Discipleship through leadership (Richard Seel)

Monday, 1 December, 2014

Richard Seel explores different ways to disciple, including discipleship through leadership.

"How do you enable discipleship in a fresh expression of church?"

It's a question we've struggled with for some years in Xpressions Café, a fresh expression in rural Norfolk, meeting on the first Sunday of every month. We're a very diverse group of people, ranging in age from George, aged one, to 94-year-old Eric; from mature, experienced Christians to those who openly say they believe nothing.

Our aim is to reach and be relevant to the unchurched and to help them come to know Jesus and what it might mean to follow him. So discipleship is implicit in all we do but rarely explicit since that would threaten the delicate web of relationships necessary to enable people to walk their own journey at their own pace. Actually, though, we disciple in a number of different ways, some of them quite counter-intuitive:

Discipleship by not speaking of God

Right from the beginning we made the decision that we would never speak of God in the café part of what we do (Xpresso). If someone in the café wants to start such a conversation we will not refuse but we will never initiate it. In this way we can be confident that Xpresso is a safe place for anyone to come and know that they will not be 'godded up'. And it works—we often get non-believing family members who feel comfortable just having coffee and chatting or reading the Sunday papers while others in their family go off to explore some of the other things on offer.

But is it right to call this discipleship? I think so: by providing 'extravagant hospitality' (one of our five values) we are demonstrating the love of God in deeds rather than words; by providing a safe nurturing space we are pointing to the one who says, 'Come unto me...'; by offering the opportunity to visit other areas with no sense of coercion we are modelling a way of being church which is far removed from most people's experience or fantasy.

Discipleship by inquiry

Every Xpressions Café has a theme, nearly always derived from one of the lectionary readings for the day. On most Sundays, from 10:30 to 11am, we hold a discussion in the chancel around some aspect of this theme (Xplore Discussion). This is facilitated by members of the leadership team who offer some initial stimulus to discussion and then see where the conversation goes.

Those who attend the Xplore Discussion are very diverse, with many different faith positions from very definite (and quite literalist) to agnostic and unreligious. The discipleship here is co-created and comes from mutual sharing of experience, belief and life position.

Discipleship by activity and worship

Xpressions is the part of Xpressions Café which is focused on families and particularly the children. Xpressions runs upstairs in Chedgrave Church Centre from 10am until about 11.10am. In keeping with aims of trying to be culturally appropriate, Xpressions contains much which relates to children: craft activities; the making, sharing and eating of food; games of all kinds. The aim of those working in Xpressions is to be able to help the children relate the activities to the theme of the day.

The last 15 minutes or so usually consist of story, song and prayer - again, designed to be readily accessible to the children who come. Thus Xpressions is more intentionally 'Christian' than the rest of Xpressions Café because children tend to have less of the baggage often associated with the term 'unchurched' and are often more open to new things and able to relate more directly to Christian stories and activities. Their parents and carers are present too and they also can learn and share in worship with everyone else. So discipleship is happening here on multiple levels.

Discipleship by extended sermon

The last half hour of Xpressions Café is a time when we invite everyone to come into the church for Xplore Together. Not everyone comes; some go home and others stay in Xpresso, drinking or talking. But nowadays most of those who attend Xpressions Café come into this final session.

In many ways Xplore Together is often like a half hour, participative, multimedia sermon. We use vox pops; video; small group discussion; music; drama; prayer stations; singing; exercises; masks; and much more (though never all these in the same session!) to explore the theme of the day.

Xplore Together is always presented by two people and is fast moving, deliberately mimicking the style of breakfast TV and chat shows. As a method of discipleship it offers an opportunity for non-threatening teaching and participant response and seems to work.

Discipleship by small group

As people become more engaged and more regular at Xpressions Café we may offer them the opportunity to come along to a small group held on a Monday evening. This is a place where they can explore further in a loosely structured group and have an opportunity to ask 'silly questions' and to take some first steps towards leadership by taking responsibility for a particular evening in a series.

Discipleship by leadership

Because of all this we have found ourselves in the rather difficult situation experienced by many fresh expressions: some of our number have increased in faith; it seems right to offer them a taste of solid food rather than milk. But how to do this? The Monday Group is a step in the right direction but it isn't Xpressions Café itself and not everyone can or will come to it.

The temptation is to make Xpressions Café more 'Christian'; to sing more Christian songs; pray more Christian prayers; teach in more explicitly Christian ways. And for a time that is what we found ourselves doing. But there is a big downside here. The more explicitly Christian we become, the greater the gulf to the unchurched. All that careful groundwork could be undone.

This does not seem like a good option for us and so, little by little, we have been developing a new approach - discipleship through leadership - something which is still work in progress.

If we look at alternative worship communities, we see that leadership is shared in a way which doesn't yet happen in Café. There is still a 'them and us' to a great extent and those who come tend to be consumers of Café rather than true participants. Could we do more to involve the Café congregation in its leadership? We have had some success in this area; I would like to see us do more to encourage people in the core Café congregation into leadership, in Xplore as well as Xpressions.

In 2012 a small team of about eight of us embarked on a process of discerning a set of values for Xpressions Café. These became:

  • Jesus at the centre
    Jesus is at the heart of everything we do. We seek to follow Him in the way we live our lives and by having a heart for the poor and for social justice.
  • extravagant hospitality
    We believe that God’s love for us is wonderful. We aim to respond to this amazing love by offering generosity and friendship to all.
  • including everyone
    We aim to celebrate all that people bring and all that people are, whoever they may be. We rejoice in the diversity of age, background and experience to be found in Xpressions Café.
  • working together
    We want to journey together, to explore together; and to value the contribution which everyone can bring to the Café community.
  • encouraging creativity
    We believe that everyone is creative—a gift released by the Holy Spirit. We wish to encourage everyone to discover and use their gifts and have the freedom to express them in Xpressions Café.

