01 July 2009
L is for Life Discipleship
The Alliance's Square Mile initiative is about equipping churches and individuals to impact their communities through mercy, influence, life discipleship and evangelism. In the third of our four-part series, freelance journalist Seren Boyd talks to Christians who are living out their faith everyday...
We've all done it - hollered ourselves hoarse with Christmas choruses in the shopping mall or burned ourselves out with missions, programmes and projects. And we've all been disappointed when we don't see hordes surrendering their lives to Christ at the mere mention of the annual church outreach event.
Most of us learn the hard way that people out there are not waiting for a tract; they're waiting for a sign, evidence that God exists. But most of us are not yet well-practised in miracles and wonders. So the best evidence most of us can offer is what our lives say about the One who lives in us.
And this is "life discipleship" - living out our faith in the ordinary and everyday stuff of life, whether that's in the office, on the sports field, at school or in the supermarket. It's a key strand of the Alliance's Square Mile initiative, which is helping Christians have an impact on their immediate community. And what life discipleship looks like in practice is as complex and varied as life itself.
In the case of Sam Fowler and Dean McDonald, it looks pretty spectacular. These two 18-year-olds from London defy gravity, leaping over railings and back-flipping off walls in a form of urban acrobatics known as parkour, or free-running. And they are using their extraordinary art to talk to other teenagers about what Jesus has done in their lives.
They've given their movement a name, Parkour for Jesus, and they've had T-shirts printed, but it's nothing heavy. They're just doing what they love to do and pointing people to Christ in the process.
"I love the freedom of parkour because it's all about getting over obstacles," says Sam, who had the vision for a Christian team even before he knew any other Christian free-runners. "God is a very liberating God because He came to save us, and parkour speaks to me about that."
For Dean, his sport has taken on a new dimension since he became a Christian two years ago. "Now parkour has suddenly become about more than just developing myself: it's become an opportunity to talk about Jesus," he says.
Bringing God into what you love best is precisely what Pete Nicholas of Christians in Sport is passionate about too. His job is to persuade and equip amateur and professional competitors to see sport as a mission field. It's as much about honouring God on the pitch as about speaking of Him in the changing room.
"We create secular and sacred divides, but we shouldn't separate our everyday activities from our faith," says Pete, a former Division 1 rugby player. "Many people don't see how their faith relates to their sport, and it gives them quite a sense of release when they see that something they love can be reconciled with the God they love."
Christian Surfers UK was a response to a similar case of "never the twain", an attempt to bring Jesus into a world considered out-of-bounds for Christians. For Director Phil Williams, the work is all about serving the sport he loves - whether that's laying on barbecues or clearing up litter - and building relationships with a community with whom he shares a common passion.
"A lot of surfers have some kind of spiritual thoughts at some stage," he says. "It's often said, 'There's never an atheist in Hawaii when the waves get above 20 feet.' Further out, between the waves, it can be very peaceful and very beautiful, and you sometimes get the chance to chat with people about creation and God.
"And it's about how you surf too. If someone drops in on you when you're just about to surf a great wave, there are two ways to respond: you can either tell them where to go or ask them to be a bit more careful."
What Phil shares in common with Sam, Dean and Pete is an awareness that we need to think outside the box about how we point people to Christ. Phil, a vicar's son, is all too aware that much of what the Church does makes little sense to people outside its walls. "Surfing can be a pretty hedonistic place," he says. "You just can't expect surfers to come into church with sand between their toes."
Words of comfort
Christine Bull has wrestled with the same dilemma, but for her it is art, not sport, that has helped her communicate God's love in an unobtrusive way - almost despite herself.
Christine had been a potter in West Sussex for years when one day in 2005 she heard God speak to her: "Put my Word on your work." She clearly felt God was telling her to paint Bible verses onto her ceramics and she knew that her target market should be a secular one.
She started with familiar verses - "safe ones that people might have heard at weddings or Princess Di's funeral" - verses that speak of comfort and hope. Although she test-marketed them through the local Christian bookshop, her pieces were soon being accepted for display in art exhibitions.
