It takes a community to form a disciple. The congregation exists to be that community. Children, youth, and adults together in the community of faith provide the resources that aid the forming of disciples. The Spirit present in that community provides the transforming power that makes disciples and encourages their continued growth. It is the community that carries the gospel story into the present so that it can be made real in the lives of disciples. It is the community that provides the variety of gifts that is essential to disciple formation. It is the community that offers the experiences of deepening, equipping, and ministering that form disciples.
More than anything else, disciple forming is an enculturation process. Discipleship cannot just be taught; it has to be lived. For that reason the practices of the congregation play a vitally important role in disciple forming.
In some respects, the intentional look at practices and what they teach is a new area of interest for many congregations. One of the consequences of modernity was an operating assumption that classroom learning could provide most, if not all, a person needed to know to be a Christian. Content was what mattered—especially content that could be communicated within the confines of an easy-to-use curriculum. So, new member classes shared information about the church and the denomination, and “discipling” new Christians meant telling them what Christians should believe about important matters of faith. We opted for the modern belief that if people could understand the right things they would then live the right way.
One of the great blessings of the postmodern world is that it has enabled us to move beyond this “head tripping” about faith and recover the importance of practice in forming disciples. It’s not that congregations didn’t engage in practices during modernity, for that’s always been the way people have really learned the lessons of faith and life. Rather, because we were less than clear about the importance of practice and less aware of the practices we were actually engaged in, we sometimes didn’t practice what we preached.
Recent secular scholarship has described the learning process that takes place in the lives of people, placing great emphasis on the social nature of learning and the importance of developing practices through which people learn. Etienne Wenger, in Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, focused on an insurance claims department to demonstrate that the knowledge that was essential to performing the job was acquired in a social context around a set of practices that established a learning community. Wenger notes that, even in a business setting, not everything that is essential to effective functioning can be codified, described, and placed in a manual. Tacit knowledge is essential.
Think for a minute about how this is even truer for those seeking to live as faithful disciples. The knowledge it takes to do that certainly cannot be fully contained in a manual! It requires something more. Through the ages the church has recognized the reality of that “something more” by making storytelling, conversation, coaching, and apprenticeship an important part of the life of the community of faith. Indeed, the Bible itself relies on storytelling to convey its message about what it means to live as a faithful people. To form disciples today we need to be even more intentional about the practices that are needed.
One way to become a Christian community of practice is through the reinvigoration of traditional Christian practices, allowing these to shape the life and faith of the congregation. Diana Butler Bass sees these practices as falling into four broad areas: worship, prayer, moral formation, and life together.1 Recognizing the “collective amnesia” of contemporary society in which we forget our identity and purpose, she notes, “Christian communities can no longer assume that congregants know their story; it must be imaginatively told, retold, and enacted, so that tradition becomes a living thing. Practicing congregations are dynamic learning communities in which this process occurs.”2
Doug Pagitt and the members of Solomon’s Porch, a new church start in Minneapolis, were able to start all over again. Without specific practices from the history of their congregation, they were able to focus primarily on the development of ones that would have particular meaning for their time and place and people. Here’s what they came up with:
Some of these look familiar; others may seem strange. All of them, however, provide ways in which those who participate in them can live out the Christian faith in specific ways within a community. This is particularly important for Solomon’s Porch, which is committed to reaching out to those in its area who are not Christians. For those people practices are especially important. “Most people come to faith . . . through living day by day with people of faith such as their families or friends. . . . Community as a means of spiritual formation serves to immerse people in the Christian way of living so that they learn how to be Christian in a lifelong process of discovery and change.”3
This “lifelong process of discovery and change” is what discipleship is all about. It is the way disciples are formed. It is the task of the community of faith. It is accomplished as that community provides opportunities for deepening, equipping, and ministering in the practices it adopts.
Deepening, equipping, and ministering happen through the practices of faith. While some practices may focus on one of these more than the others, virtually all of them encompass all three elements of discipleship to some extent. There are not deepening practices, equipping practices, and ministering practices; there are only discipleship practices. When the community of faith is intentional about its practices, people grow in faith and discipleship. And the disciple-forming community becomes a reality.
1 Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004), 14.
2 Ibid., 53.
3 Doug Pagitt, Reimagining Church: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 26-27.
Adapted from Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations by Jeffrey D. Jones
Traveling Together takes readers on a journey, providing a guidebook that maps out the factors facing congregations in this postmodern, post-Christian world and the Biblical foundations for understanding the purpose of the church—to become a disciple-forming community. Anyone concerned for the life and ministry of the church and who is seeking a new understanding of congregational life and mission will find hope and help in these pages.
The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church by Diana Butler Bass
The conventional wisdom about mainline Protestantism maintains that it is a dying tradition, irrelevant to a postmodern society, unresponsive to change, and increasingly disconnected from its core faith tenets. Diana Butler Bass argues that there are signs that mainline Protestant churches are indeed changing, finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices and laying the groundwork for a new type of congregation.