Monday, 13 August 2007

Church and growing in discipleship

Willow Creek have been doing some hard-headed research about the ways their people grow in discipleship, and the role of the Church in that.

It shows there is no simple correlation between church involvement and spiritual discipline. At various stages after they have set out on the Christian journey, people can stall and become frustrated with the role of Church in their Christian life.

There's far more to be studied on this subject and work is in hand, with sponsorship, to extend from the current base of 11,000 surveys to 500 churches around the world. It looks as though this will be done with all the thoroughness and excellence to which Willow Creek aspire. It'll be well worth a read.

So, I wonder,
  1. how do our Churches promote and how do they obstruct growth in discipleship, allowing that there are always stages of stuckness in the spiritual life?

  2. Could we/ should we be doing anything about that (apart from awaiting research results from RevealNow?

  3. Do all expressions of Christianity share gaps between belonging and spiritual practice at the same points? Why?/ Why not?


Rev Sam said...

That's an extremely interesting topic, but I'd worry about that second graphic, especially the 'church is letting me down' part. Sounds like 'I would be really holy if it wasn't for all you liberal backsliders....' It may not be the intent, but it seems to play into the idea that Christianity is an individualistic enterprise, and wrestling with the messy reality of other people - ie actually belonging to a church - is an optional extra.

l.f. Buckland said...

how do our churches promote/obstruct discipleship? We've returned from visiting NZ - worshipping in an Auckland church of 7000 people, established 8 years ago. The contrast between [that] urban and [our] rural churches, most significantly focussed on settling new members into 'Life groups' which nurtured them in discipleship each week, but above all by emphasising COMMUNITY through eg large photos of different age/ethnic groups in the entrance, by a welcome group which took new individuals to a separate part of the post-service coffee and took an interest in them as people, their interests, where they lived etc [all very nicely done, not an inquisition!] so as to introduce them to a compatible Life Group. Naturally, to be absorbed into the life of a welcoming community, makes it part of life and not an add-on [optional] for Sundays-and-Committeees. So it is equally natural to invite your friends to come next time. The Welcome - as well as the nature of the Service - is predictably good, so no chance of disappointment, or embarrassment. That Auckland church is growing at the rate of 50 per week!!! and has now separated into 4 buildings/areas whose people gather centrally every Sunday evening in addition to their local morning service.
Discouraging discipleship - we do it alas, too easily, through giving people so much freedom that we stand back from involving them - and making them feel wanted. The essential anchor in this uncertain modern life is Community. If we do not offer people a welcoming, personal, and contributory involvement with a church community, we cannot expect them to join us, in preference to joining e.g. a fitness club.

maggi said...

hi +Alan, this is an interesting looking survey; I'd have a few questions about how they think they measure "spiritual growth" but a lot of the observations translate to what the Emerging Church conversation has been tracking over here for a decade or so. Similarly, Alan Jamieson's work in NZ. Finding ways to support and connect people when "normal" church doesn't do it is important; for me, I think it should be part of "normal" church anyway.

(PS love the new Kapoor banner)

Alan Wilson said...

Sam —
I agree the focus of this survey is individual rather than corporate in the things it measures when, arguably, most NT spiritual fruits are, at the least, things that could only conceivably be evidenced corporately (Love, peace, fidelity, stability). I think the mental model underlying this survey is a rather individualised Protestant one, and that has to be borne in mind when we read any results. It's (doctrinally) implying the real Church is the great invisible eschatalogical one we only reflect for now, kind of thing. I know that isn't the whole truth, and I think many WC people do, too. It's ecclesiologically slightly unhealthy, but probably no more so than the official Roman Catholic tendency (see the Pope's most recent statements) to identify the Church in all its fullness entirely with their particular denominational institution.

The NZ experience said to me something interesting about how Christian churches pick up from the marginalised. It also says something very powerful (given my questions about individualism like Sam's and Maggi's) about Community as an expression of the kingdom, that I buy 100% (Benedictine streak showing through). I'd love to know where these new joiners are coming from (what proportions were organic, transfer and outsider growth). I also think the WC research is coming out of a megachurch 30 years down the line, and it's helpful and healthy for them to focus on their own sticking points. Actually they're researching other people's, because they're looking at 500 churches in this phase. It's interesting, too, that they're basing their work not just on number crunching combined with interviews with Church leaders (the kind of "Christian Research" methodology) but on surveying the actual punters individually — a method which raises theological questions, as it did for Sam, but not many people do it and it's another shaft down into the material.

Thanks, Maggi for getting us some richer context and implications in this conversation. I think the Alan Jamieson stuff, et al, is really interesting. WC is fascinating because it's working in a very pragmatic and competent way with data, as a successful corporate business would (well, it is a business, I suppose.). It's got onto this thing about spirituality not being served by how we do Church (albeit the definitions are, I agree, highly pietistic and individual). It's very acutely spotted, you could say, that people don't carry on growing as they hoped they would spiritually in US Evanglical churches (a theme that I think they've found disturbing but are trying to engage honestly with). I don't think they've yet got onto the "believing without belonging dimension of this." For a start Americans haven't the same degree of what Grace Davie calls 'latency' at this phase of the US Empire as we have this side of the pond. Anyway, they might say, they can't get onto that until they have fleshed out this model by further research to establish broader variables in non-megachurch contexts, which is what they're doing now.
Finally, siblings, as St Paul would say, confession is good for the soul, and I am becoming a real Bean freak. I realised when I last spent time with it I could have stayed there all day photographing it! I even went back after a blues club visit next night, just to see what it was like in the dark, and it was even better! Some day I will attempt a 12 step recovery programme but right now, as Ronald McD says, "I'm lovin' it". End of confession. For these and any other sins...

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