This first paper is the outline of what The Listening Project is, it was presented to a church meeting in November 2016.
As part of our life together as Moortown Baptist Church it is helpful to reflect on how we make disciples and what shapes that process. This enables us to deepen our understanding and inform our discernment of what God is doing through us and amongst us. Last Tuesday evening at the church meeting we commissioned a listening project to reflect upon our life together as disciples.
What is the Listening Project?
A group of 7 listeners will spend time with groups and individuals in order to build up a detailed description of what our current discipleship life looks like and what is shaping that process. Listeners’ written reflections will contribute to a wider process of discernment that will be shared with the Leadership Team during March and April 2017. Recommendations from this discernment will be presented to the church meeting in May 2017.
Who are the Listeners?
The listeners are: Bob Corrie, Helen McEwan, Peter Chukwenweniwe, Karen Newell, Simon Marlow, Shona Shaw,
I’m not in a small group, can I take part?
Yes, we are hoping that listeners will be able to spend time with individuals but this maybe limited due to pressures on time. Please speak to Shona if you would like to participate.
How will confidentiality be maintained?
Written reflections will be kept anonymous. If there are aspects of the reflection that identity a person, verbal permission will be sought to use the material in the project. Written reflections will be shared with the listening group and Leadership Team.
How will I know what has been heard and understood by the listener?
After listening sessions with groups or individuals, listeners will write their reflections and share these with the group or individual participants. This provides an opportunity to confirm accuracy of details and request comments be summarised or paraphrased rather than quoted directly. A more general interim report of emerging themes from the reflections will be shared at the church meeting on 21st February 2017. Once again, any personal material in this report will be included with the participants’ permission.
How will the written reflections be interpreted by the Listeners and Leadership team?
The reflections will provide a detailed picture of our current life together as disciples and we anticipate shared themes and aspects of our discipleship emerging from this. We are particularly interested in the ways that forming disciples is shaped by routine, beliefs, life stages, values etc.
In being able to identify these formative influences we hope to understand more deeply the church’s shared experience and how we might encourage and sustain new growth.
Do I have to take part?
No, everyone is free to choose to participate or otherwise. However, the more people participating in the project, the more this aids our discernment. Contact Shona if you are unsure, by phone 07735458661, or email email@example.com
We hope that everyone who participates in the project might find it helpful in their own lives but also enable them to feel part of a larger, emerging picture of church life.
Shona Shaw – November 2016
Here now is the team’s interim report…
At the November church meeting, members commissioned the Discipleship Listening Project: a 6 month process to reflect upon our disciple-making at Moortown Baptist Church. The process has involved a team of 8 ‘listeners’ who during December-February have visited small groups, triplets and individuals to observe our practice of discipleship. Some listeners have visited their own small groups others have gone along to groups as new comers.
Written accounts of the listeners’ visits are being written and are now forming the basis of our reflection on what we currently do at MBC in small groups to encourage discipleship. This gives us an idea of the beliefs and values that are embedded in our doing. Whilst it has been important to hear what people think discipleship is all about, it is particularly important to attend to our actions and behaviours. It is in our ‘doing’ that we can see which values and beliefs about making disciples are important to us and which have been the most fruitful in our church community.
The primary purpose of this report is to thank you, the church members, for engaging with this process, for welcoming listeners into places of confidence and for trusting us to get this far! The visits were not meant to judge behaviour, it has not been about an ‘us and them’ factor, or naming and shaming but looking at ‘our’ life together. We recognise that there will be inevitably those who feel that their voices have not been heard. The approach we have taken could not cover every area of church life, but seeks to provide a ‘snapshot’ of our life together following Christ Jesus.
The second purpose of this interim report is to raise 3 initial observations from our listening that we wanted to share with you. If you remember, the project divides into 2 phases: phase one-collecting information, phase two: reflecting and interpreting the information. At this point we are just at the beginning of phase two, reflecting and interpreting as individual listeners and as a team together. We have met once to reflect on a written account together and will do this more so that our reflections can build up a shared picture. The question we are asking ourselves is:
At MBC, what are the beliefs and values that inform our practice of making disciples?
As we are at the start of phase two, the observations I share with you today are provisional. They are my attempt at drawing together themes that are visible to me in the material so far. Therefore their significance to the team’s reflections and subsequent recommendations is provisional at this point. It is provisional for two reasons. Firstly because we are still in the early stages of a shared conversation around interpreting practice. Secondly, because we recognise that small groups, whilst a primary place, they are not the only place we see disciple making in the breadth and variety of our church. It’s also worth highlighting that during the visits it has been evident that our small groups vary enormously. Given all this-the following observations are tentative! However, they are important to share with you, as we want to include everyone in the discernment process. Its important you get an opportunity to reflect on the questions that are being raised for me, if not others, at this point.
