“Shepherds led their sheep into good pasture, long before people like the British started driving them from behind”

Following Jesus is a great adventure, but you wouldn’t believe it the way we frequently present it.

It’s always a sadness to me whenever I see ‘discipleship’ wrapped up as a package, often a course of some kind, with individuals simply left to work it out on their own from there. If there is a package, appropriate to put ‘discipleship’ in, it’s a living, human being.

Many people in our churches experience a tipping point when they encounter God away from their normal church routine, such as church weekends away, youth camps, festivals, and conferences, but we can help people ‘liminality’ closer to home through encounters and experiences, which can propel them forwards in the mission of God where God has placed them. I’ve come to see part of my leadership responsibility is about providing such an environment, for people: ones where people crossing tipping points become much more likely. Church is often so safe we’re not disturbed from our comfort zones.

Tipping points, once made, which self-identify us as on another stage of our journey towards the likeness of Jesus Christ in our shoes. In my own life there have been times when I’ve come to see I’m further down the road, in my adventure in following Jesus than was once the case. It’s not always been possible to identify a moment, or the time and place, but looking back I can recognise I’ve shifted from one place to another.

For example, I don’t know when, or how, I came into a deeply, profound understanding that the God I had been serving was also a loving, caring, heavenly Father, which impacted my identity, security, self-understanding and ability to both receive and offer the love of God. I do know over a period of time various personal encounters with the Holy Spirit, listening to the teaching of John Wimber, meeting regularly with a small group reflecting on Christian counselling, being part of what we called an ‘accountability group’, reading Floyd McClung’s ‘Father Heart of God’, all fed into a period of about three years 1983-86, which became a tipping point. On the other hand, when I heard God call me to start preaching in the villages of Northamptonshire, I was driving, waiting at the junction between St. Mary’s Road and Windmill Avenue in Kettering. I can’t remember the date, but had I kept a diary at the time, I could have identified the minute, which in a moment propelled my life down a route from which there has been no turning back.

God as our ‘shepherd’ seems to be the most common lens, through which the Bible shows us how we can relate to God and he with us. So, with our call as leaders to be ‘under-shepherds’ it is, not surprisingly, a real help.

Shepherds led their sheep into good pasture, long before people like the British started driving them from behind. They took their responsibility seriously, to provide an environment in which they would feed, drink, enjoy safety and protection from the shepherd and generally experience life in all its ‘sheepy’ fullness. So I’ve often found it helpful to stop and ask:

i. What do people need to grow in their faith and walk with God?

ii. How can I best provide them with the opportunity?

It’s this kind of thinking, which helps us keep discipleship at the core of what and why we do things in the local church. So … if our calls for people to serve are merely about making sure we fill the rota to provide coffee after the Sunday morning service, we might want to think again. On the other hand, if we want anyone attending our gathering for worship to experience genuine warmth and welcome from the people of God and wish to help people grow in their sense of serving God with the personality and opportunities He provides them with … then we may well want to ask someone to join the coffee serving rota.

man holding bible

How do we encourage people to read the Bible for themselves? Do we simply tell them they ‘ought’ to, or do we provide various opportunities to explore reading and study plans, small groups which stimulate personal discipleship and helpful teaching, which encourages self-responsibility?

In all honesty, regional ministry has proved way harder to do that than I ever imagined, but I’m delighted to see how through WEBA we are now providing, or encouraging, a variety of such opportunities. Sometimes all we’re really doing is putting up a signpost and encouraging others to be there and then see what God does with the opportunity:

Forge Training: We have been responding to the call to identify and release 400 Pioneers across BUGB during the five years following Chris Duffett’s Presidency. The Forge Training year provides a real opportunity for people who have just ‘tipped’, or on the brink:

  • Looking to initiate a ‘missional community’ – jargon for what we might have simply called a parent and toddler group, lunch club, ladies pamper night, or any gathering of people we desperately want Jesus to be at the heart of.
  • Looking to start being involved in local leadership where mission is the desired outcome.
  • Looking to place their experience and practice in a biblical and theological framework (ideal for people leading, or starting ‘third places’ like coffee shops, social enterprises, pre-school, etc. etc.)
  • Ministers looking to re-frame their current Ministry in the mission of God.
  • Looking to explore a sense of call into ‘ministry’ and ‘mission’, but unsure what shape this will take.

Spring Harvest: Spring Harvest aims to create space for individuals to encounter God, to inspire confidence in the good news of Jesus Christ and to see transformation in lives, communities and culture through the work and power of the Holy Spirit. Baptists from all over the UK, have regularly found this to be the case. The positive impact across our Baptist Churches has been immense and we want to acknowledge that. For those of us who are local church leaders and Ministers, it provides a fantastic opportunity for those in our congregation.

Re-imagine: A much bigger challenge than the pioneering and church planting is arguably the transitions many of our existing, established churches need to be undertake. How do we, in practice, re-establish discipleship at the core of our being as churches and how do work towards our many and varied activities to revolving out of our sense of the mission of God? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been living with for many years and our missional learning community called Re-imagine, I think, helps provide the environment in which any of our leadership teams can make significant steps forwards. The next one will start January 2017, but you’ll need to start thinking about it very soon, if you wish to sign up.


Nigel Coles

Nigel is Regional Team Leader of the West of England Baptist Network. He facilitates the life of the webnet team and oversees the missional strategy for the region. He also works to develop missional strategy over a wider geographical area with our partner Associations and Baptists Together. Nigel believes that when Jesus sent out seventy-two others, he meant everyone who was there, and this passion to help everyone find their way in the mission of God is what inspired the development of Seventy-two.