What’s the relationship between membership and discipleship? (Jackie Bellfield)

Jackie BellfieldJackie Bellfield asks what the relationship between membership and discipleship is.

There is a particular time in the year that I dread, a time of sleepless nights and worry – the renewal of my car breakdown cover! As I get older, alongside my car, I worry whether I (or my car) need to be rescued and recovered, just rescued, only recovered, or simply just towed away. Which one do I go for in the plethora of options? Many organisations offer a variety of options in relation to membership. There is the seasonal membership, the family card, occasional usage alongside frequent visitor, to name a few.

As a fresh expression missioner, it is an amazing privilege to work alongside others as we explore fresh and vibrant ways of engaging in ministry, church and worship. Over the past three years, 13 new fresh expressions of church have been formed in the Warrington Circuit, each reaching a wide range of people, encouraging all to grow in discipleship and their awareness of God. Some of these people have previously seen the inherited church as irrelevant to them and others have been hurt by it. But the question remains: do they want to become a member of the Methodist Church? Or of any denominational church?

When I read the Great Commission, I hear the mission and purpose of the church. And that purpose is to spiritually form disciples. In other words, the church is not a club – it is a discipleship-forming community. The task of discipleship formation begins right here. We can no longer expect the culture, the schools or anyone else to do that task for us. It is the purpose of this community of church. How will we, with God's help, be effective in the process of spiritually forming disciples?

A discussion about the relationship between membership and discipleship needs to take place

I do not think that the question can be answered in the length of a short blog. Nor am I suggesting a 'home or away' season ticket, a reward scheme for regular attendance (though that has a certain appeal) or a loyalty card for regular giving – give five weeks and have the sixth free – but perhaps a discussion about the relationship between membership and discipleship needs to take place.

I am not, of course, saying membership is not important and critical in encouraging full participation, stewardship and involvement within our local church communities. But I'm asking: how do we encourage attendees of fresh expressions to be involved in the decision-making processes of the church that affects them? And how do we encourage them to take ownership when, as things stand, they firstly need to become members? Let's start the conversation; it is an exciting place to be.

New Song Network – Mar13

Jackie Bellfield is minister of Bold St Methodist Mission, Latchford Methodist Church and Rixton Methodist Church, Warrington. She also leads New Song Network, which is becoming a fresh expression of church.

It all started four years ago with New Song Café at Bold St Methodist Mission; the New Song Network is a growing Christian community which has developed from that.

New Song Café was, and still is, a gathering of people that meet at 7pm on the fourth Sunday of the month at Bold St Church. Our initial intention four years ago was to start off in the church venue but eventually move New Song Café gatherings into a local Costa coffee shop to worship there.

I thought maybe 20 people would come to the first New Song Cafe. In fact, 65 people turned up so we quickly had to move from the church coffee shop into the upstairs hall at Bold St. We're still there. We haven't quite made it into Costa because 130 people are now meeting at New Song Café for worship, prayer and praise. Initially, our thoughts were that 7pm on a Sunday night was not the best time to arrange anything like this and we were 'warned' that no-one would come to church at that time on a Sunday night – but we discovered that it was a very good time for a lot of people. It's true to say that it has outgrown our expectations and become an amazing time of gathering together.

New Song - café tableIn fact the whole idea of New Song has grown more than we could possibly have imagined as New Song Network has developed. The initial impetus was to have a sense of being together and of fellowship and of doing something new that may attract those no longer being reached by our churches. Inherited church continued to be very important to us but we also felt that God wanted to do something different, something that sat alongside inherited or traditional church – not to replace it but to sit alongside it. At that stage we thought that would simply involve going into Costa as a new way of presenting worship but a much bigger picture emerged.

Among those who came to New Song Café were those who had drifted away from church for a variety of reasons; New Song has become a stepping stone or a safe environment for them to dip their toe back in the water of church. It also became clear that people wanted something to build on what they were discovering at New Song Café. That’s why we then started Discipleship evening, a separate teaching session, also monthly.

New Song - breakfastThen, just over fifteen months ago, we started New Song Breakfast – involving a lot of bacon butties – at 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning at Latchford Methodist Church. Attracting some of the same people different people also started coming to that and suddenly this Network of Café, Discipleship and Breakfast started to develop.

And then under the umbrella of our calling, the four strands of priorities within the Methodist Church – worship, learning and caring, service, evangelism – we felt that we wanted to look at other areas too so under 'services we began to explore how we could reach out to our community. We launched the Community Action Team and people started saying, 'Yes we want to be part of that too'.

