How do we get from Sunday disciples to whole-life disciples?

(Photo: Unsplash/Bethany Legg)

As someone who's been involved in church leadership in one way or another for over 25 years, Dr Neil Hudson knows what it's like to juggle all the different responsibilities that come with the role of pastor - setting the vision for the church and working hard to serve and impact the community, all the while trying to invest in the spiritual growth and discipleship of those in the congregation. 

It's his work as a church researcher, though, that has deepened his understanding of the relationship between these three areas and led him to the conclusion that discipleship needs to be 'whole-life' - not confined to church-based activities, but asking where people already are, how God might be using them there, and what role the church has to play in supporting them.

Dr Hudson, who is the Director of Church Relationships for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, explores these ideas more in his new book, Scattered and Gathered, published by Intervarsity Press

He speaks to Christian Today about what the "scattered and gathered" nature of church life means for our approach to discipleship.  

CT: You have worked with churches for many years.  What have you learned about effective ministry to Christians who are working most days of the week in the marketplace as opposed to Christian ministry?

Neil: Out of every 100 Christians, maybe only two of them will be employed by a church or a Christian organisation, but because of the way we do church, those who are employed by a church or who are ordained are often the ones who set the vision for the whole community.  They are the ones who set the parameters of what God might want to do and often that will be through the gathered church.

There's no doubt that God uses the gathered church to do a whole stack of things, but actually for most people who are part of that community, what they are looking for is a vision and purpose for their life that has to be more than just the five per cent of their waking time that they can give to gathered church activities.

Neil Hudson

CT: Explain the meaning behind the title, Scattered and Gathered

Neil: The reason for the title of my book is that we need a bigger ecclesiology, a bigger sense of what church is. For lots of people in lots of churches, nobody has ever sat down with them and simply asked them the question: what's God's purpose for your life when you're not in church together with us and how can we help with that? 

If you've got a church with a lot of younger single people in their early twenties, they're very involved in small groups and church activities because it's the place where they socialise and see friends, and if you're retired you might have a lot of time to give to those activities.

But if you're aged between 35 and 55, you're normally juggling so many other things - family, work, and possibly increased responsibilities at work or at church. And they're the people that I have in mind. How do we help those people think about the question of: how in the midst of all these pressures and stresses, do I make sense of my life? In the midst of all this, what does God want me to do and how does being part of the church help me to become that person?

I think "scattered and gathered" reflects the experience that most people going to church have most of the time. Most of the time, they're scattered and then they come together.  If I'd reversed the title and called the book "Gathered and Scattered", we would have just talked about church the whole time!

CT: You mention in your book that the church pastor can so often be focused on church activities and church ministry that the scattered aspect is a bit neglected. Is the book specifically a call to pastors to re-think what they are doing in terms of the activities they might be planning in their churches?

Neil: The book, overall, is intended as a loving and encouraging challenge to pastors, particularly to pastors who have got the biggest visions for their own church communities, the ones who most want to do something significant.

For the first 10 years of my working life I was a full-time church pastor and I've always been a pastor, although by vocation not for the last 20 years.  But I know what it feels like in an average-sized UK church - say, between 70 and 90 people - where you look at what the needs of your local community are and the opportunities you could have as a church to get involved.  Then you look at your congregation and think, if only those three or four people who are currently in certain jobs were available to me to do more, then we could really make a difference.

As the pastor, I could see opportunities and I was being asked by the wider community if we could help with certain things and I would think, yes, if such and such a person could work four days a week and give me their fifth day. Looking back, I think what that did was make my vision trump everybody else's, as if the opportunities that I saw and wanted to achieve were somehow greater than the opportunities that the individuals in my congregation had going on in their lives.

For example, I did school assemblies every week and in the ideal world I imagined a handful of young people - I was in my late twenties at the time - coming and joining me to do something really cutting edge in the assemblies!  But of course, I realised that some of those people were already working in the schools as teachers!

So, ironically I was thinking, oh, if only they could come and join me in doing such and such, and they were saying, 'actually Neil, I'm already there.'

(Photo: Unsplash/Cel Lisboa)

I had to take a pause and ask what my role was as a pastor. And from that I started asking instead: how do you equip the teacher to understand the purpose that God has for them in their school?  Rather than thinking that the impact has always got to come through a 'church-sponsored' activity. It's such a simple switch but it changes everything.

CT: You write that churches shouldn't see the people in their congregations as "fodder for their rotas" and that Christians can sometimes only feel fruitful if they are volunteering in some way in the church.

Neil: There is a need to help pastors think through how we help one another to get a vision for the whole of our lives, wherever that might be, and at every stage of our lives. For people who can't commit to being on all the rotas or don't want to commit to being on the rotas they can feel remarkably guilty and others in the church can look at them as if to say, 'oh, you're not very committed are you.'

In my own church, a lady with a young family had just returned to her work, working with vulnerable women on the streets of Manchester.  She came to me and told me she just wanted to come off the creche work because she wanted to concentrate on this wider work she was now doing.  Although she was still part of the worshipping community and hadn't given up on church or anything like that, she said, 'I feel so guilty, I feel like I'll be letting people down and like I'm not committed.' 

The internal pressure is interesting, because often you'll find, it's not coming from the pastor but from ourselves.  We beat ourselves up about not doing enough but then on the other hand, if you just do it, you can feel resentful about it or just tired out. And you're hearing Jesus say, "I've come to give you life in all its abundance," and you're thinking, 'well, I wish I knew what that was like cos right now it doesn't feel like that, right now I just feel knackered.' 

