{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Is Change a Comin’? And Did We Overlook It?

Judicial Council upheld the guaranteed appointment for United Methodist clergy. Like it or not, the legal body of our church has upheld that elders in good standing shall receive and appointment for ministry.

It’s been a very interesting 72 hours since this decision became public. Some have lauded the council for its faithfulness to church polity and the protection of those who might be harmed by a system that could arbitrarily take away job security. Others have bemoaned the system, saying that upholding guaranteed job status for all clergy is simply perpetuating a status quo that has helped lead us to decline.

No matter your opinion, I think we can all agree people feel strongly one way or another about this sacred cow of our tradition.

This leads me to an interesting discovery. In light of the recent debate in columns and social media, has anyone else found the petition that passed General Conference allowing clergy to be assigned to less than full-time status without consent?

Study of Ministry (20304-MH-¶338)

Amend
¶ 338. The Itinerant System—-The itinerant system is the accepted method of The United Methodist Church by which ordained elders are appointed by the bishop to fields of labor.20 All ordained elders shall accept and abide by these appointments. Bishops and cabinets shall commit to and support open itineracy and the protection of the prophetic pulpit and diversity. Persons appointed to multiple-staff ministries, ….
…2. At the initiative of the bishop and cabinet or at his or her request, an elder may receive a less than full-time appointment Less than full-time service may be rendered by a clergy member under the conditions stipulated in this paragraph.21 Less than full-time service shall mean that a specified amount of time less than full-time agreed upon by the bishop and the cabinet, the clergy member, and the annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry is devoted to the work of ministry in the field of labor to which the person is appointed by the bishop. At the initiative of the bishop and cabinet or at At his or her own initiative, a clergy member may request and may be appointed in one-quarter, one-half, or three-quarter time increments by the bishop to less than full-time service without loss of essential rights or membership in the annual conference. Division Ordained Ministry-endorsed appointments beyond the local church may be for less than full-time service. Appointment to less than full-time service is not a guarantee, but may be made by the bishop, provided that the following conditions are met:
a) The ordained elder seeking less than full-time service should present a written request to the bishop and the chairperson of the Board of Ordained Ministry at least three months 90 days prior to the annual conference session at which the appointment is made. Exceptions to the three-month 90 day deadline shall be approved by the cabinet and the executive committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry.
b) The bishop may appoint an ordained elder, provisional member elder, or an associate member to less than full-time service. The clergyperson shall be notified at least 90 days prior to the annual conference at which the appointment shall be made. Special attention shall be given to ensure that the values of open itineracy are preserved…..

Rationale

This adds language to emphasize cabinets’ commitments to open, inclusive itinerancy; and adds language to allow for less than full-time appointments for elders at the initiative of the bishop and cabinet. It complies with Study of Ministry recommendation #5, Missional Appointment Making.

Yes, whereas clergy used to be required to give consent and Boards of Ordained Ministry were required to vote on such a status change, it is now at the Bishop and Cabinet’s discretion to appoint clergy at less than full-time status. This means that while elders are guaranteed a placement for ministry, they are no longer guaranteed full-time placement, minimum salary, or benefits that come with full-time status.

Missional appointment making is a principle introduced by the Study of Ministry Commission through the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM). Their full report can be found here. The report lends the theological and practical foundation to make this petition viable. This is a major shift in culture when it comes to making appointments. Bishops and Cabinets now have the power to change the status of a clergyperson at their discretion.

But there’s a major plus for those who think we need more evaluative metrics in place: If you’re serving a 1/4-time appointment and that church grows, you can (in theory) work yourself into a full-time appointment. If this happens, appointments can shift and clergy can have a different status based on changes happening in their local church.

In all of the celebrating and whining about guaranteed appointments being upheld, why are we not talking more about this petition? Is there change a comin’ in The United Methodist Church? If this petition is used the way it reads, we could see appointments dramatically change and the lives of clergy will change along with them.

