Should discipleship be ‘action’ first?

Does anyone still use that phrase ;

its always the 20% of people in churches that seem to do 80% of all the work?

It got banded around for quite a while, though I’ve not heard it recently. It was, at best a passive aggressive way of encouraging people who only sat on pews every week to make more contributions in the life of churches. It neither rewarded those who did get involved, nor was much of an encouragement. However. We’ve moved on… haven’t we?

Though there is still a really ethereal conversation about discipleship that still happens, its as if there is a magical way that discipleship happens, that seems to be in need of being continually redefined, rejuvenated and energised. A cynic in me (yes there is one) might think that these attempts are to ‘sell’ the latest fad, model or concept, and with it a whole load of resources and practices. (and yes i do have an inner cynic)  The grown up in me might pose the question about whether there really is anything that can be humanly done about discipleship through churches. This is most pertinent when there are countless research on the ‘state of discipleship’ in churches (LICC have recently done one) . What they discovered that a significant number of active people in churches also self identified that they didnt feel that discipleship was happening. Yet, they were busy.

Maybe theres a few things to say here.

The first might be that a definition of discipleship that looks like Bible reading/prayer/study on a personal level might be genuinely not happening when a person is also involved in so much of the church’s activities. Its more group discipleship, than individual. Potentially.

So there may be a Definition problem.

There is also an expectation problem. Not unlike conversations about ecclesiology and models of churches (Healy 2001)- an almost impossible view of discipleship can act as a hindrance rather than an encouragement, its as if a ‘perfect’ process of discipleship is out there (though still yet to be defined) and until that happens there’s a striving, with often other metaphors like ‘whole life discipleship’ – that rarely about the struggles of life that include poverty, suffering, health and family issues – these can feel at times ‘in the way’ of ‘perfect’ discipleship. Almost that these are to be put to one side – God isnt in these… discipleship is somewhere else… at least that can be the implication. Discipleship doesnt = attendance or involvement – so what is it?  And theres nothing against the continual search – but the human search is for God, not for process or concept (Acts 17)

The problem with discipleship is not that we cant define it from the Greek (Mathetes) , not that we don’t see this as some kind of apprenticeship, or follower of Rabbi status (and i’m referencing Jo Dolbys PhD here) , or looking at Gospel discipleship – because thats been the church for 2000 years effectively – how to follow Jesus model/practice of it – but do it in the institutions of the church created since 70AD. The packages and resources have been written with every new discipleship package being better than the one before. It feels as if maintaining the church as an institution – with all the voluntary giving of time to enable this – doesn’t necessarily equate to the definition of discipleship – yet church maintenance is still good right?

We are urged to be disciples and witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth – (Acts 1:8) – the Wednesday morning community project may have all the semblance of the ‘ends of the earth’ compared to Sunday morning. But theres only a call to stay in those places not move people. We may have to reflect on what discipleship in the ends of the earth may look like. It probably wont look like what Jerusalem discipleship did. So  what might that be.

I’d like to end this piece with three thoughts that hopefully add something to this discussion. Practice, Theory and Theology.

One significant thing comes from my practice.

A number of years ago i was the project coordinator of a detached youthwork project in Perth, Scotland. Because of the nature of the role expected of volunteers, they underwent training, on the nuts and bolts of detached work and also, we spent time looking at values, principles and thinking theologically through a practice of being out on the streets, being vulnerable, and how this might be mission. What i didn’t realise, or at least, what was a great joy, was that in the months and years that passed of walking and participating in the practice, how often each of the volunteer reflected on how being involved in the project was a place in which they were doing discipleship, doing mission was discipleship. It shouldn’t have blew my mind, but that it came from the participants and not me, sort of made it real. Did it help that I had framed the action as a missional/theological one.. yes. Did it continue to help that there were spaces for theological reflection ongoing in team time, session reviews and in the growing of this community, well, i guess so. But still, i wonder if there’s just something to be said with how ‘volunteering’ is made a discipleship activity. I think.

From Theory, I wonder where the discipleship conversation converges with the Faith Formation conversation. Are the two the same. Maybe. Its not often a conversation about discipleship from the platform of a UK conference also includes reference to faith or spiritual development (fowler/westerhoff etc) – but neither, does it look beyond a glimpse of the need, to the culture and a few biblical principles. What Andrew Root (in faith formation in a secular age)  does is look at how Spiritual and faith formation needs to take root in the culture that we are in. I cannot in this piece go into his detail, and I have written 5 pieces on his book Faith formation in a secular age (2017) already (links at the bottom of this piece) – but Roots suggestion is that Faith formation is a process of ministry, and ministering and participating in the tasks of God. Where he argues consuming church, spiritual experiences, and personal faith journey all meet culture that is looking for authenticity that is found wanting. Simply put, every one wants authenticity, and there’s nothing more authentic than a real church that transforms the world rather than creates enclaves and avoids it, equally, its not just a current age thing, or Generation Z thing, its everyone. Look at micro breweries, farmers markets and bake off, the desire for the authentic pint of ale, the real news is there, its not just an adrenaline experience… but a real one. A danger, Root argues is that Churches have embraced youthfulness in an attempt to be authentic, culture has won, they have stopped being actually authentic. Practical faith formation for Root is a process of ministering and ministry. Is practical faith formation discipleship? Its not far off… but forming is for performing, and performing is also forming…

