Whole-Life Discipleship & the Whole Church?
As the Methodist Connexion embark on a new, very promising, church disciple-making initiative with the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, Mark Greene, its Director, reflects on the call to whole-life discipleship.
Here’s a question:
“Is God interested in all of your life or just bits of it?”
I imagine you answered ‘All of it’. Most Christians do. And they are right.
Amazingly, extraordinarily, wondrously, graciously, the King of the Universe, the Creator of all things, the Sovereign Lord of time and eternity has in fact made it abundantly clear in the Bible that He is very definitely, unequivocally, resolutely, lovingly interested in every bit of your life. And mine.
But now it’s 11 o’clock on Wednesday morning and you are in the factory wondering how in heaven’s name making soap powder could be of any interest to God? Or you are on your own with three children under five and, yes, you know that motherhood/ fatherhood is a high calling but, as you pick up the duplo bricks and contemplate the food stain on your just-washed sweater, you feel radically disconnected from the mission of God in time and eternity. Can this be part of it? Or you are retired and at home and wondering how precisely God might use your enthusiasm for bowls and your grandchildren for his kingdom purposes.
It’s one thing to know that God is in theory interested in all of our life, it’s another thing to live our lives as if it were actually true. In reality, most of us find it really difficult.
And the reason is the sacred secular divide.
The sacred-secular divide is the pervasive belief that some things are really important to God – church, prayer, social action, church meetings, Alpha – but that other human activities – work, school, college, the arts, leisure, rest, sleep – are at best neutral. And this had a devastating effect on virtually every area of Christian life in and outside the church. So, our research reveals that the vast majority of Christians have not been helped to see that who they are and what they do every day in schools, homes, workplaces and clubs is significant to God. Nor have they been helped to see that the people they spend time with in those everyday contexts are the people God is calling them to pray for, bless, and witness to. And all that is reinforced by church communities that on the whole do pray for overseas missionaries and pastors and youthworkers – quite rightly – but not for Christian electricians, builders, shop assistants, managers... And the result is that increasingly, Christians see themselves like the dots in the corner in the diagram below – marginalised, in the ghetto, up against the ropes:
But the reality is that the people of God are not skulking in a corner Monday through Saturday. No, the people of God are out in the world on their frontlines – in schools, colleges, workplaces, clubs, supermarkets, old age homes. They are out there relating to scores of people every week:
But on the whole they haven’t been envisioned to see how they can be a blessing, a help, a source of Godly wisdom and support, and yes, a witness of Christ’s transforming, saving love. The truth is that every Christian is an ‘FTCW’, a full-time Christian worker but most of us don’t feel that way.
The sacred-secular divide has not only affected our sense of mission but it also severely limited our concept of what the Christian life might look like. Is it for all of life? Should the Gospel of the one who calls me to love him with all my heart, mind, soul and capacities affect how I work, court, talk, drive, vote, play, pray? Indeed, when Jesus summarizes his instructions to his disciples before he ascends to heaven, he says this:
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Jesus doesn’t say ‘Go and make converts’ or church members or church attenders. He says ‘Go and make disciples’. He doesn’t say teach them to know all my teachings, and be able to quote them to others. He says teach them to obey them, i.e. teach them to live them out faithfully. What did Jesus teach his own disciples? He taught them about what living in God’s kingdom looks like. He taught them about love in everyday life, about forgiveness and anger, about Mammon and generosity, marriage and divorce, about grace and law, about children and widows and orphans, labourers and employers, nationalism and occupation, about living all of life before the Lord. He taught them about the difference that following him makes every day – not just on the Sabbath. In sum, Jesus spent three years teaching his disciples what whole-life discipleship looks like. Then, after giving his life as a ransom for many and being resurrected to mark the inauguration of a new era, he instructed the disciples to go pass it on in the power of the Spirit that would come upon them.
This then is the primary task we’ve been given - To make disciples. And it is therefore the primary task of the local church – to be a body of believers helping one another to be whole-life disciples of Jesus in every aspect of our lives.
In recent years, there have been many, many encouraging experiments on new forms of church –Total Church, Liquid Church, Café Church, Fresh Expressions and so on – and alongside that traditional forms of church have continued to adapt to our changing culture. However, the key issue is not what form a church takes but whether the community is making disciples. Bishop Graham Cray from Fresh Expressions, put it this way:
“Churches have to realise that the core of their calling is to be disciple-making communities, whatever else they do.”
