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cost of discipleship

This week (first Sunday of September 2016) the lectionary gives me the section of Luke 14 on the cost of discipleship as the Gospel reading. To be a disciple, Jesus says, you have to hate your family and even your own life, you have to take up the cross, you have to dispose of all your possessions. He adds two helpful parables saying that to set out on a building project you can’t afford to finish is to invite ridicule and that to enter a battle you can’t win is foolish and that a king should sue for peace if he thinks he’s hopelessly outnumbered.

Given the current fashion for discipleship talk in the church (here’s the URC “missional discipleship” proposal and here’s the CofE page of links) this is a scary passage. In the case of the URC “discipleship” seems to mean “becoming self consciously and confidently Christian so that you can share your faith” (or something like that) – hence “missional discipleship” (I find this an appalling phrase but I know it has its origins outside the denomination so I’m not blaming anybody for it). In the material as presented I don’t see a lot of warning about cost and completion, nor about cross-carrying and death.

I’m finding it daunting to talk about Jesus’ strong warning about discipleship in this context. Far from encouraging everybody to take some courses and explore some options in developing as disciples his attitude seems to have been one intended to frighten anybody thinking about discipleship  as much as possible. “Hate my family”, “hate my own life”, “give up all my possessions”: and what do I get in return? A cross to carry? I think I’ll pass. Why would anybody, having heard all that, decide to follow Jesus, to become his disciple?

My feeling, reading the gospels, is that Christ wasn’t at all interested in accepting anybody into his circle of disciples. All the times I can think of when somebody approaches him (and there aren’t that many, unsurprisingly) he brushes them off. The demonaic burdened by Legion is sent away, the rich young man is scared off with unreasonable demands, Nicodemus is insulted. Nathanael in John 1 might seem to be an exception but even here Jesus has chosen Philip who calls Nathanael. The pattern seems to me to be that Jesus calls those he wants and pushes everybody else away. He seeks people out and rejects or at least strongly discourages those who seek him.

Now that isn’t necessarily problematic for those of us who are inside the fellowship of the Church, particularly those of us from “dissenting” or “voluntarist” rather than “Christendom”, “national” or “Catholic” “universal” traditions. We are (or should be) used to the idea that those in the Church are those who have been called. God chooses those whom he wills to be part of the Body of Christ, which we may think of in terms of discipleship.

What is more difficult, for me at least, is the contrast between what thay appears to mean to us and what it means in the Gospels (where the word “disciple” belongs, being used very sparingly in Acts and not at all in the Epistles or in Revelation). We seem to have an inclusive, gentle and gradual approach to discipleship. All are called to be disciples and it is something that one can embark on tentatively and in an exploratory way. What it means can vary from one person to another and doesn’t have to be too alarming.

That’s a long way from willingness to give everything up and carry the cross as minimum condition for entry.

I’m starting to think we should be a lot more hesitant in using discipleship language and a lot more humble about our relationship to Christ.

Maybe true disciples are few and far between. Maybe the rest of us depend on them and need to recognise how special they are. Maybe Jesus knows us for what we are and has tasks for us that fall short of what he meant by discipleship. Maybe.

At any rate I’m not comfortable with us using the word while ignoring what the one to whom we are supposed to be discipled has to say about its cost.

 all is vanityI imagine I am not alone among full time ministers of the Church in having days when I feel I have totally lost sight of what I believed myself called into the Church to do and to be. My vocation was a deeply personal one. I felt myself compelled to serve but unable to discern what that service consisted of. I looked around for additional things to do that would satisfy God’s claim on my life but couldn’t find them. I knew that my calling was first and foremost one of service to God rather than to anything or anybody else but I couldn’t get any sense of what God could possibly want or need from me.

In the end all I could think of was to put it into the hands of the Church, to trust that the Church would guide and support me in responding so I offered myself for full time stipendiary ministry. 

 

This, I think, is effectively what all stipendiary ministers do. They surrender their lives to God through the Church hoping and trusting that this will lead them to the service to which they are called. The call is to the individual and he or she passes part of the responsibility of discernment to the communal body of Christ in the Church. 