Our hope and prayer should be that all of this change is for the good of the Church and God’s mission — otherwise known as the original goals we clergy were called to serve.

 

The Myth of Young Adults Having a Voice For Change

Why is it that church leaders want to “hear from young adults” as long as they can frame the conversation? Why is it when young adults are asked about the church, every conversation centers on what’s wrong with the system? And why is it so common that the aftermath of these conversations are riddled with older church leaders shaking their heads at the “sense of entitlement” on display among younger clergy?

United Methodists are probably aware of a meeting that happened recently sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. This was the first of what promises to be many meetings funded by a new line-item of $7 million dollars from the denomination marked for the development of more young clergy for the ordained ministry. The meeting was largely geared towards assessing the current track towards ordained ministry [Note: I was not present so if I’m wrong, please correct me and know that I’m merely reporting what was reported by The United Methodist Reporter in their article]. While the entire gathering seemed largely positive (despite the tone of articles), there was a good deal of critique levied against the current system of ordination.

I’m also reminded of a gathering held last year in my own annual conference where young clergy gathered for dialogue. The event was a good time of fellowship and it was geared towards giving young clergy an opportunity to give voice to thoughts on the church system — Does the appointment-making process suit young clergy? How does the system ignore the needs of young clergy? Can the system be improved in order to better meet the needs of young clergy?

All of this is fine and good but I think gatherings like this have created a myth that somehow young adults are a growing voice for change in The United Methodist Church.

You see, when meetings are geared towards airing grievances, then that’s what you’ll get. If we want to empower young clergy to help address issues of decline in the church, why are gatherings focused largely on complaints about the shortcomings of our system?

Let me applaud both gatherings for what they were intended to be — a first step in empowering young clergy. But why are we not talking more about ministry? 

Battling the Sin of Entitlement

Could it be that in a culture of decline, one of our major issues is our collective sense of entitlement? I’ve got some older pastor friends who’ve told me about “entitlement among younger clergy” — and they’re right. We have a lot of debt and complicated family situations and it can be frustrating at times to work in a system better suited for a 1950s style of living. But for those of us who grew up in The United Methodist Church, served on committees as lay people, answered a call to ministry, and now serve as clergy we also know the temptation of entitlement is something you learn from others. All of the debate centered on guaranteed appointments, more apportionment giving, and salaries are laced with a sense of entitlement among all clergy — “we deserve 100% job security,” “we need a large conference staff and spending accounts even when local churches and lay people are suffering,” “I deserve that raise because I work harder than most.”

I don’t think everyone in our system operates out of a system of entitlement — please hear that. Like many sins, entitlement is a temptation that lurks below the surface and masks itself as a choice for something good. But all clergy, young and old alike, suffer from this temptation whether we want to admit it or not.

What Should We Talk About With Young Adults?

If we want to avoid nit-picking the system in favor of dialogues centered around ministry, where should we begin? If The United Methodist Church is serious about reaching out to younger adults in the pews, then leaders should get serious about learning what makes a young adult in 2012 tick. If most church leaders are 50 and older, then there’s a growing need for these leaders to learn about other generations. Young clergy are a great place to begin this educational process! As young adults, a majority of the people we pastor are old enough to be our parents and grandparents. On the other hand, older leaders are largely pastoring their contemporaries or folks old enough to be their parents.

With the gap widening between those over-50 and under-50 in the church, what if we could have grand conversations where learning happens across generations? Older leaders can learn about a generation foreign to them, and younger pastors can learn how to be leaders. 

If the young clergy are to lead, then we need to grow into it starting now. You’re not a leader simply by virtue of being a part of a demographic. However we can’t operate in a system of “pay your dues” any longer — the church won’t survive it over the long run. And if older leaders want to mentor and truly lead the next generation, then it’s time for more education on what it means to be a young adult — the church won’t survive decisions, sermons, and vision devoid of the concerns of a younger generation.

