There’s a popular rumor going around The United Methodist Church these days. The word is that small group ministry is a driver of vital congregations. Essentially, it’s being argued that churches with small group ministries are much more likely to be growing, vibrant churches. I, for one, won’t argue with that. Every church I’ve seen with an emphasis on small groups seem to grow. It would seem that providing space for folks to interact and bond on a smaller level is indeed important for the ongoing health of a church. But here’s the question I want to ask those who advocate this theory: If small group ministry is vital for congregational development, is it also the best format to form disciples of Jesus Christ?
You see, it’s my belief that we advocate a generalized “small group ministry” format not because we’ve seen tremendous discipleship development, but rather because we’ve seen churches grow in size when they employ this as a centerpiece of congregational life. Leaving the concept vague implies that the real emphasis is on growth in congregation size and not growth in our depth of discipleship. Think of how many church plants you see that use small groups as the counter-balance to the large-scale worship experience. Traditional mainliners have long employed this in the Sunday School model for years. Connecting people on a smaller, more intimate level, tends to enhance congregational life. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this method. It’s very important for the ongoing care and meeting of healthy social needs for members.
However, we should at least tell the truth that such a method is often more effective at connecting people within the life of the church, but not always effective at bridging the gap between those connections and discipleship as evidenced in lives being transformed.
Alan Roxburgh points this out in great detail in his book, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition:
“Since the middle of the 20th Century, the small-group movement has shaped congregations. Such groups, by and large, have had little to do with forming people in practices of Christian life. In churches today, small groups usually exist for people to connect on a personal level to find spiritual forms of intimacy in a lonely world. The Bible serves as little more than a springboard for conversation about each other’s lives. These groups do little more than reflect how the metanarrative of modernity, with its focus on autonomy, intimacy, and personal needs, has taken over the imagination of the church. The current use of small groups in church serves to deepen the captivity of the church to expressive individualism and trivializes the biblical narrative by reducing it to a means of engaging personal experience and feelings.” (p. 146)
Roxburgh points out the great flaw of small group ministry is that it will eventually evolve into an exercise of engaging one another on a personal level with the ultimate goal of “being fed” or “having our needs met” or whatever other sort of cliché we like to use in the church. It’s become so much a part of the DNA of the church that we don’t even realize how much time and energy is spent focusing around meeting the needs of expressive individuals. Think about the so-called “worship wars” that have gripped our churches for the last 20 years or more. Or what about the massive growth of niche programs in our churches that have sprung up in an effort to “offer something for everyone”? All of these endeavors have an underlying purpose of giving people what they want–meeting preferences with product.
And this isn’t simply an error of strategy or management–it’s a theological error. Here’s Roxburgh again:
“Those who argue that meeting needs is a strategy to get people into the church miss the point. If we communicate a Gospel that says at the front door that Jesus is all about meeting my needs (remember, most of the time we’re talking about middle-class expressive individualists who are already the most pampered generation on earth), then at some point we’re going to have to tell them that in fact the opposite is the case. Jesus actually came to call them into a life that requires them to let go of their needs.” (p. 147)
The theological error here is that we assume the mission of the church is to grow in numbers and size. In order to grow, we should meet the tastes of our consumers so that they’ll tell others about our product. This growth-oriented mentality comes from the often mis-used Matthew 28:19-20 text. Too often we read “making disciples of all nations” as a numeric command. We too often forget all about the words that follow, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” When we do this, we sacrifice the obligation to teach in transformative ways that might form disciples.
Small group ministries cannot be treated as a means to grow a church by meeting the needs of spiritual consumers. Therefore it’s my belief that small group ministries, as widely practiced today, are insufficient in forming disciples of Jesus Christ.
A Harder Road, A Better Way
Written into our DNA as Methodists is a rich tradition of small group ministry that didn’t seek to “meet needs” as much as transform lives. You entered a class meeting and essentially joined a parallel community to that of the larger church–one that carried out the function of discipling in ways that corporate worship alone could not. These groups, known as class meetings, provided a format whereby would-be disciples could grow in their faith by way of communal support and accountability. They were the meat to the milk and honey of Sunday sermons and worship. One heard and sang the gospel in worship, but the class meetings were a method to ensure that you had to also apply the gospel to your life in loving and serving God and neighbor.
