Growing disciples across the generations in New Zealand

New Zealand bishop, Eleanor Sanderson, believes discipleship is essential and explained how the church in her area has been putting it into practice across the generations.

The Rt Revd Eleanor Sanderson is a bishop in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia and is an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Wellington.

She talked to the Lambeth Conference team about her experience and vision for discipleship.

“I think discipleship means something really powerful. I’ve always thought of discipleship as living a Jesus shaped life, which has been the work of our Anglican Communion and it’s intentional discipleship work in the last 10 years.”

Bishop Eleanor said she believes discipleship and community go together. “Jesus discipled by building a community of people who live deeply together, and my earliest invitations into discipleship have been by people who live Jesus shaped lives, and invited me to be alongside them, to learn from them and to be in mission with them.

In the Diocese of Wellington, the Bishop said that creating places where people have the opportunity to live in community and share their lives together deeply is really important.
“I live in an intentional residential community with students at our university. And we live in a rhythm of life together; a life of sharing food and fellowship, a rhythm of daily prayer and weekly discipleship across our different community houses, and a clear pattern of mission together that we’re involved with through the chaplaincy at the university. For me discipleship and community are inextricably linked.”

According to Bishop Eleanor discipleship is all about sharing. “In our diocese we have been really clear that in whatever aspects of church life we’re in, whether we’re part of a parish, or whether we’re part of a new monastic community, or whether we’re part of an intentional residential place, discipleship forms everything. So, we say that discipleship is sharing the Word of God together, sharing food together, sharing our life and praying together, and with a clear mission or focus.”

Bishop Eleanor said discipleship is the core of the church. “Jesus never asked us to build churches, Jesus said, he would build the church. He said that really clearly. But he did ask us to go make disciples. I feel like as a church, we’ve got it the wrong way around. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to build the church and actually not formed ourselves or the people alongside us to know how to actually grow disciples. So, from my experience, most people can feel underconfident at discipleship, even though that’s the core thing we’ve been called to do.”

“One of my really good friends uses the analogy of the iPhone, and said, ‘If you think of the iPhone, discipleship is the phone and church is the app. But we’ve tended to do it the wrong way around and think of the church as the phone and discipleship as the app. But actually, our call from Jesus is to disciple.’”

“I think our church can be scared of formation, because deep down we all feel insecure, the reality is that as humanity we will fumble and fall. And when you look at all the disciples, they all fumbled and fell in different ways, and that was part of being a disciple. Part of being a humble learner, is we learn by getting things wrong, and particularly into discipleship, it’s living life deeply with God.”

“The familiar litmus test of my own discipleship is the young people or the older people, that have been in deep discipleship relationships with me, should be able to tell people what my strengths are, but mostly what my weaknesses are, what I’m struggling with, how God is teaching me at that time, the lessons God’s helping me to learn. And so, we have to overcome our fear of wanting to control or looking like we’ve got it all together. But to live that kind of humble life with Jesus.”

Talking about the barriers of people moving forward with discipleship, Bishop Eleanor said,
“Wellington is the most secular city in the world for the ages 15 to 44. The majority of people in that age bracket have no religious identity or affiliation. Our context is one where people have no background to the gospel, there’s not religious education in schools the way that there is in other countries.”

In the Western world nominalism, where it’s possible to be part of church and have an almost a private sense of faith, is one of the biggest barriers to discipleship, according to the Bishop. “For my generation in this context, nominalism is not an option, there is simply not enough of us, we are in a church of major decline with huge generational gaps. So, the only church that my children and the young people that I support around me will live in is a highly committed church, where people have died to themselves to be alive to God.”

The Diocese of Wellington has been making discipleship a key priority. Bishop Eleanor explained, “We’ve intentionally spoken about discipleship and invested in tools for discipleship, that can give us a shared language and shared framing of how to live that Jesus shaped life.” She said the programme had resulted in four or five generations of discipleship groups, where people felt confident to journey more deeply in Christ with each other.
“We do feel like intentionally investing in specific discipleship tools and frameworks is a real success for being able to multiply.”

How is the Diocese discipling across the generations?

The Bishop said the diocesan Anglican youth movement was a really powerful discipleship element. “This is where young people choose to do voluntary youth work for our diocese, either in parishes or urban school settings. They live together, sharing that life of daily prayer, weekly discipleship and then weekly mission. We have now grown that from one house to 14 different houses around our diocese, with dozens of young people living in deep discipleship with each other.”

“One of the things we’re particularly aware of in our context of an ageing demographic and missing generations in our church, is that discipleship is always intergenerational. In Jesus’s close community, that ‘oikos’ of extended family was men, women and children. And one of the things I feel has happened, particularly in a Western context of the church, is that the geographic call to make disciples has been heard really clearly, but the generational call to discipleship, which was implicit in the people of God, has sometimes been forgotten.

“Sometimes we’ve forgotten, or not known how to live deeply intergenerationally and to share the good news to our children’s children, and so finding ways of intergenerational missional community and intergenerational discipleship tools is really important. We must never be in this position again, where our children and our children’s children aren’t a normal part of our extended family of church, where we come to such a skewed demographic as the church, and we have to make sure that that ends with us, and that the churches that we resource are filled with intergenerational life.”

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