As I opened my email inbox this morning I was inundated with requests and opportunities to follow. Would I follow the Facebook page of a new company? Would I follow a clothing manufacturer, keen to ensure they are GDPR ready? Would I renew my subscription to a football team? Would I keep drinking a brand of coffee?
It seems following is all the rage.
In the 19th Century philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard observed a different cultural problem – that society was full of admirers, people who were ready to pay lip service to Christ and to the Christian faith but had little real authenticity about what they thought or believed.
“The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.”
(from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard 2014)
As we work to develop Fresh Expressions of Church and to re-imagine mission in the 21st century how do we deal with the question of following, of discipleship? Are there dangers we play safe the idea of following Christ or is the key to enable people to first admire and see Jesus for who he is?
Writing for this website in 2011, former team leader of Fresh Expressions Graham Cray recognised “the seductive and corrosive nature of consumer culture and calls for transformative patterns of ecclesial life and discipleship.” Consumerism makes disciples for itself, suggests that we lack and that we need to buy or replace that which we already have. It works on an economy of following and of seeking that which we feel we don’t have. It can be easier therefore to create a Christian discipleship that works the same way – that suggests we join this, or need that in order to exist day to day.
However is following Jesus about fullness rather than lack? Jesus declared “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10.)
The excellent Talking Jesus research (Rachel Jordan-Wolff 2015) suggests that although the numbers attending church seem in decline, 60% of people think Jesus is a real person and 43% believe in the resurrection. So often we have thought of mission of providing for a lack – a lack of faith, a lack of truth, a lack of Jesus. What would happen if we instead thought of discipleship as a tool of bringing abundance, a way of being fully human, fully alive, fully reconstructed?
Talking Jesus suggested that relational connections were key influences in people making commitments to be followers of Jesus. Growing up in a Christian family (41%) and conversations with friends (36%) were vital. However experiencing the love of Jesus Christ (24%) and a spiritual experience you cannot explain (17%) suggest that moments of abundance, of revelation or experience are also vital. Could it be argued that these moments are indeed steps in discipleship happening before or concurrently with a commitment of faith?
In the late 1980’s as I first attended Church I was witness to the Decade of Evangelism. This was a period in the life of the UK church where fresh impetus was given to sharing faith. There were many writers and sources available at that time and some cited a wonderful thing called the Engel scale. This scale recognises the steps in discipleship as someone comes to faith. Today we might talk about a journey of faith discovery but here was a scale that outlined several steps in that journey. This scale (google it if you’re interested) started at -8 with “awareness of a supreme being” and ended at +5 with “stewardship.” Whilst its terminology might feel dated now it helped me understand something fundamental – that discipleship is not solely owned by Christians. Discipleship happens before people commit to a belief or faith. We all disciple each other.
I meet many people day to day who wouldn’t call themselves Christians or people of faith. These people have good days and bad days, they suffer and experience joys. Many of them however are disciples. Many of these friends are actively seeking something. They are often unsure what it is, but they are progressing along steps and along a journey. Can we follow a God we don’t know? Can we be a disciple and yet not call ourselves a Christian? These are complex and challenging questions.
What I have become sure of however, is that discipleship involves that concept of becoming more human, more me a little more each day. Its a journey towards fullness and being filled and even when we are leaking, fallen or broken – even then we should still be encouraged to grow and to be a little more human. Brennan Manning put it like this:
“For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to God, it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Jesus Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,” He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.”
(rom Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning 2005)
This month we’re asking you what your experiences of discipleship have been on your Fresh Expressions journey. Why not comment on Andy’s article or add a story on the Fresh Expressions Story App?