Church communities are here to help one another explore the high and mysterious adventure of living the whole life of Christ in a fallen world. We’re here to help one another become fully engaged in living, applying and sharing the difference Jesus makes in our lives – wherever he has placed us.
Indeed, unless we are learning to and growing to live as followers of Jesus in our society, then although we may testify to the eternal significance of Jesus’ death, we will have no testimony to the life that he offers now. If my colleague’s major issue is their stressful job – and it’s quite likely that it is – and I cannot testify to the way in which Jesus helps me handle pressure, what kind of Gospel do I have? I have the truth but do I have a new ‘way’ to commend or new source of ‘life’ to give thanks for?
Similarly, if my married friend’s major issue is their fractious marriage – and at some point in their lives it’s quite likely that it will be –and I cannot testify to the way in which the word, the Spirit and the support of God’s people help me in my relationships when they get difficult, what kind of Gospel do I have? I still have the truth but I do have a ‘way’ to commend or a new source of ‘life’ to give thanks for.
Sadly, the very word ‘disciple’ conjures up a negative picture of programmes and systems, of getting bogged down in acquiring information about Christianity but losing the whoompf and whoosh of the daily adventure of walking with Christ. But true disciple-making is about liberating people to become more fully human, even as we become more like Christ.
Of course, the call to whole-life disciple-making is nothing new to the Methodist tradition. John Wesley was not only a brilliant evangelist but he also saw that conversion was not enough. People needed to be helped to grow in Christ. The Gospel wasn’t just a way into heaven but a way on into fullness of life, now and into eternity. Indeed he organised church communities round that vision. In meetings, he offered a context for corporate worship, prayer and teaching. In the classes, he created a systematic framework to learn the ways of Jesus in ‘classes’. In ‘bands’ he offered growing disciples the opportunity for deeper accountability. Today, the church in the UK, Methodist and non-Methodist, face the same challenge Wesley did. How do we ensure that the way we do church together enables us to live godly, fruitful missional lives when we are apart? What kind of church produces a community of whole-life disciples?
We at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity LICC have been engaged with that question for the last 7 years since the publication of ‘Imagine how we can reach the UK’. Four years ago we began working with sixteen churches from a variety of denominations as part of what we call the Imagine Project. We were seeking to find out how good, ordinary church communities might learn to become whole-life disciple-making communities. And we have learned a lot.
We have learned that there is no magic programme to pull off a shelf but that there are principles to apply and an overall process to pursue. We have learned that you don’t need any money to do this, or any new staff. We have learned that you can begin tomorrow by changing the questions you ask and the prayers you pray and the stories you tell. We have learned that although you can begin tomorrow, it takes a long time to change a culture that has for so long focused on our leisure time not our whole-life. We have learned that this can be a process that brings a congregation together in deeper ways, that it can build a joyous confidence in Christ and a sense of liberation and purposefulness that is not accompanied by exhaustion because, for the most part, it does not require us to do lots of new things but to do the things we already do in new ways.
You can read about what we have learned so far and the materials and resources we have developed by checking out the Imagine section of our website www.licc.org.uk/imagine.
Still, we are at the beginning and though we have learned much from Methodist practice and thinkers, there is more to learn. And that’s why it’s particularly exciting for me and our team that we are starting to work with a group of Methodist churches in the North-West to see how this vision for whole-life disciple-making might become a reality in those communities and then, God willing, to pass on that learning to the wider Connexion. We’ll be telling you more about that later in the year.
But you can begin today.
Ask God to help you see the people you already know and the places you already go to through his eyes? What might he be doing there? How could you be a blessing?
Ask someone you know in your church about the people they already know, the places they already go to naturally? How can I pray for your daily activities? How can I pray for the people you connect to? How can I pray for the organization you’re in? Whose salvation could I pray for?
And if you’re a minister, go visit someone on their frontline, look around, listen and ask: “How can we as a community help you live out your discipleship here?” Notice the ‘we’ – a whole-life disciple-making community is not a community led by a minister who does all the disciple-making, it’s a community of people working out how together we can help one another be the disciples Jesus wants us to be – wherever we are.
And that is a pretty exciting community to be a part of.
Mark Greene is Executive Director of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. He is the author of several resources on whole=life discipleship and work, including Thank God it's Monday, Imagine how we can reach the UK, The Great Divide, and, The Best Idea in the World.