Nurturing Whole Life Disciples: Lessons from London (Part 2)

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In yesterday’s post I looked at some of the lessons Pastor Neil Hudson recounts in his book Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples. They are based on the training and coaching that Hudson, a staff member at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, has done with congregations throughout England. The aim of his work is equipping congregational leaders to focus—foundationally—on whole-life discipleship. Toward that end, Hudson encourages church leaders to remember the cosmic scope of Christ’s redemptive work and to redress through multiple, practical actions their imbalanced attention on the gathered church over the scattered church. This change process takes time and typically proceeds with “one degree shifts,” several examples of which I provided in the prior post.

The final element in the church change process that Hudson teaches is called “redefining the church contract.” This concerns the relationship between the leaders and the members of the church. It is about three changes:

  1. A move from a pastoral care contract to a pastoral equipping contract;
  2. A profound change in the psychology of the relationship between leaders and the people; and
  3. A broader focus by the leaders.

From Pastoral Care to Pastoral Equipping

Hudson argues that there is an unwritten agreement existing in most churches by which it is the leader’s task to outline the church’s vision, the people’s task to support and invest in that vision, and in return, the people will be personally cared for by the church leader. “As long as there are vestiges of this pastoral care contract being practiced,” Hudson writes, “there will be inherent resistance to the concept of disciple-making.”

When people join a church, Hudson asserts, their expectation ought to be that they will be discipled by leadership. This is not to say that people won’t get cared for in the local church. But according to scripture (Hudson focuses especially on Romans 12 and Ephesians 4), the fellow members of the church are supposed to be on the frontlines of the caring whereas the leader(s) are to be equippers. After all, consider all the “one-anothers” of the New Testament. “The fundamental role of church leaders is not to be the principal carer, nor the principal missionaries, nor the events managers for the local church,” Hudson argues. “The fundamental role is to ensure that the community is a disciple-making one, a church that will help us to grow in maturity and mission.”

A Revised Psychology

Hudson notes that, formally, most of the pastors and congregants he works with understand the “priesthood of every believer” and the idea that “every member is a minister.” But many clergy don’t function out of this belief. Some are actually more comfortable in a church of needy and dependent people than in a setting with a “strong, mature, and well-informed laity.” And in practice, many pastors spend most of their time with two main groups of people in the church: the lay leaders with various responsibilities in the church’s life, and the congregants who are in crisis or pain. Hudson argues that this reality shapes, sometimes subconsciously, the preacher’s teaching: it becomes either pastor-care focused or directed to the internal life of the church.

If leaders spent more time with the majority of congregants who are “just getting on with life,” they would hear about the multiple contexts in which believers are attempting to live out their faith: on the job, with co-workers and bosses, under the stresses of deadlines, in the complexities of public life. And by listening, leaders could learn much that could inform their preaching. Hudson says that they’d also experience opportunities to help their flock ponder such discipleship-oriented questions as: “What is God doing in this situation? How can you respond in a godly way? What support do you need in order to be most fruitful in this circumstance? How can I help you integrate what’s happening to you into your ongoing life as a disciple of Jesus?”

A Broader Focus

The third dimension of this revised “church contract” concerns leaders developing what Hudson refers to as a broader focus. Many leaders are narrowly focused on the church and its internal concerns, and that clearly needs to be challenged. But even “externally focused” churches can miss out on what Hudson calls the “middle ring” of concerns.

The “inner ring” are those activities and issues extant in the church’s immediate geography, like the failing school a few blocks down from the church building. Given local problems, the church may adopt corporate response efforts (such as a church-based tutoring program). In an attempt to avoid being overly parochial, some churches also shine attention on “the outer ring,” those global events and crises such as poverty, warfare, famine, or human trafficking. In response to both inner and outer ring concerns, the church often mobilizes congregants to give money and/or time through the church, and these concerns are prayed for publicly in worship services.

For Hudson, none of this is wrong. It becomes problematic, though, when “middle ring” concerns—“the daily contexts that are not part of the daily life of the church”—are ignored. This is because congregants spend the bulk of their time in the middle ring. They may volunteer a few hours in the “inner ring” or write a check for “outer ring” activities (but often feel either overwhelmed or disconnected from them). Thus, churches need to equip members for faith-shaped life in the thick of the daily realities of the middle ring: one’s family and neighbors, and the workplaces, industries, and social sectors these believers inhabit. A focus on “the middle ring” need not imply a bunch of new ministries. It can be as simple as the leader’s intentionality in asking parishioners what they think God is doing in their workplaces. And for some of the congregational leaders Hudson has mentored, it has included things like commuting in to work with a member, visiting members on the job, or even shadowing a congregant for a day at her workplace.

Overcoming the Challenges

One thing I particularly appreciated about Hudson’s book was his candor in outlining the very real challenges that leaders who want to nurture whole-life disciples are likely to encounter. It’s now been four years since the first Learning Community I helped lead. I recently ran into a pastor from that first cohort and asked him how things were going in his attempts to implement some of the changes that we’d discussed in the LC. I appreciated his honesty in reporting that while progress has been made, it’s been less than he hoped for, and taken longer than he’d have liked. Hudson’s experience has been the same. It’s because in talking about creating churches that nurture whole-life disciples who live missionally in every dimension of life, we’re talking (at least in most cases) about making a major shift in what passes for “normal” church life.

We cannot underestimate the “inward pull” of the gathered church; what Hudson describes as the tendency of people to “be more concerned about the functioning of the [church] community than its purpose.” Some leaders trying to put into practice the changes discussed in this post and the previous one will be accused of being too focused on “secular” concerns outside the church. Some congregants will struggle to believe that being a Christian really is about living missionally in every arena; that doing so is the “normal” Christian life and not something only for “super Christians.” Some pastors may need to shed their hero complex, learn to listen better, and begin to trust that God gets his work done through the scattered church as much (or more) than through the activities of the gathered church. And of course, for all congregational leaders trying to move in this new direction, there is the simple reality that perseverance is required. Initial reforms may be easy to implement (especially those of the “one degree” type described by Hudson) but sustaining the changes over time is another story.

Nonetheless, Hudson’ experience (and ours in the Learning Communities) indicates that real change is possible. It requires prayer and persistence, tremendous intentionality, and often, coaching. Hudson has done the Church a valuable service by offering his book as a coaching manual that can help many leaders seeking to make the journey towards becoming “whole-life, discipling-making” communities.

Topics: Church Culture

About the Author

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