"The church has been flying with one wing when it comes to making disciples. It is high time it flew with two."
The traditional wing of the Church has involved withdrawing from the world for short periods. Believers have withdrawn into God’s family in Sunday worship, small groups, conferences and retreats to be immersed in the Christian story. With their faith deepened and invigorated, they have re-entered the world to serve God.
This model has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Indeed, it’s what Jesus did. At times he withdrew from the crowds and instructed his disciples privately, as in Matthew 13.36-43. Christians need special times together to be formed in the faith.
But what happens if the church flies with this withdrawal wing alone? Christians gather to be spiritually nourished, but then they scatter to live out their faith as individuals.
Alongside the withdrawal model of making disciples, fresh expressions of church are showing how believers can take the church with them when they engage with the world. As they join fellow Christians in serving others in a segment of their lives, they learn discipleship where life happens. Practising the faith on your own can be difficult.
Discipleship through communities that are engaged with life makes sense for all sorts of reasons. Here are just three of them:
- It is what Jesus did. Jesus taught his followers not only in private, but in public – at the frontiers of life. In Luke 6.20, for example, he deliberately turned to his disciples to teach them, even though a large crowd was standing by (verse 17);
- Relying solely on the withdrawal model ignores how personal identities are shaped by families, networks, neighbourhoods, workplaces and other relationships outside the church. These identities frequently come to the fore at the expense of our Christian identities. Belonging to a Christian group in the midst of life can remind us that, important though these other identities are, our supreme identity is in Christ. This will affect how we live;
- Withdrawal into the church brings together Christians from a variety of backgrounds – a big plus – but often churchgoers do not fully understand one another’s everyday lives. ‘Their situation is so different to mine’ someone might think. So it becomes difficult to help each person apply the faith to the specifics of their context. Application tends to focus on principles rather than ‘how to’ in a particular situation. By contrast, Christian communities in life contain people from the same setting. Individuals are better placed to support each other in applying the faith to their shared circumstances.
One danger for fresh expressions is that they lapse back into the inherited mode of flying with one wing.
A community formed in a café might witness effectively to the café’s hinterland. People discover Jesus. They turn to the community for teaching, worship and other resources that will deepen their faith.
Relying on a withdrawal model of Christian formation, the community gradually evolves into an ordinary ‘church’ that happens to meet in a café.
To avoid this, new believers can be encouraged where possible to join with one or two other Christians and start further communities among their friends and contacts. Through these new communities they can learn how to engage in faithful Christian practice in another part of their lives. At the same time, they might periodically withdraw into the café community to be soaked in God’s story.
They would fly with two wings, which must be better than one!
This article was written by Rev’d. Dr. Michael Moynagh, a minister in the Church of England based at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has been involved in new types of Christian community for over twenty years, learning from the ‘pioneers’ involved, and writing extensively about them. He is sometimes known as the ‘theologian of fresh expressions of church’, and has an international consulting and teaching ministry. Discover some of Mike’s book about Fresh Expressions here.
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