Discipleship through leadership (Richard Seel)

Richard Seel explores different ways to disciple, including discipleship through leadership.

"How do you enable discipleship in a fresh expression of church?"

It's a question we've struggled with for some years in Xpressions Café, a fresh expression in rural Norfolk, meeting on the first Sunday of every month. We're a very diverse group of people, ranging in age from George, aged one, to 94-year-old Eric; from mature, experienced Christians to those who openly say they believe nothing.

Our aim is to reach and be relevant to the unchurched and to help them come to know Jesus and what it might mean to follow him. So discipleship is implicit in all we do but rarely explicit since that would threaten the delicate web of relationships necessary to enable people to walk their own journey at their own pace. Actually, though, we disciple in a number of different ways, some of them quite counter-intuitive:

Discipleship by not speaking of God

Right from the beginning we made the decision that we would never speak of God in the café part of what we do (Xpresso). If someone in the café wants to start such a conversation we will not refuse but we will never initiate it. In this way we can be confident that Xpresso is a safe place for anyone to come and know that they will not be 'godded up'. And it works—we often get non-believing family members who feel comfortable just having coffee and chatting or reading the Sunday papers while others in their family go off to explore some of the other things on offer.

But is it right to call this discipleship? I think so: by providing 'extravagant hospitality' (one of our five values) we are demonstrating the love of God in deeds rather than words; by providing a safe nurturing space we are pointing to the one who says, 'Come unto me…'; by offering the opportunity to visit other areas with no sense of coercion we are modelling a way of being church which is far removed from most people's experience or fantasy.

Discipleship by inquiry

Every Xpressions Café has a theme, nearly always derived from one of the lectionary readings for the day. On most Sundays, from 10:30 to 11am, we hold a discussion in the chancel around some aspect of this theme (Xplore Discussion). This is facilitated by members of the leadership team who offer some initial stimulus to discussion and then see where the conversation goes.

Those who attend the Xplore Discussion are very diverse, with many different faith positions from very definite (and quite literalist) to agnostic and unreligious. The discipleship here is co-created and comes from mutual sharing of experience, belief and life position.

Discipleship by activity and worship

Xpressions is the part of Xpressions Café which is focused on families and particularly the children. Xpressions runs upstairs in Chedgrave Church Centre from 10am until about 11.10am. In keeping with aims of trying to be culturally appropriate, Xpressions contains much which relates to children: craft activities; the making, sharing and eating of food; games of all kinds. The aim of those working in Xpressions is to be able to help the children relate the activities to the theme of the day.

The last 15 minutes or so usually consist of story, song and prayer – again, designed to be readily accessible to the children who come. Thus Xpressions is more intentionally 'Christian' than the rest of Xpressions Café because children tend to have less of the baggage often associated with the term 'unchurched' and are often more open to new things and able to relate more directly to Christian stories and activities. Their parents and carers are present too and they also can learn and share in worship with everyone else. So discipleship is happening here on multiple levels.

Discipleship by extended sermon

The last half hour of Xpressions Café is a time when we invite everyone to come into the church for Xplore Together. Not everyone comes; some go home and others stay in Xpresso, drinking or talking. But nowadays most of those who attend Xpressions Café come into this final session.

In many ways Xplore Together is often like a half hour, participative, multimedia sermon. We use vox pops; video; small group discussion; music; drama; prayer stations; singing; exercises; masks; and much more (though never all these in the same session!) to explore the theme of the day.

Xplore Together is always presented by two people and is fast moving, deliberately mimicking the style of breakfast TV and chat shows. As a method of discipleship it offers an opportunity for non-threatening teaching and participant response and seems to work.

Discipleship by small group

As people become more engaged and more regular at Xpressions Café we may offer them the opportunity to come along to a small group held on a Monday evening. This is a place where they can explore further in a loosely structured group and have an opportunity to ask 'silly questions' and to take some first steps towards leadership by taking responsibility for a particular evening in a series.

Discipleship by leadership

Because of all this we have found ourselves in the rather difficult situation experienced by many fresh expressions: some of our number have increased in faith; it seems right to offer them a taste of solid food rather than milk. But how to do this? The Monday Group is a step in the right direction but it isn't Xpressions Café itself and not everyone can or will come to it.

