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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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From Talking the Talk to Walking the Walk: One Church’s Journey

A minister’s honest account of discovering what it really means to make whole-life disciples.

I guess I speak for a lot of Baptist churches when I describe our church as an active one seeking to reach out to our community with the good news of Christ. We do that through our own activities and through the individual witness of Christians in their family, workplaces, and friendship groups. Like many churches of around 100 members, we’re very busy maintaining church activities that reach out into the community, and we suffer from the usual challenges of stress, burnout and succession of leadership.

When you’re caught up in the whirlwind of all this activity, it’s sometimes difficult to find time to take a step back to see the bigger picture.

A perspective shift

A few years ago, our church leaders attended a two-year leadership training course to help us do just that. Towards the end, we were led through a session on whole-life discipleship, which included a video by Neil Hudson explaining the vision behind the Imagine Church resource. This struck a chord with all of our leadership team.

We realised that although we talked a good game about equipping our church to be witnesses in everyday life – in reality, we were investing the vast majority of our time and energy in maintaining church activities. Our vision, strategy, programmes and teaching didn’t reflect the need for ‘gathered’ church to equip our people to ‘scatter’ in mission to their frontlines.

In other words, our teaching and vision were focused on the 10 hours per week the average Christian spends on church activities, rather than the 110 hours they spend at work, at home, and in their neighbourhood.

This was a lightbulb moment for our leadership team – and it showed us that having a strategy is so important if you’re going to make your vision a reality. Our vision has always been to help people become disciples who make other disciples. The problem, though, is that, like all churches, we inevitably started to ‘drift’ from this vision.

Perhaps part of the problem lay with me. My gifts lie in teaching and pastoring, and so my default setting is to prepare sermons and try to provide a quality worship event on a Sunday, as well as to care for the church family. This is all commendable and needed, but it led to us becoming too focused on the gathered church.

LICC’s whole-life vision has helped us develop a more balanced approach to discipleship. It’s helped us to see that gathered church is just one aspect of people’s lives. And yes, we do need to equip and enable people to be effective disciples in their church-based activities – these things do matter. But we also need to equip and encourage them in every other aspect of their lives: as they raise their families, go to school, spend time with their friends and neighbours, and so on.

Changing church culture

As a result of this shift to a whole-life perspective, we’ve used various strategies to try and embed cultural change. The first thing we did was to take the whole church through the Fruitfulness on the Frontline small group and sermon series about a year ago, to help people start to see their daily lives through God’s eyes.

Like most churches, we’ve done a lot of courses over the years, and people have become weary of just ‘the next thing off the shelf’. What was so refreshing about Fruitfulness on the Frontline was that the stories it told reflected examples people could relate to. They made people think: “I could do that!” They hit home and inspired ordinary Christians like us to live out our faith in the everyday routines of life. We saw people getting a renewed vision and sense of calling about their role as a grandparent, or a parent, or a teacher, or a health worker, or…

At the same time, we met regularly with our small group leaders for feedback on how the material was being received. We found that the language of ‘frontlines’ was beginning to be used more and more by members of small groups. People were starting to understand how it related to their family, their workplace, their time with neighbours and friends. This was the first indication that real culture change was beginning.

To keep up the momentum after finishing the Fruitfulness series, we decided to use the Gateway Seven studies in our small groups and Sunday sermons. As a team we made sure to use these studies not just as ‘another programme’, but as a way to embed cultural change, to give people a new and lasting perspective on their daily lives.

Keeping on for the long term

This all felt like a great start, but drifting away from a vision is a perennial danger in church life. Even after going through these resources we found we quickly forgot the principles.

Earlier this year I led some training for our small group leaders to remind them of the 6Ms of fruitfulness used in Fruitfulness on the Frontline. Most of the leaders confessed that they had forgotten these 6Ms – and, having remembered them, felt that they would be useful values to measure our small group life against.

So now we’re planning to go through each of the 6Ms as a team and assess how embedded these values have really become – particularly by asking leaders to share stories from their groups about how people are expressing these values in their daily lives.

The point here is that if you want to see culture change stick for the long term, you have to keep on realigning yourself to your original strategy and vision.

To see what I mean, think of a plumb-line used to maintain a vertical wall in a building. The weight at the end keeps the plumb-line vertical, and if the wall isn’t regularly measured against it as it’s being built, it’ll end up off-centre.

In a church, the vision of whole-life disciplemaking is the plumb-line, and the strategy is like the weight that keeps the line vertical. By using the LICC small group materials we’re effectively ‘weighting’ our vision with a whole-life strategy, to make sure we remain focused on the right things and are building good, strong disciples.

I find it so exciting to see that ‘wall’ going up! To see people discovering that God cares about their daily lives, and wants to work through them in their homes, their schools, their jobs. To see them going out into the world ready to make a difference for Christ.

I would commend the LICC resources to any church leaders seeking to embed a culture of whole-life disciplemaking in their churches. Studies like Fruitfulness on the Frontline and The Gateway Seven are so useful because they keep small group leaders and preachers focused on the strategy of whole-life disciplemaking – which means we keep on towards the same vision, not drifting off into other things.

I know from personal experience how frenetic and busy church life can be. But with the right strategy and resources pursuing a vision to make whole-life disciples is not only totally, utterly worth it – it’s also very achievable.

May the God of all things be with you in your whole-life disciplemaking journey.

Martin Robinson
Pastor, Heathervale Baptist Church