What we all need to learn about Discipleship from the Church Army Messy Church Review

Review of the paper here.

Language is powerful. When I was Head of a majority black school in Lewisham I was chuffed when a pupil told me, “You talk about black people like black people do.” When I asked what she meant she said that I didn’t look embarrassed to use the word “black”. But I knew my limits. It is never appropriate for a white person to use the ‘N’ word.

Digital media exposes the power of language. In the two platforms I use there are ‘trigger words’ that I occasionally use. Words that trigger a predictable, and predictably strong, reaction. “Management” is guaranteed to trigger a flurry of clergy who tell me that they were not ordained to be ‘managers’. In education circles “knowledge” can start a similar reaction, “what about skills and understanding … everything anyone needs to know can be googled ..”.

A similar trigger effect seems to be developing in the church around the word “discipleship”. One bishop-friend told me recently, after reading something I had written, “There is no such word as discipleship”.

Perhaps I am developing a contrary streak. I rather like the word ‘management’ and close as ‘stewardship’ is it just doesn’t quite get there. I am also very happy with, even fond of the word ‘discipleship’. Recently invented or not it does something that no other word quite seems to manage.

I wrote recently about the really helpful study of Messy Church that Church Army has conducted. Alongside the main summary report are a series of really very good background papers. One of these is on discipleship.

Whether you are a discipleship denier or enthusiast this document is an important read. I can’t think of anywhere else I have read such a comprehensive summary of the literature on discipleship. There isn’t much point summarising that summary here. What is interesting is to see the term used, by David Watson, as early as 1978, but the survey goes back to Bonhoeffer’s writings in the 1930’s, although he doesn’t use the word itself. An important but neglected document mentioned is, Developing Discipleship, presented to General Synod in 2015 I would also recommend Ian Jones’ paper What do we mean when we say ‘discipleship’? .

Many readers will be familiar with the ‘Engels’ Scale‘ of discipleship. Various reservations about it are raised and this is important. But unhelpfully large orange boxes in the report reflect the dualism of the Engels’ scales by using proposed various binary oppositions:

Head Knowledge … Heart Response

Inner Transformation … Outer Transformation

Owned Individually … Owned in Relationship

Formal Learning … Informal Learning

Key Moments of Decision … Lifelong Journey

Non-Churched Backgrounds … Churched Background

Monthly Pattern … Weekly Patterns

All-Age Discipleship … Peer Group Discipleship

Leaders Thinking Pragmatically … Leaders Thinking Theologically

Of course, these are really elements that we need to integrate and it is this integration that is the hard and essential work.

I was pleased to see James Fowler’s Faith Development theory here. I wrote the dissertation for my B.Ed on this several decades ago and still find Fowler’s work a useful tool. The summary mentions criticism of this and other theories for being too linear, a criticism which I completely agree with. However, the real reason why Fowler is now somewhat discredited in education circles is his reliance on the cognitive development theories of Piaget. The single element most obviously missing for me in MC and in the definitions of discipleship is the recent shift in education to knowledge based learning. Faith development and learning are not the same thing but they do substantially overlap. A key problem with the Engels’ scale is the dichotomy it suggests between Head and Heart learning. As Orthodox teaching on the Head descending to the Heart is not about the Head being subsumed by the Heart but the two being integrated. Generally, it seems to me, our nurture of discipleship has failed because we have neglected the Head. This matches problems in education and schools where the heart, interpreted as ‘feelings’ has been allowed to dominate. For the Orthodox, and for the Bible, the Heart does not mean the seat of feelings/emotions but the ‘core’ of our being.

The radical nature of the recent Church of England document Growing Faith, is its putting households and families on equal standing to churches and schools as places for nurturing discipleship. The failure of many families to be able to do this, or even to want to be able to do this is a failure of knowledge as much as a failure of feeling. We have not taught sufficient knowledge. Parents are woefully under-equipped to be able to nurture their children in the faith. This is behind my own search for a sufficiently rigorous systematic theology expressed in simple enough terms for an average parent to be able to articulate an intellectually satisfying account of the faith to their children when they are 7 years old and 17 years old which can then sustain them until they are 70 years old!

Although it is beyond the scope of this paper on discipleship I think the most hopeful element of the whole package of reports is the encouragement to move from thinking about MC as an outreach activity to articulating it as a Fresh Expression of church. In a real sense our definitions of discipleship will always be provisional, and rightly so. This will particularly be the case in the time of rapid change we are in, where traditional measures such as giving and Sunday attendance are no longer the only significant accounting of our mission.

Language is powerful. Discipleship is described in this document as apprenticeship. Theologically, spiritually, pragmatically this is a healthy way of thinking about our Christian lives. Brother Roger of Taizé wrote about the ‘dynamic of the provisional’. The church retains its dynamism when we recognise that following Jesus is precisely that; being with him as he walks, as he moves, as he empowers change, as he makes himself known in new ways and new contexts.


1 Comment

  1. Really helpful discussion on the meaning of discipleship, Richard. Thank you. I know Ian Jones but hadn’t come across that paper. Our church runs MC in a community centre on an estate in our parish rife with deprivation and have always aimed for it to be a Fresh Expression of Church. In my experience of 10 years here, it works. Our regular families own MC as their church! There is a long way yet to go, but the green shoots are sprouting. (It would be true to say some families come because we offer a good meal at the start. But they need that!)


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