Remembering a Body of Work
Looking back over some posts from the past year, I realize that I’ve been harping on the topic of discipleship for sometime. I’ve written about the role of discipleship in the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church. I’ve written about the lack of talk on discipleship at our Methodist General Conference this past May. That piece followed a piece on how General Conference couldn’t save the church because we all knew it couldn’t focus on discipleship. I’ve written about how small group ministries are misunderstood as so-called “drivers of vitality” in the local church. I’ve written about how our American spirit of individualism hurts our development as disciples of Jesus Christ (and again here). I’ve talked for sometime on the need to rethink what it means when we say “making disciples for the transformation of the world” here, here, and here.
Enough on Theory — How and Where Can Discipleship Happen?
Since I am so new to ministry in the local church, I figure that while I’m fairly deep on theory I’m probably a little shallow on practical experience. However as a young adult in the ministry, I depend on those older than me to offer advice from their experience. So I will give you my assumptions on the looming questions of how and where discipleship happens, but I will do my best to put them in the form of questions. It’s up to you, the reader, to supply answers and direction from your own experiences.
Are We Biased Towards the Larger Church?
In all of the discussion on congregational vitality in The United Methodist Church, I can’t help but wonder whether or not we have a particular bias towards the larger church? Churches identified as uniquely “vital” are, more often than not, large churches with large worshipping communities. This is in spite of the fact that recent research has shown that only 4-5% of churches in The United Methodist Church worship 350+ on an average Sunday. In other words, are many of our churches not considered vital because they’re not like the top 5%? Though the Towers Watson report notes that 59% of vital congregations are among small churches, it notes that “larger churches are more likely to be vital” according to the standards used in the study.
Furthermore, our Book of Discipline is formatted with a bias towards the larger church. Just ask any pastor who’s tried to fill out the required committees in a small church. It’s nearly impossible to cover all of your required committees without asking people to cover multiple roles. How is it possible to concentrate on cultivating a culture of discipleship in a small church when everyone is run ragged covering committee work?
Have we created a church culture whereby small churches are left to feel inferior because the ministry we place on pedestals most often comes out of larger churches who benefit from more people and resources to do ministry? And I appreciate our mega churches “giving back” by putting on resourcing workshops. But there’s a big difference between pastoring a small church that’s just been planted and pastoring a small church that’s been historically small.
Can Large Churches Actually Disciple?
In the drive to grow (not to mention the drive to just carry out the basic ministries of the church) how equipped are our larger churches for the work of discipling? After 2 years as an Associate Pastor in a larger congregation I can testify to the efforts it takes to meet these 4 core areas of ministry for a local congregation: Worship, Teaching Basic Doctrine, Pastoral Care, Community Activity. Even if you’re able to do these things exceptionally, you’re still lacking in the area of discipleship. Are these great demands on a local church why discipleship has been swept under the rug for so long?
In all of our talk about vitality, we seem to be describing ways to more effectively meet the 4 basic areas while simultaneously growing in membership as a result — is this the same as actively forming disciples of Jesus Christ?
Quick, What’s a Disciple?
A disciple is defined as a follower of Jesus Christ. We can nuance that all day but essentially this is what we’re describing. In a previous post I defined discipleship in the local church as: The process of being formed in the ways of Jesus Christ as taught in Scriptures and expressed in acts of justice, mercy, worship, and devotion under the empowering guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, the work of the local church is twofold. First, the local church must intentionally and creatively make the process of discipleship a primary ministry of the church. Secondly, an emphasis on process and accountability must be a part of any ministry of discipleship.
Questions for You, the Reader
- Is the small church more equipped to make discipleship the primary ministry of the community? Since a small church is more versatile and nimble, can it shift priorities more quickly to make discipleship a primary ministry in the local community? For this to happen, the powers that be in our leadership would need to recognize the unique abilities of a small church for discipleship and consider rethinking expectations (i.e. more emphasis on faithful discipling and less emphasis on numeric growth). This isn’t to say the small church can’t carry out the 4 basic areas of ministry. It’s simply an acknowledgement that discipleship can (and should) look different in a small church due to its size and resources.
- Do the medium and larger churches require discipling communities to come alongside the ministry of the congregation? In the work it takes to meet the 4 core areas of ministry, I wonder if medium and larger churches would be better off recruiting and cultivating discipling communities within the congregation. These communities would be vital to the ministry of the local church and members would be formed both as disciples and congregational leaders. But these communities would be embedded within the life already happening in the local community and “gates” would be needed in order to funnel new, would-be disciples in, as well as disciples “in-process” back out into the life of the church.