We are thus in a peculiar position of having to work our way through a triangular relationship in which the line joining minister and congregation (or other ecclesial authority) gets its authentication from lines joining both parties to God. This can go disastrously wrong, as anybody with any significant experience of Church life will know. Congregations and ministers can have different expectations of the relationship that lead to conflict and ultimately to breakdown.

In my case this has not happened. Two years in to my ministry here in South Hertfordshire I feel that we are finding our way to a sense of what I am here to do and what the churches are called to alongside me. There have been a range of exciting developments and experiments and relationships within and beyond the congregations are deepening and opening up avenues of exploration for our life and mission.

What I continue to struggle with, from time to time, is the ultimate question for all of us, always. “What’s the point of this?” My conversion to Christianity, in my late twenties and early thirties, was in large part driven by a sense of futility. I’ve written about this elsewhere but it came to seem to me that those areas in which I had sought meaning and direction turned out to be empty and pointless. Political action could not effect any significant change in the circumstances of life and the injustices and agonies of the world. Ethical integrity was illusory and foundationless. Personal relationships were haunted by the impossibilities of communication and of self-knowledge, always full of unknown and uncontrollable pathologies and mysteries.

The Christianity I encountered in the writings, especially, of Hegel and Kierkegaard acknowledged and accepted this assessment of our capabilities and the ways of the world but was not overwhelmed by them. It was able to live without illusion about what we can do but beyond the despair this might occasion. In their different ways these two giants of the nineteenth century offered, through faith, a way of finding strength and hope where futility and collapse threatened in face of the conflict between what we must necessarily want and what we can possibly have and do.

The danger, for me, of service in the Church, is over investment in the importance and effectiveness of what the Church can do. My denomination has a sort of slogan about “making a difference” which, to me, is poison. A tiny, aging and shrinking organisation like ours can’t really hope to make a difference that makes a difference. We can, in little pockets and to individuals, make a difference but when this is seen against the background of the needs of the world it is not a difference that matters. Even these little differences can look pretty laughable when set against the vision of God’s new creation, of the end of sin and death, of eternal life in the presence of God.

In itself this is unproblematic except where the making of the difference, the improving of the world, the growing of the Church, or the saving of souls, is seen as the purpose and goal of the Church. These things all need to be done, to fulfill God’s promise of salvation, but not by us, not by the Church. God will do these things using whatever methods and through whatever people God determines. After all Nebuchadnezzar of of Babylon, was unknown to himself, the servant of God and agent of his plans when he conquered Jerusalem, overthrew the Davidic monarchy and destroyed Solomon’s Temple.

We in the Church are called to do certain things, but the point of them is not the things themselves but their witness to God’s promise and God’s action. The Church has not purposes, goals, or objectives of its own. It exists only to point beyond itself and does well always to remember that.

As soon as it begins, self-importantly, to imagine it can “make a difference” everything it does is vanity, is sin, is subject to death and emptiness.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Church growth recently. A lot of the impetus for this has come from a combination of this being a topic receiving a lot of attention within my denomination and my congregations and a reluctance on my part to believe that any single aspect of church life (in this case evangelism broadly understood) should be assumed to be always and everywhere the proper focus of discipleship,

I think that each Christian, each community of Christians and every association of Christians and communities of Christians has the responsibility of working to discern what God wants them to do, In every case this is, must be, unique and individual as well as sharing common characteristics. Thus we will all be commanded to love God and neighbour but the concrete outworking of that will differ. For some it may be primarily prayer, for others mostly service to the afflicted. Both of these, along with participation in the eucharist, study of the Bible, and evangelism, are indispensable parts of our following of Jesus but not in the same balance or in the same ways for each of us, individually or communally.

Hence where “growth” or “evangelism” are promoted as the central question I get uneasy. It seems to me quite possible that this could distract some individuals or fellowships from what they are really called to, or prevent them getting the support they need to live out their vocations. We should strive to see the Church as a whole, insofar as we can, and to recognise that what some churches do for and in that Church catholic, is quite different from what others do.