Today we have The General Rule of Discipleship:
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit
We can thank David Lowes Watson for this modern interpretation of Wesley’s emphasis on acts of mercy and piety.
I wonder how many of our churches lack the understanding of what it really means to be Methodist. We ascend to concepts like prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace but we fail to make those beliefs into tangible practices in the daily life of our congregations. We sing out of a Methodist hymnal and might even know a little Methodist history, but do we really get the main thrust of the early movement?
To be Methodist meant to carry out a method. And that’s not just a quant fact of history. There’s a methodical discipline to being a disciple of Jesus Christ and our Methodist roots offer us a roadmap of just how to do that. I suppose the great question we should be asking is: Will we remember and heed the challenge of discipleship offered to us by our Methodist ancestors?
Next Post: Covenant Discipleship as a Means of Forming Disciples
I’ve been reading through the book, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, as part of my Lenten discipline. It’s a fantastic read from some of the greatest theologians and authors you could ever find compiled in one book. But this reading from Soren Kierkegaard is probably one of the very best essays I’ve read in a long time on discipleship and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I welcome you to share this post with folks in your church, prayer circles, and small groups. These are words all hopeful disciples of Jesus Christ should read and meditate on.
It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for. Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching – especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible. Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it. At the same time – as is implied in his saving work – he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.
What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he “says nothing” against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs. And Christ’s life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!
If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, who can doubt that Judas was an admirer of Christ! And we know that Christ at the beginning of his work had many admirers. Judas was precisely an admirer and thus later became a traitor. It is just as easy to reckon as the stars that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Admiring the truth, instead of following it, is just as dubious a fire as the fire of erotic love, which at the turn of the hand can be changed into exactly the opposite, to hate, jealousy, and revenge. There is a story of yet another admirer – it was Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1ff). Despite the risk to his reputation, despite the effort on his part, Nicodemus was only an admirer; he never became a follower. It is as if he might have said to Christ, “If we are able to reach a compromise, you and I, then I will accept your teaching in eternity. But here in this world, no, that I cannot bring myself to do. Could you not make an exception for me? Could it not be enough if once in a while, at great risk to myself, I come to you during the night, but during the day (yes, I confess it, I myself feel how humiliating this is for me and how disgraceful, indeed also how very insulting it is toward you) to say “I do not know you?” See in what a web of untruth an admirer can entangle himself.
Nicodemus, I am quite sure, was certainly well meaning. I’m also sure he was ready to assure and reassure in the strongest expressions, words, and phrases that he accepted the truth of Christ’s teaching. Yet, is it not true that the more strongly someone makes assurances, while his life still remains unchanged, the more he is only making a fool of himself? If Christ had permitted a cheaper edition of being a follower – an admirer who swears by all that is high and holy that he is convinced – then Nicodemus might very well have been accepted. But he was not! Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring – between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ’s requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ’s commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower? The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a “Christian people,” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower’s life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many – but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.
-Kierkegaard as found in “Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter,” p. 55-60 (bold print is my addition for emphasis)
Don’t conform. Stand out. Be an individual. How often have we heard these mantras promoting the virtue of individualism?
I remember hearing an analyst of the Olympics talk about the difference between the U.S. and Chinese teams in various sports. The two countries were neck-in-neck in medal count and the roundtable group was discussing the strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences between the American and Chinese approaches to Olympic sports.
The analyst noted, “China performs better in team sports that require synchronization and shared effort. The Americans always shine in individual sports that allow for dynamic flare.” [paraphrased]
This should come as no surprise at all. Individualism is the spirit of American life. If you want to make it in this world, you have to forge your own way and chart your own course. We live in a society grounded in the sense of individual rights and liberties. We celebrate one’s ability to stand out from a crowd and be unique. We turn those who are innovators by breaking the assumed rules of our culture into pop culture heroes .