One thing is for sure, exercises in placating young adults by giving room for them to vent are fine and dandy if they eventually lead to true dialogue about ministry. But dialogue requires one side be ready to talk about ministry — not themselves — and the other side be ready to listen as though something is at stake beyond their own personal interests.

Questions:

What are some examples of gatherings where ministry and leadership are the topics of conversation? Where have you seen clergy across generations help each other in ministry and leadership?

How Can Pastors Speak to a Younger Audience in Preaching?

How can pastors more effectively speak to younger adults through preaching? I asked myself this question after reading an online conversation early Saturday morning. I happened to find a series of tweets from Carol Howard Merritt:

@CarolHoward: Using a John Hughes sermon illustration. Almost cut it our because half of the congregation wouldn’t relate.

@CarolHoward: Made me realize how much I cut out Gen X references. Meanwhile I almost feel like I was alive in the 60s, I’ve heard so much about it…

@CarolHoward: Made me realize how much I cut out Gen X references. Meanwhile I almost feel like I was alive in the 60s, I’ve heard so much about it…

When it comes to sermon illustrations, you use what speaks most clearly to your audience. And if the average age on a Sunday morning at most churches is any indication, then there’s a good chance references from the culture of younger generations will not speak to a majority of listeners. I’m a preacher born in 1982. And I admit that I’ve struggled at times with this dilemma because I know there’s a reference I could use to make a great point that could get lost with a good number of my listeners.

So how can we broaden our base of cultural references in preaching?

Now before I go on, I do want to offer a couple of caveats along with this post:

  • This is not about trying to be relevant (or any other buzz word we like to toss around in the church without truly knowing what it means). This post is simply an appeal to preachers to widen their base of cultural references if they find they tend to concentrate in particular eras of history.
  • This is difficult when the majority of your congregation is made up of one particular generation. I’m lucky in my current appointment that there’s a pretty good range of ages on any given Sunday. But I do know that’s not true for many preachers. I trust the preacher to use the information following in an appropriate contextual way.
  • Good sermon illustrations are more than just cultural references. I know this. My preaching professor in seminary is one of the finest preachers in the world. He taught me that. However this post is trying to call into question one type of illustration we can use.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about why it’s important to speak to my generation. There’s a great deal of talk in The United Methodist Church about reaching new generations. But if we’re committed to making young people a priority, then preachers need to become students of that generation.

I made a mass appeal for help with this blog post on Facebook. One of the most common responses was something like:

Don’t just throw references out trying to “be cool” or “relevant.” If pastors want to use references from a younger generation, then those references should come out of relationships with younger people.

Make no mistake, if you want younger people plugging into the life of your congregation, then you better be authentic. These sermon illustrations aren’t meant to be cheap appeals to younger adults in an attempt to seem “hip” or “cool” from the pulpit. They are, however, an attempt to be mindful that some of the people you’re ministering with (or hope to minister with) may not get every song reference or cultural nod to the 1960s and early-70s. If you want the gospel to come alive for them, learn more about them, strike up a relationship with them, and then remember to occasionally use references from “their world” to drive a point home in a sermon.

So without further adieu, here’s a working list of cultural references to begin your education:

Music

(This one is tough because the rise of the Internet has created a huge diversity in popular music. But here are a few artists and why they’re important for my generation)

