Every Tuesday night sees me travel across to Leeds to do the church House Group. I look to the group as being the main expression of this very small church, and I have deliberately set out to write a discipleship course as opposed to running the standard, sterile word study and information gathering exercise that seems to be the unfortunate norm. The idea behind it all is to learn together and for it to have some practicality afterwards.
The group is a mixed bunch of age, abilities and Spiritual experience. Some have come from the Baptist church down the road, some have come via different journeys, and a couple have come from being at the Nazarene church since attending Caravan (children’s ministry).
What I find interesting is the varying degrees on which they read the Bible. Some do a daily devotion, some work there way through various books through the year, some read with a lucky dip method, and some struggle to read any if at all. Which provides certain problems; how does their relationship in Christ grow?
In many discussions within the group there is a certain leaning towards the ‘They don’t do it the way we were brought up’ or ‘It isn’t like how it used to be’. These generalised statements show a few things to me that add to various other issues causing discipleship to have been regarded as a single event that hasn’t moved on very much. Of course, I also have to understand that some of these issues are not linked to a single time event – they have seeped in to normal life without people noticing over a long period of time. It’s just that we are now confronted with the collateral damage it has caused.
Where is the discipleship, and do our churches know what it really is? Do our leaders identify it, and what is being done to address the problems of history showing its ugly head above the parapet?
We can go back to various times in history to identify the problems. Many of us identify the nominalism created by Constantine (I am amongst that group), we can look to the inward spirituality of the Roman flavour of Monasticism, we can look at the Enlightenment period where questions were being asked and people were never really answered unless it was by accusing words like ‘heretic!’. The problems stem from these and many other parts of history.
For centuries we have had a system where people were effectively ‘born’ into a church denomination. If the ruling religion was Roman Catholic, then you were ritually brought up amongst that tradition. The same is today, where the state church is the Church of England, so the default mode seems to be with them, all be it, in a very nominal way. You become Christened, maybe Baptized, and maybe Confirmed in the Church of England, usually resulting in that child maybe increasing her/his chances of a place at a church school when the time comes. Nothing more, nothing less except for weddings, funerals and begrudgingly attending the other rituals previously stated. Somehow, these people are considered part of a flock and the Shepherd being the Parish Priest.
Churches in the West have particularly found it difficult to transfer their Sunday holiness to the rest of the week though. Yes, they may take part in things according to the Christian calendar, but the rest of the year is absent as far as faith is concerned.
Where has the public expression of faith been shown, and shown to be something more than an event, but instead something life-long? Granted the culture has been effected by the Enlightenment. Religion has increasingly suffered due to various bad practices and dogmas to the extent that it has little credibility or visibility other than people mysteriously entering a building called church (hardly ever cheerful) and leaving it even less cheerfully! It seems that religion is no longer in the public arena of life but condemned to a very private one. Shouldn’t this be different?
I look at my housegroup and I see people. Some of those people are resigned to the idea that faith cannot be a public thing, but only a private thing. Even worse, it can only be a personal thing thanks to the Enlightenment thinking. Where is the Christian life, how can it be rediscovered, and how can it be expressed so that it is genuinely the Good News?
The ritualism of a date/time stamped event proliferates our churches. To be Wesleyan, is an acknowledgement of on going change inwardly and expressed outwardly. Why isn’t it obvious to people that this is the case in a believers life?
I am going to suggest a few things. We have been consumed with the idea of believing in order to avoid Hell. The mantra of being ‘converted’ and ‘saved’ has been the main aim and very little else. Once that is done, it seems that a person is ‘sorted’ for when they die, and very little change or fruit can be seen in a persons life. Yes they will attend Sunday School (as children and adults), yes they will be able to stand up and sit down at the right times. Yes they will cheerfully say ‘Amen’ to prayers, but does so out of habit rather than agreement to live by them, and yes they will attend what has essentially become an information gathering exercise called ‘Bible Study’…. but are they truly disciples?
Reading the Bible appears to be a novel concept to some. A recent survey by an Atheist group concluded that 50% of people who call themselves Christians don’t actually read the Bible. I think the figure is way too high to be honest. Yet those very same people will insist that their faith is being eroded by others in the public place – I don’t think so, we are doing it all by ourselves!
Over the last 15 years or so we have been told that people can only concentrate for short periods of time. The music channel MTV deliberately marketed themselves along these lines and were very successful. Magazines are filling our shelves in shops, having tidbits and no real depth to anything read. These very things and basic thinking are overflowing in our congregations also.
I have asked the question ‘How do you read the Bible?’ and quite often I get blank looks. Some tell me that they do a devotion every day, usually in the morning, and then they linger of just forget about it until the next morning and the next reading and thought. I have then asked if anyone reads through the Bible at all and I get a somehow increasingly blank look!
How does God speak to them? How does he reveal himself through the living Word? It seems God has bought into the soundbite, consumerist culture as well? No, that Bible, Gods story of history and involvement with His creation is exactly that… a story. A story that needs to be read with a degree of continuity. That is when it begins to make sense, when those building blocks start to hold together firmly, getting taller and being transformed into something solid and longstanding.
People don’t seem to want to put effort into something, and yet expect to receive something from it. This is what older generations accuse the younger ones of, and yet they are modelling the very same attitudes. The whole idea of postmodernity seems to get a bad press by many for not having absolutes. Unfortunately, those same people are unable to see that the Bible is probably the most postmodern book ever. There are tensions, apparent contradictions, challenges …. but above all, God has used this medium to reveal himself and yet we prevent ourselves from being witnesses to that revelation. The comfort of a predictable, steady routine seems to be preferred over the 3 year apprenticeship of the disciples. A time is being missed. Another generation unchurched is growing…..
Thankfully some people have seen the issues of nominalism and culture change – we just have refused to see it exists and kept our heads in the sand.
We need to rediscover what it means to be a disciple, and we need to learn and live according to a costly grace as opposed to the cheap one seen so obviously in our churches today.