It's important that as pastors, we don't compound the feeling of guilt because then we've conflated a commitment to Christ and the mission of Christ, with serving on a rota in church. And that's effectively saying to people that what's most important is not the rest of your life but serving in our church. 

We often think in terms of binary opposites, it's either church or the rest of life, and either scattered or gathered. And it's never as simple as that, it's both.  But we want to enable people to think about where the primary emphasis is and that has to be where God has placed you.  Then the next question is: how do we as the church enable you to flourish there for God and the cause of the Kingdom?

CT: In reality, it can be easy for us to compartmentalise church and life, as if 'this is Sunday' and 'this is the rest of the week when I'm doing something else'. What are the practical things we can do as a church to help people become whole-life disciples.

Neil: We have to change the culture of our churches and there are very practical things we can do. When people go on a short-term mission trip overseas, they go fired up and they get prayed for, they get supported, they go with eyes open and the testimony of many is that they come back and say, 'Wow, that really changed me.'

Why? What's going on in that situation? Well, firstly, there's an assigned significance to it. But you might be going abroad to do something that other people at home here in the UK do for a living.  For example, a few years ago I went as part of a group with Habitat for Humanity to build a house.  There are all kinds of people in our church who do construction jobs like this every day in the UK, but when was the last time you heard anyone in the church talking about labouring on a building site for the purposes of God's kingdom. I guarantee you've never heard anyone in church being invited to speak about that!

We privilege certain activities and they sound exotic and exciting, and it feels different because it's in our own personal time.  And we can talk in a way that is more open about Jesus than with our colleagues that we have to work with 48 weeks of the year.

The LICC's Neil Hudson wonders why the church celebrates going off to build a house when it's part of a short-term mission trip but not so much when it's a Monday to Friday job back home in Britain.(Photo: Unsplash/Anthony Ginsbrook)

So how do we enable those going into this kind of workplace all the time? We do it in the same way. We know how to inspire people in church and give people a sense of mission. We do it through story or prayer for example. It's just that in many places, we haven't done that when it comes to the every-day.

CT: What would you say to someone who is a faithful Christian, they love the church and God, but work is a grind and they don't necessarily love their job or are wondering 'what am I doing here, does this have any meaning?'

Neil: I'm aware that everything I say could sound very glib, but what I would say is that most of the New Testament was written to people in that kind of situation. Most of the people in the Roman Empire were in some form of slavery and most of the people who read the Epistles were in slavery. Some had good slave owners, some had poor slave owners. Some were abused, some had landed on their feet and were OK.

Most of the people who have read the Bible down through the ages have been in situations where they've felt like 'this is not great'. The whole story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that there has rarely been a time when the people of God said 'this feels exactly like the right place', whether it's in Egypt, the wildneress, or even when they got their own land and it was divided and they went into exile and then ended up in the Roman Empire.

When was it a brilliant time to be a Christian? The Bible says actually, it's always been a difficult time. That's the story of the faith.

But many of us in the UK live in a context where we're privileged enough to ask: does this work matter? Is this significant? For some of us, every now and again, we'll make a choice and go and get a new job, but that is a privilege that most of the world doesn't have.

So when you look at life through a Western liberal, privileged lifestyle then the biggest privilege most of us have is choice. And every now and again you feel you have no choice and disempowered. But that's how most of the world feels most of the time.

In that sense, there's something about the teaching in the New Testament that is quite helpful. How do you turn a situation that is not good into one that glorifies God? Paul and Peter, in their teaching to slaves, give the person a dignity in regards to their task and enable them to see how they can use it as part of their worship to God. So once you can offer it to God, knowing there will be a reward from the Father in the end for the work you do - including the mundane work you do - then actually it gives you a dignity that's not there without that faith aspect.

But yes, sometimes as churches we need to sit down with one another at those moments in life when we feel like we don't know why we're doing what we're doing, and I would love to see more done for people aged 30+ who say, 'you know what, I could really do with some careers advice right now.'  Because the last time I got careers advice, I was 15!

It would be great to have the church sit down with us in our thirties and again in our fifties and so on and just ask: what's God asking of you now?  I think that is something we can do for one another, that sense of enabling one another to hear what God's purpose is for us in the stage of life we're in.

CT: You say it takes more than meeting 60 minutes on a Sunday to grow a whole-life disciple and support one another in life.  What can we be doing beyond the staple Sunday service?

Neil: There's nothing profound in saying this but what most of us need is friends who will process life with us, who will give us permission to talk about our lives and the space to talk about what's going on - and to pray for us.

As a pastor I know there's a temptation to put on groups but the groups are often around study as though the emphasis is on whether we know enough.  But what we need is the space to share who we are with one another.

Small group people get together and do the Bible study but the parts that really come alive are the bits before or after, or when people are able to share their own reflections on a passage.

One friend of mine said, "I can't think of any other way of doing this except through giving more time to eat together." That physical act of sitting down, having to speak to one another and having to share who we are; maybe that in the end is what the community of believers was all about.

When we reflect back on the early Acts passages, they met daily, they broke bread, they adhered to the Apostles' teaching and they prayed. That breaking of bread, everybody would have understood that it was more than taking communion together every day. They were forming themsevles as this counter-cultural community that enabled them to be shaped in the way of Jesus. 

Sometimes, we're 'British' and we don't do that kind of thing very easily; we prefer to live inside because it's too cold outside, and if we just lived in the Mediterannean it would be so much easier because then we could just meet under the tree! But if we're serious about this, it's going to take a commitment to the community and to listening to one another. It will take that commitment because it's only that that will shape us as followers of Jesus. There's no shortcuts.