  • Nirvana: This band marked the end of the 80s punk/hair band era many Gen-Xers fondly remember. They ushered in a new genre of music known as alternative/grunge. Besides than, the lyrics are pretty poetic.
  • Lilith Fair: For many women of my generation, this solidified the identity of the female artist. Keep in mind that this identity is also in tension to the hyper-sexualized image of many current female pop artists. But nonetheless, it was a powerful breakthrough for women in music.
  • Reality Show/YouTube Music Stars: Again, I admit this list was the toughest to compile because of the access to so much music due to downloading. But you should keep abreast of the fact that the hottest new artist in music could come from a reality TV show or a viral video on YouTube (granted the odds are they’re more likely to be a “one-hit wonder”). This is an avenue of being discovered that could seem foreign to folks from previous generations. But in the age of the Internet, this process of becoming a star can happen in a moment’s notice.
TV Shows
  • How I Met Your Mother: It’s quickly becoming an iconic show on what it means to be a 20/30-something in today’s world. The writers are brilliant and cleverly weave a great deal of contemporary culture into the plot lines.
  • The Cosby Show: This was the first sit-com on television that depicted an affluent African-American family. This was huge in shaping the worldview of those of us who grew up watching this show. Many of us never knew how taboo this was — it just became normal for us.
  • Reality TV: I know many of us wish this genre never came to be. But a well-timed writers’ strike in Hollywood gave enough time for this to become a new normal. Like it or not, you can’t understate the impact on how folks my age view this as impactful.
  • The Daily Show/The Colbert Report: In an age where cable news polarizes reporting based on partisan preferences, many young people have turned to master-satirists, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, to offer perspective on current events. The writing staffs for both shows are truly brilliant. In the case of Stewart, many contributors on his show have gone on to become some of the biggest names in comedic acting. Remember these shows are not the major source of news for young adults — they’re funny because they assume viewers already know the news and are looking for a different perspective.
Other noteworthy shows currently breaking barriers and/or shaping the genre of television:
  • The Office: One of the earliest breaks from the laugh track sit-com style. Brilliant and it trusted viewers to know the funny parts to laugh at
  • Modern Family: Another brilliant “laugh track free” show. It’s also a testimony to the complexity of family and the beauty of families who can function despite their defying the nuclear family image.
  • Any Show on HBO or Showtime: Shorter seasons and better writing largely due to a freedom from advertiser dollars influencing decisions
  • Parks and Recreation: Brilliant female lead to an ensemble cast.
  • 30 Rock: Another brilliant female lead to an ensemble cast.
  • Up All Night: We’ll see the longevity of this show but it’s become the hot new show for everyone new to having a baby. It’s a cultural marker for new parents and the beauty of DVR is we can watch whenever we want.

Movies

  • E.T.
  • Forrest Gump (ironic that it was set in an era “before our time” and is still such an influential movie)
  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • Harry Potter
  • Most any Will Ferrell movie
  • Judd Apatow is writing iconic films at a similar clip to John Hughes
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone: South Park and the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon — need I say more?

Important Historical Events

  • 9/11
  • Columbine School Shootings
  • The rise of the Internet
  • The rise of Social Media (led now by Facebook and Twitter)
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall
  • The election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President
  • Rising awareness of environmental issues

I got a lot of great feedback on other items as well. For example, many folks mentioned iconic sayings or catch phrases from various television, movie, music, and commercials. All of these things speak to formative pieces of culture that have shaped who we are. If you’re a preacher, then it’s vitally important to be familiar with these things — first for the sake of real relationship, and second in order to connect the gospel to the real lives of younger adults. If we’re serious about reaching out to younger adults in the church, then we better get serious about getting to know them. Otherwise I promise they’ll sniff out the manipulative tactics and do their dead-level best to never, ever grace the doors of our churches. 

So why not begin in relationship and allow those relationships to connect in the life of the sermon? You might be surprised what happens when you broaden your base of references, build relationships with new people, and let the gospel speak in new and exciting ways…

 

Note: This is by no means an exhausted list. Please feel free to add to it in the comment box below!

Baptismal Vows and Membership Vows (A Follow Up)

If you stop by this blog often, you’ll remember that I wrote a post last week advocating the idea that in order to form a culture of discipleship in the local church, we should preach and teach our baptismal vows instead of relying solely on our membership vows to the job. I got a lot of great feedback through a number of forums including the comment section on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. In fact, there was so much mixed feedback I feel the need to come back with a follow up post on the topic.

