Breakout 2013 - journeying together

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' second address below, or watch or read his first address.

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

Stuart Murray Williams explores journeying together and talks about money and lifestyle, accountability, friendship and discipleship.

Duration: 51:48   | Download Download video (flv) | Download Download video (wmv) | View on YouTube


Stuart Murray Williams: I want to continue to explore some of the same issues that we looked at earlier but to focus particularly on the role of the community, the Christian community in the task of nurturing and sustaining disciples.

Journeying together

Simply to say that the journey we are on as followers of Jesus is not meant to be a journey we take alone. We are not individual pilgrims; we are fellow travellers on the road. We become fully human only within community and it is in the community that we develop some of the counter-cultural reflexes we were talking about earlier and we learn to live Christianly and learn to reflect on all aspects of our lives together.

But we live in a very individualistic culture; we live in a culture that doesn't really affirm the kind of community that I've been talking about. And so, just to talk about journeying together, to talk about a community shaping us, is somewhat counter cultural. It flies in the face of an individualistic, 'don't tell me what to do' kind of culture. And I would suggest that that culture of individualism has pervaded our churches; not that that's new but I think it becomes ever more a reality. Just think about some indicators of that:

  • It's rather different tonight in the way we're sat around tables, some of us can actually see one another's faces, but the traditional seating arrangement in churches is almost designed to prevent community. We sit in rows; we can only see the backs of each other's heads. If you're in a building with fixed pews or fixed seats, trying to do interactive stuff is damaging to your health because you keep falling over furniture! There's just something about the architecture and the seating layout that is not conducive to community. And do you know that old fight that many churches have about how you lay out the chairs? You know we sort of think, 'O such a stupid little issue; why do we fight about that?' Actually it's a very important issue and I think people realise that. And that's why sometimes they dig their heels in because if you change the seating so you can actually see each other, it changes the whole dynamic of the community.
  • Or monologue sermons with no opportunity for dialogue. What does that do in terms of building community or enhancing individualism?
  • The practice in some churches of tithing which is an entirely individualistic way of dealing with your finances that doesn't require any kind of conversation about lifestyle.
  • Or our instinctive resistance to any kind of accountability processes. We don't really need each other do we?

So I think that, in our churches, the spirit of individualism that is strong in our culture has also made quite an impact and some of the things I want to talk about this evening are going to challenge that and question that and ask to what extent have we bought into an aspect of our culture that's not very good for us?

Of course it's not new. Pilgrim's progress, one of the great classics, translated into many languages, many of you - I guess - will have read it. Well, it's a wonderful book in many ways but it is highly individualistic; this is a heroic pilgrim on his way to the shining city. Yes, from time to time, he has companions who join him; sometimes they're helpful and sometimes they're not but essentially it's a story of 'a pilgrim' – a pilgrim journeying, by himself, towards the celestial city. Many other spiritual classics also seem to inculcate this very individualistic understanding of discipleship.

Now I'm not suggesting that's entirely wrong; there is a dimension to which of course discipleship is individual. There is a real sense in which it is me and Jesus but it isn't just me and Jesus - it's me and Jesus and all of us together.

One of the things that we need to avoid as we start looking at the relationship between the community and discipleship is creating some kind of dependence culture, a culture that says, 'Well, I can look to others to provide the resources I need for discipleship.' And, you know, that's also alive and well in many places – it might be in your church too; the dependence on the sermon, the dependence on an upbeat worship time, the dependence simply on meetings; the dependence on the pastor to meet all our pastoral needs; dependence on counsellors to help us through all kinds of emotional crises. And so I'm not wanting to suggest that there is only the community that we need; we need also to take responsibility for discipleship and to build communities that encourage that.

I did warn George Lings who's here that I was going to quote him; I didn't know he was coming, but I will quote him anyway. It's this phrase, Self-propelling disciples' – I don't know whether you remember using that George but a few years ago at an Incarnate Network conference, another gathering of pioneers something like this, you used that phrase and I've quoted it a number of times since because I find it helpful. And another phrase somewhat similar is from the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago; a few years ago they looked at they were doing – particularly in terms of the seeker sensitive approach – and said, 'What we have failed to do is to develop people who will take responsibility as self-feeders.'

