Learning Communities – the adventure begins

“A catalyst for renewing and reshaping vision” 

Fresh Streams linked up with St Thomas’ Church Philadelphia to encourage church leadership teams to join a Learning Community, “formed with the aim of supporting and resourcing church leaders and their teams to live the dreams and visions God has placed within them.”

The first three-day meeting was held in February, with the theme of Creating a Discipleship Culture, the first of four such gatherings over two years to help guide fifteen churches to become more effective in mission, through the use of missional communities,  How have those who took part reflected on the first step on the journey?

There was little doubt the initial impact was thought-provoking:

“We all came away with our minds bursting with ideas and thoughts and honestly we were exhausted by the end of it,” says Mike Wilson from Chester. “However, that was what made it worthwhile because we had been truly stretched to think through in real detail what was, what could be and what will be in terms of discipleship.”

Spending three days together as a leadership team was also really valuable: “It was a great opportunity for four of the five members of our leadership team to spend three days together learning, discussing and planning on the theme of discipleship; something that is at the heart of all we are, and aspire to be, as church, reports Graham Hooke, of Calvary Christian Fellowship.

Chris Bird, from Fleet Baptist Church, noted that “having just recently established our first eldership, it was hugely timely for us in terms of growing together as an eldership as we had time for structured reflection on where we are at as a church, and then where we are going, and moreover, how we are going to get there. This first learning community came at a perfect time, with the church in a time of very rapid change currently, due to recent growth.”

Sharing the time with other leadership teams was also fruitful: “Not only was it good for us to talk and plan,” added Graham Hooke, “it was so helpful to be sharing with other church leadership teams who were on the same journey as us. Knowing that we have 6 months to implement our plans builds a healthy accountability into a time like this!”

Ah, the six month gap before the next gathering! “I have been encouraged and challenged by what I learnt,” commented Ashley Hardingham from Altrincham. “But I wonder how I will get on in October, when we are called back to account for what we determined we would do?. Will we have achieved the targets we were encouraged to set, and more poignantly, will St Toms be able to coax me from the self-evident truths of a missional culture, to the pragmatic models of missional communities?”

But there is clearly enthusiasm and determination to make the most of this opportunity. “We have already put into place our first huddle,” says Chris Bird, “and I am full of anticipation about how God is leading us forward in terms of a discipleship culture, and imparting an intentional missiological ethos throughout the church.”

Graham Hooke was equally upbeat: “So many conferences are inspiring one-offs but quickly forgotten with no lasting outcomes. Instead we know that in October we will be feeding back and then building on what we agreed in February!”

Other churches with Fresh Streams connections have been engaging with LEAD Academy. Their reflections chime in closely with those above. Phil Deller from Chipping Campden says “We have really appreciated the time away together as team; it acts as a sort of retreat, really refreshing.

It has been energising to learn with and from other church teams. It has been really beneficial to intentionally / deliberately spend time on the bigger picture of what the Lord is calling us to be as a church, dealing with issues of breaking the growth barriers, changing the culture of the church to be even more missional. I can honestly say that from the very first meeting it challenged us and gave us fresh impetus as a church.”

And there is that same recognition of the value of accountability: “Having to also think practically in terms of executing plans and being accountable to each other every six months has motivated us to be proactive in implementing the things the Lord has shown us. It is also a time to dream dreams but also to earth them in the now.”

“It has been a very positive experience,” says Martin Hodson from Worcester, “helping us frame, face up to and explore key questions about the missional purpose of our congregation, and letting us do this in a community of leaders who have similar contexts and ambitions.”

Here’s a final reflection from Ashley Hardingham: “If Missional Communities are the ‘scratch’, what is the ‘itch’? For me the itch was not primarily about mission, but about growth. I have this belief that when the history of the modern church is written, there will be a chapter on small groups which says that every church had them, but that they failed to deliver the discipleship growth they promised. We might have cared for each other, had interesting conversations and annoyed the neighbours with our singing, but we did not grow. The reason? We have surgically removed mission from discipleship, when the Gospels so evidently keep the two together. So my itch had been a desire to see growth amongst those in the church and yet this would also see the kingdom come and unbelievers become Jesus followers.”

That’s what these learning communities are all about. As one participant noted “This first time together did not attempt to give new descriptions or models with which to baffle our congregations. In a more faithful way and with great integrity, the time was devoted to describing and communicating what a missional culture looked like. It requires both high challenge and high support; it promotes ‘high accountability and low control’; it requires a constant processing and calibrating of progress. Throughout the teaching there was a sense of movement and progress underpinned by a close and imaginative reading of Scripture.”


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