Individualism in the Church
The Church has succumbed to the same love for individualism. So much of our Christian lives are expressed in terms of “my faith” or whether something “feeds me.” I’ve even read a very well-known United Methodist pastor argue for contemporary praise songs over traditional hymns because it’s more experience driven to sing to songs “to God, rather than about God.” (Adam Hamilton, “Leading Beyond the Walls” p. 72)
Not long ago the Barna Group released a study that found while Christianity dominated America (81% self identified as Christian), only 21% of those polled believed that spiritual maturity required a vital connection to a faith community.
What do these two example hold in common? For starters, I think both of these examples show that much of what we call “Christian” is rooted in an individualistic approach to faith.
It’s a fine idea to sing songs to God. The Psalmists regularly wrote psalms addressing God directly. And I’m a big fan of the idea of giving people a more personal glimpse of worship–one that links head and heart and life in real ways. But we must remember that the psalms describe the character of God just as much (if not more) than they personally address God. A steady diet of songs to God will eventually create a world where worship is primarily about me and God and where God is little more than what I make God to be at any given moment.
Likewise, one’s personal relationship with God is very important. That same Barna study showed that 78% of those polled felt strongly that spirituality is very important to them. But if only 1 out of 5 see that spirituality as dependent on one’s connection to a faith community, then spirituality simply becomes a personal affair. Spiritual maturity is not served at a table set for one. And as I’ve argued previously, true discipleship must not be limited to one’s own personal experience.
Spiritual But Not Religious Christians
Much has been said recently about a group labeled, Spiritual But Not Religious. Many consider this to be a growing group (often younger) of folks who want the spirituality of faith without the rigidity of organized religion. But I believe the Church in America has long been creating members who prefered individual spirituality over being accountable to a community. The 20th Century presented a paradox where evangelicals made famous the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” while liberals spent a great deal of time and energy conflating biblical justice with individual rights and liberties. Either way you slice it, the 20th Century did a great deal to produce a Church marked by individualism. Even now, as we decline in membership we try to be one-stop shops tailored to everyone’s personal needs. So before we get too high on our high horses about the “secular world” and what it’s done over the last 50 years to contribute to the decline of the church, let’s remember that the individualism we bemoan now has been alive and well in our churches for some time.
A Shift in Culture
For all of the talk about reform and realignment in The United Methodist Church, very little has been said as to how we can integrate a culture of discipleship in our churches. Sure, we can all identify the need for more discipleship, commitment, and faithfulness. But we can’t seem to go into much detail as to how we do this and what it will look like. I would like to offer a few suggestions for changes in church culture that could address this need for more discipleship in our local churches. These are in no particular order:
1) Church attendance and giving do not equate discipleship
2) Discipleship MUST be a culture of accountability
3) Discipleship means nothing short than a transformed way of living
“To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Individualism has its place in our world. And personalized faith has its place in the life of the church and how we practice discipleship. But we cannot divorce personal belief from accountable living if we’re to have any hopes of creating a culture of discipleship in our churches. To emphasize conversion, and then to leave faith solely in the realm of personal experience would be to have an abortion of the new life God promises in Jesus Christ. Personalized grace is cheap if it doesn’t come with the cost of submitting ourselves to one another in love.
American individualism might be a praise worthy virtue but it’s not the way of the Church. So if we hope to have any substantive conversations on church renewal, let’s ponder that idea for a while, collectively confess our sins accordingly, and begin anew the complex and rich life of accountable discipleship together.
Next Post: Why Covenant Disciple Groups Are More Effective at Discipling Than Our Small Groups
There was once a town that was full of life and abundance. Love and peace were staples of this community and people gathered to share each other’s burdens and build each other up. Hospitality was a way of life practiced all over this little town. In fact, people from far and wide wanted to come to this town after they figured out their own towns just didn’t offer the abundance of life and love that this little town offered. It was the kind of little town that seemed to transform its residents into beacons of joy and the residents just couldn’t help but to extend that joy to everyone else. Even on the bad days–and yes, there were bad days–this town just had an amazing way of banding together around one another in such a way that no resident ever doubted the faithfulness of the little town.
