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A different kind of discipleship

New church developments should 'capture people’s imaginations'

August 19, 2011

A long wooden table in a room.

—Image courtesy of Common Table, Bend, Oregon

BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico

Editor’s note: this is the latest in a series of stories about experimental ministries that typify the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s effort to establish 1,001 new worshiping communities in the next 10 years. ― Jerry L. Van Marter

There’s been a lot of talk lately around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1001 in 10 challenge — to plant 1001 worshiping communities in the next 10 years.

Various entities within the denomination have begun making commitments to plant 100, 200 or even 250 of these new communities.

But fairly quickly comes the question: Where will these 1,001 communities come from?

It’s a question that Craig Williams, associate for the PC(USA)’s Western Office of New Church Development, has been pondering.

“If we want to talk about church-planting churches then we have to keep helping people transition from the way they have always done it toward a new language and new practices,” Williams said. “Some of this is going to mean releasing the work to new generations and not trying to control it in ways that we’ve done in the past — that is the big challenge.”

But it also will take a shift in our understanding of the role and importance of discipleship.

 “To be a church-planting church in this next century is going to take a discipleship that captures people’s imaginations that they can actually change society — that the gospel actually changes it for the better,” Williams said.

As Americans, we often don’t want to change what we already have.

“We tend to want to reap the benefits and add Jesus to it,” Williams said. “But that creates a discipleship that doesn’t change things.”

One example for such societal shift comes from the church in Nairobi, Kenya. An expatriate woman — a Harvard Business School graduate — began to be concerned for the young women growing up in the slums. She noticed that by the time the girls were 14 or 15, they dropped out of school, never completing their education. She later noticed that girls stopped coming to school once a month because they couldn’t afford feminine products when menstruating. So, every month they fell a bit more behind.

This woman met a man who had come up with a way to convert wild reeds into fabric. Together they developed a process to manufacture low-cost feminine products that were not only affordable, but whose manufacture also provided jobs locally.

“That church in Nairobi is setting about to change culture and society and they believe that they can — all in the name of Christ,” Williams said. “But our perception in American society is that the gospel doesn’t change things for the better, it changes them for the worse.”

Churches that want to give birth to these new missional communities needs to have a transforming discipleship at their hearts.

“This is a discipleship that needs to be modeled — not merely taught in a Sunday school room,” Williams said. “It’s not didactic, but more of an apprenticeship.”

He also noted that in churches around the world, this discipleship is expected of all believers, not just from clergy or leadership.

The ability to plant new missional communities will also require a shift toward becoming permission-giving rather than regulatory.

“In the past, most of our power has been in saying no,” Williams said. “But our real power is in sending, relinquishing control and to let people go do stuff.”

It can be messy, he said, “but it’s the kind of messiness that allows the Spirit to move and control this rather than us.”

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.

  1. I find this article exciting in that it seeks to develop new relationships that can become new ways of forming community. I find it is in building trusting and hopefilled relationships the worship of God and our personal gifts can make a difference in the lives of others. Helping people strengthen their natural spirituality will establish communities who bring forth new life.

    by Rev. Tom Woodward

    September 12, 2011

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