I think I must obsess about my job more than I thought, because I’ve noticed recently that every time I pick up my free commuter paper from the station in the morning there’s always at least one story which sparks off thoughts about one project or another that we’re currently involved in at Saltley Trust. This morning’s pause for thought was prompted by an item on a survey of 4000 men undertaken by The Gadget Show, into what men thought were the gadgets that every man should own during his lifetime, at different stages of their lives. In a list no doubt cunningly timed for the run-up to Christmas, smartphones, games consoles and an iPod dock were among the picks for teenagers, whilst power tools, a satnav and a multi-purpose pen-knife were among the must-haves for thirty-somethings. According to the survey, over-50s should look forward to owning a leaf-blower, metal detector and ride-on lawnmower (we used to suggest our Dad should get one, even though each patch of lawn was roughly only twice the length of a large lawnmower in themselves). Counting up the items on the list, I find I only own six (and sadly in most cases not the more exciting) of the twenty-four items I am alleged to need by current stage of life.
This ‘life-stages’ approach to shopping for Gadget Everyman got me thinking about lifelong learning for discipleship: what if instead of a list of material acquisitions one could compile a list of key landmarks for Christian men (and indeed woman) at different stages of life? Not exactly a ‘100 Christian experiences to have before you die’, but rather a more strategic, decade by decade approach to Christian discipleship which is tailored to the unique individual and their gifts, but informed by a wider body of Christian wisdom about discipleship and the ages of life. One of the problems of lifelong learning for discipleship I’ve been mulling over this year is how one provides the maximum opportunity for constant renewal and refreshing in the Christian journey. Churches often invest heavily in those who are new in faith (either as young people or adults), providing different sorts of opportunities for them to explore, develop and grow. And for a time this works too – there seems initially to be a rough correlation between spiritual growth on one hand, and the amount of new activity you undertake in mission and service, frequency of prayer and worship, and amount of study you do to learn more about your faith, on the other. But as Alan Jamieson notes in his wise and thoughtful book Chrysalis, this direct correlation between effort/activity and spiritual growth is for most people only maintained for so long. After a while, more does not necessarily mean more. But too often in church, ‘more’ is the only thing that we are able to provide. This is a problem when it comes to our traditional discipling structures, such as home groups. Even when good and interesting new material is covered, there can be a tendency to become inoculated against the radical implications of what we are reading and praying, because it has just become so familiar, and in our groups and our individual lives it is comparatively easy to fall into a comfortable pattern which resists the full extent of the adventure of following Jesus. That’s true for me as much as it is true for many people I’ve observed.
However, I wonder how different it would be if in churches and small groups we spent a little more time setting personal or life goals with Christian discipleship explicitly in mind? This is not to argue for a primarily works/activity-based faith. Although we’re seeking to participate with God in doing great things within the world, I’m not arguing here for an achievement-based faith to parallel the acquisition-based list of gadgets for men of each generation. Some of the most important sensibilities to develop in Christian discipleship don’t rely on a great deal of activity at all (which is not to say no effort) – aiming to spend one’s thirties going deeper in prayer would be a very appropriate decadal project to set oneself and be held accountable for. However, in other cases, perhaps a different sort of focus is just what we need. Having recently decided it was time to step down from co-ordinating a church home group, I’m currently feeling quite a new lease of life in exploring other avenues of Christian commitment, some of which are taking me into what is for me quite uncharted territory. We do this all the time in other areas of life – earlier this year an older friend of mine achieved the ambition he had set for his sixth decade of life by completing the London Marathon – so why not in our faith too? Just as ‘Be Holy for I, the Lord am Holy’ needs counter-balancing with ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’, so also setting longer-term goals for our discipleship and service should be accompanied by large helpings of mercy, and an assurance that we are equally loved by God whether we succeed in our prayerfully-set projects or not. There should be no guilt trip here – ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ’.
So what would this look like in practice? For each decadal life review there might be a mixture of standing items (e.g., on life goals, prayer life, what opportunities are opening up/closing off in terms of Christian service?) but also some which are specific to different life stages (for example, by 60 one would need at least to be contemplating questions about retirement even if the outcome was to decide to continue to work, if possible, into one’s early 70s; at the age of 20, a key question might be about entering the world of work – some will already have done so and others will be about to do so). A church might collectively also decide on some collective projects for people at different ages and stages – for example, to explore some of those questions about vocation and service together in groups of people in the same decade of life. (Some suggestions for the key psychological/spiritual ‘tasks’ of each age and stage of life can be found in a number of books – for example E.E. and J.D. Whitehead’s Christian Life Patterns, or Peter Feldmeier’s The Developing Christian, both of which draw on work on life stages by Erik H. Erikson, but also on biblical and theological thinking). There might even be a menu of free-floating suggestions and ideas which people might want to commit to trying at least once in their lives – for example, signing up for a mission experience trip with a reputable agency, doing something out of the ordinary to raise sponsorship for a cause which is important to the individual, or committing to a number of years volunteering for a particular aspect of service in congregation and community. To be honest, the possibilities would be almost endless provided it was prayed through and supported. What it would require from the local congregation would be a commitment of time and space to accompanying each individual on their journey through life, creating a culture of expectation that we continue to grow and develop throughout adulthood, providing stories, models and examples of how it might be approached, and some structure or system of mentoring to enable it to happen. Could it work? I don’t know – but it sounds more interesting than a nose/ear hair trimmer anyway…
(Also posted on Saltley Trust’s Through-Life Discipleship blog).