Suppose on Sunday you were to ask ten people, “Who serves at the frontline in our church?”
Chances are that several would say the frontline people are the pastor and those in on the elder board or leadership group. If you heard that response, would you catch the hidden assumption behind it—that the frontline lies within the gathered church? No, says Neil Hudson, in Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples. He sees the church’s frontlines in those locations into which it scatters.
Your Frontline: Where You Live
He explains, “By the term ‘frontline’, we mean the place where we realize God’s calling to engage with non-Christians in mission. Of course, we are called to be missional in all of life, and called to grow in godliness wherever we are, but usually there’s a particular place or group of people that we sense God is guiding us to bless and reach out to. They are often in the place where we spend most of our time—school, work, neighbourhood, a gym, a club.”
While “frontline” shows up repeatedly in his book, Hudson uses the term “whole-life” even more. Most often whole-life modifies disciples or discipleship. Hudson says, “Whole-life discipleship intends to mean what it says: there is no area of a Christian’s life that Jesus does not have ownership of, and there is no part of their life that he does not want to use for his glory.”
The Imagine Project
Hudson serves on the Imagine Project with The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC). In that role, he led a three-year project involving 17 churches in a study of “how church communities might learn to engage in the central task of whole-life disciple-making.” The project involved hundreds of Christians and church leaders. In his book, Hudson aims to show how a church can be transformed into one that produces whole-life disciples—people equipped to carry out Jesus’s mission in whatever setting they scatter into on weekdays.
But he notes, “whole-life disciple-making churches are in fact rather rare.”
In Chapter One, Hudson admits how difficult he himself had found the challenge to move toward whole-life discipling. As a pastor, he heard LICC’s Mark Greene argue for abolishing the sacred-secular dualism that has thwarted the church’s mission for so long. Greene’s urging to make whole-life disciples left Hudson feeling “indignant. I wanted to defend my past sixteen years in church leadership” But deeper down, he knew Greene had spoken truth.
Hudson went home and tested what he had heard in a church-wide prayer meeting. He asked three Christians to tell what they were going through regarding work. One was unemployed, one enjoyed his work, and one had just begun a job. Hudson asked them to explain what God was teaching each of them about him and themselves. He had posted four signs in the meeting room: “I love my job,” “I’d like a new job,” I wish I still worked,” and “I need to know what to do next.” Each one present in the meeting gathered around the sign that best fit their situation. Then those in the four groups discussed their circumstances and prayed for each other.
That prayer meeting, Hudson says, “triggered something in me.” Fast-forward to the three-year project. In his book, Hudson includes reports from pastors whose churches had taken part in it. For example, this pastor described the transformation that took place in his own church culture:
“What’s changed? Everything has changed, and the biggest change has been in me. I’ve had to change the most. For many years we have been an ‘attractional’ church. The central focus was on getting people into the church building. And over the years we’d done this well, filling the church building and putting on great services. But gradually we began to realize there was a disconnect between what was happening in the building on a Sunday and what was happening in people’s lives during the week. It was as though once we left the building, the really important business was over. I needed to be reminded that for the church members, it was just beginning.”
Hudson knows transforming a church’s culture to one of whole-life disciple-making is not easy. He names five challenges:
1. “The challenge of people recognizing that this is what being a Christian means. . . . Many have little imagination to embrace the possibility that God would be able to use them in their everyday life for his purposes, or that God would engage in shaping their lives through mundane activities.”
2. “The challenge of the inward pull of the gathered church. . . . People easily begin to feel that the important spiritual activities take place in the midst of the gathered congregation, and that to be caught up in activities away from this community is to be dominated by ‘secular’ concerns which are, by definition, things that are outside the orbit of God’s dynamic interest.”
3. “The challenge to the role of leaders. . . . A primary component of the role of leaders is to help equip the people of God for their ministry. . . . Success will be marked by the number of people who have embraced their own frontlines as their arenas for ministry and are living fruitfully there.”
4. “The challenge of sustaining change. . . . It’s one thing to begin to address an issue; it’s another to keep going until whole-life thinking becomes a natural and self-sustaining response. . . . You must ensure that the vision of the Lordship of Christ over the universe and the church is presented continuously, so that people never unwittingly retreat to a personalized therapeutic form of Christianity.”
5. “The challenge of spiritual resistance. . . . A desire to release the people of God to serve him well will attract the attention of the enemy. . . . Os Guinness’s warning about our activities being privately engaging but publicly irrelevant would seem to be the perfect solution to the enemy of God’s people.”
Asking Some Bold Questions
In light of these challenges, Hudson recommends making “one-degree shifts.” As the well-worn proverb has it, “Rome was not built in a day.” But making long-term changes in the culture of a church to one of whole-life disciple-making should include asking some uncomfortable “why” questions. For example:
“Why do we sing so much?”
“Why does one person get to speak uninterruptedly for twenty to thirty minutes?”
“Why do we hear so little about everyday life in church?”
“Why do the songs we sing seem so disconnected from our time and place?”
“Why do people who are under stress in their everyday lives feel as though there’s nowhere they can talk about it in church circles?”
Jesus sends his followers into the world as light, salt, and seed. Every metaphor points to something that must be scattered to carry out its purpose. Only as we prepare whole-life disciples for their dispersed roles as 24-7 agents King Jesus will they glow in the dark, retard decay, and produce fruit that lets the world taste samples of the Kingdom yet to come.
Would Imagine Church: Releasing Whole-Life Disciples make a first-rate Christmas gift for the leaders in your church?