Now they're different images but very similar in terms of their import. And both are just raising the concern about the dependency we can sometimes create in our churches. What we're looking for are self-propelling disciples to take responsibility for their life in Christ, those who will feed themselves and nourish themselves.

But what we're trying to do, well what I'm trying to do I think is to suggest we're looking neither for a culture of dependency nor for a culture of independence but an interdependency. And that's actually quite a difficult balance to find. I guess we all, in our communities, struggle somewhere between those different poles; the interdependency that says, 'Yes, we do need each other; this is not simply a journey of heroic individualism. We do need the encouragements, the insights, the resources that a community offers but we also have something to give. It's not a one way street; we also have something to bring into the community that will help others.'

So I want to talk quite a bit this evening about the role of the community, not as a church that simply provides everything that disciples need and coddles them but as a living community within which we are all participating, contributing and receiving. The phrase I want to work with in particular is to think about churches as 'Communities of discernment and resistance.' If any of you know the writings of Walter Wink you'll perhaps recognise that phrase, communities of discernment and resistance.  Let me take you back again to that phrase I quoted from Graham Cray earlier where he talked about our culture being a discipling culture, a culture which is actively promoting certain values and encouraging us to live in certain ways , spend in certain ways , to embrace certain values and expectations. Again, we do not live in a neutral culture; we live in a contested environment. We are, if you like, catechised daily by the adverts that we watch, by the books we read, by the news channel we watch, by the papers that we read, the films we watch, by all the media there's a daily catechising going on. And so the expectation is that we will be good catechumens in our culture, that we will imbibe the stories that we're told, that we'll believe these things, that we will take on board the dominant values and that we will live out as good citizens, the things that our culture says are important.

I just think we need to be very clear about how powerful this influence is and how this sets the context of everything we're talking about when we think about discipleship. I believe that we, all of us , are under huge pressure and that's why I think the ancient practice of 'detox', exorcism, call it what you will, actually had something going for it - however we reconfigure that in a changed culture.

Now again I'm not suggesting this is new; I'm not suggesting we have ever lived in a Christian-friendly culture in a holistic sense. But I do think there are three things that have changed or three things that have become exacerbated.

The first of those is what I referred to earlier, the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom. Christendom may have been fairly unchristian in lots of ways but the language, the values, the assumptions, the stories, somehow ere permeated through with Christian language and ethos. And that is changing and has changed. And we're now moving into a context where there is far, far less of that than we've been used to.

Secondly, I think the skills of cultural discipling have been honed until they've become extremely powerful and extremely subversive. The amount of money that's spent on the advertising industry is phenomenal; it's extremely clever, extremely skilful. And it's very difficult for us to grapple with unless we take some pretty firm action – I want to come back to that. And the trouble is that most of it is undetected, most of it seems to be getting inside us without us realising it.

And thirdly, the dominant worldview, the worldview that seems to be prevalent in our culture – which defines us primarily as consumers and which emphasises human rights rather than human responsibilities – I would suggest is profoundly dehumanising; that it actually pushes us away from becoming fully human and not towards it.

And so, although this issue is not new, I would suggest that it's strong, it's pervasive and it's making it very difficult for us to build Christian communities of counter cultural disciples. And to simply go to church won't do it.

(Slide showing a Tee-shirt bearing slogan: Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.'

You've probably seen this before. Simply turning up at meetings, simply going through the motions, even participating enthusiastically by itself perhaps won't be sufficient. I think we need to go beyond that.

So I suggest what we need are these communities of discernment and resistance. If we're to resist or even discern the influences of our culture, I think we all need each other. I don't subscribe to the idea of heroic Christian discipleship; I just don't think that's where we're at. I think we need to be part of communities where we can journey together. We need to belong to communities that will tell a different story, that will celebrate that story in worship, that will explore the implications of that story in discipleship and that will, albeit imperfectly, live out the values of that story. I think the place of story is so important. There are so many competing stories in our culture but there's also a kind of dominant story that our culture tells and we need to tell a different story and a better story and we need to rehearse that story in our communities over and over again. Again, to use the phrase I used earlier, we need to out narrate our culture, we need to tell a better story.

And we need communities that will help us to discern contemporary idols and ideologies. What is worshipped in our society? What is worshipped in our local community? We need communities that will help us to interpret the stories that are told in our culture so that as well as telling our own story, to interpret the other stories that are being told; to dig beneath the surface, to unmask the principalities and powers – to use the language of the New Testament. What's going on around us?