We have gradually been working towards a better realisation of these values. We have now dissolved the boundaries between the three original teams (Xpresso, Xpressions and Xplore) and all Cafés are now planned at a monthly group meeting. Everyone is free to contribute ideas and perspectives and to offer to lead or coordinate the different parts of what we do.

We had 12 people at our last planning meeting but there are 27 on the mailing list of those who may take planning roles within the Café. Our aim is to keep expanding the invitation until eventually everyone who has anything to do with Xpressions Café will feel welcome to come and help plan and also take on some leadership role when they are ready.

The theory is simple really: if you become a leader you have no choice but to become a disciple - learning though doing; something which Jesus seems to have used with his disciples. It is worth noting that this approach to leadership is as effective for those who have been churched for a long time as it is for the recently unchurched. The key thing is that it requires a movement forward in faith and that is something we are all called to do.

Does it work? Well, it seems to. I sent the first draft of this piece to all those who are currently involved in Xpressions Café leadership. One of the responses was from Patrick, who has been with us for about two years. He said,

It exactly reflects my experience of Xpressions. Taking on a leadership role within Café Church and at Home Group has expanded my knowledge of the Bible and certainly made me much more aware of its teachings. Much research and thought is necessary in preparation for these sessions, and even though I initially took on the roles to 'help out' my friends within the group I can see how I have unwittingly (but willingly) become at least a part-time disciple.

I wouldn't have the knowledge and awareness of Jesus, the Bible and how the Church operates without being actively involved in leadership, so well done on utilising my inner Martha to further my education!

We are aware that there are many kinds of leadership. Not everyone has the gifts to take on an oversight role, for instance. We are still in the process of discovering how this will all work out. But, for the present, discipleship through leadership seems to allow the potential for 'moving forward while standing still' – in other words, Xpressions Café can keep its focus on doing church for the unchurched while simultaneously helping those who are ready to move on in their faith in their own time and their own way (albeit with a little nudge here and there!)

And finally, discipleship through leadership has another aim: to help subvert the 'producer-consumer'/'actor-audience' relationship which has characterised church for so long.

About the author: 

Richard Seel is NSM (non-stipendiary ministry) Assistant Priest and a leader of Xpressions Café in Chet Valley Benefice, Chedgrave, Norfolk


I'm struggling with looking at fresh expression of church offering different ways to walk with people and to allow them to meet with Christ and the initial part of your article offers a lot of hope, being with them not talking about God unless they do. Then not changing the initially contact point as people grow that's great because so often we do change as a group goes through a church and that does tend to shut the door for new people a mistake we make too often. the idea of providing pathways seems real helpful and positive.

For me the challenge is to find a way for those people who want to find out more to able to do that in surroundings and a way relevant to them. at the same time keeping that path open for new people to find in their own time without feeling like the new kid on the block when they start down the path.

The area that kind of worried me was the discipleship through leadership it looks like the same mistake that we made in industry a few years back in that you can only progress so far with your skills after than you must become a leader if you are going to learn more. For a time it worked but eventually it was a dead end not everyone is a leader but by prodding and poking people making leadership the next step people with no leadership skills or aspirations ended up in the wrong place when all they really wanted to do was carry on growing within a group.

It caused a lot of pain within teams for people for leaders and team members and it would be a shame to see discipleship take a step down this dangerous road its also reinforces a them and us culture some have taken the next step some haven't not because they cant grow or don't want to grow just that path is not for them.

I understand the ownership part in leaders coming from within but those who set it up will have already embedded themselves within the café culture and should not be seen as providing a service rather they are part of the group. Perhaps the producer consumer view doesn't help because by creating leaders even from within aren't we just producing new producers or actors when what we're looking for is a true team.

Thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging response. I think I understand what you are saying about ‘discipleship through leadership’ and I offer a couple of thoughts in response.
Firstly, it kind of depends on what you mean by ‘leadership’. If the definition is too narrow and you try to shoehorn everybody into that one box then you will undoubtedly run into problems. But if our definition of leadership is broader things get easier. For instance, while I was doing my Masters in Organisation Consulting at Ashridge I came across a version of the ubiquitous Belbin Team Test which acknowledged that each of the roles in a team which Belbin claimed to have uncovered was actually leadership of one kind or other. So ‘Completer-Finisher’ is ‘Leader of Quality’; ‘Monitor-Evaluator’ is ‘Leader of Analysis’; ‘Co-ordinator’ is ‘Leader of Teamwork’ and so on.
We do not expect that everyone will have the ministry of oversight, for instance but we do believe that the opportunities for leadership should be offered to everybody. It is up to them whether they take up the offer. It’s still early days for us but it seems to be bearing some fruit.
Secondly, as you picked up, I really do believe that this is a step towards subverting the leader-led; producer-consumer, actor-audience models which have been the norm in the church for hundreds of years. I worry that much of what we do in modern evangelism is simply to put on more consumer events—especially at Christmas time.
For some time I have been concerned that Xpressions Cafe is something which ‘we’ do for ‘them’. I’ve worked in the media, I’ve worked in marketing but I don’t want to be conformed to those worlds. I’m looking for the transforming of minds; and that means doing things differently, I think.
But thank you for your comments. They are very helpful and I will certainly share them with the team and reflect on them as we move forward.


Thanks for this article Richard, it is really very helpful to me as I seek to establish a new gathering of people in my local area. I have in the past particularly struggled with the question of how to acknowledge that I exist in God myself, but not require others to do so in order to be part of the group. The church often seems to require us to push God at people with disastrous results. Also, breaking down the 'them and us' 'provider/consumer' dynamic is so crucial. I will reflect on your experience. Kind regards. Anne

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