Implementing the pathway
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal but I press on…Philippians 3:12
The implementation of the pathway which is recommended in these webpages may be best explained by answering questions which can be asked about it.
- Is this pathway a one-size-fits-all framework?
The pathway is not intended to be a straitjacket for churches. It offers a flexible framework that can be used to plan for growth in discipleship in a variety of circumstances.
Embarking on the Christian life requires a response in one way or another to an invitation; progress from that initial response involves connecting with others in the life of faith; spiritual growth is a process of being formed more deeply as a child of God and a disciple; and discipleship is about being sent to serve Christ in the various situations of life. Inviting, connecting, forming and being sent will in different ways be part of any pathway for growth that a Christian community will plan for its people. Refer to the answers to further questions below to see how this can be applied in meeting the needs of people who are newcomers to church and Christianity, as well as those who have a long acquaintance with church.
There is more variety still than this in the situations in which we may wish to provide pathways for growth in discipleship and spirituality. See the second-to-last question for examples of the diverse contexts in which the pathway may be implemented.
- Is this pathway intended specifically for newcomers to Christian faith and church?
In a situation in which there is a continuing inflow of new people into a church, or where New Places for New People are being established, a carefully designed programme to induct newcomers into an understanding and experience of Christian faith will be called for. This could be done through a single comprehensive course like Pilgrim which is discussed on the Examples webpage or through a programme involving more than one course which extends over a period of months or even a year or more (e.g. using Alpha together with Freedom in Christ, as described on the Examples webpage). But it might take a less formal and more innovative form, for example, it could be focused on participation in a series of activities (perhaps serving the community) along with shared reflection on questions about Christian faith (this is discussed further in the answer to, ‘Where in this pathway is there space for people’s questions?’). This would require a fair degree of skill in planning and implementing the programme so that each of the four stages of the basic pathway framework is dealt with adequately.
Programmes to address discipleship pathways don’t all have to start from the assumption that participants are at the beginning stages of their faith. With long-established congregations which don’t receive many newcomers there can still be much value in offering programmes, like those described in the paragraph above, as a way to refresh and deepen the discipleship of congregation members. Some years ago, Bramhall Methodist Church used the Scripture Union resource, The Essential Jesus, to build a year-long programme of discipleship for its congregation as a whole, which aimed to address the full spectrum of discipleship development.
It is also possible to run a membership course that comprehensively covers the four stages of the pathway and in which existing members join newcomers to participate together. In addition to providing Christian fellowship for the newcomers the ‘old hands’ benefit from the refreshing and deepening of their discipleship referred to in the paragraph above. But this raises further questions about how the four-part pathway applies to Christians who have already journeyed some way as disciples.
- Does this pathway imply that spiritual growth only occurs as a simple linear progression?
At first sight, the four-part pathway might seem to suggest that growth only happens as a straightforward linear process. In reality, Christians will, at different points in their life of faith, revisit these stages, to respond to God’s invitation at more profound levels, to connect in new ways with others, to be more deeply formed, or to respond to a fresh to be sent as Christ’s disciples.
An example of this would be biblical understanding: a foundation for understanding the Gospels might be laid in Sunday School but that initial understanding would need to be returned to, perhaps a few times, at increasingly deeper levels in order to develop that understanding further.
There is always room to learn and develop further. In Philippians 3:15 Paul addresses “those of us then who are mature”. Just before this, he offers readers himself as an example of not having ‘arrived’ spiritually. Whatever point we reach in this life there is still open-ended growth which lies before us. We can apply this insight to various ways in which pathways for growth may be provided in local churches.
A church or a circuit may adopt or design a pathway that takes people from their first encounter with church or Christianity through to the ‘Send’ stage of being thoroughly equipped missional disciples. As discussed in the Examples webpage, the Pilgrim course is one programme that aims to do this for participants. But when participants have finished the final session of the eighth short course of Pilgrim a lifetime of further growth will still lie open ahead of them.
If a comprehensive course like Pilgrim or a combination of courses is used to cover the different aspects of the pathway from ‘Invite’ to ‘Send’, this would indeed involve linear progress through the course material. But the continuous learning, which needs to follow on from this, can be represented as a cycle (or perhaps a spiral) of continually deepening learning.
- Does this pathway take account of the messy realities of real life?
This picture of ever-deepening growth is the ideal of what the continuing Christian life should be like. But the lives of ordinary Christians often fall short of the ideal. In the opening verse of one of his hymns, Charles Wesley recognises that we will often fall short of the ideal.
O Jesus, full of truth and grace,
more full of grace than I of sin,
yet once again I seek your face;
open your arms and take me in,
and freely my backslidings heal
and love the faithless sinner still.
We may have to return to seek God’s grace in order to lay foundations again that we have allowed to be eroded. Church leaders inevitably find that they need to deal with this reality as they work to deepen the discipleship of their people
- Does this pathway simply involve the selection of suitable discipleship courses?