I believe that's the prophetic role of the church but also I believe it's our pastoral responsibility to each other; we need each other in this. And we need each other because none of us is going to see everything; none of us is going to have the skills and the tools to interpret such a diverse culture. We need the resources of the Christian community; we need communities of discernment and resistance.

So what kinds of things might such churches do? As well as preaching sermons and singing songs and praying prayers and serving doughnuts and whatever else fresh expressions now do, what else? What does it mean to be a community of discernment and resistance? Let me suggest just a handful of community practices, some of these may appeal more than others:

  • deconstructing advertisements;
  • an 'idol of the week' slot;
  • theological reflection on issues of life and work;
  • prayerful discussion of current issues;
  • community support for counter-cultural choices.

One thing I would suggest that we do need to do is to do some clear work on advertisements. I believe the power of the advertising industry is one of the great cultural shapers and I don't think we can just sit back and ignore it; I think we need to do something. What would you do when the adverts come on in the middle of a programme you're watching?

Well there are various options. You can mute, turn it down; you can go make a cup of tea; you can sort of watch and just let it flow over you or you can engage with the adverts – and I have chosen to do that over the last few years. Only my wife can tell you how irritating I am to watch television with. I shout at the adverts, I laugh at them, I mock them, I argue with them, I deconstruct them – she gets fed up with me sometimes but she's very gracious. But I just feel that unless I do something proactively I am going to be infiltrated by the values that these adverts keep throwing at me. 'Because you're worth it.' What does that mean? And I think we need one another's help to do this so I do wonder that as part of our liturgy we might deconstruct adverts, films, other forms of media? Seriously. I'm not currently responsible for leadership in a local church; I'm a member of a church but I'm not in a leadership role at present locally. If I were, I would want to do this – probably weekly; I think it's so important that we understand and unmask what's going on.

And I think it could be done creatively, prayerfully, as really part of our offering to God, saying, 'Lord, help us to see what's going on here. Help us to live by a different story than the stupid stories these adverts tell.'

What about an 'idol of the week' slot? Encouraging people to bring into the context of worship their experiences of idolatry during the past week or two. What have you seen that people have worshipped? What have you worshipped? What have I worshipped?

Opportunities for theological reflection on issues at work. I mentioned earlier that for many, many people there is a disconnect between church and work; the church doesn't seem to be a resource for them. And that's one of the reasons given by people who opt out of church that the church doesn't seem relevant to the context in which they spend most of their working hours. Well, I need to find ways of addressing that issue – something that we have begun to do in the church in Bristol that I'm a part of is, from time to time, to invite people just very simply to talk about their work, to talk about some of the issues they're facing, some of the questions that their work has raised up for them, to do a little bit of reflection and prayer. It's very simple but it's just the beginnings, the shallow end I think of what we need to do.

Opportunities for prayerful discussion of current issues. One of the other reasons that people sometimes give for dropping out of church is that the church doesn't really seem connected with what's going on in the world outside it. That came through very starkly to me a few years ago when I remember talking to somebody, or rather listening to somebody whose last church meeting was the Sunday after 9/11.They went to church that Sunday, in Britain – this wasn't in the US, and their experience was that nothing was said about what had happened during the week. It wasn't mentioned, didn't come in to the sermon, the prayers, anything. It was as if it hadn't happened. And they walked away from church that Sunday, saying, 'I do not want to live in a ghetto. I do not want to be part of a community that does not engage with what's happening in the world around us.'

And now I'm not suggesting, and this person wasn't suggesting, that our Sunday gatherings – or whenever we meet – should be driven by whatever's in the news that week. That's not what I'm suggesting but when you've got something that everybody around you is talking about not to engage with it in any way just seems odd. I then had conversations also with one or two church leaders about their experience of the Sunday after 9/11and it was interesting listening to them as they talked about being unsure what to do, 'What do you say? How do you pray? 'And in particular, 'How do you worship? What kinds of songs do you sing after 9/11?' And one of these was honest enough to say that he had looked through his collection of songs and couldn't find anything suitable. They were all upbeat. There was nothing that seemed appropriate

So there's something about reality, there's something about integrity, there's something about connectivity, there's something about having the resources to engage more widely with these issues.

