Nurturing Whole Life Disciples: Lessons from London (Part 1)

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Pastor Neil Hudson has been a congregational leader for close to 30 years. He currently leads the “Imagine Church” project of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC). The project seeks to equip church leaders to emphasize whole life discipleship as a fundamental part of their churches’ DNA. Hudson argues that “The ultimate test of the fruitfulness and authenticity of any church…is the quality of the disciples it makes.”

The mission of the Imagine Church project is very similar to that of MTF’s vocation Learning Communities (LCs). As part of the leadership team for the LCs, I’ve participated in exit interviews with participating church teams, through which we’re trying to collect lessons learned. So I was eager to hear about Hudson’s experiences with British congregations.

Happily, Hudson has published his observations in Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples. In this post I give an overview of the main lessons learned. In tomorrow’s post, I offer a more detailed look at one particularly important contention in the book: the idea that to produce whole-life disciples, there needs to be a redefining of what Hudson calls “the church contract.”

The Main Lessons

The book offers four main lessons; ones very much like we’ve been learning on this side of the pond:

  1. Churches need a “renewed vision of the extent of the Lordship of Jesus and the scope of the mission that he calls us to be involved in;”
  2. They need clarity in understanding the relationship between the church gathered and the church scattered;
  3. Churches must go through a process of fundamental culture change, at least if the gains of a renewed emphasis on faith and work are to be sustainable; and
  4. Progress typically unfolds in a series of small steps over a considerable length of time.

Theology: A Renewed Focus on the Scattered Church

Points 1 and 2 are about theology. Hudson’s not the first to stress the need for a narrative understanding of scripture or for clarity about the missio Dei as a cosmic endeavor to renew all things. And he’s seen in Britain what we’ve seen here: the overemphasis of contemporary clergy on the gathered church over the scattered church. Hudson offers a rich insight about the “why” behind this phenomenon. He argues that we’ve not taken sufficient account of the vital differences between the local church today and the Church of the first century.

The first century church differed from our contemporary church in important ways, Hudson says. For example, the early church met in private homes, not public buildings. Our latter reality means both that the building is often seen as the hub of the church’s activity and mission, and that the building (and the activities in it) consume money and time. Both these realities play into an emphasis on the gathered church. Additionally, the early church did not automatically assume that church leaders would be paid. Meanwhile, many (though not all) contemporary churches do. While this frees up a “paid professional” to concentrate on church affairs and represent the congregation in the community, it also can mean that congregants don’t feel that “it’s their job” to engage in the church’s mission; instead, that responsibility belongs to staff. A third difference between the ancient and modern church is that in the first century people didn’t have “time off” in the same way as we understand that concept in the contemporary West. Today, church members do have “disposable time” and the church seeks to draw on that volunteer time—and it is this time, rather than the congregant’s on-the-job time, that is seen as “the most significant missional resource.” These differences have the effect of emphasizing the gathered church over the scattered church.

In the Imagine Church project, Hudson seeks to get congregational leaders to focus on the fact that congregants spend some 110 hours per week engaged in work, family, or leisure and only ten (or often fewer) hours per week in gathered-church activities. He challenges leaders to reimagine what the best uses of those limited hours “in church” might be. “What would change,” he asks, if leaders saw this time as “the crucial part” of the equipping of the people of God for the missio Dei? He suggests that such a perspective could helpfully and radically shift our ideas about what would get prayed for when the church gathered; what kind of preaching would occur; what issues would be given greatest attention by church leadership; what topics would be covered in church small groups; and what stories we could expect to hear in Sunday worship.

If the point of the limited time of the gathered church is to equip congregants for the majority of their time (the 110 hours outside the church), Hudson says, we’d see prayers about encouraging people for their “missionary” work in all their spheres of influence. We’d hear sermons about how to shape our life at work and in the public square by our Christian faith. We’d be more likely to hold up as heroes the public school teachers over the Sunday school teachers, and the people whose 9-5 jobs involved helping the poor instead of the short-term missionaries who spent one week in the inner city. During small groups, we’d naturally discuss the challenges of living for Christ in our workplaces. And we’d expect to hear testimonies from all kinds of “ordinary missionaries” on the frontlines of imaging Christ in the classrooms, neighborhoods, cubicles, and corner offices of modern society.

Church Culture

The kinds of changes noted in the paragraph above are the practical evidences of a growing culture shift in the church. They don’t happen overnight. Hudson encourages the churches he coaches to establish a core team and then to focus on making “one degree shifts.” He explains:

This is an image taken from a compass. If you walk in one direction and then make a single degree shift, eventually, if you walk far enough, you will end up in a very different place. The change will be imperceptible at first, but time will highlight its significance.

Hudson also advises congregational leaders to share the stories of the church’s “ordinary” frontlines missionaries: the teachers, accountants, lawyers, auto mechanics, store clerks, doctors, scientists, stay-at-home moms, journalists, plumbers—and congregants in all the other myriad occupations. Many of the churches LICC has coached use the TTT, “This Time Tomorrow,” interviews. These are 3-4 minute interviews with a congregant who answers three questions:

  • What will you be doing this time tomorrow?
  • What opportunities or challenges will you face?
  • How can we pray for you?

Though simple, this process signals to the congregation that all of life matters to God. It encourages people, Hudson says, “to recognize the significance of their ‘ordinary’ places.” It honors and affirms the person being interviewed. And it can begin to break down the sacred-secular divide.

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“The goal of disciple-making is not to make us more adept in church life, nor even more alert to the theological debates that may be raging in church circles. The goal is to enable us to live our lives in a way that reflects our Master’s intentions for the world around us.”

—Pastor Neil Hudson, Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples

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Other “one degree shifts” Hudson encourages include adding more workplace illustrations to sermons, getting rid of worship songs that reinforce the sacred-secular divide, and encouraging small group participants to pray for one another’s work lives. At some of the churches Hudson has coached, the TTT interviews are captured on video and placed on the church website. Others have recruited “in-house journalists” who have the assignment of finding stories of ordinary congregants on mission at work and writing those stories up for the church newsletter.

The final element in the church change process that Hudson teaches is called “redefining the church contract.” We’ll look at this in tomorrow’s post.

Related Resources

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).