The mayor of this town was wise and full of love for the people. Every policy instituted was weighed and measured by what was best for the people and how love and peace could be extended even further. This mayor was steadfast to the people and to the mission that this town would be open to all who wished to come and be transformed by the alternative lifestyle this town exemplified.
One day, the mayor decided it might be a good idea to let more people from outside of the town know about the joys of this little town in a new way. The mayor decided it would be a good idea to build a beautiful sign that could direct people to the little town. Surely this way people from far and wide would know of the abundance of life and love and joy that was present in the little town. So the mayor commissioned a group of residents to form a team to oversee the project of building this sign. The mayor’s only instruction to the team: Make sure it’s a sign that easily points people directly to our town.
So the residents set out together to begin the process of planning and crafting this sign.
As the planning took shape, one of the team members suggested they add a little extra color. “People will surely see the sign better if we add a little extra color. And if they can see the sign better, they’ll more easily know how to get to our little town.” So the group took a vote and decided that the sign would be better with a little extra color. They just knew the mayor would be proud of their decision to enhance the sign.
When it came time to put the plans down and create the physical sign, another idea emerged. “What if we made the sign larger than we originally planned? That way even more people could see our sign and know how to get to our little town.” So they made the sign 3x larger than they had originally planned. They just knew the mayor would love knowing this sign would be even larger than originally planned.
Soon the day came when the sign was to be completed. They hoisted up their extra large, extra colorful sign and stood around to admire their handiwork. But there was something missing.
“We need lights,” one of the team members suggested.
Everyone on the team thought that was a fine idea. Lights would make their sign even more attractive and easy to see. If the sign was more attractive and eye-catching, then surely more people would know how to get to their little town. The team just knew the mayor would be proud of them for adding such a useful feature to the sign.
Finally the team stood around and admired their extra large, extra colorful, abundantly lit sign and marveled at their handiwork. It wasn’t long, however, before concerns were raised among members of the team.
“What if it rains, how will our sign stay dry?”
“What about the heat, will our sign overheat and get damaged by the sun?”
“What about vandals who might damage our sign? What do we do about the sketchy folks we don’t want around our sign? Do we need security to keep them out?”
The group went on and on. They came up with one scenario after another of how their precious sign–the result of many long, agonizing hours of work–could be protected from various elements and conditions that could damage it.
After some time of debate, the team decided the best thing to do would be to consult the mayor. They knew their top priority was to protect this sign but they couldn’t agree as to the best way to do so. Surely the mayor would have a thoughtful answer! They decided it would be best to organize their various plans and write them down. This way they could present the various scenarios and their solutions in an orderly fashion. So they spent some time crafting all of this in writing and then went back to the little town to seek the counsel of the wise mayor.
The group arrived at the mayor’s office and began by telling the mayor how beautiful the sign had turned out. They delighted in telling the mayor that this sign was so much more beautiful and eye-catching than they had originally planned. And it was because of this that they grew concerned about possible ways the sign could be damaged. So they began to present their plans and scenarios according to their reports. In presenting these plans they conveyed to the mayor just how much they loved this sign and wanted nothing more than to protect it so that it could be a lasting symbol of their little town and the team’s hard work.
To the amazement of the team members, the mayor responded with a disappointed sigh.
“All of this sounds fine but you seem to have forgotten the original mission of this project,” the mayor said.
“What do you mean?” one of the team members answered. “You sent us to make the most beautiful and eye-catching sign ever. And we just want to protect the sign so that it will last for years to come.”
“Yes, it’s a beautiful sign for all to see,” the mayor answered. “But you forgot something even more important. The sign was meant to point people to our little town–nothing more and nothing less. And you’ve spent so much time working on the sign, protecting it and trying to preserve it, that you’ve made the sign itself the top priority instead of its ability to clearly direct people to our little town.”
And with that, the team left the mayor’s office with their heads hung in shame.
It is my belief that the greatest failing of The United Methodist Church over the last 50 years does not lie in the number of people we’ve lost or the dollars that have disappeared from our coffers. The greatest failure of our church is a failure to disciple one another.
