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‘Passengers’ have more to offer than we think

09 July 2021

The laity have long contributed to church growth, even if some shirk from the language of ‘discipleship’, says Ian Black

MANY years ago, before going to train for ordination, I carried out some research in my sending parish: a suburban church in Canterbury. I wanted to put to the test the often-repeated view that quiet people in the pews did not do much with their faith after they left the building.

This assumption could not have been more wrong. The overarching response to my questionnaire was that their faith fed them, inspired them, gave them a moral framework, and shaped how they tried to behave towards colleagues and clients alike. No one talked about discipling or being disciples, but rather that faith was for living, not just for Christmas.

Now, 30 years on, it is fashionable to call everyone a disciple, and thereby expect fully signed-up foot-soldiers. This blew up in a Twitter storm last weekend, in response to a quote from Canon John McGinley, who is leading the “Myriad” initiative, which intends to plant 10,000 new, mainly lay-led churches in the next ten years (News, 2 July).

Such lay-led churches were released from “key limiting factors”, such as stipendiary clergy, he said (see Angela Tilby), and they also “release the discipleship of people. In church-planting, there are no passengers.”


THE implication that many members of the laity in existing churches are “passengers” does not ring true to my experience of church growth over the past 30 years. It is too simplistic.

It implies that there is space for only a certain type of Christian. I have found that growth has come through lay people who have lived their faith, are welcomed with grace, and shown that there is a place for all. It has come through establishing relationships, often with people who had preconceived ideas of a censorious Church where there wouldn’t be a place for people like them. “Can I come in?” “Can I bring my child?” “Am I allowed to. . .?”

As I look out at pews and chairs, I see people in so many different states of well-being, energy, and confidence. When, as a rural dean, I organised a training event for a deanery synod on how to speak about faith in a non-scary way, with a skilled evangelist, the depth of faith and passion that came out was moving, encouraging, and a delight to see.

These were people committed to church business and structures, easily written off as “passengers” or committed to church rather than to Christ. How wrong that assessment showed itself to be that evening — and yet it is often held and voiced.


THE Church — in Wales and England — needs to find language that ignites the passion for the gospel. It is there, but, so often, our language and impatience for quick fixes can smother it and make the light flicker out. The venture being presented, or heard, does not appeal.

Some jump at the chance of being called disciples, identifying with those in the Gospels who first followed Jesus; but many will run for the hills. And I have told endless baptism congregations that, by the end of the service, we will have made two more disciples as Star and Brent are christened. Their job is to live as Christian lights in the world to the glory of God. In that context, it seemed to work, and the idea was to make them think about what they had done — which, from the conversations in the prep, they seemed to have understood when put in a way that they could relate to.

The missionary challenges facing the Church today are enormous, and we haven’t cracked it. I remain convinced that the heart of all mission and ministry is relationships. It is how we form them, nurture them, and, in short, love people. This — along with worship that is prayer-soaked, hope-filled, and joyful even in grief — makes such a difference.

But I remember so many who have told me that their longest journey was along the path to the church door, and how, having made it to the door, they couldn’t walk through for a long time. They needed to be met outside, or have a friend already inside, or just see something that reassured them to take a risk that it would be all right if they went through.

Conversations with so many people have shown just how long their journey to faith has been. And those who have grown up with it, have, like me, changed and questioned, wondered, and wavered over the years. There is no quick fix to making “disciples”, bringing people to a commitment of faith, or finding a place in the body of Christ.

Disciples come in different shapes and sizes, states of well-being, and readiness to be sent out. Some may “just pray”, and, far from being passengers, they are the powerhouse on whom we all depend. Language matters: it can open up, and it can close down. Not everyone relates to being called disciples and the assumptions that can go with it — but they relate to living their faith.


The Very Revd Ian Black is the Dean of Newport, and a former Vicar of St John’s, Peterborough, and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral. His most recent book is Follow Me: Living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press, 2017) (Books, 27 October 2017).

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