Disciples Together: Discipleship, formation and
Roger L. Walton
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop special price
£16.99 (Use code CT251 )
IN THE mid-1960s, I remember, my parents helped to form small
groups as part of the People Next Door initiative of the British
Council of Churches. They were then fairly new Anglicans. They had
been nurtured originally in Cornish Methodism, and their chapel
still had class meetings in their youth.
They valued these small groups, which enabled the growth in
spiritual holiness which lay at the heart of the Methodist
movement. They received their Christian education from their class
meetings and, owing to an excellent class leader, my father's
intellectual horizons were also broadened well beyond anything that
his school ever offered him. Without those small Methodist groups
in west Cornwall eighty years ago, I doubt I would be writing this
Roger Walton, the author of this excellent book on discipleship
and small groups, is the Chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist
District. Methodist class meetings merit only an occasional
mention, but Walton's conviction, like that of John Wesley, is that
"the journey of discipleship is not intended to be made alone but
in the company of others."
Walton illustrates how per- vasive the small-group experience
has been over the past century of church life, and not simply in
Europe. Base communities, Alpha, cell church, and a million people
taking part in the 1986 ecumenical Lent groups studying "What on
earth is the Church for?" all have their place here. (I had
forgotten just how big that 1986 initiative was: 70,000 small
groups took part.)
The first half of this book is about how disciples are formed.
Walton identifies different approaches grounded in the four
Gospels. Disciples respond to God's invitation to share in his
often uncomfortable mission (Mark); they worship, and discover what
it is to be drawn into God's creative work (Luke); and they are
called to live in a community where they are friends of Jesus
(John). Walton then describes Matthew ("the teacher's Gospel") as
building on these core activities of mission, worship. and
community as the foundation on which Christian education is
Such distinctions would be too neat in hands less skilled than
Walton's. He is similarly both sympathetic and forensic about the
value of small groups, which, he believes, have a key part to play
in helping Christians understand that they are a pilgrim people.
Belonging to a small group should help us join any group.
But Walton is no romantic. He has done his research. The
evidence suggests that small groups of Christians are not greatly
drawn into justice issues or serving the poor. Nor are small groups
usually focused on truth-claims or theological learn-ing. Even
Bible knowledge doesn't necessarily grow much. Rather, small groups
often help Christians to be more confident in faith, helping them
come closer to God, more accepting of others, and more able to
pray. Walton says that the "God of small groups is a God of
comfort, support, love and security". This isn't to be sneered at
in forming disciples.
This is no uncritical paean for small groups, but a deeply
appreciative critique of their place in Christian formation. It is
all the more effective for that.
The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich.