Shaping disciples in fresh expressions

Monday, 22 April, 2013

Bishop Graham Cray looks at discipleship, in an article written for the Church of England Newspaper.

The ultimate test of any local church's ministry, whether in 'inherited' mode or a fresh expression, is 'what sorts of disciples are being made?' To what extent is that expression of church shaping people to be like Jesus? How effectively does it help those who belong to it to live their daily lives as Jesus would live their lives? Are they a community whose life together shows the wider community a better way of living?

At the heart of the fresh expressions' praxis is discernment, listening to God in context, learning how to engage with local issues, serving appropriately and planting a new indigenous community rather than cloning from another context. Accordingly, Christian discipleship must take local shape.

Those who are moving into a new context know that they need to follow this process because they are aware that they don't know their new community but those who are planting a fresh expression in their own well-loved home community need to follow it as well. Many of our assumptions about local community prove to be misleading once we have done some prayerful listening.

But how do you get started? The key is to identify the issues which most concern those you are wishing or trying to serve while, at the same time, prayerfully 'reading' the local context to identify the bigger issues which the gospel needs to address. This should not be a negative exercise; you are not looking for things to condemn. Often you will be looking for healthy longings and aspirations, things that are causes for hope.

It is this listening and looking which is vital. Once the key local issues, or the primary issues for the network you are creating or engaging have been identified, it is not hard to work relationally towards a local light touch rule of life - focusing the community and worship life of a fresh expression around these first priorities in partnership with local people.

I recommend two prayer-soaked approaches:

  • conversation: you need to build relationships so ask people about their community, their pressures and their aspirations as a way of getting to know them. Test out how your understanding of the gospel translates in ways that make sense to them.
  • 'Participant observation': this has a greater degree of analysis, a more detached and intentional approach, which tries to identify the main features of a culture by trying to get an insiders' view of it. It is a way of looking for shared patterns of behaviour, not just knowledge of particular people.

Set out to create community from the very beginning rather than at a later stage. If the fresh expression has developed from listening to serving to forming community, then you have a community before you have a worship event. If fresh expressions of church are going to equip new Christians for whole-life discipleship, then these new communities of faith have to be more than a Sunday or weekday event. Context will shape your precise planning but there are all sorts of patterns of smaller meetings which could help. You might consider:

  • regular cells;
  • prayer triplets;
  • a Messy Church, or other all-age approach, can develop materials for 'church in the home';
  • occasional courses – on anything from parenting to self-worth – give people the opportunity to have time together. As long as the content is relevant it really doesn't matter what the topic is because it all creates an opportunity to build relationships;
  • a locally appropriate rule or rhythm of life, built around the issues, habits or Christian practices most pertinent but most challenging in that context. This can easily be supported by daily texts or emails. Social media allows us to support one another when our community is dispersed and keep us in touch until the next time we gather.

Getting together in occasional gatherings of whatever shape and size offer a starting point, not the destination because the essence of Church is it being a community. The chief Biblical metaphors are corporate: the body of Christ, the family or household of God, the people of God, and so on. It's worth remembering that the term 'one another' appears more than 50 times - primarily in Paul's letters and John's gospel or letters.

All of this leads us to ask how the participants in a fresh expression can grow together as a community in order to develop personally and communally in discipleship. Remember too that such discipleship must be 'glocal' – both global and local:

  • global - recognisable as an embodiment of the historic Christian faith as it is lived across the world. All Christians are to live the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount and our faith must engage with the shared features of Western culture. Consumerism shapes our lives in the UK so we need to engage with it wherever we are.
  • local or contextual - because the gospel is not detached from ordinary life but is the power of God to transform local living.

And finally, here are a couple of 'health' warnings. We are seeking to grow warm communities which are easy to join so don't let the depth of existing relationships act as a wall which keeps new people on the outside. We are to grow together as we grow in numbers.

Pay more attention to how people live than what they claim to believe or disbelieve. Christian character is as important as doctrinal belief and our logic about the way in which the Holy Spirit should engage with a person - or a community's life - is not necessarily the same as the way the Holy Spirit will choose to work. Once again we need to see what God is doing and join in!


I'm intrigued by this statement:
"Consumerism shapes our lives in the UK so we need to engage with it wherever we are."

Some concrete examples of what it means to engage with consumerism would be interesting, as would perhaps some counter examples of not engaging with it?

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