In regard to growth it is essential that the gospel is proclaimed to new people who have not yet heard or understood it and it is clear that some parts of the Church are called to that and do it very effectively. In particular the church planting networks, inside or more often outside the old denominations, are almost certainly the best at it. If a denomination like the URC feels called to grow the numbers of Christians as part of its response to God’s vocation then it should be paying attention to church planting (I’ve seen this work well for us, particularly in the thriving new ecumenical Church on Fairford Leys).

In regard to growth it is vital, too, that we strive to discern what kind of church we are called to grow and why. Too often, in the context of declining churches, the discussion of growth is framed by the needs of the institution seeking to grow. The logic of this can be: we are the church; it is important that the church exists to witness to Jesus; therefore it is important that we continue to exist.

This argument is flawed because its first premise is untrue. No fellowship or denomination IS the church. It is not in fact important that any particular part of the Church continues to exist unless there is something unique that it does for God. If there is not keeping it going may well be a waste of effort and contrary to God’s will. Before seeking to grow a part of the church we need to identify what about it makes it worth the effort of expanding.

This question will have a wide variety of kinds of answer. The church may serve a particular group of individuals who would otherwise be lost, out of touch with Christ. It might be geographical. Maybe it uphold and preserves a way of relating to God (theological or liturgical maybe) that would otherwise not be available to the Church. Perhaps it does work of service that is valuable, or maintains a building of real worth to the kingdom. Any of these and more are possible but there has to be answer otherwise the growth looked for may not be relevant to the Kingdom, may be a merely human idolatry of an institution.

What the answer to the question of “why grow this?” turns out to be will be likely to guide one in looking for how to grow as well. If we are saying that the unique vocation of our fellowship or denomination is a particular thing then we are looking for people who will be excited by and contribute to that thing. If it is expressing the faith and developing the discipleship of a particular kind of person we are looking for that kind of person. In any case we have a message we can communicate about why we love what we’re inviting people to join and work within, we know what our particular message is (although this will serve the universal message about God’s saving work in Christ and the coming of the Kingdom).

I’m seeking to discern what the vocations of the two congregations within which I serve are. I’m sure they are different and am making quicker progress (I think) in that process in one place than the other. However I am convinced that both have work to do for Jesus if we can listen hard enough to find what that is. What I would not want to do is to try to grow the churches simply so that they can continue to exist without working out why it’s a good thing for them to continue. If a church answers by saying that it needs to exist in order to meet the spiritual needs of the people currently in it then in all honesty it will struggle to find people who will want to join it.

The same thing is true of the URC as a whole. I have yet to see anyone offer anything like a compelling argument for why the Church needs the URC (although I do believe such an argument could be made). Until we do find such an answer and come to a widespread consensus on it the denomination will live a kind of shadow existence and any growth that we do enjoy will be about local fellowships finding their own path without much reference to the denomination.

Last week I attended session run by our Synod Training Office on how we might make the groups/teams pattern of ministerial deployment, which it is Synod policy to make standard, work for us. This pattern, in which a team of several stipendiary ministers serve a group of churches, is unfamiliar to most of us and many are sceptical about it, a scepticism reinforced by a recent Church of England report that appears to show that churches whose ministry is organised in this way are less likely to grow (although the report is careful to stress that it has not demonstrated any kind of causal link).

I went into the session with a certain wariness but actually found it both interesting and encouraging. It seems to me that the transition to the new model presents, as changes so often do, both threats and opportunities. The groups and teams can be a context within which to identify needs and resources across a wider population and match them appropriately or it can amount simply to a mechanism for managing decline. Which it is will depend greatly on how effectively the leaders of the churches (both ordained and not) can work together to facilitate and guide a discernment of the Spirit’s guidance to us all.

I am convinced that each and every congregation can find ways to serve the kingdom of God and to be fruitful in that service. I am also convinced that this will often involve doing new and unexpected things and stopping doing things that have long been part of their corporate lives. We all need to review what we do and in every aspect ask ourselves things exist and also what we are being offered by God in the form of new ways to witness to his love.