And they sold well. One bowl bearing the Old Testament blessing from Numbers 6.24-26 ("The Lord bless you and keep you....") was shown at a prestigious local art exhibition in 2006 and sold five times in two weeks.
"One lady saw my work exhibited in a local physic garden and she got in touch to say how much it had comforted her to read, "The Lord bless you and keep you...." on one of my pots. She had recently lost her husband."
One of Christine's most recent projects was to work with a 12-year-old boy with terminal cancer, creating an urn for his ashes. Christine knows the power of God's word to sustain. As a child, she watched her father struggle with MS. Then in 1995, her husband Richard suffered near-fatal head injuries in a car crash. "People are seeking and it's so important to have the Word out there," she says. "It sinks into people in a way that other things can't."
Chris Gibson is someone else who has just made the most of where God has put her to direct people to Jesus. But that place hasn't always been a comfortable one. For Chris, a gentle Geordie now living in Hampshire, has been dealing with matters of life and death both as a nurse and recently as a cancer patient.
During her 40-odd years as a nurse, Chris would always pray for her patients, though rarely with their knowledge. Then in 2005, Chris was diagnosed with breast cancer and began two years of chemo- and radiotherapy. During the long hours spent waiting for chemo, she met many people wrestling with fear. Now she was on the other side of the NHS, and she could be open about her faith.
"Often I'd just listen to people and God would show me what to pray for them," she says. "Sometimes I would get the chance to talk to them about what God had said and they'd say, 'How do you know that?' One lady called Carol was dying of lung cancer. One day I prayed with her, then she went down to the chapel. She told me later, 'I just gave it all to God.' Her son rang me later to say she'd died 'a peaceful death' - as if she knew where she was going. I just want to be someone who helps people hear God. The best thing I can do is just be myself. It's much easier when God does it."
An irrational faith
Martin Flatman may not be dealing in matters of life and death, but he treads a difficult line. He is a senior project manager in a major education support services company, surrounded by rational, professional people. And he is bursting with an irrational faith in an invisible God.
Martin chooses not to let that put him off. He works long hours away from his home in Manchester - his company is based in Surrey - so work, he has decided, should be where he witnesses. He set up a prayer group with a couple of Christian colleagues and with senior management's permission ("as long as there were no tambourines"). They advertised it on the company's intranet and waited. And waited.
In terms of take-up, the prayer meeting was a "wonderful, catastrophic failure": only a handful of people ever came. But then something unexpected began to happen. "People started to sidle up to us in the office and say, 'I saw your ad. I don't believe in prayer, but could you pray for me because I've just been diagnosed with cancer'; or, 'My mum and dad are ill'. Now I've discovered people really want you to pray for them," he says. "I feel I'm depriving people of something fabulous if I don't."
All these Christians have realised that the Bible is just a big old dusty book unless Christians are living out its message through their lives 24/7. Or as the poet John Keats put it, "Even a proverb is no proverb until your life has illustrated it."
You could become burdened by the enormity of this responsibility, but it's best not to look at it like that, says Pete Nicholas. "The real danger is that you can become self-righteous and then you're bound to trip up," he says. "I need to let Him take care of what I look like to other people."
Much better, Martin Flatman says, is to look on every conversation as an opportunity: "It's a privilege, actually. I'm a child of the living God, and how can I not tell everybody about that?'
New term, new challenge
Plan to transform your Square Mile this September along with churches up and down the UK using the latest resource from the Alliance and Community Mission.
There are four levels of engagement...
- YOU. The Square Mile journal is designed for individuals to work through over four weeks.
- Each day includes a Bible reading, questions and reflections and simple actions suggested in response.
- YOUR SMALL GROUP. The Square Mile DVD consists of four thought-provoking sessions, ideal for use in a home group or youth group setting.
- YOUR CHURCH. As well as being able to adapt the material on the DVD for a Sunday, service outlines are coming soon to tie-in with the series.
- YOUR COMMUNITY. Implement what you've learned to benefit those around you. For example, sign up for the Alliance's Simplify challenge in October (see simplify.org.uk).
To get equipped, visit: eauk.org/squaremile