The temptation is to make Xpressions Café more 'Christian'; to sing more Christian songs; pray more Christian prayers; teach in more explicitly Christian ways. And for a time that is what we found ourselves doing. But there is a big downside here. The more explicitly Christian we become, the greater the gulf to the unchurched. All that careful groundwork could be undone.

This does not seem like a good option for us and so, little by little, we have been developing a new approach – discipleship through leadership – something which is still work in progress.

If we look at alternative worship communities, we see that leadership is shared in a way which doesn't yet happen in Café. There is still a 'them and us' to a great extent and those who come tend to be consumers of Café rather than true participants. Could we do more to involve the Café congregation in its leadership? We have had some success in this area; I would like to see us do more to encourage people in the core Café congregation into leadership, in Xplore as well as Xpressions.

In 2012 a small team of about eight of us embarked on a process of discerning a set of values for Xpressions Café. These became:

  • Jesus at the centre

    Jesus is at the heart of everything we do. We seek to follow Him in the way we live our lives and by having a heart for the poor and for social justice.

  • extravagant hospitality

    We believe that God’s love for us is wonderful. We aim to respond to this amazing love by offering generosity and friendship to all.

  • including everyone

    We aim to celebrate all that people bring and all that people are, whoever they may be. We rejoice in the diversity of age, background and experience to be found in Xpressions Café.

  • working together

    We want to journey together, to explore together; and to value the contribution which everyone can bring to the Café community.

  • encouraging creativity

    We believe that everyone is creative—a gift released by the Holy Spirit. We wish to encourage everyone to discover and use their gifts and have the freedom to express them in Xpressions Café.

We have gradually been working towards a better realisation of these values. We have now dissolved the boundaries between the three original teams (Xpresso, Xpressions and Xplore) and all Cafés are now planned at a monthly group meeting. Everyone is free to contribute ideas and perspectives and to offer to lead or coordinate the different parts of what we do.

We had 12 people at our last planning meeting but there are 27 on the mailing list of those who may take planning roles within the Café. Our aim is to keep expanding the invitation until eventually everyone who has anything to do with Xpressions Café will feel welcome to come and help plan and also take on some leadership role when they are ready.

The theory is simple really: if you become a leader you have no choice but to become a disciple – learning though doing; something which Jesus seems to have used with his disciples. It is worth noting that this approach to leadership is as effective for those who have been churched for a long time as it is for the recently unchurched. The key thing is that it requires a movement forward in faith and that is something we are all called to do.

Does it work? Well, it seems to. I sent the first draft of this piece to all those who are currently involved in Xpressions Café leadership. One of the responses was from Patrick, who has been with us for about two years. He said,

It exactly reflects my experience of Xpressions. Taking on a leadership role within Café Church and at Home Group has expanded my knowledge of the Bible and certainly made me much more aware of its teachings. Much research and thought is necessary in preparation for these sessions, and even though I initially took on the roles to 'help out' my friends within the group I can see how I have unwittingly (but willingly) become at least a part-time disciple.

I wouldn't have the knowledge and awareness of Jesus, the Bible and how the Church operates without being actively involved in leadership, so well done on utilising my inner Martha to further my education!

We are aware that there are many kinds of leadership. Not everyone has the gifts to take on an oversight role, for instance. We are still in the process of discovering how this will all work out. But, for the present, discipleship through leadership seems to allow the potential for 'moving forward while standing still' – in other words, Xpressions Café can keep its focus on doing church for the unchurched while simultaneously helping those who are ready to move on in their faith in their own time and their own way (albeit with a little nudge here and there!)

And finally, discipleship through leadership has another aim: to help subvert the 'producer-consumer'/'actor-audience' relationship which has characterised church for so long.

Xpressions Café

Xpressions - buildingXpressions Cafe in Norfolk aims to offer church for those who don't do church. Richard Seel explains how that happens through a number of different 'zones'…

Our safe space is provided by our café, Xpresso, which we hold downstairs in the church centre attached to All Saints, Chedgrave. We have made a deliberate decision that we don't 'do religion' in Xpresso, instead we offer a warm welcome with free tea and coffee, home made cakes and Sunday papers. In this way it becomes a place where anyone can feel comfortable and at home.

