively with contemporary culture and social and ethical issues, in other words, churches that equip us for life and the whole of life. Fifthly, we're part of this in some ways but it came through very strongly, churches that equip their members for the world of work. There was a piece of research a few years ago now, but I'm not sure much has changed that I think was only in evangelical churches but saying that 50% of members of evangelical churches have never in their lives had any teaching at all on the subject of work. Given the amount of hours that we spend working that seems somewhat deficient. Churches that treat adults as adults. Churches that allow room for dialogue as well as monologue. Churches that are self-critical, especially in relation to power politics. Churches that allow doubts, anger and lament as well as joyful certainty. I don't know if you find as well as I do that in many places we are subject to the tyranny of joyfulness! You'd just better be happy when you turn up on a Sunday morning. Two more: churches that are realistic about the rhythms and pressures of modern life, so churches that do not burn out their members by demanding what is unsustainable and finally, churches that have a holistic vision rather than a privatised spirituality. As I said, there's nothing new in this really, there's nothing that is unexpected or off the wall particularly, but putting that together now I think you've got something quite potent. Something that gives us quite a vision of church life and that seems to me to have all kinds of implications for this subject of disciple making. What kinds of communities will nurture and sustain disciples over the long haul.

Many of those who've left our churches have been part of our churches for many years. It's not that people have dropped off the edge, they've pulled out of the centre by and large. Many of them were in church for 10,15,20,25 years. Some were leaders. Some in fact were creating the unsustainable monsters that eventually devoured them. So it's not as if we're losing people early. Somehow we're not sustaining discipleship over the long haul, and I wonder actually how many of us in this room are just about clinging on. The other interesting thing from the research was a number of people who have not left physically, but have left emotionally. Still turn up to meetings, but actually, they've gone away and whether that's something that actually we need to recognise among ourselves as well. It feels like a fairly solemn place to end, and I don't want to be downbeat about it. I actually find this a really inspiring list. I find this something which is for me a challenge but also an inspiration, and there are churches I know that at least have some of these features: this does not require a million pounds invested, it does not require amazingly leadership. It actually requires some fairly basic, simple practices. I think it's achievable, I also think it's attractive, I want to be part of a community like this.


The exposition of discipleship that I have found the most attractive and the most adequate is Dallas Willard writings - especially Divine Conspiracy. Also James Bryan Smith Beautiful God, Life and Community trilogy setting out discipleship as a curriculum.
I think it would be worth considering if the approach these represent could be a resource for fresh expressions.
Colin Briant

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
We use spam protection. View privacy policy.