Innovative Adult Discipleship

Scot ShermanThe Changing Face of Adult Education

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The British missionary-theologian Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) is famous for his prophetic call to the churches of the West to rediscover their place in the mission of God. According to Newbigin, Western churches now lived in a post-Christian culture. They needed to repent of introverted self-concern and rediscover what it means to be followers of Christ in mission for the sake of others. His was a summons to the whole people of God, especially the laity, to committed participation in God’s work of redemption in every sphere of society. This required churches to take seriously the call to make disciples, to equip women and men for missional living beyond the gathered life of the church on Sunday. (Newbigin discussed this theme in most of his books. Two good places to start reading are Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991; and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.)

City Church San Francisco, a fast-growing multi-site Reformed Church in America congregation, has wrestled with this mission-shaped discipleship vision for years. The church was planted 17 years ago by Rev. Fred Harrell who began with a contact list of three names—one person who was a confident Christian, another who was confidently not a Christian, and another who was somewhere in the middle. Those three belief demographics, so much a reflection of life in the city, have characterized the church community ever since. City Church grew rapidly and has catalyzed 26 new church starts in cities around the country and locally in Marin, Berkeley, and Silicon Valley. But an abiding challenge has remained for the church amid all the buzz of growth—how do we lead new (or renewed) urban Christians into a genuine and sustainable faith that will endure and flourish in the secular city?

The church had great success with small groups—65% of the congregation involved—but adult Christian education was a very different story. Large numbers would come out to hear an author or well-known speaker for a special event, but only a small percentage showed any interest in regular Bible study. The feedback we heard was that people were too busy, or just didn’t perceive the need. They loved the sermon and the worship service, and they loved their small group. What more did they need?

In 2009 we decided that what was needed was something different and innovative, something rigorous and substantial. These busy San Franciscans should have the opportunity to take a contemplative year. My colleague, Chuck DeGroat, and I designed a program we called The Newbigin Fellowship.

Newbigin Fellowship The Newbigin Fellowship is a ministry of City Church and is now directed by Rev. Jonathan Gundlach. Several other members of the church staff are involved as teachers in the program. Dr. Chuck DeGroat, Senior Fellow at Newbigin House and Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Western Theological Seminary, oversees the curriculum, and is also working to develop partnerships for the program in other cities. For more information, see the website:  http://www.newbiginhouse.org/Story.

It promised theological, spiritual, and relational foundations for Christian life in the city, with a focus on the sustainable integration of faith and work. This was spiritual formation for emerging and existing cultural leaders in various professional fields—technology, media, academia, and the arts. This was our church committing to support them in their public lives.   

We are now in year six of the fellowship, and the program has over 120 alumni. This year there are two cohorts in San Francisco, one in Berkeley, and one in Sacramento. The program is tuition-based, though scholarships are available for those who cannot afford to pay. The structure is simple:

  • Weekly Cohort Meeting—The fellows gather in cohorts of 8-10 for a weekly discussion of the curriculum. The group is led by Fellowship alumni. The meeting lasts 90 minutes and is framed at the beginning and end with a brief liturgy. It begins with a Scripture sentence, canticle, and the Lord’s Prayer before the discussion, and afterwards it concludes with a time of silence followed by the Prayer of St. Francis.
  • Saturday Seminars—Five Saturdays are devoted to in-depth teaching by a distinguished leader in the field, e.g. James K.A. Smith on worship; Peter Enns on Scripture; Jeffrey Schloss on faith and science, etc.
  • Three Retreats—The first retreat is held in September and is devoted to the Enneagram, a tool for self-understanding; the second is a silent retreat held at a monastery, focused on developing spiritual practices such as the labyrinth, centering prayer, the stations of the cross, or the Ignatian examen; the third is a retreat at Lake Tahoe, devoted to reflection and celebration of the year and all that God has done through the experience.

The curriculum has maintained its basic shape since the beginning, but is constantly being tweaked and improved by our team. At the beginning of every month the fellows receive a podcast talk, giving them an overview of the readings and the theme for the month. The program begins in the fall with a focus on understanding one’s own personal story, using the enneagram personality system as a tool for spiritual discernment. It then moves on to an introduction to a narrative approach to Scripture, to reading Scripture for spiritual transformation, and to seeing how our personal stories fit into the biblical story. In the winter, it moves into an exploration of spiritual practices, including instruction in how to pray the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer (this is a commitment all must make for the year).  The focus is not only on personal spirituality, but communal spirituality—the embodiment of Christ within the Fellowship, and for the sake of the city. The spring is devoted to theological exploration  of various subjects of cultural relevance—secularization, globalization, social justice, technology, economics, sex and science, to name a few. It is a year of reading, reflection, prayer, and conversation in community on the challenges of faithful living in the city.     

The vision we cast for the Fellows program is one that sees every vocation as an invitation to meaningful participation in the coming of God’s kingdom. We also have a bias that the city is one of the best places to stay and live into one’s vocation.  It’s a vision to fill San Francisco with influential followers of Jesus, for a faithful presence that engages our culture with the challenging relevance of Jesus.  The Fellows come to see that the church is simultaneously for and against culture: on the one hand, opposing idolatry and distortion of the Creator’s intentions; on the other, bringing new meaning to cultural expression through the beauty of the gospel.

It was a mistake to think that lack of interest in “Sunday School” was a lack of interest in spiritual formation. We are finding that many people are not indifferent when it comes to spiritual growth. On the contrary, they are hungry for wisdom to live faithfully, to connect the true story of the world revealed in Scripture to the issues and challenges of life in what is arguably the most secular city in the country.

Scot Sherman is the director of Newbigin House of Studies, a member of the Newbigin Faculty at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and Teaching Pastor at City Church San Francisco. He teaches courses in Systematic Theology, Urban Ministry and Worship, and oversees the Newbigin Fellows leadership program at City Church. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.M) and the University of Wales (Ph.D). Scot lives with his wife, Catherine, and they have four sons. He loves opera, detective fiction, and playing the piano, and he goes wine-tasting as often as possible.