Xpresso is open from 9:30am to 12noon on the first Sunday of the month and people come and go as they please. A menu on each table gives details of the events and activities going on in what we call our different 'zones' – namely Xpressions, Xplore and sometimes Xperience. People choose when, or if, they want to find out more about these areas:

  • Xpressions, upstairs in our church centre, offers activities and worship for children and families. With story, song, craft, activity prayers and much more it provides an environment which appeals to many unchurched families;
  • Xplore, in the church people building, offers different acts of worship, reflection, discussion around the theme for that day's café. Everything in Xpressions Café is lay led and devised. The clergy act as 'chaplains' to the teams which do the work.

Xpressions - overheadSome come only to Xpresso but, of those, a number are now prepared to venture upstairs with their children to sample Xpressions or to go into the medieval church building for an Xplore session. We are particularly successful in attracting young families, most of whom are unchurched, the rest being dechurched.

Although at first sight, Xpressions Café might seem to be attractional since we use church premises, its aim is missional. We do not see Xpressions Café as a stepping stone to 'proper church' but rather we are looking for ways to develop it as church for those who come and for ways in which we can help people along a road of discipleship.

One way that we are looking to do this is by challenging those who come to the café to get involved in some community action. In other words, we are looking to juggle the believing/belonging/behaving schema a little further by suggesting that some people may start behaving before they belong or believe; others will take a different route.

Xpressions - grinIt all started in December 2007 and at one of the very early meetings we had about Xpressions Café – when I was trying to explain what it was and the vision for it – one of our church members said, 'That's all very well but where is the Gospel in it?' What they meant to say was, 'Where is the preaching of the Word in this?' My answer was, and is, that all of it is the Gospel.

There has been discussion also about whether our worship sessions are more 'seeker' than 'alternative' in approach. The fact is that they are a bit of both though not attracting the 'typical' kind of alternative worship age group or set of people. We do use a lot of video and interactive stuff but, on the other hand, we do lead from the front which is sort of 'seeker' in style.

That is partly due to environment, we have to work with what we've got – which is not necessarily what we want. It's no good for us to say, 'I wish we didn't have any sort of pews in our medieval church' – even though they are actually Victorian interlopers in the space. We just have to get on with it. There is a 'front' to the church and there are pews and we have to work within that context.

Xpressions - servingHowever, people don't have to stay in the pews of course. For instance, we asked people at an Xplore session to write down their favourite section of the Bible. There is a mixture of Christians and non-Christians in this group so it's interesting. We stretched out a washing line and pegged their Bible 'bits' onto it in chronological order to give an idea of development so Creation was down by the font and Revelation ended up near the Altar! It was a great visual aid.

We now have a core congregation building up, mainly made up of young families. The café is part of a much wider strategy which sees us building connections and deepening and enriching them all the time.

We have a group called Noah's Ark, for pre-school children and their parents and carers, running in Loddon – the next village to Chedgrave. They are getting upwards of 50 there on Wednesday mornings and, for the last six months or so, there has been a time of worship in an adjoining room. More and more people are starting to go through to that. As a result Noah's Ark is on its way to becoming a fresh expression of church too.

Xpressions - lineOne of my visions is to take the principles of Xpressions Café outside the church. When I first started investigating the idea of a café church it seemed to me that many so-called examples were in fact 'ordinary' church with the only difference being that the congregation sat at tables with refreshments for the service but we were looking for dechurched and unchurched.

That's when the notion of different 'zones' came up with Café Xpresso as a 'neutral' place where God's presence is demonstrated by extravagant hospitality. We have now extended that idea once a month after Noah's Ark by having Xpresso 'Souper' Lunches with great soup, great bread and home-baked biscuits. A lot of the parents and carers – and their children – are staying on for that.

There are so many things I'd like to develop further, like doing Xplore on a Thursday evening in a pub or developing the contemplative side of things in Xperience. There are lots of people for whom contemplative spirituality is their thing but they don't realise that the Church has 2,000 years of it to share.

However to develop all these things, leadership is key. Some of our participants are just starting to become leaders or take leadership roles. It is a slow process but encouraging to see it happening at all.