A host of questions arise in many church leaders’ minds when they begin thinking about making whole-life disciples. ‘Will this emphasis on the importance of what people do outside of church life devalue what happens inside it? Will people become less engaged? And will this mean I, as a leader, have even less time to do all the other stuff I need to get done?’
These are legitimate questions. The People’s Church (TPC) in Banbury can help us begin to answer them.
For the congregation and for leaders, the answer to this multi-layered question regarding levels of commitment to existing ministries is mostly ‘no’, but it’s a nuanced ‘no’. Let’s explore.
The People’s Church is an active, serving church. They do a lot. They have a well-established youth and children’s ministry, they head up the local foodbank and CAP centre, run a weekly toddler group, and they engage with a number of local schools. Lots of people volunteer within the church, many in more than one area.
Stefan McNally was appointed Teaching Pastor, on a part-time basis, in 2015. In his preaching, in his conversations, in his prayers, he intentionally and regularly affirms the significance to God’s mission of what people do day-to-day, and he helps them to work through what the Bible says about their lives – what they might do and who they might become as whole people. As he’s done this, what’s happened to the commitment levels of those who volunteer regularly? Let’s meet some of them and find out.
Tim plays bass in one of the church bands, volunteers in the youth work, and is willing to serve in just about any way he can. He is deeply committed to the gathered ministry of the local church. He also happens to run a signwriting business. Up to 10 hours a week might be spent engaged in church-based stuff, but he spends five times that experiencing the joys of completing projects, and the frustrations of being let down by suppliers. Over the past few years, he and Stefan have talked at length about his work: how it’s a way of expressing the creative character of God; what gracious and wise living might mean when a supplier doesn’t deliver on time, what ministering in his context might look like. Tim is learning more and more what it means to be like Jesus in that place. Yet none of this has lessened his commitment to serving within the church.
Then there’s Rebecca. She’s another active church member, playing keys and violin in the band, and is one of those gems who actually reads the documents circulated prior to a church meeting. A few years ago, the school where she is the chair of the Board of Governors was going through a difficult patch. When the new Head arrived, Rebecca wanted to make sure she had the best opportunity to thrive in the role, and for the school to be a great place for the kids who go there. Rebecca wanted the Head to know she had the full backing of the governors, and the parents too. So, she organised welcoming drinks at a local pub. That evening set the tone for the relationship between this Head Teacher, the board of governors, and some of the parents. Rebecca continues to do an excellent job of supporting the Head of this improving school, and she still reads the church documents.
In both these cases, the answer to our question is ‘no’. As Stefan consistently affirms their service of God in the world and seeks to apply God’s word to their daily contexts through his preaching, members haven’t become less involved in church ministry. But who knows what might happen further down the line, what decisions they may need to make? Perhaps one of them realises that in order to create space to develop meaningful friendships with their fellow workers, governors, or neighbours they need to commit to one less thing in the gathered church. Perhaps at some point, Stefan may have a conversation with someone that goes something like, ‘Hey, we recognise this ministry God has opened up for you on your frontline. How would you feel about doing less round here, to free you up for your ministry there?’ That’s not happened yet, but one day, it might.
What the church is keen for people to do is find the right balance. ‘It’s important to make sure you have enough time for your frontline, that you have enough energy for your family and work. At the same time, you need to commit to the church activities you sign up for, and make sure you are there,’ explains Stefan. They want people to be effective on their frontlines, and they want to do things well as a gathered church.
Another reason the answer to our question about commitment is a nuanced ‘no’ is because while the church hasn’t stopped doing anything they were doing, they haven’t started any new initiatives in the last few years. Part of being ‘committed to a frontline posture’, and to people’s emotional and spiritual health, means ‘the church sometimes needs to say no to good things,’ says Stefan. ‘You know that a new initiative will mean X number of people giving X number of hours, and we know most people in our congregations are already at full capacity in terms of their church involvement and personal lives.’
