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20.05.2020

Research: 5 Ways to get Disciplemaking into your Church’s DNA

Max is a personal banking manager. It was quarterly review time, and as he sat opposite his line manager, she remarked, ‘You seem calmer, Max; less irritable. I’ve not really heard you complain about anything. Can I ask why you think this is? He checked if he could be completely honest, then gave his one-word answer: ‘God’. A great conversation followed.

Ruby is the wife of Angus. During Angus’s weekly cancer treatment, Ruby shaped the culture of the waiting room, helping it become a place of mutual support, a place for exploring faith, and a place of surprising joy.

Rob is a rector. He’s discovered the joy of helping his congregation see the links between Anglican liturgy and their everyday lives.

What kind of churches unearth these kinds of stories? And what are they doing to create cultures where these kinds of happenings are more likely to occur?

The research

Between January 2018 and January 2020, we followed up with 16 church leaders and denominational workers who had been through one of our Learning Hubs. Learning Hub sessions help churches explore what making whole-life disciples means, why it matters, and how it can be worked out in their own contexts.

Perhaps you’ve been part of a Learning Hub yourself, or perhaps you’ve never even heard of them. Either way, if you want to grow as a disciplemaking church, what we’ve learnt from these churches is relevant to you.

We wanted to explore the difference going through a Learning Hub made to churches once they came out the other side, and to learn how these churches are empowering people for effective frontline living.

Many of the churches we spoke to had not merely tweaked aspects of their various ministry areas, but were undergoing deep culture change. Whole-life discipleship (WLD) is becoming part of their DNA. As we tracked with these churches, here are five things we learnt.

1. The power of accountability

When you’re a busy church leader, there are so many things you need to do in order to prevent somebody from shouting at you (or more likely complaining about you to someone else). ‘She didn’t visit me when I was in hospital.’ ‘Was it just me or did he preach the same sermon last Easter?’ But it’s unlikely anyone will get on your case for not equipping them to live as a whole-life disciple! Therefore, it’s very easy to let it slide; for good intentions to remain just that.

The Learning Hubs themselves provided an element of accountability, as church leaders attend eight sessions over a period of a year or more. But what seemed to be more important than this was developing internal accountability within the leadership team, PCC, eldership, or whatever the leadership structure. Churches who are making serious headway get in the habit of reviewing how their WLD journey is going, and planning what they will do next. It gets in diaries, it appears on agendas. There is no sense it will just happen automatically.

We also (accidentally) discovered the power of external accountability. The number of times church leaders said something along the lines of ‘Knowing I would receive this call helped keep this on our radar’, revealed the simple power of knowing somebody is going to check up on you.

So, if you’re serious about creating and sustaining a WLD culture in your church, get accountable.

2. Talking about life

Stories are like the pink-white blossom I can see on my neighbours’ apple tree right now. Stories are a both a sign of existing life, and a sign of more life to follow. All of the churches making good progress are proactive in unearthing stories, and provide a platform from which they can be shared.

There are so many ways to do this. One of the most straightforward, and perhaps most catalytic, is having a regular This Time Tomorrow (TTT) slot in their services.

In TTT interviews, congregations are exposed to a range of peoples’ frontline experiences: how they spend their time during the week, the joys and challenges they face, how they see God at work. These short interviews serve a threefold purpose. People in the church get to know one another more deeply, they learn from one another’s experiences, and they are prompted to recognise the value of their own frontline ministry.

Small groups were increasingly creating space for members to talk about their frontlines. In one Baptist church we spoke to, whatever team is meeting, whether it’s the leadership, music, or buildings team, they always set aside the beginning of the meeting for at least a couple of people to share what is happening on their frontlines. Some found it awkward to start with, but it’s becoming more and more natural. It’s a really powerful way to remind teams that life ‘out there’ really matters, and that what we do ‘in here’ has significance for the whole of our lives.

How might you get your church talking more about daily life?

3. Humble leaders

At no point in the research did any church leader say, ‘Yeah, I think the main reason we’re making such good progress is because I’m incredibly humble’. But when reflecting on the conversations we were having with these men and women, a consistent theme emerged. They were humble.

Humility is a key ingredient in making whole-life disciples, because one of the prerequisite skills is the ability to listen and learn. Arrogance doesn’t listen, because arrogance already knows. But humility has big ears.

In seeking to develop a WLD culture, the church leader must acknowledge their limitations, and must desist the temptation to be the all-knowing oracle. One Methodist minister, in a moment of incredible self-aware honesty, admitted, ‘I’m naturally someone who likes to be in control, so this has been hard for me. But I recognise there are things the congregation can do that I can’t. I say to them “you know your neighbours; I don’t!”’ He went on, ‘I now see my role much more as being about giving permission, handing over power, relinquishing control. They’re stepping up, and I’m stepping down.’

As church leaders increasingly focus on the gifts their congregations possess, and the opportunities they have to grow and serve on their frontlines, the more a sense of shared mission emerges. Everybody recognises they have a role to play, everyone is affirmed.

So, let’s take heed of James and Peter’s stellar advice. Let’s ‘be quick to listen’. Let’s humble ourselves ‘under God’s mighty hand’.

4. It doesn’t just sit with the primary leader

It’s kind of obvious, but it’s worth spelling out. If only one leader is focused on equipping disciples for the whole of life, the culture of the church won’t change. And any changes that do happen are unlikely to survive a change in leadership. If this stuff only sits with one leader, the rest of the church will see talk of ‘frontlines’ as being ‘his/her thing’, not ‘our thing’.

That’s why it’s so important for the majority of leaders within a church (paid or otherwise) to have a whole-life focus. And it means members of the congregation won’t think ‘all this stuff about being a whole-life disciple is just something I have to do when I listen to him/her preach, but in every other area of church life, it’s business as usual’. The more people you have in the church who ‘get it’, and more importantly, who model it, the more likely the whole church will realise this isn’t one person’s hobbyhorse, but a focus the whole church can share and benefit from.

In this follow-up work, all of the churches who are making significant progress talked about the importance of having other leaders and influential people within the church ‘on board’. It means the focus on WLD is going broader and deeper within their churches. It’s resulting in greater synergy between the primary leaders, preachers, worship leaders, children’s workers and so on. There’s also much greater creativity around how to inspire and equip disciples for frontline living, because so many more brains are thinking about this.

If you’re a church leader considering joining a Learning Hub, make sure you bring other leaders along with you. Doing so will mean a lot of the hard work is already done.

5. They use whole-life resources… but also develop their own thinking

Every single leader we spoke to said they benefited from using LICC resources within their churches. Small groups profited from the likes of Fruitfulness on the Frontline and The Gateway Seven series; service and worship leaders from Whole Life Worship; and leadership teams from Imagine Church. Delegates said it was great to grapple with the concepts during the hub sessions, and then have resources based on those concepts to use with the wider church.

While benefiting from such resources, the churches who seem to be grounding the learning best are those who develop their own thinking around what it means to make whole-life disciples in their specific contexts.

They came up with their own ideas, their own metaphors and language that worked within their congregations. Whatever book of the Bible they might be preaching through, or whatever small group resource they might be using, they’re always asking themselves the question, ‘How does this connect with people’s everyday lives?’

Making change stick

Being part of the Body of Christ means we can learn from one another’s successes and failures, our victories and defeats. As you reflect on what these churches are discovering, may it help you and your team go further and deeper in your work of developing a disciplemaking culture. Don’t doubt how much of a difference you can make. What you do together as a church community really does make a difference to how you live when you’re apart.

Find out more about Learning Hubs and discover how our team of church consultants can help you grow whole-life disciples in your church here.