What had started out in New Song Café as a place to worship in a different sort of way was developing into an ecclesial community as New Song Network. We realised that a fresh expression of church was beginning to form before our very eyes and God was doing something far greater than we possibly ever dared dream or imagine.

Some people go to Breakfast and Café, some just go to Breakfast and help with our Community Action Team; others get involved in the various aspects of the Network. It is so exciting to see this community being born and this church being developed.

New Song - community action teamWe are now encouraging people to step up and take responsibility for elements of the Network as part of the leadership. I already work with the most amazing team; they are kind, considerate, generous and they love being involved. People are passionate about what we're doing with New Song and they are passionate about worship, learning and caring, service and evangelism so we are urging more of them to take risks in the power of faith. There’s also a lot of fun involved because – in addition to the worship and the service – we have walking groups, quizzes, curry nights and lots of other things. There are many different ways to share the Good News of Jesus!

The relationship between New Song Network and the established churches is really strong and very, very important. New Song Café wouldn't exist without Bold St Church; the congregation supports the Café and the Café supports the church. After the morning service, people from the church go and set the hall up ready for Café and that means such a lot. It's a great relationship and they turn up en masse to support the Café in the evening too.

The same is true of New Song Breakfast; that has gone ahead because Latchford Methodist Church welcomed and embraced it. As part of what has happened there, families have now come into the church at Latchford so we see the growth there of inherited church and a new way of being church.

This is not about the inherited and the new being poles apart, this is how the two can work in tandem and, for me, as minister of both there is something beautiful and harmonious about that – how two can grow and learn together.

New Song - crematoriumOne of the most moving and far-reaching ways of serving our community takes place on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Mothering Sunday when we go to the local crematorium and cemetery to give out hot drinks to people leaving floral tributes in memory of loved ones. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2012, 35 volunteers gave out more than 700 hot drinks in what was an amazing and beautiful time. I'd previously heard of a small church that did this act of kindness to those visiting their local graveyard and we decided to pick up on that idea because I thought we, as Christians, shouldn't just be in our churches on those special and vulnerable days of the year, we should be out there with those who grieve. I asked the local council for permission, they agreed, and we're now in our fourth year of offering hot drinks and a listening ear.

We draw alongside people and hear their stories – whether it's their first year of being there or their 40th year of being there – hearing about who it is they've come to visit, showing that the church is not immune from their grief but stands with them. It's a way of saying, 'we're here' but actually more importantly, 'God is here, is alongside'.

New Song - welcomersSo many things have come out of these times. It has made quite an impact on the volunteers who come and it has also started so many relationships and conversations. There have even been occasions when a bereaved family has rung a funeral director and said, 'There’s a lady with purple hair, a minister, who gives out hot drinks at the cemetery; could she possibly do my loved one's funeral?' That only happened because they had seen us handing out those drinks where they were, that then became a link to church they hadn't had before.

In this, and many other ways, we have seen God in action as we join in with him in sharing alongside people in our inherited church settings and through New Song Network.

So what next? We are developing our weekly Advent and Lent study evenings (which have met in a local coffee shop) into house groups to further develop discipleship and learning together. Then there is a desire for Pub Church, a weekend away and other ideas as to how we develop this amazing community. It is so exciting – and we are thankful to our God.

New Song Café

New Song Café has been running at Bold Street Methodist Church, Warrington, for three years. Jackie Bellfield traces its story as a fresh expression of church.

It's amazing to think back to how it all got started and what our intentions were with it. The whole point was for it to be a stepping stone to some sort of gathering in a local Costa.

We did not anticipate that people would come in the numbers they did and we still welcome new people every month to the Bold Street Mission's church hall but we're not in Costa… yet! We're currently up to 125 and we'd struggle to fit more people in at the moment. About 30% of regular attenders now see New Song Café as their church and that number is increasing all the time. It's because New Song Café is offering them vibrant Christianity while creating community, building relationship and providing opportunity to explore issues of faith in a friendly, non-threatening environment.

New Song Café meets on the 4th Sunday of the month from 7pm to 9pm. In saying that, it never starts on time… we have local preachers who come along and point at their watches because people are still chatting to each other and having coffee at 7pm. They say they're ready to start but we tell them that we have already started because the chatting and the coffee and the being together is all part and parcel of it. That's what community is.

