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

It’s More Than a Book: A “Disciplined” Perspective on Wesleyan Leadership

Leadership seems to be one of the new buzz words around the church these days. No matter where I go or what meeting I’m attending, inevitably someone will bring up the issue of leadership. Part of the reason could have a little something to do with the fact that no matter what situation it’s brought up in, it’s also followed by reasons why we need to improve leadership in the church. This recurring topic has led me to ask a question: What does leadership in the Wesleyan tradition look like?

As much as we become enamored with various models of leadership, I would like to advocate that whatever means we use to inform our leadership, we don’t neglect the richness of our Methodist tradition in the process. It’s my belief that our United Methodist Discipline serves as more than merely a book of church law. It can and does offer a perspective into a distinct Wesleyan form of leadership–one that has shape and distinct voice on how one is to lead within the Body of Christ. And this form centers around the various meanings of the Methodist word discipline.

I begin with a list from Russ Richey’s book, Marks of Methodism, which is volume 5 in the series, United Methodism and American Culture. Richey notes 9 different ways we understand the term discipline in the Methodist tradition:

  1. It is a book developed to inform church practice;
  2. It was a means of guiding class-level discipline and oversight for members and leaders of classes. Generally disciplinary cases would be heard at quarterly conferences;
  3. The disciplined life has historically been a “mark” of Methodist living. Being Methodist meant disciplined living;
  4. Discipline as explicit practices that guide holy living. One engages in acts of discipline in order to uphold a disciplined life;
  5. Discipline as covenantal living. It was a Methodist norm that Christian living be viewed in terms of covenantal living with both God and neighbor;
  6. One is found to be “under discipline.” This is especially pertinent of clergy who are bonded in covenant to the Discipline and community of clergy;
  7. Discipline as fidelity to the gospel. One must hold in tension the relationship between fidelity to gospel and denomination;
  8. Discipline as the distinct good order of the church. United Methodists have held that discipline is a distinguishing “mark” of the church; and
  9. United Methodism has understood discipline or order to be an essential ingredient to polity, structure, mission, operation, ministry and governance of the Church.

In all of this, one can see that discipline is a book, an exercise of ecclesiastical judgment, a way of living, a set of practices, loving mutuality in oversight, a recognized accountability, the state of being faithful to the gospel, the good order of the church, and the polity or governance of the church.

So what does this say about leadership in the Methodist tradition?

For starters I think our view of discipline offers a temperance of any new, hip model of leadership we might want to adopt. There is a great deal we can learn from business and the corporate world. Corporate leadership models can inform the way we operate efficiently in an ever-changing world. I’m a big advocate of learning from “secular” leadership models. But we have to be careful that in our pursuits of efficiency, we don’t surrender our distinct identity as leaders of a Wesleyan church movement.

Over the last 25 years or so we’ve inched ever-so-subtly into a world that prioritizes functionality over structures that discipline. Rather than discipline that governs we prefer disciple-making and from functional order as our identity we prefer a more fluid form of organization that is contextually informed. None of this is wrong, per se, but we at least have to be honest about what these trends and priorities mean for the church.

For example, we can’t merely see “disciple-making” as the primary aim of the church if we neglect the paragraphs that follow in our Discipline outlining the definition of the local church (paragraph 201) where it’s described what a disciple looks like and how disciples are to live into the character of the church. As leaders we have to recognize that our Discipline outlines specific Wesleyan values in forming disciples. And this orders the way we faithfully seek to help congregations in the journey of disciple-formation. If we neglect these structural points in favor of the more simple approach of merely, “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” we inevitably equate disciple-making with recruitment.

Secondly, we should view our discipline (both the book and the order of life) as an expression of what it means to be the church. In other words, moving too far away from our distinct heritage of leadership will eventually lead us to operate in a way that is not Methodist. Shane Hipps makes this point when he argues that eventually “the medium becomes the message.” He notes this reality in the world of technology but it’s true in organization as well. If we communicate a way of being that is not Methodist for too long, even for the sake of so-called efficiency, eventually we won’t be Methodist.

Finally, we have to see our discipline not only as a way of ordering the church, but also as a means of ordering our leadership. We don’t merely need to exhort discipleship, we have to embody it. We can’t just pull the Discipline out to check the rules on how to order committees if we don’t pull it out to inform us on how to uphold Wesley’s “General Rules” as a means of Christian living. It will take some creative reading because much of the richness of our Discipline has been lost under ambiguous categories that seem to regard the richness of a Wesleyan theological perspective as just quaintly historical.

As a young clergy person I’m excited to see how leadership takes new shape and form in a new century. I’m especially excited to continue growing and learning as a leader. I just hope that in this process, we can take this old book off the shelf, dust it off, and discover the richness of what a Wesleyan leader actually looks like.

