One of the most common questions I get when talking to groups about Fresh Expressions is, “What about discipleship?” The implied (and sometimes explicit) assumption is that these new forms (fresh expressions) of church are not engaging in serious discipleship. There is concern that there will be no moral demands, no Scripture study, and no call to life transformation.
Those concerns are not unwarranted. My hunch is that lots of us could name some church that places a high premium on creativity but little emphasis on spiritual disciplines and the demands of Scripture.
Yet, the concerns that fresh expressions of church practice “discipleship light” usually come from people who are accustomed to a programmatic approach to discipleship. The skepticism often comes from those accustomed to Sunday School or other curriculum-based discipleship methods.
Many fresh expressions of church appropriately rely on what we might call “relational discipleship.” Of course, for many long-time Christians, “relational discipleship” just doesn’t seem weighty, or meaty, or substantive enough. Hence, people from more traditional backgrounds often question the legitimacy of relational, non-programmatic approaches to making Christian disciples.
Stages to Faith
It is helpful to remember there are many stages to faith and to consider which approach to discipleship might be most helpful at each of these stages.
For example, years ago, the missiologist James Engel proposed what has come to be known as the Engel Scale of Spiritual Decision. Engel suggested that people can be found somewhere on this spectrum, with -8 denoting a person who is aware of a supreme being but has no awareness of the Gospel and +5 denoting a deeply devoted follower of Jesus whose devotion is lived out through stewardship of time, energy, and resources. This is how the Engel Scale looks:
+4 Communion with God
+3 Conceptual and behavioral growth
+2 Incorporation into Body [of Christ]
+1 Post-decision evaluation
-1 Repentance and faith in Christ
-2 Decision to act
-3 Personal problem recognition
-4 Positive attitude towards Gospel
-5 Grasp implications of Gospel
-6 Awareness of fundamentals of Gospel
-7 Initial awareness of Gospel
-8 Awareness of supreme being, no knowledge of Gospel
Similarly, Frank Gray devised the Gray Matrix, illustrating that people fall somewhere on a spiritual spectrum between “Knows Nothing of the Gospel” and “Fully Devoted Disciple.”
Also helpful is the “postmodern path to faith” observed by Don Everts and Doug Shauup. They suggested the following faith stages:
- From distrust to trust—“Christians are OK”.
- From complacent to curious—“Jesus is interesting”.
- From curious to open—“Jesus could be for me”.
- From meandering to seeking—“Jesus is worth taking seriously”.
- From seeing to joining—“I’ll turn to Jesus”.
- From joining to growing—“Help me to live like Jesus.”
My point here is that most of our discipleship efforts are among people who are at least drawn to Jesus and the church. Most of the people we attempt to disciple are, at least, sympathetic to the Christian faith. Often they are attracted to Christianity even if they haven’t yet become followers of Jesus. They are, if we can borrow from Engel’s scale, at least at a -4. Most of the people engaged by church as we know it are, using the terminology of Everts and Shauup, at least at the “Jesus is worth taking seriously” phase.
Off the Charts
It is critical, however, for us to remember that millions of North Americans are not yet at those stages! Many of them are antagonistic toward, or oblivious about, the Church and its message of Jesus. Discipleship of those persons looks very different from discipleship of the sympathetic person who believes in his or her heart that it would be good to follow Jesus but simply has not yet made that commitment. To borrow from Engel’s scale, discipleship of a person at -8 is different from discipleship of one at -2.
It is not realistic to think our traditional, curriculum-centered, program-based discipleship methods will be helpful for people far from a decision to follow Jesus. For them, relationships are key. Informal (but intentional) nudges toward the faith are our best chances at seeing them trust themselves to Jesus.
The Main Thing
If you are beginning a fresh expression of church, remember that your relationship with people is key. People who are open to faith in Jesus but are still a long way from deciding to entrust their lives to him are probably not going to respond well to an invitation to attend a Sunday School class. They can learn a lot, however, from a friendship with a devoted Christ-follower like you.
If you are part of an existing congregation, please remember that discipleship must occur naturally and be appropriate for each person depending on his or her place on the “spiritual spectrum.” Let’s not assume that discipleship requires curricula and pre-packaged programs. And let’s not be critical of those who are engaging in “relational discipleship.” Remember, many people are so far away from a decision to follow Jesus that our traditional methods are probably unhelpful.
Go into all the world and make disciples…however you can.
Travis Collins is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Huntsville, Alabama, and Director of Mission Advancement for Fresh Expressions US. He holds a PhD in Christian Mission and is the author of From the Steeple to the Street and Fresh Expressions of Church.