Can whole-life disciplemaking work in a church like ours?
Some church leaders like the thought of growing their churches to be whole-life disciplemaking communities, but they wonder what it might look like in a church like theirs or if it’s even possible. LICC has worked with churches of all different sizes, locations, structures, histories, denominations, and styles. A whole-life disciplemaking culture can be developed in all.
Today’s Community Church in Wigan is just one example.
Somewhere between ‘sceptical’ and ‘interested’. That’s where Rachel Calland (Leadership Development) was at when Today’s Community Church’s (TCC) staff team began to explore whole-life discipleship with church consultant Andrew Belfield. Her concern: ‘Does this fit our style of church?’
It’s a question many church leaders ask, sometimes consciously. Below this question of style often lies something deeper: a fear of loss – a loss of identity. If we begin to focus more on what people do outside the church, will we lose what makes us ‘us’? A loss of good things: will people dislike the change and stop coming? Will we lose focus, or structure, or that sense of intimacy?
Your church may be very similar in style and emphasis to TCC; it may be substantially different. Whatever your tradition, style, or denomination, the approach Dave Belfield (Senior Leader) and his team have taken shows that it’s possible to focus on people’s lives outside of church services without losing who you are in the process.
All the leaders at TCC have a clear sense of the purpose of the church, what it stands for, and what it does well.
‘Our default is to do attractional church, and we do it well… We provide people with a great worship experience and preaching’, explains Dave. ‘People were happy, people were coming to faith’, but prior to the whole-life journey, there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction within the team. He confesses, ‘essentially, we were encouraging people not to be consumers, while at the same time giving them a platform to be consumers.’
Chevon Taylor (Discipleship & Mission) shared a similar sentiment: ‘It’s possible to say something on a Sunday from the stage and think it’s having more impact in people’s daily lives than it actually is. What does what we’re saying actually mean for a mum at the school gate?’ Rachel adds, ‘Our existing model wasn’t actually producing the fruit of discipleship, it wasn’t producing transformed places – it was frustrating that it wasn’t working the way I thought it should work.’
Being a charismatic church, their emphasis has been on encountering God, worshipping him passionately in the Sunday gathering, being filled with the Holy Spirit, experiencing spiritual freedom, and exercising spiritual gifts. None of that is surprising.
What is noteworthy though, is equipping people for the frontline hasn’t changed any of that. Rather than whole-life discipleship being a style or programme that takes over, it’s a renewed perspective that consistently asks the question ‘how do the good things we do inside the walls of the church shape us for who we are outside?’
Here are just three areas where working through this question is shaping the staff team’s thinking and actions. First off, their theology – specifically their pneumatology (understanding and experience of the person and workings of Holy Spirit). Dave is very quick to point out that they are ‘still on a journey in terms of what the use of spiritual gifts should look like on a Sunday and during the week’. Yet he is very clear on the direction of travel: ‘the outworking of the prophetic, the outworking of God giving wisdom, we would say these need to be worked out in your everyday life – they’re not just for Sunday.’
Rachel backs this up. She’s not trying to trim down the Holy Spirit’s job spec but enable people to see that in addition to bringing us peace, comfort, and guidance, he also empowers us ‘for everyday life’. As Chevon says, ‘We are infused with the Holy Spirit so that we might be an infusion in the places where we spend our time.’
Equipping people for life is not about having a style of church, it’s about doing what God’s told you to do.
This understanding of the Spirit is appreciated by regulars like Isaac, an officer in the fire service. Whether he’s ‘bringing order into someone’s chaos’, having conversations with workmates about their relationship difficulties, or praying with a terminally ill colleague on long-term sick leave, he’s drawing on the power of God and ‘keeping one ear open to what God is saying.’
Secondly, having the whole of life in view means the staff serve Isaac and his fellow worshippers with a renewed focus. ‘Lift’ is a once-a-month evening gathering where the church gets together to worship, pray, and listen to what God might be saying. At times like this, Rachel supposes, ‘The expectation could be this is all about “me” – where “I” can feel great because the presence of God is here. But everything we do here has a focus on mission. We say to people “you know that the Holy Spirit is real and he’s been at work in you tonight, so what does this mean for tomorrow?”’
They’ve also begun a monthly ‘Leadership Collective’. But this isn’t solely about training up people for church leadership positions. Alongside helping worship leaders and kids’ workers learn to lead like Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, they have school teachers, recruiters, entrepreneurs, and Isaac in the mix too. ‘We want to see them operating prophetically with their colleagues and for them to recognise that what they do during the week is ministry – there is no sacred and secular divide,’ explains Rachel.
A third area of change is the use of stories. This emphasis on the Spirit’s role in everyday life has not only increased the number of stories they share, but the focus of them too. They are much more willing to share stories about what God did in the week, not just what they experienced in a service. They are willing to share stories that aren’t at all ‘spectacular’. ‘We share stories about the process and not just about the results,’ Chevon points out. ‘Sometimes we tell a story and people are sat there waiting for the punchline, but we’re like, “that’s it.”’
In each of these three areas, they have reflected on their distinctive theology and ministry practice, and asked ‘how does this make a difference to people’s Monday-to-Saturday living?’
Before embracing the perspective shift, Rachel had asked ‘does this fit our style of church?’ It’s a question she answers herself: ‘I came to realise equipping people for life is not about having a style of church, it’s about doing what God’s told you to do.’
TCC was a thriving and passionate charismatic church. That hasn’t changed. TCC is still recognisably TCC. But something has changed, and Dave is determined to keep going. Speaking in the context of struggles and progress, he asks rhetorically, ‘Do we default and go back to the attractional model, because that’s what we’re used to and that’s what we’re good at? Or do we stick with this journey because that’s our conviction, that it’s right? Up till today, that’s what we’ve done; we say we are not drifting back to our default!’
Some things to try
Pick a brain
Are there churches within your denomination or network or that are of a similar style to your church who are making progress in discipling people for all of life? If so, arrange to visit or chat with a leader to see what you can learn.
Find whole-life liturgy
If your church uses liturgy, notice ways your existing liturgy addresses the whole of life, and try using some specific ‘whole-life’ liturgy (free materials available at engageworship.org).
Use the church calendar
Consider how you could use the church calendar to focus on mission and discipleship. Perhaps at Harvest Festival you could encourage people to bring in an object that represents their frontline, give people an opportunity to talk about what their object represents, before laying them at the front and thanking God for them.
Enrich your emphasis
Are there particular truths about God or Christian life which get emphasised in your church that might have powerful implications for how people live, pray, and feel throughout the week?
Some things to look at
Whole Life Worship by Sam & Sara Hargreaves
Useful for anyone planning or leading worship services, this book explains how your ‘gathered’ worship can be shaped by and geared towards the ‘scattered’ lives of the congregation. It’s practical, theologically rooted, and is useful across the denominational spectrum.
Whole Life Worship Journey Pack
Five service plans to help you connect gathered worship with everyday life.