 

Who Are We?: The 5 Languages of Methodist Self-Understanding

As we prayerfully seek where God is leading us, the people called Methodist, in a new era it’s important to become fluent in how we have historically articulated who we are. In exploring our past we can come to understand our present and then, and only then, discern a path for the future.

 

In his book, Doctrine in Experience, Russ Richey argues that Methodists “spoke to the nation with not one but four voices, four languages” (p.4). He names these historical voices as follows:

1)Popular/Evangelical
2)Wesleyan
3)Episcopal or Anglican
4)republican

It is my argument that while these are our historical voices, we should separate the “popular” language of our day from the “evangelical” language, thereby creating 5 voices by which we understand who we are as Methodists.

Evangelical

Richey argues that the evangelical language, the language of the sermon, love feast, prayer and camp meeting, were the popular languages of the early days of Methodism in America. The country was in its infant stages and we were looking for both a spiritual foundation to ground us, as well as an emotional fervor to reflect and propel the frontier spirit we longed to embody. Methodism offered just such a foundation and spark, found in the dual emphasis on conversion in campmeeting and revival worship as well as discipleship in class meetings. This evangelical language charted the course of Christian life because it employed words that all could understand resonate with.

While this was the everyday language of the 18th and early 19th Century, one could argue that such evangelical language now comes with the baggage of suspicion. Over the years too many of us have seen such language employed to judge other unfairly, to uphold persecution and oppression, and to demonize that which “good religious folk” don’t understand or agree with. But nonetheless, we as Methodists still understand ourselves with evangelical language–albeit more tame and cloaked in expression. We still preach and teach on concepts like conversion and sanctification through the Holy Spirit. Now there’s also a pretty good argument that we could find ways to employ this type of language in more productive and non-judgmental ways. But that’s a frontier yet to be conquered.

Popular

While evangelical, religious language was the popular language of the days of early Methodism, we now have alternative language to employ. Over the 20th Century religious organizations collectively sought to use the language of the wider society in an effort to convey its relevance in a world changing faster than anyone could imagine. The language of psychology and medicine has become popular language in religious circles. For example, whereas sin was spoken of in evangelical terms of a need for conversion in the early days, it’s now more widely spoken of in terms of an “illness” or “condition” from which we all suffer. Conversion, then, could be viewed as a remedy for this illness, a prescription if you will. But there’s also the belief that conditions are better thought of as that we “manage” and not what we overcome. The burden of sin is viewed with many more complexities than it was in the early days of the Methodist movement.

Another popular language employed by religious organizations came about in the later part of the 20th Century–namely, the language of business. The fact that I so easily refer to denominations or churches as “organizations” speaks to the way the language of business has become so prevalent in our religious conversations. As buildings grew we had more of a need to accumulate sources of revenue (i.e. new members). Families can be referred to as “giving units” when we talk about the overall health of our churches. Efficiency has quickly become one of the highest ideals of the ministry of the church. And the Methodist church has seen a sharp rise in our drive to create so-called  “mega churches” (FYI: “Mega Church” is the only church descriptor that speaks solely of membership size which is yet another sign of how easy it’s become to use business language). All of this (plus more) speaks to the Methodist affinity in employing the popular language of business in religious/organizational understanding.

Wesleyan

In the early days of the Methodist movement we sought to employ distinct Wesleyan language in forming our doctrine. In 1798 John Dickens saw to it that American Methodists had a Pocket Hymn Book, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament and his Sermons. Dickens also saw that Wesley’s Large Minutes, the forerunner to our Book of Discipline, was published and made available to American Methodists. All of these served to instill a distinctively Wesleyan voice in how we articulated our theology and ministry. It should be noted that Wesley himself never intended that these works create a self-sufficient religious identity. Instead they were to be used in conjunction with the biblical text and Book of Common Prayer.

It could be argued that as we grew as an institution, our distinct Wesleyan language became more focussed on organizational needs and less on our theological self-understanding. In a later piece I want to argue that our organizational structure is, in fact, an expression of our distinct theological identity that too often gets overlooked. Nonetheless we have to remember that when we discuss conflicts on issues such as equality, sacramental order and authority, and yes, even organizational make-up we have a distinct Wesleyan voice on these matters. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel as much as we might just need to re-examine how the wheel was constructed in the first place.