And finding ways of developing community support for counter-cultural choices and decisions. That when people do have the courage to take risks, to do things that seem to go against mainstream culture rather than to marginalise them or to, well, back off a bit and hope it isn't going to be too much of a disaster, to actually offer some support and encouragement.

Those of you who are pioneers need the support of the community, you need people who will believe in you, who will stand with you even when what you are doing is new and fresh and who knows what's going to happen? It's about a freedom to fail. Do we give people that freedom in our communities?

So I'm suggesting that if we're going to develop the kinds of communities of discernment and resistance that I believe we need if we're going to nurture disciples in a fairly challenging environment then these, and other, community practices are the kinds of things we might need to think about. And if we don't want meetings that go on and on and on for hours, then maybe there are certain things we can stop doing to make room for some of these things. This isn't about adding extra bits; it's really about asking, 'Why do we meet together? What's it for?' And, of course, there are a variety of reasons we can give for that but one of the New Testament reasons that comes again and again is we need to build one another up. Yes, we meet to worship God; we meet to hear the story and a variety of other things but we meet to build one another up; to edify one another, and this seems to me to be part of that. Building one another up, helping one another to grow in maturity as followers of Jesus and as human beings.

So I just offer these to you as examples; no more than that – just examples of the kinds of things that I think our communities might need to do. And, of course, if you are in a pioneering situation, you might have the freedom to do some of these things – or other things.

You might take the opportunity not to do some of the things that churches always do to make space for these. That's one of the joys of pioneering. You'll no doubt encounter some opposition; that's part of the joy of pioneering too.

OK first opportunity for some discussion round the tables. What do you think of these community practices? Would any of those make sense in your context? What else have you done or might you do?

Multi-Voiced Communities

I want to move on to something different but connected. Barney mentioned earlier that I'm very interested in multi-voiced approaches to church life. And the kinds of activities that I've been talking about already presuppose that our communities are going to allow room for many voices to participate. And I want to suggest that actually all aspects of church life would benefit from being more multi-voiced than they often are. And I think that's something that many fresh expressions and emerging churches have either intentionally or instinctively discovered – that there is a greater freedom for people to participate than there often was in older forms of church. And I think that multi-voiced communities are much more likely to nurture and sustain discipleship.

My wife and I have written on this subject, there's a book over there on the bookstall if you're interested in exploring it further but we have worked with this over a number of years and we have a number of convictions about this. One is that multi-voiced communities are more consistent with a biblical ecclesiology than mono-voiced churches.

Secondly, that they are more likely to produce mature disciples. And thirdly, that they are more missionally potent. I want to say a bit, particularly about those  second two things.

So by multi-voiced community, multi-voiced church, what we mean is an alternative to the dominant tradition where it is largely one voice or a very small number of voices which are heard within the church, where Christian community has become for many people a place of passive consumption rather than active participation; where things are done to them or said to them rather than them being active participants. So multi-voiced community is one which has the expectation that many voices will be heard; that many gifts will be shared; that the resources of the whole community will be made available to that community. And where space is made for that to happen, where people are equipped and resourced and enabled to participate.

We believe that multi-voiced communities are important for a number of reasons; one of those is to do with culture shift; that we are moving into a culture where multi-voiced community just makes sense; where there is a reluctance to rely upon the one voice, the expert; where there is increasingly a participative ethos; where the monologue is actually a fairly rare experience within our culture. And so culturally, in a post-modern environment, it just seems to us to make sense. That doesn't make it right but one of the things I think that happens whenever our culture goes through a bit of a shift is that it gives us the opportunity to reflect theologically, biblically, on what we are currently doing and ask, 'Why are we doing this? Is this the biblical pattern? Is this the historic practice that we must maintain at all costs?' Or perhaps, 'Have we been unduly influenced by cultures in the past?' And now that our culture is changing, we can perhaps see some things more clearly?

There are practical reasons as well in a period of church decline. And it doesn't look as if that decline is going to stop any time soon. The figures vary over the years but overall we continue to decline. That doesn't mean that all churches everywhere are declining. Of course not. Fresh Expressions is often presented as one of the signs of hope, that in the midst of decline there are actually all kinds of new things happening, new shoots coming up – and that's encouraging. But overall we are continuing to decline and our resources are becoming fewer and one of the implications of that is full-time, paid ministry is not going to be an option for a growing number of congregations over the next few years. That's affecting all denominations and it's likely to continue.