The setting for discipleship though, is not the church though is it. Church is the place for the faith formation, discipleship happens on the stage of the world, in which the church is also a part. And this is where the third thing, Theodrama, for me comes into play. Understanding the theological, physical and social context of discipleship might reveal that being in ministry in the world is closer to discipleship.  Theodrama provides a metaphoric platform to imagine/realise that the whole of the worlds timeframe is Gods, that the whole world is a stage in which all are participating in a Holy redemptive drama, just that not everyone is aware of it. From those drinking in the wetherspoons that i am sitting in,  to the drivers on the bus, and the market sellers in the shopping centre, the teachers in the schools and youthworkers on the streets. The framework  of theatre, and drama, takes the notion of connecting stories further, and to consider the artistic and dynamic view of participation (which is Biblical) in God drama, as the context of discipleship. So therefore the church is a principle actor, guided by spirit, to act on the stage of the world in accordance with a number of prompts past(trinity, kingdom, bible etc), and present (spirit) to act in the future. Personal discipleship, may well be a community venture. Personal discipleship is about be more fully aware to these prompts in the every day. It is not the amount of bible studies, prayer times, daily reading notes that have been completed, its being aware of these to act appropriately in the every day. To act in the world where there are competing values (Von Balthasar) where there are prompts to do so and goodness, truth, love and peace to be appropriated. Discipleship may well be a process of awareness and a new reality. Its being able to respond to the voice of God in the midst of the action. Not avoid the action and head to the nearest 5 evening  a week bible study and avoid the world.  (Theres more on Theodrama in other pieces on this blog, see the categories)

Coming back to the 80/20 thing – there is a new issue in town. Its that because of a lack of volunteers, and also the exponential growth in community work projects and ministries in churches – 100’s of volunteers for these things are being grown from within them, food kitchen receivers become servers in kitchens, young people in youth clubs become junior leaders – all in the name of good empowering community practices. The question could be said that these are good ‘social action’ and ‘not mission, or discipleship’ and it could feel as though the powers, and the 20% who’ve gone through the ranks properly and have a mission/discipleship resource to sell, cant conceive that there might be another way.  We might ask a question – how might people be already disciples through the ministry of serving in a community that they feel home in and welcome (and want to create for others) ?  and not that all this serving is only a step to a ‘real’ discipleship elsewhere, that can look like ‘going to a study group’ or ‘alpha’ – the real discipleship could already be happening – from a point of action.

A task of the church, might be to develop practical theological reflection and participation through these serving moments at the time – because im not sure any church has a luxury of increasing barriers to faith – when clearly there are many who want to participate in the good that a church can do.

I would hope there is a space, or a awareness that an action first discipleship can sit alongside a ‘traditional church attendance discipleship’ – because for one thing, people are joining in the action of the mission of God because it looks like something that heals, does good and is something to believe in – because it is making a difference. They are already participating in Gods mission before knowing full well who God is. Well, to be blunt, none of us know who God fully well is. For some people they might be closer to the actions and drama of God in their participation of it in a food kitchen than hearing about it and the stories of those before them.

The task might be to increase theological reflection – not import a model view and make discipleship  unachievable. Root may be right, thinking of discipleship as a faith formation process causes a shift to think of people as ministers and helping people to ministry, and this can start from the food kitchen, the holiday club or the social enterprise. Real discipleship is practical and takes place in the world, that where the tensions and drama takes place, the choices and prompts by the spirit occur. When we talk about discipleship otherwise its often more about faith formation and learning. Discipleship on the stage of the world might be less about doing more faith formation (something measurable by attendance and vocational calling) and more about becoming more attuned and aware of God in the midst of the whole world. Being aware that God might well be in wetherspoons right now, and asking me to have compassion on everyone drinking here at 10 in the morning. Can hearing God in the midst and acting on it in the improvised moments, in the participation of conversations of ministry be measured as discipleship?  I hope so. But discipleship is also volunteering, and starts with the provoke to be part of building Gods kingdom in a place. I cannot argue otherwise that this isn’t the person who has relied on a food bank, a youth club, who is now participating in making this goodness happen for others. God is active and on the move. And its risky and challenging.

References

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Hans urs von Baltasare – Theodrama Vols 1-5 – 1980

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Wesley Van der lugt – Living Theodrama, 2016

Nicholas Healy, The church, the world and the Christian life , 2001

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