This morning I came across a blog written by my friend, John Stephens, who is the Chair of the Order of Elders here in the South Georgia Annual Conference. In his piece, John asks some fundamental questions about the identity of The United Methodist Church displayed in and through the decisions being made at General Conference.
One paragraph in particular jumped out at me:
“While “making disciples for the transformation of the world” may be our espoused theory, is it really our theory in use? Is it really what we do? Does the whole denomination embrace it? Is the vision shared? Or, are we a collective of differing interests and priorities?”
Let’s push this reasoning a little further.
I’ve found as of late that the go-to answer in most circles of The United Methodist Church is “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” It’s simple, catchy and even sounds very theological. We throw this answer out whenever we discuss issues ranging from mission to money to church decline. We claim it as a mission statement and, by God, we hold ourselves to using the phrase on a regular basis.
What does it mean to “make disciples”? What does a disciple look like? How does one not only become a disciple but also continue to grow as a disciple? Why is discipleship important?
These are fundamental questions that I don’t think we have consensus on. So if there’s no consensus, does using that catchy phrase render it empty? In many ways I think it does.
The hard truth about The United Methodist Church is that along with much of mainline, Protestant America, we’ve been more concerned with forming good people — people who love their families, pay their taxes, go to church regularly, and try to be nice to others — than we have with forming disciples of Jesus Christ. Now that people have begun to figure out they can be all of those things without going to church, we’ve lost ourselves in the despair of decline.
We’ve done very little in the Church to distinguish Christianity as something unique and different. We’ve been comfortable in our perch as an American institution and we’ve done our parts to ensure that remain our place in society. Unfortunately the 21st Century has awakened us to the reality that were knocked out of that perch a while ago. We’re just now waking up to that reality.
I’ve heard leaders and advocates of various restructure plans say in one breath “this isn’t a magic bullet” and “we’re doing this to ensure we make our top priority the making of disciples” (my paraphrase). If we aren’t discussing the basic questions of discipleship — what it is, what it looks like, what changes are required to live into it — then plans of restructure are simply plans to grow the church and sustain viability. These aren’t bad things at all. Nor are they 100% mutually exclusive. But we simply can’t go on assuming that we all agree on the very basics of discipleship just because we all agree on a catch phrase.
I do hope there are some delegates present who will at least ask the tough questions of discipleship when they hear the catch phrase “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” If we don’t ask the tough questions, I fear we are, in fact, making a values statement by our lack of speech. We’ve got a long way to go if that statement is to reflect the reality of our lives together. It’s my hope that we begin the journey of a few thousand miles with a few tough questions.