One of the implications for me of that we may need to simplify church, that we may not be able to sustain all that we have done in the past but also that we would need the multi-voiced community to step up; that we won't be able to rely as much as we have done on those few people who have done most things. It will need to be much more of a shared community.

We believe it's important also because we think it reduces dependency. I think the mono-voiced model tends to promote dependency, rather than challenging it – whereas a multi-voiced approach encourages inter-dependency, it encourages the sharing of resources with one another.

We do also believe it is simply the biblical pattern and we do some work in the book looking at evidence of that in Old and New Testaments; that it is the kind of community, gifted by the Spirit that we seem to see in the pages of Scripture.

Some of the things that I talked about earlier I think multi-voiced community could make some inroad into – so, biblical and theological illiteracy; to be a participative community I think begins to address that issue. There's also the chronic stress levels on many clergy who, with diminishing resources, are expected somehow to keep doing everything they've done and perhaps more. I think there are real dangers if we rely too heavily on just a few in the community.

I want to suggest also that it does have some significance for mission. My suggestion is that those who are participants in a multi-voiced community are far more likely, if they've been talking more about their faith within the community to talk about it outside. They are far more likely if they have been exercising mutual pastoral care within the community to be pastorally alert to issues in the neighbourhood. If they are participants rather than spectators, rather than consumers, I just think it is more likely that they will be actively involved in mission beyond the community.

So, for a range of reasons, our conviction and out suggestion is that a multi-voiced approach to church life is good for discipleship, is good for mission, is good for those who have leadership responsibilities. It does require a shift of gear in terms of what the role of the leader is, what we're not saying is that we don't need leadership. We're saying very firmly, 'Yes, we still need leadership but leadership that is more about empowering and co-ordinating; that's less about doing everything. And my impression is that that's already pretty evident in many emerging churches and fresh expressions of church; that actually this is the way that the wind is blowing. But I might be wrong in that - and again I want to encourage you to have a conversation. What do you think? How significant is this? Is this just some kind of internal thing or let's have a multi-voiced church or does it really have the kind of significance for discipleship and for mission that I've suggested? And how do you respond to it, particularly those of you who have leadership? Is this something you'd welcome or do you think this sounds like hard work? It's hard enough doing everything myself, if I've got to find a way of getting everybody involved that just sounds like the straw that's going to break the camel's back. It's only worth investing in – and it will take time and energy to move in that direction – it's only worth investing in if the outcomes are worth it, if the kind of community that emerges is going to be healthier and more sustainable than what we have at present. So, again, conversations round the tables.

And so on to another area, I want us to think about the inter-related issue of Individualism, Consumerism and Accountability. There, if you weren't asleep before now this looks like a sleep-inducing final section!

But I want to go back to something \I said quite early on in the first session; the inter-related issues of individualism and consumerism and I think you'll see in a moment how they connect together. Both of these I think are absolutely crucial for our practices of discipleship. How do we work within a culture which is individualistic? And what do we do about the issue of consumerism? I want to point you first of all to one of the least popular passages in the New Testament (Matthew 18:15-17, 'The rule of Christ'). If you don't know it, look it up, but it's one of only two passages in the Gospels where the word church is found.

Only twice the word church appears on the lips of Jesus, in Matthew 16 Jesus says, 'I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it' which is great news but doesn't tell us much detail. And then two chapters later, we then find the word church again in this passage where Jesus says 'this is how you to behave when things go wrong' in the community. If your brother or sister sins against you, this is the way you are to respond. 'And it is a passage that has been described in various ways over the centuries, the kind of classic description of this passage is to call it 'church discipline' which does sound rather punitive and threatening. So, let's give it a more cuddly name shall we? Let's call it 'interactive pastoral care.'

The Anabaptist tradition that I draw from quite extensively refers to this passage as the rule of Christ, this is how Christ wants us to live within our communities. And within the Anabaptist tradition, actual baptism, you've committed yourself to this process. You were baptised into a community where you said, publicly, 'brothers and sisters, I need your help to be a disciple of Jesus. Will you help me on the journey? 'And this passage was very much at the heart of their understanding of that. And the passage, which is incredibly short, and simply raises all manner of questions about how it works in practice – but the passage essentially says to us, 'we cannot go it alone, we need one another, which is something I guess I've been saying in a variety of ways through these two sessions. We need accountability structures if we're to be faithful followers of Jesus.

