I used to be a primary school teacher – I taught Year 6, the 10 and 11 year olds and I used to teach the whole curriculum from maths, English to History, Geography, RE and so on. It’s certainly made me a valuable member of pub quiz teams.
But one of the subjects I used to really love teaching was science, cos we got to do experiments and it was generally a lot of fun.
One of the topics was all to do with what makes plants grow. So, we’d have some seeds, and then we’d try to grow them in different conditions in an attempt to see what the optimum ones were. There were 3 variables we experimented with – water, sunlight and soil. So we’d plant seeds in soil and put them in a dark cupboard. Others we’d put in the sunlight with water, others without water and so on. Sometimes the results got skewed when I caught children sneaking in at lunchtime to water the seeds that were supposed to be dry or to take out the ones in the dark for half an hour of sunshine. You know, this was inner city Leeds, streetwise kids even at that age.
Well, we always managed to get some results which made some sort of sense and of course the results were that seeds planted in good soil, which were left in the sunlight and were watered daily grew best.
The principle is that if you give living things the right conditions, if you nurture them well, they will grow healthily. If something is missing, they won’t. A principle which works on so many levels
Two weeks ago at the Diocesan Synod Bishop Nick Baines said this and I quote it word for word:
‘The point of the clergy us to grow disciples for Jesus Christ’
This is what I spent 3 months this last summer looking at. And in lots of reading and talking to church leaders from a whole range of traditions 3 things emerged which are essential for growing healthy disciples, apprentices or followers of Jesus.
(I know that seems really convenient doesn’t it, 3 particular things! – but it’s totally genuine I assure you!) With all these 3 factors working together we provide the right nurturing environment in which people can grow as Christians who follow Jesus with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
And those 3 factors are: Worship, Community and Mission.
So in other words we could out it like this: How we connect with God – the Up dimension How we connect with other Christians – the In direction And How we connect with the wider world – the Out direction
I’m going to focus on the second one of those here, community; and look at the others in future weeks.
For Jesus, community was always the context for making disciples. He created a community of followers who travelled with him, living and learning as they went. They grew in faith individually, but they did so in the setting of community as they worshipped, prayed, learnt and served together.
One of the striking features of the earliest church is the sense of shared life. There are so many accounts of Christians meeting with one another and expressing their faith collectively. Paul's letters were addressed mainly to Christian communities. The Lord's Prayer is a shared prayer: 'Our Father...' Acts 2.42–47, which we’ve heard today, is a particularly powerful picture.
The portrayal may be somewhat idealised... But anyone who is familiar with movements of enthusiastic spiritual renewal will recognise authentic notes: the enthusiasm of the members of the group, with a sense of overflowing joy (2.46), desire to come together frequently (2.44,46), eating together and worshipping (2.46-47) and including the readiness for unreserved commitment to one another in a shared common life.
James Dunn the theologian writes this: For the followers of Jesus today, especially in our individualistic age when people may struggle with the commitments involved in a rich community life, the Christian faith involves finding life in community. This has a missionary purpose. God is revealed in relationships even more than through individuals acting on their own. Christian communities are to model relationships that non-believers find attractive. God does work through individuals but he works especially powerfully through communities.
So a key task for the church in society is to be a community that lives out the Christian story for others to see. The corporate life of believers shapes the behaviour of individual Christians so that our lives together witness to the truth and power of the gospel. God intends us to be an authentic community in which people are loved unconditionally and where we grow - where people are slowly transformed and made more whole.
Christian communities can nurture spiritual life in a whole number of ways • worship and communion; • prayer; • reading and bible study; • spiritual exercises and rhythms; • opportunities to use our gifts; • reflective living; • engaging in mission; • sacrificial service; • watching the lives of other Christians; • experiencing failure and trying again. And to experience and contribute to these things we have to make the effort to meet together regularly. A key way is of course, through Sunday worship – we prioritise coming together, we make it part of our rule of life, if you like, because not only does it honour God and we are reminded of what our faith is all about, but it means we are spending time with our church family. The very fact we turn up is an encouragement to others!
But I’m equally convinced that Sunday gatherings are not enough on their own. Small groups where we can study the Bible and support one another in our walk with God are so important. Places of safety which can be places of challenge too.
Now, the one way of doing this is in home groups – and those are great and helpful and up building, but throughout the churches I visited over the summer I found that these are generally attended by retired people or people whose work lives are more flexible.
What about everyone else? Most people’s lives are so busy that we need to find new ways. In the new year we’ll be exploring smaller groups of perhaps 3 or 4 people who meet together at a mutually convenient time which may vary from month to month. These groups will be resourced by the church but have flexibility of meeting built in. Another strand of all this is meeting 1 to 1. Where one Christian, often someone in some kind of leadership role meets regularly with another, invests time in them. They teach and encourage, again sometimes there may be an element of challenge too. I’ve just started doing this with a couple of people and I’m hopeful it will make a big difference to them, and to the churches they belong to.
Now, we all need ongoing nurture if we’re to be healthy Christians, but the hope is always to work towards people being ready to be set free to nurture others down the line. To be disciples who make disciples. So, I hope you can see how these things reflect the relational way Jesus made his apprentices. From communicating to a large group, to a smaller group to investing a lot of his time and energy in just a very few? If that’s the example he set, maybe we should be following his lead more than we do!
Finally, one more thing which I think is really important too: Eating together - this is a hallmark of many movements which have been powerful in the church.
There’s a youth congregation I know about in Stafford which regularly shares a meal together. Their leader Revd Jeff Reynolds explains: Although it is a chaotic buffet meal, it is no less table fellowship. The principle that food is part of Christian hospitality and understanding is demonstrated at each session. This nurtures discipleship as we share outside of the more structured sessions.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could build this more into the life of the wider church family? I’m really interested to hear ideas about this – so don’t be shy if you have any! My brothers and sisters, unless you are marooned on a desert island there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. In fact those who are fiercely persecuted for their faith make massive efforts to meet regularly with other Christians, no matter how difficult – because they know that Jesus calls us to community, to his family The Christian life can’t be done alone.
Although we will need to find new ways of doing it today, for sure, community is not an optional extra for us. Rather it is the rich, nutrient filled soil in which we grow, in which are rooted and in which we can that fullness of life Jesus said he came to bring
So, how is your commitment to this church community expressed? In what ways do you connect and grow with one another.
2017 will be a year when we’re going to be offering some new ways of exploring this – so keep your hearts and minds open – could God be calling us to some fresh expressions of being church, of being His family together? Pray that He will speak to us and please pray too, that we’ll be ready to listen. Amen Some of you may find this video helpful......