Baptismal Vows and Membership Vows: A Review

Our Baptismal Vows are as follows:

1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

**According to the grace given you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? [More on this one later…]

And our Membership Vows:

As members of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? [Membership Vows for the UMC]

Will you participate in the ministries of this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness? [Membership Vows for the local congregation]

Addressing the Criticism

I had a number of people question the necessity of rooting a ministry of discipleship in our baptismal vows. One of the common responses went something like this: If people actually their vows of membership seriously, then we wouldn’t have a discipleship problem.”

I’d like to address that comment with some follow up thoughts…

First, I should remind readers that in order to make the case for the importance of baptismal vows I had to argue they were at least as important if not more important than our membership vows. By no means do I think we should do away with the vows of membership to the local church. This is not an either/or sort of thing. I’m simply saying that our current culture has not done an adequate job of forming disciples when we’re talking only about what it means to be a member in a local church. Doubling down on a system that’s already proven to yield a low capacity for discipleship doesn’t make sense. Adding an emphasis on baptismal vows as the basis for discipleship only enhances one’s life as a church member.

Secondly, membership vows alone are not enough to form Wesleyan disciples. If we’re honest with ourselves we  know that we can be 100% active in our local church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness and remain nominally Christian. “Participating in the ministries of the church” is a far cry from the language of Wesleyan holiness. Agreeing to pray, be actively engaged in a local church, give of our financial gifts, and encouraging others to do likewise is not on the same level as renouncing and repenting of sin, accepting the grace to reject evil and injustice, and confessing Jesus as Lord. That doesn’t make membership vows something to scoff at. But it does remind us that are active members of a local church because we are first baptized into God’s mighty acts of salvation. The accountability we hold one another to should include whether or not we participate in the transformative ministries of our local church but it should not end there. Accountable discipleship asks whether or not we’re growing in grace, moving on towards perfection, and becoming more and more holy. Wesleyan disciples are active church members as a result of this journey towards entire sanctification.

This is precisely what it means to “remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”

A (Short) Personal Testimony

My daughter was baptized today during our 11:00 worship service. I had the great pleasure of not robing up as a preacher because it was more important I be a dad today. As my wife and I stood next to the font holding our daughter, I thought about the water inside and the precious life in my arms. Our senior pastor asked us — in front of about 350+ members of our local church family — the questions of baptism I wrote above. It occurred to me this was probably the first time since my confirmation that I had renewed my baptismal vows. So there I stood, before God and a full congregation as both pastor and dad, and I tried to answer each question in as best as I could — slowly and intentionally because I was not only answering for myself but also as a promise to raise my daughter likewise.

For me, discipleship must include a continual reminder of these vows of baptism because I refuse to set the bar so low as to let my daughter think that as long as she’s active in a local church everything is okay. I answered those questions knowing that one day she’ll answer them for herself. When that day comes I hope she knows that should not be the last time she hears those questions. Through the ups and downs of her life, I hope those questions echo in her ears just like I hope the waters of her baptism keep her feet a little damp no matter where she goes. If her baptism is to mean anything, it ought to mean that by God’s unfailing grace she’ll live into a life that seeks to model these vows. And in doing so, I hope she knows that also means she must be active and faithful to a local church. But that faithfulness comes out of the fact that on a day she can’t personally remember, her mom and dad stood before a group of folks and declared that, by grace, she would raised as a disciple of Jesus Christ come hell or high water. If even and ounce of that comes true two things will happen: First, she’ll know that grace alone is responsible; and secondly, there will be no question at all over if she’ll be active in a local church — by grace, that will come as a natural result.

What if Membership Vows Are Not Enough???

“As you join 1st Downtown UMC, we have to ask you this question: Will you support this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”

Maybe you’ve heard or even said something along those lines at the end of a worship service when someone (or even a few someones) take the long walk down the aisle at the end of worship during the final verse of a hymn. As the hymn ends you may have heard your pastor (or maybe you are the pastor) announce to the congregation the addition of a new member to the congregation. These vows are merely the formality of what promises to be a life-long loyalty to the church.

