The First Year - Developing Thoughts
Reading the Gospels and Planting a Church
Ian had arrived in the parish with a plan for how to plant a church. At the heart of this plan was an observation that Jesus had a pattern of ministry that could be repeated by his followers; he gathered a crowd, called some to follow him, discipled them and sent them to do the same.
Over a period of five years, the core group would gather a crowd of people, call some to commitment and into discipleship. The Core would grow, the crowd would grow, the church would develop in size and maturity.
When the team arrived with only a small group of four people, they turned to the gospels again, asking again what it was Jesus was doing with his disciples in the hope that they would see for themselves what it was Jesus would have his church do today. Their study left them with the conviction that they were to give God his proper place, to love and care for one another and to help each other mature in Christ, and to to serve others with the love of Jesus. They quickly realised that Jesus himself had already provided them with this teaching in his commands to love God, to love one another and to love your neighbour as yourself, but nonetheless the experience of reading the gospels as a church planting team, in the context of the work itself, was influential. Their understanding of themselves as a team and their mission was shared and could be traced directly back to their common reading of Scripture.
This reading of Scripture was worked out in more detail. So, for instance, loving your neighbour implied, ‘Welcoming everyone no matter why they came.’ The fact that Jesus ‘gathered a crowd’, implied that there would be significant diversity of people, opinions and motivations in any crowd that the church gathered. ‘Giving God his proper place’, has been an influential statement for the church’s worship, corporately and individually.
[Is there a complete document of these points?]
Studying or Engaging?
The team did this studying in the front room of the Manse. Ian comments that it was easier to stay in the house and do this ‘preparation’ than to be out in the community. It was not wrong to do this study, and in fact it was helpful, but Ian himself was conscious that there seemed little choice: they weren’t sure what to do when they left the house – so they stayed in in order to figure that out.
In fact, the group experienced pressure not just internally, but also from outside to be more active in ‘ministry’. We have already mentioned how Ian initially refused to be involved in contributing to ministry in a nursing house because he had felt it would be a distraction from his primary task.
Discipleship was an important element of the cycle of ministry pioneered by Jesus that Ian had identified and was attempting to emulate. Ian’s experience of growth in faith was that he had not had relationships of close accountability that challenged and enabled the believer to follow Christ more closely. They began in Stockethill by using established programmes of ministry that regulated the believer’s communal life and demanded the sharing of vulnerabilities that were hindrances to ministry. The disciple ‘dealt with their baggage’, ‘discovered who they were in Christ’ and found their place to serve in the church. The material and method appeared attractive and they had experienced some degree of success with it in other church contexts as well as being aware of their use by others they respected. They wanted their church to have a pattern of corporate life in which this kind of spiritual development could occur quite naturally.
In practice, Ian argues that they found the methods had weaknesses. They were too regimented. People’s emotional and psychological states couldn’t be unpicked and straightened in an orderly and predictable fashion: ‘We don’t work like that.’ And yet, despite all of this dissatisfaction, discipleship and spiritual growth did still occur. The very process of discovering the inadequacies of this approach to discipleship, of studying the gospels and sharing life together, was an act of discipleship: ‘It is the church living together in its shared experience that disciples people.’
Reading the gospels should be a primary act of the church planter. For Stockethill, it grounded in the life of the church in the story and life of Christ. It was not an easy thing to do. The temptation was repeatedly to assume that we know what the gospels say and that therefore we need to get out do ministry. This temptation came from from within and without. From without, the team felt under pressure to ‘minister’ to the local area. The danger was that this would involve falling established patterns without the opportunity to understand afresh why these patterns existed, let alone to have the opportunity to change them. The danger also came from within. Ian’s anxiety that he was staying in a ‘holy huddle’ because he didn’t know what to do outside of it could not be resolved without delving deeper into their understanding of who Christ was. Yes he could have been out and about (and in fact was, to a greater extent than he admits), and perhaps things might have occurred, but how much of this activity might have taken away from this time of identity formation. And further, would that formation have occurred if the team had simply launched into ministry? This time of preparation, of discipleship, needed to be protected.
So preparation was necessary, and it’s hard to see this when feeling under pressure to produce results. One question to be asked at this point, is whether this identity formation needs to be repeated. The question cannot be answered at this stage in the story, but it will recur: once a church has established its identity, is there a danger that something has been lost. Plainly, the church cannot stay ‘in the front room’ forever but will a church need to return to that type of experience, of communion with Christ, again?
Finally, Ian explains how they concluded that discipleship primarily occurs through shared experience in Christian community. Is there more that could be said here. While it may be appropriate to point out some of the difficulties of using regimented discipleship material, perhaps more needs to be said about what are the essential practices of Christian community in which discipleship occurs?