River Community Church - Steve Kelly on discipleship

Monday, 18 June, 2012

Steve Kelly discusses the story of River Community Church, Telford, and how they have tackled discipleship.

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Steve Kelly: We came to Telford after I'd been a curate at a church in Shrewsbury and then the Bishop of Shrewsbury, Alan Smith, invited us to consider a move to Telford. At that point in time he was aware that Telford was a growing city and in particular on the Western side of Telford there were plans to build somewhere around about three and a half thousand new homes. And Bishop Alan was looking and really, with the other leaders in the town, asking the question 'what can we do, how can we respond as the Christian Church' and he was looking at, in particular, ways of growing a new church on the western side of Telford. So I look back and I think that he basically sort of handed us the blank sheet of paper and said Steve, there's a real gospel challenge to bring the love of Jesus and the good news of the gospel in this part of Telford, would you like to be part of it. And after thinking about it, praying about it and talking with our family, we said yes.

We've been involved and have seen one or two other church plants down through the years and we've always seen I suppose where you had a large church and you maybe get a team of keen people going to start a new church plant, perhaps in a neighbouring area. And we'd always had observed that one of the problems with that was that it was a bit like trying to bring your model of church to where people were at. And we thought that there were kind of real issues and questions about that.

Of course fresh expressions doesn't start there. Fresh expressions starts by basically going and living and serving the community where you live. And one of the core values of fresh expressions is about being relational.

When we moved to Telford in 2008, it was a new place for us and we didn't know anybody and so we began to take seriously the whole question of building relationships and getting to know people. It is a new area where there are new people moving in and there's not a lot of community facilities, so that was a bigger challenge if you like. There weren't natural meeting places. There wasn't a pub, there wasn't a local shop. So one of the obvious places to meet people is at school, so the school is a meeting place and then near to us there was a kind of community garden beginning to grow - and some of our neighbours were involved in that. And so on Sunday morning, I guess where we'd been used to going to church on a Sunday morning, it was a case of picking up a shovel and a rake and heading down to the garden and getting to know people there. And looking back, that's where it all began, that's where we began to make friends, that's where we began to explore with people what they felt about God, and that's where the seeds, if you like, of River Community Church began, through the relationships that we built in that first year getting to know people around us in the local area.

It's nearly four years since we moved to Telford and now there's a whole number of things that we are involved in, but we have seen the birth of River Community Church. We meet in the local primary school because really that's almost the only meeting place during the week. We meet on a Sunday afternoon and we have now gathered a diverse community of round about 30 to 35 adults and about 15 children. And there's a whole range of people there. So we've got people who are still asking questions and exploring faith, we've got some people who are new to faith and we do now have people who've joined with us, people who have been Christians for some time.

And as I've thought about the sustainability of that and looking ahead, I think that one of the key questions that's facing us today is the whole question of discipleship. Now I actually think it's a question for the whole Church, for established churches, but it's especially a question for new churches because for many people they've not been brought up knowing the stories of Jesus and the Bible background and we find we're starting very much further back. The other thing is again something... I've been a Christian since I was thirteen and when I was a young Christian it was very much book-based - discipleship was about going on a course, it was about learning things, and looking back it was like stuffing your head full of facts about the Christian faith. And of course we don't really live in a culture which learns that way any more. It's a culture where we learn some things in a formal way but we learn many other things by being with other people, learning together and also we learn most by doing, putting things into practice. And as I've thought about that whole different style of learning and I look back to the gospels and Jesus, then of course I realise that the way that Jesus did discipleship brought all of those things together. So Jesus went out and they did things together and then they came back and they learned and talked together in community. And of course there was teaching when Jesus stood up and talked parables and so on, but it was all mixed in together. And so I suppose one of the challenges facing fresh expressions today is how do we combine these different styles of learning, how do we combine book-based courses with doing and with sharing together. We're still kind of experimenting with different things but what we're very definitely trying to do is to kind of learn by doing, learning together and especially learning with Jesus and from Jesus.

I mean there are a number of people who've been part of our community and I guess they still sit on the fringe. And I'm aware of a conversation with one particular guy and he finds the word disciple very problematic. And it's a word I use a lot because I think I've always been inspired by those stories of those disciples who left their nets and followed Jesus. And actually I mean I love that and there's part of me that has done that many times in my life - left what I'm doing to follow Jesus - but for this guy that's really problematic because he doesn't... cannot imagine leaving the things that he has and for him he's aware that in talking about disciple it's about giving everything, it's about bringing the whole of yourself, it's being prepared to put everything at the feet of Jesus and say I want to follow him. And consistently I suppose he's come to little places of decision, he's looked at the next step and actually he's still not ready to take that step. So we've tried some different things, we've tried you know just literally meeting him down the pub over a pint and talking about Christian things there and I know that he finds that much much easier: so he did come on our Alpha course, but he found that idea of sitting listening to someone... he didn't learn that way. Much happier with a pint glass in his hand chatting around the table. But I guess one of the challenges for us really is how do we faithfully articulate the call of Jesus to people today to take up their cross and follow him? How do we do that in a consumer culture where people are used to really holding onto their lives. And that's a question that we're still grappling with.

This is a learning point from:


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