- Discipleship vs disciple making
What is discipleship? Several people have raised this question during the process. It brings up positive and negative responses. For some it is a meaningless term: you don’t find it in the bible, for others the term intellectualises and puts the focus on approaches, models and theory about discipleship but detracts us from the actual doing and being. One listener summarised this as ‘discipleship means different things to different people.’ Indeed it meant different things to the Gospel writers but they all agree that to be a disciple is to follow Christ and seek his kingdom.
As a result the term I have used with the listening group has been disciple-making, rather than discipleship. Whilst we recognise that following Christ and becoming more like him is a work of the Holy Spirit, we also affirm that this is a process in which we take an active part.
If you didn’t believe this-we wouldn’t be here: we know it involves you and me together, working under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit! So it’s about following Christ, becoming like Christ, and walking alongside one another as we share this life and faith.
What are the practices that we recognise as disciple making? Its important to highlight the rich diversity of small group life in this church and the variety of places that making disciples takes place. Not just traditional, mid week home groups but at the Monday coffee mornings, The Barn sessions, in Toddler groups, informal triplets, the list goes on! Across all of these, however, listeners have identified 5 core practices: hospitality, prayer & worship, scripture reading, discussion/reflection on life. Not every group included all 5 practices each time they met nor placed the same emphasis on each. We need to be careful to avoid making a causal link between core practices and being disciples. However, its helpful to be aware of some shared practice as it indicates it carries particular values of making disciples for us. It also brings to our attention what we might expect to find and maybe don’t.
Questions this raises:
A key belief of being a disciple is having an outward focus and sharing the good news? Do you agree?
Does this happen in small group life at MBC and if not should it/could it?
- Faithful belonging
The strongest practice observed time and again was the faithfulness of members to their groups and to one another. Whilst the church has encouraged the practice of homegroups, small groups, mid week meetings, it has never seen the entirety of its membership participating in groups. For those that have chosen to join a group and found some sense of belonging, home groups have enabled a place of permanence and acceptance through the years. For some groups it was a commitment to a particular focus of the meeting i.e. intercessional prayer, theological enquiry, or reflection on shared life stage that helped them feel connected to others. The longevity of some groups is impressive and reveals deep friendships spanning decades. Faithful friendship and group belonging are fruits of disciple making which are to be celebrated and treasured. Even with established friendships, however there is a challenge to stay committed to being vulnerable with one another ad sharing openly about life. Being able to share unfinished stories of life and faith is risky. Getting the balance between confidential boundaries and an openness to others allows trust and belonging to grow.
Questions this raises:
Do disciples need to have things in common e.g. life stage, gender, intellect in order to learn and grow at a significant/deep level?
Does this have an homogenising effect and is this a good thing, when we value diversity as disciples of Christ?
- Practical Love & Service
Faithful friendship is demonstrated in practical love and service. This was observed in the practical care and support given to each other but also expressed in members’ service in the wider church. Some groups contain members who serve or have served in particular ministries of the church such as: teaching & theology, children’s or youth ministry, and oversea’s mission. This shared experience of church life seems to strengthen ties within a small group and provide a focus for reflecting on faith together. Whilst participation in small groups encourages some members to serve in the church this is not automatically the case. There are plenty of church members active in church service who do not attend home groups. This maybe due to lack of time or no wish to join a group. Managing time and other commitments to church is certainly an underlying factor in member’s regularity and participation in small groups. This is of particular concern for those groups with members of working, and or young family life stage. Members contend with a secular working culture that has longer hours, lengthier commutes and will sometimes involve working absence from home. It is not unusual for both parents to work, differing shift patterns to share child care and for grandparents to be actively involved in the care of their grandchildren. These all impact upon the values and beliefs we carry about where and how we make disciples. Love and Service are fruits to be recognised and encouraged, however, the contexts in which we serve and grow are not the same as they were 20 years ago.
Questions to ponder:
If we learn best through doing then where should our focus be in helping make disciples-in church activities, or in people’s lives beyond church?
Is this our current focus in small groups?
Some verses on making disciples that have shaped my thinking over the last few months are from
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Which other bible passages does your mind go to when you think about being a follower of Christ?
Next Steps for the Project:
During March-April, Listeners will meet as team and with the Leadership Team to share reflections and begin to identify recurrent themes in our reflections. During May the Listening Team and Leadership will discern together recommendations and present these to the Church Meeting.
Shona Shaw, 24th February 2017