I think Jesus is essentially saying two things to us here. First of all, in a community, there is bound to be – from time to time – conflict. We're going to hurt each other, we're going to upset each other, we're going to offend each other. Why? Because we're not yet saints. We are actually a community of recovering sinners and we will screw up, we will say things and do things that hurt each other and we need to have processes that will enable us not to destroy each other but to bring healing and reconciliation.

And I think he's also talking about the journey of discipleship that we're all on and perhaps asking us to consider whether we think we can go it alone or whether we might need our brothers' and sisters' help. Are you confident, am I confident, that for the rest of our human lives we are going to be wholeheartedly faithful to Jesus. Or, do we think it's possible that we might sin, backslide, fall short, wander off the track and might actually need the help of a brother or sister to bring us back. I think those are the kinds of issues this passage raises for us. So I think this is all about discipleship. I think it's about being part of a community that enables and restores and helps. And I know it can seem a very threatening passage but I think that's because it's so often been practised badly. And just because it's been practised badly doesn't mean it can't be practised well.

But I'm fully aware that in an individualistic culture and individualistic churches this does not initially seem like good news. It feels as if this is so counter-cultural and so dangerous that it might be damaging for us. And the danger I think is we somehow think this is all about being judgmental. 'If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them'. I don't know how often you watch the Simpsons, but I think there are some wonderful episodes in the Simpsons and I want to affirm what somebody said earlier, there's actually good stuff as well in our culture that we need to learn from and resonate with. I don't know if you remember this particular incident but Homer Simpson – if you don't watch the Simpsons just blank out for a minute, it doesn't matter – Homer Simpson is talking to his evangelical neighbour, Ned Flanders, I can't remember what about, but in the middle of the conversation Ned's wife, Maude, comes back – comes in with the conversation and Homer asks her where she's been. And she says 'I've been off to this wonderful Christian convention, learning how to be more judgmental.' And it's just one of the moments where you sort of go, ouch!

If this passage, and if what I'm saying, is about our churches becoming more judgmental, then I want to run a mile from it. That's not what we need. And of course we live in a culture that is extremely attuned to judgmentalism. The one thing you mustn't be in our culture is judgmental. I don't think it's anything to do with being judgmental. I think it's to do with our pastoral care for each other that is prepared to go the second mile, that is prepared to take difficult decisions, prepared to voice uncomfortable things because of a commitment to one another. I think it's an essential part of nurturing and sustaining disciples.

But I also think that it's not something you can just do. Please do not go back and say 'oh we had this conference, the Break out conference, we heard all about Matthew 18, let's do it this morning…', that would be a disaster. That is not the way this works. All I am suggesting is that this might be the kind of process, the kind of community practice, that a community could begin to work around, could begin to talk about and pray through. And again, if you're involved in a pioneering situation, you might want to introduce this as one of the foundations of the church.

One of the difficulties so often is the way this is used is in communities that don't know how to practice it, and then it's done badly. And then it gets a bad reputation and it makes things worse rather than better. So this is not something you can just suddenly introduce but it's a process that I think is tremendously important for disciple making.

I'll just give you two examples. A church that I used to know fairly well up in Yorkshire, I've not been there for a little while, spent time wrestling together with this passage and asking 'what does this mean for us as a community?'. It's the only church building I've ever been to where they have Matthew 18.15-17 written up on the wall in big letters. And they say, when we fall out with each other this is what we're going to do. I just find that quite remarkable. You might not think it's very user-friendly for people who walk in for the first time but it was a commitment of the community. And the church that my wife and I are part of in Bristol asked us to do some teaching around this at the beginning of the year, in January. We did a couple of Sunday meetings where we explored this in some detail: what might this mean. And thankfully the church didn't decide to practice it the following week, what they did do was to begin a process of talking together as a church and have now come out with some written guidelines which the community has agreed – this is the way we want to live together as a community.

I simply commend it to you – I think it's important, I think it's something which is neglected because it's so often been badly practiced, but I think it is life-giving and it is, as far as we can tell, how Jesus expects us to practice community.