In a way, we are a bit unusual as a fresh expression in that the whole thing for us is about focusing on worship as the heart of what we do. Many fresh expressions discern that introducing worship may be later down the line for them in their development because so many people have so little experience of what it means to worship. For us, in our context, it is different.

When people arrive they'll get a coffee or tea and select from what is normally a mountain of cake on offer! They'll have a chat, I'll welcome them in – particularly anyone new, we may have a short video clip or something but then a worship band will lead us in singing 12 songs during the evening. We'll have a giggle and I'll tell a few stories and have a joke with people as we go on because it's important to celebrate people's presence.

New Song Café - bannerWe recently welcomed a special guest – Wolfie, the mascot for the Warrington Wolves rugby league team. People queued up to get a photo taken with him. Everyone really enjoyed that – except for fans of the club's local rivals, the Widnes Vikings!

Our band comprises drums, trumpet, keyboard and guitar. They really get things going and it's fantastic to see all the ages taking part – our oldest regular is 89 and the youngest participant was six days old. We've now got every age in between. There's also a great denominational mix among those with current and previous church links – mind you, some of those links have been very fragile; some have mums or dads who go to church but they have been fringe members themselves. New Song Café has helped them to get engaged on their own terms because of its very open environment.

We'll sing six songs, including two new songs every month, and then we'll have a break of about 25 minutes before singing a further six. In the past three years we have learned over 300 songs. If people are not accustomed to singing in public with others around them, they can be a little puzzled at the start of it all – but that's OK, we'll just give people time and space to get used to what's happening. After just one song, I can guarantee that the feet will start tapping and there maybe tears or they will be singing. People are really responding to the worship and those not linked to traditional congregations or fellowships now see New Song Café as their church.

We need to consider what we do next with New Song Café because we are at the critical stage of thinking about how we move it forward. One thing that is going to happen is that we will grow the New Song network to include a New Song Breakfast to again offer a very different style of church – though still in the context of worship. There will also be New Song Pub Church.

Some of those who come along have been disenfranchised or hurt by traditional church but they are seeing New Song Café as their future. In feedback from them they say they know they can also bring their non-Christian friends along with them because they know it's going to be consistently good and it helps them to start having godly conversations along the way.

There's no doubt that New Song Café is becoming a very loving and caring church. A key decision as things unfold is whether to create New Song Church as a separate entity or continue to operate under the authority of Bold Street Methodist. At the moment we decided to continue with the latter. This has been great and has really enabled us to see mixed economy in action; the established church has been really fired up because they see New Song Café developing. As a result they see the future of Bold Street – now part of Sankey Valley Methodist Circuit – as being more secure because of what we are doing. It really is mixed economy in action.

New Song Café - hallI love the traditional, I love the inherited but that alone is not going to be sustainable in its present form for the next 50 years. What will carry Bold Street through is the network of church communities developing. New Song has grown beyond what we ever imagined. Thinking back to the original idea for it all, we might well end up going into Costa and we have an invitation to do so but the next thing is Pub Church in a local bar on a Sunday night.

There are still so many questions of course. How do we grow this? How do we nurture it bearing in mind that some of the people feel disenfranchised with institutional church? How can we adapt our denominational system so that we can be more flexible in structure when things are developing? Could worship leaders, for instance, be licensed to a circuit rather than to a church? At the moment there are quite a lot of challenges around these things and it can be quite frustrating at times.

Sankey Valley Circuit has brought together the former Warrington, Widnes, St Helens and Prescot, and Ashton and Makerfield circuits. Its purpose is to release us for mission and it's wonderful that New Song Café certainly does tell others about Jesus. However, we know that New Song Café is not for everybody and that will also be true when we start up the Pub Church but we're happy with that because we are simply looking to create opportunities for godly relationships.

We have also set up discipleship evenings and between 18 and 25 people now come to that. Thirty five people also came on an away day to explore more about faith. People are being transformed by singing worship to God and the tears of freedom and liberation are phenomenal.

New Song Breakfast is just about to start from 9am to 10.15am at Latchford Methodist Church followed by a traditional Communion service. There will be half hour of bacon butties and then there will be a couple of video clips to prompt a discussion time. The same theme will be used for the New Song Breakfast and the Communion that follows.

Looking ahead, we have been discussing our strategy for future development and 20 people have made a commitment to the New Song Network. We are now exploring the future and are developing a variety of roles in leadership. To be honest, I'm just trying to keep up with it all. We've just given out a New Song calendar detailing what we hope to achieve in 2012. It says, 'Keep calm and pray on!'