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Discipleship and worship in new worshiping communities

Prayer ranks highest among practices

by Melody K. Smith | Presbyterian News Service

The labyrinth at the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in St. Louis. (Photo by Michael Whitman)

LOUISVILLE — Although leaders of new worshiping communities (NWCs) describe both discipleship and spiritual formation as types of personal growth, there are key distinctions in their descriptions of the two.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Research Services recently asked what discipleship means to leaders and they describe it as following Jesus, using relational and communal terms to describe discipleship. About one-third describe discipleship as a journey of personal growth and learning, and about one-quarter describe it as a process that is primarily about our relationships with others. Other themes include the importance of action, which was named almost twice as often as the importance of obedience.

For NWC leaders, discipleship is about taking action and cultivating relationships with other people. As one leader explains, “Discipleship is a demonstration of our relationship with the Triune God, through the way we choose to spend our time, talents and treasures and the way we treat our neighbors.”

Spiritual formation, on the other hand, is described by leaders as personal faith development. It involves engaging in disciplines and practices that cultivate a personal relationship with God. Others connect spiritual formation to discipleship, describing spiritual formation as a path to discipleship.

According to another leader, “Spiritual Formation are the practices that form us into disciples. They’re the daily habits, efforts, prayers and exercises that lead us into being formed in God’s image and likeness. They’re the rhythms we chose to be released from sin, shadow, addictions, compulsions and attachments in order to be free in God’s love, light, freedom and hope.”

“It is important to note that discipleship and spiritual formation are incredibly varied,” said Nikki Collins, coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities. “They comprise both outward practices, focused on action in the world, and inward practices, focused on interior spiritual life, and can be personal or communal.”

NWCs are slightly likely to focus their attention on outward, rather than inward, spiritual formation practices. Also, leaders tend to focus on communal practice rather than personal practice.

“This outward, communal orientation fits in with the tendency for new worshiping communities to discuss social justice, hospitality and serving others as important aspects of their discipleship,” said Dr. Angie Andriot, research analyst with Research Services. “Sixty-three percent of NWCs report having either a missional, outreach or justice ministry focus.”

1001 New Worshiping Community leaders and coaches pray at a January 2020 gathering in San Diego.

The top three practices NWCs engage in are prayer, hospitality and study. The least common are honoring the Sabbath, fasting and solitude.

“NWC leaders, like many other pastors, struggle to prioritize Sabbath keeping,” said Collins. “For this reason, 1001 provides an annual Sabbath retreat for leaders and over the next year will be offering quarterly virtual retreats for NWC leaders. Our hope is these events will encourage leaders to build Sabbath practices into their weekly rhythms.”

The next NWC virtual retreat is scheduled for Oct. 12–14.

The Rev. Jeff Eddings, coaching and spiritual formation associate for 1001 New Worshiping Communities, has been leading the virtual retreats with prayer and guided meditation for Presbyterians to engage. This work on discipleship and spiritual formation informed and prompted this study.

A closer examination of how communities engage in discipleship and spiritual formation practices shows that there is a pattern in the practices. Certain practices tend to group together. By analyzing the data, Research Services was able to find that there are five groupings of discipleship and spiritual formation practices: traditional, contemplative, outward-focused, inward-focused and narrative.

NWCs that engage in more traditional and outward-focused spirituality tend to be more communal in practice, whereas contemplative and inward-focused NWCs tend to incorporate more personal spiritual practices into their tradition.

You can read the entire report here: presbyterianmission.org/resource/discipleship-and-worship-in-nwcs.


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