As can be seen from other pages in this section of the website there are many courses of different kinds which can be useful for developing discipleship. But discipleship and discipleship development are not all about courses. In the earliest years of the Christian Church, there were no courses or published resources for leading people deeper into discipleship, but there was instruction about the Christian faith, and accompaniment and support in establishing them in their faith. This isn’t an argument against the use of courses but it underlines the reality that courses aren’t the be-all and end-all of discipleship.
It is easy, too, to fall into the practice of looking for courses to do without being clearly intentional about moving them on to maturity. The letter of James 1:22 tells us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers”. The test of the value of a discipleship course is how it impacts on participants’ lives. This includes courses on the Bible or Christian beliefs. Their ultimate value lies in taking people further into living grace-filled lives. The following question raises this issue from a slightly different perspective.
- Could the pathway be focused too much on ‘head’ knowledge?
This may be a justifiable criticism of discipleship programmes in which there is a one-sided emphasis on learning about the content of the Bible or the doctrines of the Christian faith. How do we maintain a proper balance in the content which we provide for people to develop as disciples? The first thing to say is that it is balance that is needed. ‘Head’ knowledge is important because what we think and what we believe contributes to how we act. But there is more to being a Christian than our thoughts and beliefs.
Although the ‘Send’ stage of the pathway is about action, there is also more to the other stages of the pathway than ‘head’ knowledge. In the initial two parts of the pathway, the relational aspect of the ‘Invite’ and ‘Connect’ stages are vital. It is whole human beings whom we wish to encourage to move along the path towards Christian maturity, and human beings are more than receptacles of information. The relational aspect of discipleship continues to be important through the ‘Form’ and ‘Send’ parts of the pathway. Particularly when we consider formation, it is obvious that a balanced pathway will include a focus on the development of Christian character. And character is formed by engaging in action.
- Does putting faith into action only happen the ‘Send’ stage of the pathway?
The virtue of identifying ‘Send’ as the final stage of the pathway is that it indicates clearly that the pathway aims to produce missional disciples who are called to serve Christ in the world. It also underlines the importance of providing continuing to support people in their whole-life discipleship. There is a sense in which the ‘Send’ stage continues indefinitely.
But a focus on action doesn’t need to be restricted to one part of the pathway. In the story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), we read that as they went they were made whole. And, in our own lives, it is as we go in the name of Christ that we grow. There is wisdom in incorporating action from early on in a discipleship pathway eg the pattern of the life of a small group can include some kind of regular commitment to missional activity. Alternatively, a small group may function primarily around some or other missional commitment, such as serving in a foodbank, although if a group is to contribute fully to the spiritual formation of its members there also needs to be provision for biblical and theological reflection as part of its life.
- Where in this pathway is there space for people’s questions?
There is an argument to be made for instruction as part of the range of different kinds of human learning but there are limits to the usefulness of instruction in the context of discipleship. In 1 Corinthians 14.20 Paul tells his readers, “do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults”. A valid discipleship pathway will encourage Christians to be thinking people, not just to accept ready-made answers.
The Puzzling Questions resource, which comes from the same stable as the Table Talk resources, is one example of an alternative to instructional approaches. It seeks to respond to questions which people are actually asking, or at least to pose questions which they find intriguing. This approach avoids the risk of providing people with answers to questions they aren’t asking. The two Talking of God resources (see Form webpage) aim to stimulate conversation, and thinking, around some of the common, and often difficult questions that are asked about Christian faith.
A form of discipleship pathway which is rather different from the usual can be planned by combining an approach that focuses on responding to questions with a focus on missional action. This can still address all four aspects of the recommended pathway and may be appropriate for people who may not take easily to some of the standard ways of presenting Christianity.
- In what different kinds of contexts can the pathway be implemented?
Discipleship development needs to happen in traditional church settings which have congregations consisting of longstanding members. It is especially important in situations in which people who are new to Christian faith join Christian communities. But there is still more variety in the kinds of contexts in which pathways for growth need to be implemented.
Some other examples are:
- a youth group in which activity is of central importance
- a fellowship of elderly women who have a long history of faithful discipleship
- a congregation with a large proportion of refugees
For each of these, it is necessary for leaders to ask how the four-part ‘container’ of the pathway is to be filled out with appropriate ways of inviting, connecting, forming and sending the people who are being discipled. The content that is provided for the ‘container’ of the pathway is likely to differ radically between these and other examples. There is a need for sensitive, creative thinking as we seek to meet the spiritual needs of different kinds of people:
- Where is there space in this pathway for the Holy Spirit?
In 1 Corinthians 3:6 Paul describes his missionary work in Corinth when he says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”. Growth in discipleship is ultimately God’s work, and no system can confine the action of the Holy Spirit within its structures. Sometimes the Spirit will work outside of the boxes that we have created with the intention of helping us to do the work of God. We must be sensitive to circumstances, and sensitive to the leading of the Spirit in the way we implement what we plan. A discipleship pathway that is planned with care and prayer may serve as a channel by which God will work in people’s lives. But it cannot prescribe how God will act. As Jesus, speaking of the work of the Spirit, says in John’s Gospel, “The wind blows where it chooses” (John 3:8).