How do we learn about people’s lives?
Having some idea of what people’s day-to-day lives are like is foundational for equipping them as whole-life disciples. If we want to help people serve and follow Jesus in their everyday contexts, we will need to know something about those contexts. So, when their life is very different to your life, how do you learn about theirs?
Dave Bruce, Team Rector at St Andrew’s & All Saints, shares some helpful insights.
A wise college tutor posed two questions to Dave. ‘What kind of disciples does Jesus want to send out into the world? And what kind of church will help to make those kinds of disciples?’ These two questions shaped the way Dave approached the rest of his ministerial training, his curacy, and the way he functions these days as a team rector.
Those two questions led Dave to ask two further questions. What kind of world are these disciples living in? And how can I find out about the opportunities and challenges disciples face in this world?
These questions matter. As Dave says, ‘If we’re detached from what’s really going on in people’s lives, it’s very hard to actually disciple them!’
So how do we find out what is actually going on in the lives of those whom we long to see shaped into the likeness of Christ? There is a silver bullet, and it’s available to all of us – though it’s distinctly unremarkable.
Dave has cultivated the art, the skill, the discipline of listening, and he listens in all kinds of ways. Some of these are formal, some are informal. Some are planned, some are spontaneous. All of them are intentional.
With everything that Dave has on his plate, the temptation could be not to belong to any kind of small group. But Dave finds the men’s Thursday morning group a great time to learn what some of the guys are facing in their day-to-day lives: the pressures of juggling work and parenthood, the challenge of being gracious with difficult people, the joy of having two uninterrupted hours to watch the rugby, and all the other big and little things that make up their lives.
He meets with the small group leaders too. Small group leaders care about the members of their groups, and naturally, they learn about what’s happening in their lives. By bringing these leaders together on a termly basis, Dave’s able to get a sense of the trends, the progress people are making, and the questions they are asking. Knowing this helps him to minister well. At the time of writing, the team were about to give out a questionnaire to every regular member, providing an opportunity to share how God is at work in their lives, where they feel encouraged, and in what ways they need help.
Then there are new people. Every person who joins the church brings a different frontline, a different web of relationships, a different set of gifts and experiences and questions and assumptions. So all newcomers are given a form where they can share this information with the team – not just so that the staff can work out what holes they might fill in the rotas, but how they, as a team, might support this person in their life outside of church activities.
Every person who joins the church brings a different frontline, a different web of relationships.
And then there’s the pièce de résistance: the frontline visit. When you visit somebody on their frontline, you see them in their natural habitat. ‘You see the place, you see what’s going on around them, you see them in their weekday clothes’. Some of Dave’s highlights as a rector have been frontline visits. ‘You get surprised by what people are doing. Once I went to visit an 85-year-old guy, whose frontline is the nursing home where his wife stays, and I found out that he had been leading a kind of service there. I had no idea that he had been doing this… I got to see that God was really using him – it’s just that before he had never had the chance to voice it.’
And when Dave visits someone in their workplace, their street, their athletics track, or wherever it may be, he’s not going as an expert with all the answers, but as a learner with a few questions. ‘I ask things like: Where are you seeing God at work? What are some of the struggles? How can we support you? How might we pray for you?’
Neil and Sue, long-term regulars at St Andrew’s, head up The Bridge Training and Development, an alternative education centre just outside Malvern. At the time Dave joined the church, Neil and Sue were facing serious challenges on a number of fronts. They felt ‘overstretched and exhausted.’
Neil already knew that his work was significant to God, but before Dave’s visit, he’d sensed a disconnect between the church and his work. The visit closed that divide. Neil describes how ‘Dave was very proactive in terms of pastoral support for me and my wife, and in recognising and acknowledging what we were doing. That sense of being valued really made a difference. It’s good to be listened to.’
Reflecting on the joys and benefits of frontline visits, Dave shared how ‘I have found it such an amazing privilege to go and visit people where they are – it’s a great excuse for a really good discipleship conversation, which you would not otherwise get. And rather than people feeling threatened that “the clergy” are coming round to check up on me, they are delighted and really moved that we want to take an interest in what they do Monday-Saturday.’
It’s such an amazing privilege to visit people where they are – it’s a great excuse for a really good discipleship conversation.
So church leaders enjoy them, members feel affirmed. Are there any other benefits? To mention just a few, Dave finds they help sharpen sermons, kickstart ongoing whole-life conversations, create a greater sense of partnership between leaders and congregation, and inform the content of seminars. Sometimes (with the person’s consent) Dave films people talking about their frontlines on location, which can be shared with the wider church during services or via the website.
And as all this happens, church cultures change. Church leaders and their congregations are better placed to learn from one another, to appreciate one another, and to work together. Neil elucidates this when he says, ‘Dave and I are both aiming at the same thing. Dave does it through running a church, and I do it through running a school. Whatever anyone is doing, as long as they are involving God, it’s just as significant as what happens in the church building… There is a greater sense that we are all in this together – we are all playing our part.’
Some things to try
Open up disciplemaking conversations
Before and after services, ask people how their week has been, and take a real interest in what their lives look like. If they say they’ve been busy, ask what they’ve been working on. If they have kids, find out what aspects of parenting they are enjoying, and what’s tough. Good questions get people to reflect on their experience in ways they may otherwise not. Good listening shows that you care.
Arrange to visit someone from your church on their frontline. Perhaps even make a habit of this, visiting different members of your church each week.
Reflect on your own experience
Take some time to reflect on your own life outside of church activities and relationships. How is God growing and using you? Who are the people you see on a regular basis? What challenges do you face? Thank God for what he is doing in your life, pray that he might grow you in the areas where you recognise it is needed, and thank God for those people you interact with.
Some things to look at
Frontline Fridays from the Diocese of London
There are great videos on the Diocese of London’s website, showing clergy visiting a range of frontlines. Search ‘Frontline Fridays’ on their website.
The people in your church are the best resource you have; each one of them is an expert in their own frontline experience. The best way to learn about them is by asking good questions and listening well.
Unearthing & sharing stories
This article highlights the value of sharing locally-sourced stories, and explains why this isn’t always straightforward. It then provides eight practical tips to help you discover and share frontline stories in your church.