Actually there are a growing number of examples of churches that are introducing some forms of accountability processes – it may not be based on Matthew 18 necessarily – but I'm interested that accountability seems to be becoming more common. I had a couple of conversations earlier about the LifeShapes programme that St Thomas Crookes up in Sheffield has popularised. If you don't know that then ask someone who does know about it! But two or three years ago a group of Baptist ministers in Yorkshire decided they wanted to explore the LifeShapes material and the processes that have come out of that which are all about mutual accountability – and asked me to journey with them as a kind of external reflector to understand with them what was going on, to talk with them about their experiences of this. LifeShapes, if you don't know, uses a variety of geometrical shapes in order to talk about different aspects of discipleship. And the experience of the Baptist ministers who were involved in this process was fairly mixed in terms of their enjoyment or otherwise of LifeShapes. Some really liked them, some didn't. But what they all liked was the process known as huddling. They didn't necessarily like the name particularly, but a huddle is an accountability group and they formed themselves into a huddle for this process. And within this fairly structured environment, opportunities [arose] for people to ask quite significant questions of one another in a supportive but accountable framework. And the mantra, as some of you will know, for this process is high accountability, low control. So it's not about controlling one another or telling one another what to do, but it's about holding one another accountable for the things that you have committed to do or to be. And the group of Baptist ministers I was working with found this a tremendously helpful process and during the process had already begun to work within their churches using something similar.

The Inspire network which has grown out of Methodism but is now connecting with people in a variety of places draws on some classic Methodist processes and practices, again to help us to find ways of being accountable in ways that are life-giving rather than constricting.

The interest in new monasticism that we talked about briefly earlier: within the new monastic traditions the recovery of certain processes of accountability with soul friends and spiritual directors and practices that enable you not to journey alone but to journey together. I think in the context of an individualistic culture, this is quite surprising, the level of interest, but really quite encouraging. We don't journey alone.

Well, what about consumerism. If mammon, which is the only spirit that Jesus actually names in the new testament, is as dominant within our culture as I suspect it is, then I suggest that we need to address this issue of discipleship very correctly and very persistently. That to talk about discipleship without engaging with this is probably not to take it seriously. I think I'd put it as strongly as that. And if we can nurture discipleship in this area, if we can do that well and faithfully, I think the implications for other areas of discipleship could be considerable.

Talking about money and lifestyle

So yes, I want us to be rude and to talk about money and lifestyle, which is not something that many of our churches enjoy talking about – though again that depends on context. Middle-class Christians don't like talking about money. Working-class churches don't mind at all. Other cultures often don't mind talking about money. Travelling in South East Asia earlier this year, one of the questions you're regularly asked is 'what do you earn?'. It's not normally the first question you're asked when you turn up at church in a middle-class environment.

It's a huge subject biblically – someone's calculated that something like one in every seven verses in the bible is to do with money, possessions, giving, sharing, lifestyle… and the biblical writers don't seem to be averse to talking very directly about these sorts of issues. But it is very difficult to get Christians in many churches talking about these things. I've tested that out in one or two places: as you know I like the interactive multi-voice stuff so I've sometimes said – not very often, just from time to time where I've felt a little mischievous – I've sometimes said, 'just for two or three minutes turn to the person next to you and talk around these sorts of issues – what do you earn, what do you give away, what did you spend on your holiday this year.' What's very interesting is nobody ever does it! There's a kind of shocked silence and people, even if they're used to me and the kind of directive stuff I do, they're… 'this is a bit beyond the pale'. Why can't we do this? It seems that people would be more comfortable talking about their sex lives to each other than about these money issues. It's the great taboo in many of our churches. Now again, context varies. In the kind of church that I belong to it wouldn't be an issue I don't think, but for more affluent churches it's very difficult to talk about these things. And I just wonder whether that is simply colluding with individualism and consumerism. Why can't we talk about these things?

Part of the issue is that we live in an incredibly wealthy part of a very poor and unjust world. We are the beneficiaries of a culture that is only sustainable because of violence and the threat of violence – it's what Walter Brueggemann calls military consumerism. We need to talk about these things. They are issues of global discipleship.

