In a conversation on a recent blog, I wrote the following comment:
most of us resist the idea that we need formation, that we need to unlearn and relearn … and subsequently I would claim or tentatively suggest (depending on mood) that our churches are now not places now for formation, but consumption … here I think Hauerwas' complaint that the free church understanding of church has ceased to be distinctive and offer opportunities to create disciplined communities … instead they mirror society in practising church as autonomous individual persons who resist any notion of authority or obedience in the name of a skewed understanding of rights and freedom.
I believe that somehow we need to rediscover church as a community of character, where we are formed and schooled in living the Christian story. This requires that we rediscover ways of discipling, of catechesis, where the implications of our baptism are repeatedly being explored and lived out. The challenge is one that is perhaps near impossible because we have so throughly formed by the world (see Michael Budde's powerful claims in 'Collecting Praise' in Hauerwas and Wells (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 2004 and James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 2009, ch.3).
Walter Brueggemann puts the challenge this way:
Discipleship is not just a nice notion of church membership or church education, but it entails a resituating of our lives. The disciples of Jesus are the ones who follow their master and who are able to follow their master because they have been instructed in his way of life, both his aim and his practice of embodying that aim. Note well that the disciple is one who is in sync with the master-teacher, a profoundly undemocratic notion, for the relation consists in yielding, submitting, relinquishing to the will and purpose of another.
Discipleship fundamentally entails a set of disciplines, habits and practices that are undertaken as regular, concrete, daily practices. Such daily disciplines are not very exciting or immediately productive, but like the acquiring of any new competence, require such regimen, not unlike the learning of a new language by practicing the paradigm of verbs, not unlike the learning of piano by practicing the scales, not unlike the maintenance of good health by tenacity in jogging, not unlike every intentional habit that makes new dimensions of life possible. The church is a community engaged in disciplines that make following the master-teacher possible and sustainable' (Brueggemann, The Word that Redescribes the World, 2011, p.107)
Brueggemann offers this as a possible set of disciplines: teaching (catechesis), fellowship, eating together, prayer, fasting, recovery of Sabbath. He goes on to say that first, 'it is clear that these disciplines, if taken seriously, are immensely inconvenient ... The disciplines function to inconvenience us enough that we become conscious, self-conscious, and intentionally aware of who we are and what we doing with our lives' (p.109). And second, 'even in a consumer society discipline is not unknown' - think about the discipline of buying the same brand, of shopping at the same shop, or our commitment to never miss Eastenders, Mad Men or Match of the Day - these don't seem demanding disciplines, and 'on the contrary, it is the disciplines of counterculture that seem to us demanding, because they break deliberately with the seeming givens of dominant faith' (pp.109-110).
None of this is new to those that have read the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Dorothy Bass, Richard Foster, or the new monastics to name a few (and their work is only a recovery of the historic traditions of the church, including Baptist). It is not even new to those that haven't read the above, as I have discovered in the local church in which I serve in recently acquainting myself with the list of responsibilities for church members'. The issue we don't know how to translate this into practice, or we are afraid to demand it in the face of an understanding of belonging to church which is voluntary, consumerist, autonomous and therapeutic.
One response might be to say is that in the church's history not everyone has been called to take up holy orders. For many in the past their Christian life was a commitment to worship God on a Sunday, tithe, work hard, raise a family and pray before bedtime (can we say this is still true of many in the pews today?). Others - those called into ministry or to the monastic life - sought to practice their faith in more disciplined ways. What this is suggesting is that a more disciplined Christian life may be something that some within our churches commit themselves to, and their a wider group whose faith is practiced in more simple ways. I recognise that this suggestion may be seen as creating a two-tier Christianity.
Beyond 400 we require a new Baptist catechesis and the courage and faith to practice it. Only out of a church engaged in serious discipleship will emerge a commitment to mission and evangelism, for mission and evangelism are the overflow of lives ordered by the gospel.