Recently my son suggested I read about Circles of Support and Accountability that helped many sexual offenders as they transitioned out of prison and into our neighbourhoods. So I did. (Community-Based Approach to the Reduction of Sexual Re-Offending: Circles of Support and Accountability by Haney, Philpot, and Wilson). It got me thinking not just about this particular engagement as a way of serving Christ in the neighbourhood, but more generally about discipleship.
Discipleship is about following Christ. We put off the old nature and put on the new self created in the image of Christ. We are called to serve Christ which will inevitably mean making new commitments and embracing new practices of ministry. Every elder can remember the first year in service. Usually I hear stories of a huge learning curve. Discipleship is a daily invitation to follow Christ and embrace the change God desires in our lives.
Change is difficult. While in Nicaragua, I had to learn not to use tap water to brush my teeth. It was hard. It was a conscious act every single time. Old habits die hard. And this was a relatively straight forward and simple matter. Most of our lives are more complicated. Desires, family systems, habits of community, past practices and a host of other influences press us to not change. The change required by following Christ is resisted. The turbulence of our heart can confuse us. And our willpower will be notably weak at times we need strength.
It seems to me that two practices of Christian living can help us in our journey. First is worship. Worship orientates. It points us to the Triune God. It reminds us of fundamental values we embrace. It places our personal stories in the context of God’s story of redemptive love. In the face of the resistance that is so powerful, we turn to God whose power is sufficient to follow Christ. Worship is both a private act (personal devotions) and communal act in which we call each other to see and hear Christ.
The second practice is some form of accountability in groups. Circles of Support and Accountability are clearly a way of holding each other to account for particular behaviours and practices. Most importantly, offenders are not alone in their journey, because loneliness is one central theme in reoffending. In Church life, we have always known the importance of groups to deepen our discipleship. Often these groups come with other names - prayer groups, small groups, and bible studies to name a few. Other times, when particular needs are identified we have called them support groups. Because change is hard, having a circles of support is so important. Because engaging in service for the Kingdom (whether at home, church, or work) can be difficult, having circles of support and accountability is so vital. These can be places where we can talk about our complex emotions, face our temptations, talk about our lives, see more clearly the call of Christ in our lives and receive prayer for our lives. We are not alone in our journey. We are with others.
Our individualistic culture resists this communal nature of our life in discipleship. But more and more we recognize our need for support. We now have coaches for leaders in business and non – profits. We have personal trainers in gyms. We have groups for dieting. It is not just AA anyomore. Discipleship is not just a personal journey. It is lived in community.
Discipleship says that our lives our not our own. We belong to Christ and follow Christ. We do this in community that discerns the way of Christ, support each others walk with Christ, and holds us accountable along the way. We are not alone. We are together on the journey of repentance, worship and service.