Christians need the support of other believers if they are to grow in the faith. Recipients of the the letter to the Hebrews were encouraged to 'spur one another on towards love and good deeds', to keep meeting together (not giving up on this as some had done) and 'to encourage one another' (Hebrews 10.24-25). Encouragement and support is best provided through a variety of different-sized groupings.
This takes seriously Jesus' promise:
Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.
It can take at least two forms:
- Companions are those who walk alongside each other as equals. They watch over one another in love, pray for one another, hold each other accountable and support, challenge and spur each other on. They can do this by physically meeting together or via text, Skype or email. At Eagles Wings in Kettering, individuals are encouraged to be part of a small group and to have a companion in the form of a prayer partner.
Encouraging very new Christians to be companions to each other is especially important. It will help them to develop their gifts, take responsibility for their spiritual lives, lean on the Spirit and avoid becoming over-dependent on more mature Christians leaders. See Discipleship encourages a dependence on the Spirit.
- Mentoring assumes that a more mature Christian provides support for one who is less experienced. It follows the example of Paul and Timothy. Paul mentored his apprentice Timothy, who was then encouraged to mentor others. All sorts of labels are used of spiritual mentors today: 'spiritual directors', 'soul friends' and 'spiritual counsellors', for example. The Grace Church in Hackney pairs more experienced Christians with new or not yet Christians. The more experienced person takes on a mentoring role, while also learning much from the questions, insights and enthusiasm of their apprentice.
This emphasis on mutual learning is valuable. Whichever model is involved, travelling with another disciple provides an opportunity for the companion or mentor to learn too.
Mentoring can also enable connections between different generations. For example, members of a fresh expression with young people could be paired with older members of another fresh expression or existing congregation. I have seen this work well in a church with multiple congregations. The crossover helps people feel more connected. Obviously, pairing people up well takes some care.
Beth Keith, The Sheffield Centre
Perhaps an emerging Christian raises questions that provokes the more mature believer to look at their faith afresh. Or the emerging Christian starts out with their particular view of God, while the more experienced Christian may have a somewhat different perspective. As they journey together, they may discover a third and richer view.
Small groups are crucial
The key learning community in many fresh expressions. They provide a safe environment for individuals:
- to ask questions;
- to share some of their struggles;
- to discuss aspects of the faith;
- to provide prayer and pastoral support for each other;
- to learn how to share their gifts and minister to one another;
- to get to know a limited number of people well and develop a sense of belonging.
In particular, small groups provide an opportunity for new believers to learn how to rely on the Spirit and assume leadership roles. As we discuss in Discipleship encourages a dependence on the Spirit, one of the risks in discipling new believers is that they become over-dependent on mature Christians.
As soon as possible, new Christians should be encouraged to take responsibility for ministering to each other and leading one another. Small groups provide an ideal context for this. Of course, as new believers assume a leadership role within their group, they will need to be mentored by a more experienced Christian - another reason why one-to-one support is vital.
Cell church principles can provide a helpful framework for small groups. Each meeting of the group might contain:
- welcome - a cup of tea and a chat, or a fun ice-breaker such as a light-hearted question or activity.
- worship - perhaps using recorded Christian music, silence, spoken prayer, singing, poetry, bringing something beautiful from nature to reflect upon, or making use of photography and other creative gifts within the group. There are endless ways to praise God.
- word - some groups discuss the teaching input at the previous gathering of the fresh expression, using an outline circulated for the purpose, other groups discuss a Bible passage, using a published study aid.
- witness - provides an opportunity for individuals to share what God has done in and through them since the group last met, and to be honest about their struggles.
Between meetings, members can keep in touch online.
Gatherings of the whole fresh expression
These are are important too. This is worth emphasising because some people have found small group and one-to-one meetings so much more relational than bigger meetings that they have questioned the value of the latter. Isn't it enough for two or three people to meet for Jesus to be in their midst? So why not meet regularly with a couple of friends and join a dispersed order to maintain contact with wider body of Christ? Isn't this enough to be church?