But what does that even mean?…

We’re in the midst of a 50+ year decline in membership in The United Methodist Church. There’s a growing market for curriculum designed to educate new and prospective members. I’ve recently conducted a very unscientific poll through social media and word of mouth. Among those who responded to me, the majority of churches who use a teaching model for new members generally set it up with a trajectory towards the membership vows — prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. I wonder if we’re in the business of making disciples, then should we root discipleship in the membership vows of the local church?

What if Discipleship Requires More?

One of the frustrations with imagining a church that makes disciples might be found in the fact that we set people up to be members and not disciples. The truth is our membership vows are essentially individualistic in nature. Membership vows convey the importance to support the local church through showing up, helping others, and even inviting others to join you in doing these things. But is this what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ journeying together towards salvation?

For John Wesley, the journey of faith was one that required sojourners to move towards entire sanctification — being perfected in love through grace. Wesley believed faith was a means to radically transform your life physically, spiritually, emotionally, and even economically.

Hear from Mr. Wesley himself:

“It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, “go on unto perfection.” But what is perfection? The word has various senses: Here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in every thing giving thanks.”

–from Sermon #43 “The Scripture Way of Salvation”

“Well, but what more than this can be implied in entire sanctification?” It does not imply any new kind of holiness: Let no man imagine this. From the moment we are justified, till we give up our spirits to God, love is the fulfilling of the law; of the whole evangelical law… Love is the sum of Christian sanctification; it is the one kind of holiness, which is found, only in various degrees”

–from Sermon #83 “On Patience”

“Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God.” 

–from A Letter to Walter Churchey (June 26, 1788)

Therefore while it’s important we uphold our local churches as places where life-changing ministry can happen, we should root a ministry of disciple-formation in something deeper than our membership vows. If discipleship is to mean anything significant in The United Methodist Church, we need  to encourage something more that just being loyal and paying dues to a local church.

Using Our Baptismal Vows as a Basis for Discipleship

When was the last time you’ve heard about your baptismal vows outside of the context of witnessing a baptism? Let’s review them:

1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

When our membership vows become the basis for discipleship, then the requirements of discipleship get scaled down to fit the local church. Ministry becomes defined solely as what happens within the local church instead of a lifestyle we embody for having been a part of the church. Service eventually becomes synonymous with volunteering instead of self-giving. Giving becomes a local dues paying system instead of a tangible sign of a spiritual sacrifice.

Our baptismal vows up the ante on what it means to be Christian. It moves our faith from the local church and into a whole-life approach to faith. After all, this is what a sending forth means at the end of Sunday worship.

Renouncing spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting evil, and repenting of sin requires the local body but it means more than merely participating in local ministry. Accepting the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression requires the presence of a local body but it means our perspective on faith is anything but local. And confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in union with the Church Christ has opened to all nations, races, and ages reminds us that while we’re apart of a particular local body, we are also strengthened as part of the Church in all times and places. The cosmic significance of this cannot be understated.

 What Can We Do Now?

If our baptismal vows are to become a part of the collective vernacular of our local churches we need to do a few things:

  1. Teach them. Lead a small group centered around the baptismal covenant. Follow the flow of the order to structure the flow of the class. Begin with a discussion on the nature of salvation. Move to the vows themselves. And then talk about what it means to be in ministry in the local church in light of these demanding vows.
  2. Preach on them. If you’re preaching on discipleship, then make sure you include these vows as a primary basis for your preaching. The good news is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to discipleship. Use the vows at your disposal and even invite worshippers to turn to the page in the hymnal where they can find them or project them on a screen for all to read and follow along. The vows will preach, I promise.
  3. Organize discipling groups that use these vows on a regular basis. Have groups write covenants together using these baptismal vows as a base for how they order their lives together. Discipling one another means watching over each other in mutual love and accountability. If discipleship is to become a part of the local DNA of our congregations, then we need to provide structural means whereby persons can disciple one another.

Discipleship in the Local Church (A Few Questions)

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. 
I look forward to your thoughts…

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