By Sandra Coulson
Of the five Marks of Mission, it could well be argued the two that give Anglicans the most difficulty are Discipleship and Evangelism.
Synod in the Diocese of Huron this year will step right up to the challenge of at least Discipleship, with Bishop Linda Nicholls identifying it as the major theme for the gathering May 27-29.
“The bishop felt that’s one area where Anglicans generally need to look at (and) work at,” said Archdeacon Tanya Phibbs, the executive archdeacon of the diocese.
“The idea is there will be some emphasis on: What does it mean to follow Jesus, to be his disciple and how do we help people do that in parish communities?”
For Tanya, discipleship should express itself in ordinary life.
“Some folks think of the 12 Disciples or they read the biographies of spiritual giants like Desmond Tutu and think, ‘That’s not me!’ But what’s most inspiring to me are the folks who live out their beliefs in their everyday life – their family, their job, their community.”
She points to statistics that indicate religious people are overrepresented among community service workers and donors to charity. “And one presumes that flows out of what we believe,” she says.
But why do so many Anglicans struggle with the connection between discipleship and regular life? It’s a question that causes Tanya to pause before speaking.
“Some of it comes from our background as a church, that sense that religion is very private. So some of the things you do to grow in discipleship, like discussing your faith with each other – not even with people who are not in the church, that’s evangelism – in a small group or a Bible study and to pray together is not something that was often done over the generations in the Anglican Church,” she says.
Archdeacon Phibbs also points to the legacy of being in the past a large and influential church in a society where Christian practice was widespread. “We didn’t get a lot of people from the outside who we would have to teach to be Anglican or to share our faith with,” she says.
Discipleship is one component in the Mission and Ministry Plans that every Huron parish was expected to develop. So parish churches have to think about what steps they will take to build that capacity.
“We need to be intentional about it, that’s the main thing,” says Tanya.
How parishes do that may vary widely across the diocese.
One common option is a weekly Bible study running 10 months of the year. But that doesn’t suit the lifestyle or interests of everyone. Possible alternatives include short-term, perhaps six-week, Bible studies. Or a book study. Or a movie study.
At the other end of the commitment scale, some might dive into Education for Ministry (EfM), a program recently introduced to the diocese to provide lay people with a theology education over several years.
Different channels of communications besides face-to-face meetings might work in other settings to build a culture of discipleship.
And parish leaders might have to shift responsibility for some duties so that clergy have fewer administrative tasks and more time for discipling church members.
It’s also possible to add discipleship components to things we already do, Tanya suggests. The Mission and Ministry Plans call on parish councils to include a teaching component in their meetings. But Tanya says initiative could be spread: “If you have a group that always gets together – like the quilting ladies – what if you opened with a very brief devotion before they quilted? You could do little bits of it that might help folks get into the sense that everything we do together should be about how we live together.”
At Synod, delegates will likely hear about discipleship in everything from the bishop’s charge to talks by lay people about how being a disciple of Jesus has made a difference in their lives.
“I think folks in the church are often hungry for learning, but it’s how do we provide the tools and resources for different parishes to figure out what works in that parish,” Tanya says.
Sandra Coulson is a member of Church of the Ascension, London, and a copy editor at the London Free Press.