Somewhere along the way church membership has been confused with authentic, life-changing discipleship. Maybe the cultural norm of church led us to believe that society and the church went hand-in-hand. We grew comfortable as an American institution. I believe much of the panic we’re experiencing as a denomination is not rooted as much in decline of resources as it is in decline of influence and priority in community life. It’s tough not being the center of attention. But we simply cannot be satisfied using discipleship as a means of regaining some sense of power and comfort that went with those days gone by. Authentic discipleship requires so much more. And it means we have to look at church life in new ways–this doesn’t happen when we’re consumed with simply trying to recapture old realities. Mediocre discipleship should no longer be an acceptable norm in our churches.
Previously in Our Series…
As previously mentioned, discipleship is a life-long process of growth and maturity. For me, the best way to illustrate the complexity of discipleship is to compare it to the life of a human being. We begin young and helpless. It’s a powerful truth to realize what it means to be a “child of God.” However it can become easy to simply want to remain a child in the faith. Just as children grow up, so too must disciples grow up and “put childish things aside” (1 Cor. 13:11). This doesn’t mean we stop being beloved children of God at all–it simply means that there comes a time that our relationship with God must mature and lead us to deeper waters of love and service to God and other people.
Discipleship is About Relationship(s)
We live in a world that likes to create islands for individuals to live. One of the bedrocks of our society is the concept of individual rights and benefits. All of this is fine but if the Church is to say anything about discipleship, it must begin by saying that discipleship is dependent on relationship with others. This is non-negotiable. You don’t get to come and work on your own personal faith journey at church. You don’t get to “be fed” at a table set for 1. No, you leave the world of individualism and come to church for a corporate experience wrought with the messiness of being in relationship.
Relationship Status: Always Complicated
We begin by noting that relationship with God is messy. Any formulaic approach to relationship with God is liable to be a sales pitch for cheap grace. The God of the Old and New Testaments found in the person of Jesus of Christ simply will not fit into a neat box. If discipleship has been sold as some sort of simplistic portrayal of how “Jesus died for our sins and now we live for him” while leaving out the sheer vastness of what that means, then it will inevitably result not in a worship of God but rather a worship of ourselves and our own ideals. Relationship with God is rich and complex and takes a lifetime to even have the hope of somehow understanding it.
If we talk about the complexity of relationship with God, we have to include the fact that discipleship requires a distinct way of being in relationship with other people. We cannot (and I can’t emphasize this enough) be Christian or in an active relationship with God if we don’t see how that also affects our relationships with others. Virtues such a peace, inclusively, grace, and forgiveness must become hallmarks of a disciple’s life with others. You can’t be a disciple if you think you can expect such virtues from God without also extending those virtues to others. Any pursuit of Christian perfection will lead us along the winding road of learning to live with and radically love other people.
Still to Come…
Discipleship in community is not passive in nature. Just as intimate friendships and relationship require a certain amount of commitment and work, so too discipleship requires a community of people to gather together and invest in the living out of discipleship together. This requires a certain amount of time, effort, and most certainly accountability. If discipleship is the process of growing in and being shaped by God’s sanctifying grace, then Christian perfection, and nothing less, is always the goal of discipleship. And if Christian perfection is the goal of discipleship, then we have to submit ourselves to a standard of living and being in the world and trust that other sojourners on the road of discipleship will watch over us in the kind of love that doesn’t settle for mediocrity.
NEXT POST–Accountable Discipleship: Reviving our Methodist Heritage for a New Era
Back in October 2011, I was priviledged to be with a group of United Methodist pastors and lay people who gathered around the common interest of reform in the church. By now you’ve probably heard a lot about the reform being debated by leaders in the denomination. The Call to Action and Vital Congregations movement has created quite the stir among the UMC faithful. But those of us who gathered 5 months ago all agreed that while structural reform was good, it wasn’t enough.
Out of that gathering was born an idea to create a document rooted in history and distinct Wesleyan theology that would serve as a supplement to the structural change offered by denominational leaders. We felt this would add an ingredient of theological integrity to the discussion. And so we spent the next few months beginning to craft the document for others to read and hopefully endorse.
It’s not finished yet but Rev. Jay Voorhees has posted it on his blog in order to get the discussion going.
What would you add or change about this document? How do you see it contributing to the conversation of change?