Getting the whole fresh expression together can serve a number of purposes
It can aid spiritual growth. Individuals who become comfortable in a group or their one-to-one meetings may need the challenge of fresh truths, which they can receive in the larger gathering. Spiritual growth requires that the person be stretched.
It can aid personal growth. Opportunities for service may be limited in a small group or in one-to-one meetings. A larger gathering might enable a drummer to contribute to worship, an individual with teaching gifts to bless more people or someone wanting to start a Fairtrade stall to have access to a viable market.
It can aid pastoral care. Some individuals may need more support than close friends or a small group can provide. A larger gathering provides a chance to seek out others who can help.
It can aid social inclusion. Some people want to be with others but find small groups intimidating. They prefer to be slightly anonymous in a bigger crowd. Larger gatherings create a place for such people.
It can be vital for mission. Often mission requires the mobilisation of a significant number of people. You may need plenty of volunteers to provide a weekly meal for homeless people, to get behind a local campaign for a cleaner environment or to develop effective links with an orphanage overseas. A larger gathering provides a platform to envision people to serve.
This doesn't mean that the gathering has to be like a traditional congregation
It need not meet every week nor do the same things when it meets. Small groups can cluster together fortnightly or monthly, for example. Or they could meet for three weeks in a row to study a biblical theme and then not meet again till the need arises. Some fresh expressions meet weekly, but vary what they do. They may worship on one occasion, have a picnic the next and repaint a disabled person's home in the third week. Rather than killing off the congregation, might fresh expressions give it a richer life?
Why can't more aspects of discipleship be shared by local churches together?
Connecting up is vital for discipleship
No one Christian community, especially a new fresh expression, will be able to provide for every discipleship need. It may be hard for one church to organise a course on how the Old Testament works, or on Christian belief or ethics. But this can become much easier if local churches collaborate. Enough people may turn out to make it worth inviting a visiting speaker, for example.
A Christian drama group may be viable if several churches are involved, but not if there is only one. Marriage preparation and family support groups might best be run if several churches pooled their resources. Will some fresh expressions shrivel and die because they have failed to connect with the wider church? As the same themes get reworked, the community begins to feel a bit dull. It is too small to sustain a rich experience of discipleship.
Connecting up can sustain church involvement
Perhaps Betty has been attending a fresh expression for several months. She goes to a Saturday retreat on 'Imaginative ways of praying'. There she meets George who mentions that he attends St. Michael's on Sunday, a church that has been in existence for 600 years. Betty comments that she has been going to a fresh expression on Thursday evenings, but that her shifts have changed and she won't be able to continue. 'Might I come with you to St. Michael's?'
Connecting up brings people together
St Paul was driven by his vision of church uniting Jews and Gentiles. Church was to be a means of reconciliation.
Some fear that fresh expressions will fragment the church. But this will only happen if fresh expressions have a narrow vision of church. As a major part of their discipleship, fresh expressions should join the fragments of society in order to join the fragments up.
All of the good reasons for getting a whole fresh expression to gather together - to aid spiritual and personal growth, pastoral care, social inclusion and mission - also apply to meeting with other Christian communities. Instead of individual churches discipling their members and coming together for evangelism (as has often happened in the past), in future might evangelism be done by individual churches who then link up for discipleship?
Attending larger events
This can also have immense value. Going on a pilgrimage with other Christians, or to a Christian festival or to a celebration held locally, can help individuals grow in their faith much faster than if they rely solely on their particular expression of church. They may be encouraged by seeing that so many other people are Christians. They may discover new Christian insights from speakers that they had never heard of.
A 'chance' conversation with someone from another church might introduce them to a Christian author or band or helpful website, encourage them to explore a new vocation or put them in touch with a new source of Christian support. Encouraging discipleship should involve facilitating a shared process - from sharing the journey with one other person to joining in with thousands of Christians.