So I want to suggest that we do talk about these issues and we talk about what we earn, how we earn it, what we spend, what we save, where we live, why we vote as we do, what are the lifestyle issues that we're facing, how do we make financial choices, how we tackle issues of wealth and poverty, what does it mean to be a disciple in a consumerist society? If we don't talk about these things they remain hidden, and mammon rules, I believe.

I also think we need to experiment, I think we need to be creative, I think we need to be outrageously generous and I think we need to have some fun. And if some of the things I've been saying have sounded a bit heavy, let me try and lighten things. I think we need to have some Godly fun with our finances. I think we need to play. And I think we need to laugh at the idiocy of consumerism and of mammon. Idols cannot bear to be laughed at. One of the ways of dethroning mammon is to poke fun at the pretensions of a consumer society.

Let me just briefly tell you – some of you may know the story already – of some fun that some Christians in Australia had. There's somebody here from Australia, is that right? Ok – do you know about the Freemantle Jubilee? [Response: no, we're from the other side] Oh yeah, it's a long way. It is a long way isn't it. Freemantle is the port near Perth in Western Australia. It's the first place that you would land if you came in from that side of the continent. And a few years ago churches in Freemantle, which is a sizeable town – not a big city but a sizeable town – began to really get exercised about the biblical teaching of jubilee. And they began to ask the question 'how could we practice jubilee today, in our context?' So, a longer story than I'm telling, but essentially what they decided to do – they worked together across denominational boundaries – what they decided to do was effectively to have some fun with their finances and they raised enough money to pay off all the utility bills, all the debts for everybody in the city! So all the water bills, all the outstanding gas and electricity debts, were cleared! They also I think did some work in terms of rent arrears, I can't remember all the details. What a crazy thing to do! Thousands and thousands of Australian dollars. Except that it began to catch on, it began to get people's imagination. And local businesses and local councillors and others began to get behind this and began to say 'what a wonderful initiative'. Absolutely stupid thing to do because many of those who had their debts cleared were back in debt again within a few weeks – they haven't learned anything, it's not been some sort of process of helping people keep out of debt – it's just an outrageously generous, stupid, creative, humorous thing to do. I just think it's got something of the Kingdom about it. You can read about it online if you're interested – the Freemantle jubilee. That's the kind of thing that I think breaks the hold of mammon. It isn't going to change the world, it isn't even going to change Freemantle, but I think it begins to erode the influence of a consumer culture.

So I think we need to talk about money and lifestyle. Maybe in the bar this evening we could begin that process of talking about money.

Accountability, friendship and discipleship

Let me finish with a personal confession. I tend very strongly towards independence. I simply confess that to you my brothers and sisters. I don't like much of the stuff I've been talking about! I am fairly private, I much prefer just to do my own thing – go my own way, I'd actually much prefer to listen to a monologue sermon than I would to do things around a table if I'm honest, I just don't think it's good for me. And so I have had to struggle around these issues of accountability because I believe they're important, not because I like them. And so as a church planter back in the 1980s I invited two people to act as mentors and to provide a measure of accountability for me. And I think they saved me from burnout. As a freelance trainer and consultant which I am now, I meet regularly with a trusted group of three friends – and I meet with them again in ten days' time. And they have been a tremendous resource for me over the last ten years. And they are empowered to ask me anything they want to: about ministry, about life, about family, about health… I don't like having that accountability group, I'd rather not go and talk to them next week. But I believe I need to, I believe that's good for me as a disciple.

And recognising the power of consumerism, one of the things that my wife and I do from time to time is to talk with some friends who we know and trust and simply open up our finances to them and say 'look, this is what we're earning, this is what we're spending, these are our outgoings, this is what we're giving, this is what we're saving, what do you think?'. We're not asking them to make decision for us, but we're asking them to challenge us, to question us, to affirm things they think are good but also to poke away at issues that we might need to think about. We find that liberating. We find that helpful.

And so I want to end just with this combination of accountability, friendship and discipleship. That everything we've been talking about, everything I've been saying really this afternoon and this evening has been about communities of disciples, not heroic individuals. And I do think that we need to have the discipleship conversation within that context. Not to create dependency, I hope you've heard that, but to create communities that are able to nurture and sustain, communities into which we are able to contribute but from which we also receive. That we need to be in places of nurture, support, accountability, but also friendship. Where these things are not heavy, where these things are fun, where these things can be a joy experienced in a community of friends.


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