Some congregations will be at different points in that process of discernment and I find it easy to imagine that across a group there will be times when some churches have exciting ideas and projects and others are in a period of reflection and prayer with no immediate sign of something fruitful and interesting to do. This represents a great opportunity. Congregations whose life is not marked by initiative could be encouraged to observe and perhaps assist with the projects being undertaken elsewhere, if only for a short time. This would serve both to inform and enliven their own discernment and support and nurture the work being undertaken elsewhere.I don’t have in mind any form of compulsion but rather than forums be brought into existence which have as their purpose sharing of missional ideas and activities.

Similarly among the stipendiary ministers it makes sense for those grouped into a team to explore together their various strengths and weaknesses and their differing vocations. These could be considered in deciding what kinds of work the ministers concerned should undertake. That we differ is obvious and group/team working could be an opportunity to make these differences a really positive thing. Thus, for example, churches of different sizes and at different points in their life cycle clearly require different kinds of ministerial support. Equally clearly ministers will be better suited to providing different things. We currently have few ways to recognise this. Groups and teams might well offer one.

These two aspects of the opportunity (allowing individuals within congregations the chance to participate to whatever degree in things their own churches do not currently do and matching needs to capabilities in ministry) would require of us that we be willing to do things in unfamiliar ways and to be honest about ourselves and our situations and also that we be open to the prompting of the Spirit as it comes to us in other people. I wonder if we’re daring enough to shake things up to that degree.

We had a fascinating discussion of the nature of evangelism (sharing the faith with others) and its relationship to the life of our own church at the Potters Bar URC Bible study group last week. Those present reflected on what they would say to others about why they thought it would be good to become part of our church, what it was they really valued about their own membership.

Different churches are different. Ours is predominantly fairly elderly, most of its members are of retirement age, and consists mostly of people who have been members for a long time. There are some newer members but most of these are quite like those who are longer established. There is a small scattering of younger and more recent people but they are very much in the minority.

A key characteristic of our fellowship is the dense and deep network of personal relationships that mark it. These form a cluster of overlapping groups of friends who provide real care and support to one another. This “skeleton” supports the whole rich life of the church and enables it to integrate and absorb newcomers who can fit into this life. When talking about what they would say to people to describe the ways in which joining us would enhance their lives this belonging to a community was very prominent.

My wife and I have become deeply involved in the Nursery School which runs in the church building and as part of the charitable work of the church since we have been here. She chairs its management committee and I sit on it and together with another elder provide a link to the leadership of the church. What has impressed me over the last six months is the extent to which the nursery also functions as a community.

We are blessed to have a significant number of talented and committed people among the parents. These include graphic designers who have designed and produced new publicity material. Musicians who led the children in producing a CD. One of the fathers designed and implemented a new web site using the new logo from one of the graphic designers. Parents have run large and successful craft mornings during the holidays. They sourced a range of impressive prizes for a fund raiser, they have run coffee mornings and put on a massive event with a local children’s entertainer. Our walking float in the town carnival won a prize.

All this has been achieved from the voluntary efforts of those whose children attend the Nursery. Spending time with them it is clear that many of them have become friends through their involvement with us and it seems probable that these friendships will in some cases endure and form part of the network that makes our town such a particularly settled and comfortable place.

All this, it seems to me, has a good deal in common with the shape and life of a particular kind of church. I researched the history of the other church in which I serve last year in order to mount a proper celebration of its 70th anniversary. One thing that struck me was the pattern of the membership figures. The church began in the 1940s as an initiative of two families who had moved to the new village of Brookmans Park from north London, where they had been members of a Congregationalist church. It was centred on a Sunday School and grew consistently until the middle of the 1970s since when there has been steady decline.

The period of its growth, from 1943 to 1973 coincided with the growth of the village. During this period it provided a way for new people both to continue the Christian practice they brought from their former place of residence and to integrate with the life of the community to which they had moved. There were a range of groups, especially for women and young people, which did all sorts of things, from drama and flower arranging, through maintaining the church, to Bible study and exploration of faith.

We are sometimes inclined to be dismissive of the social lives of our churches, to be snobbish about churches that are “clubs” but I’m not at all sure we should be. The church as community has always been important, as any reading of the epistles in the New Testament will reveal. The common life of the people of God is always prominent.

