We’ve been on a journey of learning to make disciples in a chaotic world of low-income, unemployed and unchurched housing estates in Lincoln for three years now.
Since beginning to make disciples many years ago, I’ve learned that discipleship can appear very linear when you are leading people who already live socially acceptable lives.
Sometimes in middle-class culture, you can see the outpouring of the gospel in the subtle tweaks to their lifestyle and attitudes, such as increased patience in the home, honesty in the workplace and willingness to give.
But in the arena of poverty, addiction, unemployment, generational neglect and abuse, nothing looks linear. These combined factors make self-control, healthy decisions and commitment to growth an absolutely mammoth task.
Some people don’t even have a desire to live a stable life, let alone aspirations to live in the freedom that Christ offers.
Discipleship in the context of working-class culture looks less like meeting for a Bible study and more like attending a court meeting, or listening through gritted teeth as she tells you: “He hit me again.”
It looks like preparing the sofa-bed for the estranged teen and breaking up a fight between a drunken girl and her mother at 10:30pm. It looks like smiling through the disappointment when they have ‘fallen off the bandwagon again’ and picking up the pieces to start over. It looks like encouraging vulnerability and honesty and leaving absolutely no place for shame.
Because these cycles are perpetuated by the belief that ‘I’m not good enough’. The heartache that the people we know experience when they fail time and time again can only be neutralised by the unrelenting forgiveness and acceptance of Jesus.
I have to admit that discipleship in these environments can feel like going nowhere fast, and can fool us into believing that there is no hope for some people. But we need to move the parameters of growth.
I believe the UK Church needs to move away from measuring discipleship success in terms of social mobility.
We need to clearly separate holiness from our cultural, social and political ideas. We need to completely remove etiquette, manners, employability, financial and social standing, appearance and education from our ideas about spiritual growth and development.
Because these things, the confusion of social mobility with growth, may be the biggest barrier I know to making the gospel known to the working-classes. When looking at discipleship we’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing.
I have three tips for those making disciples among those from unchurched working-class backgrounds:
1. Prepare for a marathon, rather than a sprint
The very essence of discipleship is ‘doing life’ together, and to begin to build an influential relationship takes time and commitment. You really must be thinking legacy and longevity. Our community sees pastors, politicians and authority figures come and go, leaving them in the same mess as they’ve always known. If we’re going to lead our estate into a kingdom mindset, we first need to earn our stripes, which could take many years.
2. Let Jesus do the transforming
Keeping our hands off the steering wheel can be much harder than we would imagine – especially amid chaos. It can feel terribly disappointing and frustrating to pour our hearts, minds and even lives into others and see no visible change and/or measurable movement towards ‘living a life of freedom’. But if we take on the whole burden of growing the church in love and holiness, we’ll get emotionally burnt-out very quickly. You simply can’t live in the pockets of the chaotic. We need to have clear boundaries in our lives, and ministries too.
3. Ditch all expectations outside of holiness
I remember some of my first experiences of ‘doing life’ with others amid chaos. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I had lofty expectations; I was excited to see how living the gospel in the community would break chains and change lives. I still believe those things, but I also understand that the evidence of discipleship at work amid chaos may not look exactly how I expected it to. It started to look less like congratulating people on making good decisions, turning their backs on sin, and being released of addictions, and more like crying with people who had messed up again, and stretching the very parameters of grace almost beyond what my theology was comfortable with. Honestly, it sometimes looked scarily like condoning a dysfunctional lifestyle.
In conclusion, Jesus doesn’t need our disciples to start dressing smart for church; to get educated, get jobs, or speak nicely. He just wants their hearts.
We need to stop measuring success on how well we help people to ‘clean up’ and focus on replacing shame with grace. We need to demonstrate mercy. These are the lessons we’re learning as we disciple amid the chaos.