So that’s the congregation, but what about the leaders’ use of time? Whether you’re full-time, part-time, or a volunteer leader, you only have so much time and so much space in your head – you can’t keep piling stuff on. What difference does a whole-life focus make to your workload?
With many of the things Stefan does, he doesn’t feel a whole-life perspective results in having to work longer or pay less attention to other aspects of church ministry. A lot of it is doing the same things, just with a new awareness.
Take prayer as an example. For a number of years, every Tuesday evening they held a one-hour prayer meeting. Prior to the focus on whole-life discipleship, prayers primarily concentrated on the ministry of the gathered church, and those struggling with illness or exceptional circumstances. But then the church were encouraged to begin emailing in any frontline prayer requests, so that they could be covered in prayer too. It wasn’t just an opportunity to pray about frontline struggles (though they were included), but also positive things people were working on, or people they were connecting with. The group who met to pray, including Stefan, would spend the first 20-30 minutes praying for people’s frontlines, then the remaining time on those other things they had always been faithful in praying for. This didn’t take much extra effort, nor did it mean jettisoning prayer for those other things. It was about creating healthy balance.
Another example is conversations. ‘At the start of a trustees’ meeting, I’m more likely to ask the guys how their day at work was, and what things they’ve been working on.’ At one of their periodic newcomers’ events, Stefan got chatting to a guy who specialised in tropical agriculture. ‘Before, I probably would have glossed over this area of his life and talked a lot more about his personal and family life, or how he would like to get involved in church-life. But the whole-life approach helps me to see the value of his work to God and to God’s mission.’ It was a conversation where Stefan learned a lot about an area of life he knew nothing about, and the agriculturalist was so happy to have the opportunity to talk about something he loves doing.
In both examples, Stefan isn’t spending extra time to learn and pray and speak into people’s lives, they are events and activities he would be involved in anyway. He just approaches them with a different focus.
That’s not the complete picture though. Transitioning from being part-time to full-time will allow Stefan to step up visiting folk on their frontline, which will be an invaluable use of time. He’ll also be able to work on developing a wider culture of disciplemaking within the church. Inevitably, this will involve thinking, planning, additional conversations and meetings, all of which means more time – time that could have been spent doing something else. When church leaders take time to do these things, it inevitably leaves less time for other things. This is where wisdom, healthy delegation, training others, building teams, and evaluating the priorities of the church become even more necessary.
So, let’s return to our question. Does introducing a whole-life perspective reduce commitment to the gathered life of the church? Well, at this stage in TPC’s journey, there has been no sign of drop-off in commitment from those already involved – though it’s possible a growing frontline ministry may call for some people to reduce their involvement. The church hasn’t stopped doing anything they were doing, though they have consciously not launched any major new initiatives. And for Stefan as a leader, much of what he does doesn’t take additional time, though some actions that will develop his and the church’s ability to disciple people for the frontline will do.
Surely though, even where this does require a deliberate investment of time and some rethinking and delegating, it’s time well spent. It sharpens sermons, hones prayers, increases the capacity for ‘one another’ discipling, and broadens the missional reach of the church. If that is what is produced, it’s worth the digging.
Some things to try
As you and your church go on this journey, be sure to regularly and explicitly affirm the value of the existing ministries of the church, and those who volunteer within them.
Conduct a review
Within your PCC/leadership team/staff team/eldership, conduct a review of current activity levels. Discuss to what extent you as a church are getting the right balance between serving together and ensuring people have enough time and energy for other aspects of their lives and ministry on their frontlines.
Make the connection
In your teaching, encourage people to discover links between gathered church ministries and their scattered lives. As examples: a church-run foodbank could be a resource for church members’ neighbours, friends, or colleagues facing financial difficulties; a church-hosted parenting course could be a resource for your people to help support parents they connect with during the week.
Some things to look at
Whole-life coffee rota section, Imagine Church pages 146-149
In Imagine Church, author Neil Hudson describes how being on the humble coffee rota can help someone develop in relationship-building, visitor hospitality, and pastoral sensitivity – qualities that will also help them serve those in their everyday contexts. Get thinking about other church roles’ skills that translate.