Our difficulty lies in properly integrating that with our theology and our missional vocation, our calling to be Christ’s representatives to the world. At Potters Bar we are doing important community building work through the Nursery but it is unrecognised by and even invisible to much of the congregation. At the same time we may not properly recognise the extent to which the life of our community is both part of our witness and consonant with the gospel.

I am coming to believe that each church needs to recognise that the Spirit has shaped it as the body it actually is and not aspire or desire to be something else (although always ready to be changed by the ongoing work of the Spirit). Our mission cannot be to turn into another church (younger, more modern, bigger) but rather to be what we are called to be as fully as we can be. The more authentically we express the identity we have been given to more likely we are to witness effectively to God’s love. Learning to accept and celebrate our own uniqueness, with all its frailties and failures, is an essential step towards the repentance that enables the Spirit to transform us into the disciples we are intended to be.

For the URC as a whole this means finding what is unique and positive in being an elderly and declining body of disparate churches blessed with an amazing legacy of material and spiritual resources, NOT wishing to be a denomination of a quite different character (younger and bigger, more “progressive”, more “orthodox”, more “Reformed” or whatever it might be). We are who we are and we have our own distinct and unique vocation. We just haven’t discerned it properly yet.

Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

Does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?

The influence of economic theory in the sociology of religion can be found in “Rational Choice Theory” which argues that religions exists to meet a set of human needs and that people “choose” religions to meet those needs. The needs are usually thought to be related to a need for an ultimate guarantee of “meaningfulness” (or something like it) and for continuation of existence beyond death but other formulations and alternatives are possible. The key point is to bring religious belief and (especially) practice within the range of activities amenable to analysis using the categories native to the discipline of economics.

I don’t think such an approach is likely to give a comprehensive and satisfactory account of all “religious” phenomena (nor am I comfortable with the category “religion” as meaningfully bringing together the range of institutions and practices it is sometimes used to cover). However it does prompt some fruitful questions, especially when considering questions of Church growth and decline.

Rational Choice Theory suggests that we should try to understand why people participate (or not) in religions by looking at what might motivate them considered as rational agents trying to allocate their resources (especially including their time) in such a way as to get the maximum satisfaction from them. To begin this task we would have to have some account of what’s in it for them, what they might gain from being members of a church, or synagogue, or temple, or mosque.

We can immediately see that the answer to this question will vary somewhat depending on which “religion” we’re asking it about. Minority communities with strongly marked and deeply felt ethnic-cultural identities will have a different relationship to “their” religious institutions from those who do not belong to such communities. A significant part of the benefit of religion for them may be related to benefits of cohesion and solidarity in a community only partly defined by religion and with little necessary connection to the content of the religious system of ideas and activities.

For faith communities which are not directly tied to such a general cultural identity the benefits of belonging or practicing may well be more tightly bound to the belief system, but may not be. Some churches I have encountered have, at first sight, the character of social communities, bound by ties of friendship and mutual care and with little explicit attention to distinctively Christian ideas, activities or themes.There are real and evident benefits to membership but these are not obviously religious, being more about social relationships.

This observation leads one to the question of why and how any particular individual comes, or not, to identify as Christian or to join a worshiping community, questions that might well be crucial in formulating a theory or a practice of church growth.

Rational Choice Theory tends to the view that the needs met by “religion” are very widely (perhaps universally) felt and that rates of participation are determined largely by the “supply side”. People will almost always belong to a body that meets that set of needs if they can find one that matches their particular way of feeling and understanding them. What leads to overall decline in religion (on this view) is the lack of suppliers that meet the requirements of many people.

Thus one would assume that everybody needs “religion” and work out what kind of religion will allow that need to be met. Something like this would explain the new phenomenon of “atheist churches”. It would suggest that these have found a way of meeting religious needs without demanding that participants accept propositions (about supernatural realities) that their commitment to a modern set of beliefs, shaped by science, make incredible to them. Something like this is the proposition of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and other similar writings.

