Wednesday, February 18, 2009

lifeshapes for discipleship: updated

In the last few months of last year, I discovered Mike Breen’s The Passionate Church and the use of lifeshapes. There are 8 of them, things like semicircles for work/life balance, circles for discipleship, triangles for purpose, hexagons for prayer. (More resources here).

Mike had given me a copy of the book in Los Angeles in 2006. I’d said thanks, but never read it. Browsing my bookshelf last year, I re-found the book and a number of things clicked. I shared one lifeshape at church that Sunday, using the semi-circle and the need for work/life balance in a pendulum to frame my sabbatical. I was surprised by how widespread across the church the positive feedback was, connecting with people new and old in the faith. So I preached the triangle – a Christian life going up to God, in to people and out to the world – and again got widespread positive feedback.

The upshot is that we’re experimenting with the lifeshapes as a discipleship course. Starting this Wednesday evening, for the next 8 weeks, we’re using a shape a week to reflect on the art of life-changing discipleship. We hope to provide it as post-Alpha next step while also a learning experience for any in the church.

What I like is that the shapes are visual, they are something people see. (We’ve got shapes hanging around church and in the foyer). The shapes are also practical, they provide a way to life and seem appreciated no matter what stage of people’s journey. (Which makes sense, since discipleship is lifelong, not at the beginning). So in terms of learning styles, it engages visual and tactile learners, while much discipleship stuff is more focused on learners who read and talk. What this means is that discipleship is being framed fundamentally not as stuff you need to know, but discipleship as living life to the full.

So, the nervous wait begins. We’ve discerned energy and in response have prayed, advertised and invited and now we wait for kick-off … Update: One of the best opening nites I’ve been part of. Partly based on those in the room – thoughtful, honest. But again based on the material. There is this uncanny ability to talk to a huge breadth of human experience, making an excellent conversation starters and there is Biblical and theological depth (and I can’t say that about a lot of discipleship stuff I see). On nites like this, I remember why I wanted to be a minister – to engage life and the Bible with real people across the diversity of life’s spectrum.

Posted by steve at 11:23 AM


  1. Very interesting. I think you are right, the shapes make a good post-Alpha next step. What I like most about them is that they are tools for discipleship. Tools – like a hammer, saw, screwdrivers – don’t do anything themselves, but give you the means to do all sorts of things. And just as tools can be used to construct houses, furniture, electricals, mechanics, etc., it is fascinating and fun to see the different ways in which they are employed in different contexts. Your context will add to that diversity. I’m glad you’ve discovered them…and glad that you didn’t rush into that discovery.

    I hope the eight weeks go really well, and look forward to any shareable stories that come out of them.

    Comment by Andrew Dowsett — February 19, 2009 @ 1:13 am

  2. thanks Andrew. in what ways have you seen the lifeshapes being used well? have you seen them become integral to the discipling of people by a congregation over the long term and if so, what are the learning lessons?

    we are very much feeling our way down here.


    Comment by steve — February 19, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  3. The biggest part of my experience of LifeShapes has been at St Thomas’ in Sheffield, where it was developed over the ten years Mike Breen was team rector. I was on his staff team and his successor’s staff team(2000-05). Lifeshapes became our language for discipleship, and was integral to the transition of the church into a network model of connected missional communities; integral to a shift from church as (simply) event people are drawn into, to church (also, and primarily) as being sent out.

    The lifeshapes are also the ‘Rule’ of The Order of Mission, which grew out of St Thomas’ and in that context I am aware of lifeshapes being used in other churches, in Scandinavia, Australia…I know there are several churches in USA, too, though I have no personal experience of any of them. Nothing – yet – as integral as at St Tom’s but then, Alpha was grounded in the life of HTB for many years before it took off from there 🙂

    I’ve taught them to various people while at college training for ordination these past 18 months, and I’ve found that those who are already convinced of the importance of discipleship have really appreciated the potential of the shapes, while those who don’t get the significance of discipleship tend to see them as gimmicky or forced.

    I guess the biggest lesson from my time at St Tom’s was that, in making it our language, there were a number of people who grew to dislike them, to see them as the be-all-and-end-all and dismiss them for that. Particularly young adults (who, perhaps, wanted to pic n mix ideas and be cool towards committing to any of them). Again, those who were convinced by the need for discipleship found the shapes helpful tools. My view, regarding the shapes as a language for discipleship, is that I am not overly restricted by conversing with other English-speakers in English…those 8 shapes unlock as much and as rich a set of ideas as you can imagine…We found it was worth embracing them, not restrictive, and I’ve yet to come across a better developed set of tools.

    Comment by Andrew Dowsett — February 20, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  4. thanks so much andrew for such a full and extensive comment. 2 warning lights went off on my dashboard – hoping you can clarify them for me.

    1. the resistance among young adults – mike breen advertises this as being for a postmodern world, so why are those more likely to be natives of that world resistant?

    2. so often life is unique, and then christians try and bottle that life. so how much of lifeshapes is simply the unique story of st toms?

    to end on a positive note, I was struck by how deeply theological these shapes are – the circle resonates with romans 12:1-2, with faith as a response to grace; with kingdom, I could go on … there is depth which is wonderful


    Comment by steve — February 20, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  5. 1. I think the experience at St Tom’s has been that far more young adults have found the lifeshapes helpful than unhelpful. Being an iconic tool in an iconic culture (i.e. logo or icon unlocks information) has proved very effective. But postmodern culture also includes a suspicion of authority – including church leaders – and structure, such as codifying language. So within a broadly positive stream, there were some counter-currents of rejection. That is inevitable. We had a crowd, responded to those who responded, and didn’t overly worry if some didn’t: the aim wasn’t to keep and grow a crowd.

    2. I think you can’t tell the story of St Tom’s over the past 15 years without the language of lifeshapes, but, lifeshapes isn’t the unique story of St Tom’s. I’m not convinced that practices are transferable, but in lifeshapes I see principles which are transferable – for all the reasons you are responding to – and the different ways in which those principles are applied and worked out in different contexts will result in and facilitate different practices.

    Comment by Andrew Dowsett — February 20, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

  6. thanks andrew,


    Comment by steve — February 20, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

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