Is the most faithful discipleship happening ‘outside’ the church?

As part of my role with Frontier Youth Trust, and also, my experience of being a youthworker over the last 10 years, one of the common conversations in the many Christian based projects, activities and ministries reverberates around the following kind of statements:

We met with _______ person the other day – they would really love to follow Jesus and show signs of being interested in believing in God – but I couldnt imagine them going to a local church


Young people we work with, we have great conversations about faith, we also have conversations where they tell us how church has damaged them before


These young people would be considered on fire for Jesus for what they do, serve and be loving in their community, but because they dont go to church on a sunday the church arent interested.

So the question I am left thinking is the following

Can (youth) discipleship happen ‘outside’ the church?

or maybe, pertinently, might better youth discipleship happen outside the church?

Obviously no discussion like this can happen without first trying to define what church is and what discipleship is, or at least that are both discussions within studies of Ecclesiology, although a study on what ‘discipleship’ is more difficult to find. There are calls for ‘True discipleship’, ‘deeper discipleship’ and ‘radical discipleship’ often, even within these pages, though cementing a definition is difficult. Skipping over the complex nature of both of these things, is not done because it is not important to think on these matters, but need extensive study further. Nicholas Healys definition of Church within the Theodrama, existing as an ongoing reality that is practical and prophetic is one that i find helpful.

In regard to discipleship, and building on that Theodramatic theme, Wesley Vander Lugt separates it out into two aspects ; formation and performance, both as he says in Living Theodrama are interlinked and inter-dependant of each other. What tends to happen is that Discipleship can often be short hand for ‘learning’, attending bible study groups, house groups or church activities – when this might usually only reflect the ‘formation’ element of it. Thoughts on thinking of Discipleship as Pedagogy practices ive written about here

In previous posts i have talked about developing action first discipleship – if you’re interested take a look here:  there also youth resources that FYT produce that encourage action first – thinking second as a shift in focus for formational discipleship , see

So, If Discipleship is about Formation and Performance – can it occur outside the ‘walls’ of church? – and not just could it, in some cases – should it?

What has been discovered across the country, is that as youthworkers, chaplains and mission workers connect with people and create places of home, support, acceptance and deepen relationships, then these have intrinsic spiritual (not just emotional) value. A place of home and safety is created in the relationships, and these relationships are the source and space of faith, of discovery and ongoing learning. Attempts to use relationships as  strategy seem unfulfilling, and against the ethics of some practices.

Sometimes what gets tried is to ‘bolt-on’ formation in the place of ongoing open conversations and youth work practices – such as ‘if anyone wants to do it, theyll be a ‘discussion’ group, on a certain evening’ and sometimes these things, when developed with appropriate process, care and attention may encourage formational thinking on faith within that space. Other times these things crash and burn. It is more likely that gradual processes in this direction , gradual risk taking, is more likely to produce enthusiasm for faith formation. But faith formation, can occur in other ways that ‘sit down’ discussion groups. The default for this shouldnt be youth alpha, or equivalent. And there are plenty of spaces where performative/action discipleship can occur in a youth project – as young people participate in it, and develop consciousness of local community activism.Image result for acting training

But the question remains – can Discipleship happen outside the church? 

In another way, forget the projects working in local communities. Think of Youth Groups. The separation of youth groups from ‘church’ (albeit there are often church attending volunteers of workers) – the youth group is a place often where formational discipleship happens, (whether it actually happens and is any more than a social club to keep young people involved until next years soul survivor is another question), and many young people attending youth groups don’t attend church either. So it is not just the community based project, but the youth group too.

Is it ever appropriate to encourage young people not to go to church? I mean, for their own good – do they ‘have to be ready’ for it, prepared even. A project leader recently told me that they knew of someone who said that ‘they could cope and agree with being a christian, but go to church and belong to that group of people?’ no thanks. So, in a way as we create connections with people outside of the walls of the church, we will meet many many people. As church we need to be relaxed enough about our identity and self critical to know that the faith community has a lot of baggage, and many not be an encouraging place for ongoing faith journey, or insight into the way of following Jesus, that someone outside is desperately looking for, or at least enquiring.

Can discipleship happen outside the church? One on hand, developing new church communities and groups as part of an ongoing movement is how the church grew, and continues to do so. Increasing existing gatherings is difficult, starting new ones (as both church planters and emerging church leaders tell us) is a key way. What we might be doing, accidentally, is expanding the stage where God is active in local communities, through the conversations we have with people where they become opters in of God prompting them through us, being formed and becoming performers, the question metaphorically then is do they need to be part of the existing theatre troop, or have that troop help shape new theatrical acts and scenes in different contexts, even in the same town, but with other people groups.

Of course, the path is paved with sharp pebbles and stones, and no two performances are the same. The church’s role is to water and provide food for the emerging shoots that are located and planted already, not keep hoping that the root is uprooted and located elsewhere for feeding and watering, thus making it weaker, and also out of its place. Is there a sadness, that local acts of mission and discipleship are not being used to shape the practices of local churches. If people find a home, and space of discipleship in the local foodbank, with volunteers, how might a church be as accessible, be as a home, be as inclusive and welcoming, on a sunday, the same for the young people at the youth club on a tuesday evening.


Living Theodrama, Wesley Vander Lugt, 2014

Here be Dragons, Youthwork and Mission off the Map, R Passmore, 2013

Ecclesiology and Ethnography, Pete ward, 2013

The church, the world and christian life, Nicholas Healy, 2000


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