The tradition of belief in “election” or “predestination”, which is particularly strong in the Reformed and especially the Calvinist strand of Christianity but which is by no means peculiar to it, would reject all of this. It does not think of “religion” as meeting human need at all, indeed would regard such an idea as both expressive of the basic human sin of idolatry and as properly heretical.

Human beings have faith in Christ, on this view, because God has chosen, elected, them. Some people are, by God’s decision, called into the Church (invisible) and others are not. There is no rational choice on the side of the creature, the choice (not subject to human rational calculation of utility) is all on the side of the sovereign creator. The purpose of Christianity is divine, not human.

I am inclined to see both of these accounts of how people come to the Church as human constructs that fail to do justice to the mystery and complexity of the relationship between humanity and God, but I also think that both say something true about it. In giving witness each of us will or should say something about the way in which we came to feel the needs and desires that brought us into the body of Christ. At the same time each of us should recognise that we were not in control of this process, as autonomous rational agents. We were formed by our past and by our natures and we were subject to the influence of the situations and crucially the relationships within which we found ourselves.

Be that as it may when we talk about “growing the church” we should always remember that every person who comes into contact with us and with our communities is, for them, the unique centre of the universe, until they some face to face with God. They come to us from God and from their pasts, set into a network of relationships. If they are to enter into an ongoing exploration of us and of the God we proclaim it will have to speak to what they need.

At the same time we and our existing congregations need to be alert to the reality that we are, whatever we might think, bound to our own needs and desires. Too often I think I hear, in talk of church growth, the voice of those, including myself, who are mostly seeking to maintain something we love because of the way it sustains us. That, it seems to me, is a temptation we should be wary of.

I’ve been here in South Hertfordshire, exercising my ministry in Potters Bar and Brookmans Park for nearly a year now and I’m beginning to get a sense of what I believe myself to have been called/sent here to do. In both the churches I think that the extra dimension I can add, as a stipendiary minister of word and sacraments, is essentially missional.

That is to say what I feel my specific vocation here to be is less about preaching and teaching than I expected it to be, although preaching and teaching are important parts of my ministry here, and more about seeking and nurturing the opportunities for the churches to reach out into their communities.

It further seems to me, again rather unexpectedly, that these opportunities are largely (but not exclusively) about seeking ways to serve those communities and to build relationships, not firstly about the explicit statement of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Building partnerships and looking for the things we can do that will minister to those in need at their point of need is occupying a good part of the centre of my attention, at the moment. This was not what I expected.

These needs are various and determined in part by the resources we have to offer, as church communities. These include my time, as someone free to devote myself to thinking and doing things determined by my discipleship rather than the necessity of earning a living. They also include our buildings, valuable as assets in themselves, as places to gather and to experiment. Vitally they also include both the experience and commitment of the members of the churches and their (and my) networks of contacts.

All of this makes the churches potentially invaluable starting points for initiatives to build community and reach out to those who are vulnerable, weak or isolated, to the poor, to the elderly, to the sick, to the damaged. I’m sure all of this will take time but I feel myself strongly drawn towards it,

At the same time I think we will continue to look for ways to draw together those whose lives seem outwardly to be without real difficulty but who, like us all, are in more pain than we can bear to contemplate because of our separation from God, who is the source and destination of all that is good in us and without whom we are unable to ground or sustain ourselves as integral beings.

The great danger, I think, is that we can come to believe, or to want to believe, that doing good is an end in itself, and that the good we do is the justification for our actions. This is not so. Anything we can achieve is always going to be irrelevant without faith in the coming of God’s kingdom, not through any human action but through the action of God. What we do is a mere sign of that kingdom, not a step towards it. It is thus meaningless with the proclamation of our hope in the promise of Christ’s return in glory and in judgement.

The specific calling for me now may be mission as service but that is meaningful only as part of an overall ministry which is defined by the Word and by the Sacraments. Encouraging and nurturing the mission of the churches makes sense primarily as an aspect of the development of their discipleship and their witness to the gospel and must continually be grounded in the study of the Bible (and I’m blessed to have three active Bible study groups in which to participate) and its opening to the present in preaching.