Episcopal

As step-children of the Anglican Church it should come as no surprise that we employ a good bit of Anglican language in our understanding of how we organize the church. The titles of bishop, elder, and deacon are distinctly Episcopal in their heritage. And yet we use them to understand the roles of governance in the church. We speak with a particular Anglican tongue when we articulate the way we celebrate sacraments, identify core doctrines, order our governance, and even ordain our ministers.

republican (Note: “r” and NOT R)

As a product/shaper of early American life, the Methodist church employs a distinct republican language. If you don’t believe me, just look at how much of our structure is based off of an democratic model. We have 3 branches of authority: Judicial Council (judicial branch), General Conference (legislative branch), and Council of Bishops (executive branch). The American expansion across the continent led Methodists to rally around the first mission statement to “spread scriptural holiness across the continent.” It was the joining of national and religious language that strengthened the two  All of this offered Methodism a powerful narrative through which is understood itself in the context of a growing young nation.

Today we see this understanding lived out in the presence of the Methodist voice on various social issues. Many argue that Wesley’s quote of “no holiness but social holiness” stands as the Methodist justification for political/social justice efforts. Often one will hear Methodist ministers encourage members from the pulpit to vote while not swaying into partisan politics (some do better than others, mind you). The Methodist emphasis on “holiness of heart and life” continues to find its expression in a life actively engaged both in the church and in the political world.

These are 5 of the major languages of Methodist self-understanding. It may seem like a trite exercise but I think it’s vitally important to become fluent in a language, or languages, in order to employ them to shape a culture. We can’t influence change in the church unless we know the language of the culture. These 5 languages serve to shape who we’ve and who we are today. There are good points and shortcomings to the use of each of these. So maybe the key is to discern how they can affect who we are to be as a 21st Century church. One could only hope…

Which language(s) informs your understanding of Methodist theology? Which one(s) are most in need of correction?

Discovering Methodism for a New Age

Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going?

All of these are questions we’re asking within the United Methodist Church. Many have come up with solutions or directions to address these questions. The jury is still out on whether or not they’ll sufficiently address the pertinent questions of our sect of the Church. But we ask and offer answers nonetheless.

I’m currently reading some wonderful works by Dr. Russ Richey entitled: Doctrine in Experience and Marks of Methodism. Supplementing my research is a variety of articles and other works on Methodist history and polity.

I’ve come to an early conclusion that, as Methodists, we’re not a lot of things. We’re not denomination built on confessions and intellectual assent to various doctrines (although many would argue that fact). We’re also not a denomination built on the rigidity of religion as a means to shelter one’s self from the cold of the secular world (although some might even argue that fact). But we are a denomination built on the simple and demanding call to faith as the pursuit of holiness of both heart and life. And besides that, we have a history and a structure that, when viewed with the lenses of grace and truth, supports this pursuit. It’s a faulty argument to separate our history and structure from our theological demands–they’re inseparable. Methodist history and polity are, when joined with our distinct Wesleyan theology, the corporate embodiment of this great pursuit of holiness of heart and life.

The design of this series is to ask these questions of who and what we are in light of who and what we’ve been. I’ll be exploring this relationship of our history and polity as they might pertain to our contemporary identity. In other words, if we’re trying to figure out who we’re called to be in a new day and age, it’s probably a good thing to explore who we’ve been in previous ages.

And who knows but maybe, just maybe, our past can actually come to life and speak through the voices of saints who’ve gone before us and paved the way of Methodism over the last 250+ years. In joining our voices with those of our past saints, maybe we can catch a glimpse of a harmonious union of past and present–Lord knows, our future sure depends on it.

In what ways does our Methodist tradition and history inform the way(s) you understand your faith as a United Methodist?

 

Next Post: Who Were We: The 4 Languages of Methodist Self-Understanding

The Primary Actor in Evangelism

As I’ve read, studied and thought about this idea over the last few months I’ve found that the more I ask questions, the more questions I seem to have about the practice of evangelism. I suppose that’s a faithful response to a subject one is passionate about–or a stupid one, I don’t really know yet.

In a previous post, I argue that the primary aim of evangelism must always be proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world. This is in response to our compulsion to saddle the practice of evangelism with other exterior, yet important, goods such as conversion, discipleship and membership growth. All of these work with and are even sometimes dependent upon the practice of evangelism. But they are not the primary aim of evangelism.

Today I’m let to another caveat in rediscovering the practice of evangelism. If the primary aim of evangelism is proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world, then who is the primary actor in this practice?

Have you ever noticed how much of our faith life is devoted to the individual Christian? We set up our organizational structure around meeting individual needs. Churches become one-stop-shops of small groups, mission opportunities and programs all designed to be at the whim of any individual who might grace the doors. I’m a United Methodist and we gave ourselves over to this mentality when we crafted a mission statement declaring: “The mission of the church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world.”  Worship wars continue to rage in local churches and communities over which style of worship is most “effective”–nevermind that effectiveness in the church has been reduced to what can attract the most people at a given moment. All of these would point to the idea that church culture seeks to promote the idea of being in the business of meeting individual needs in Christian community. And evangelism is no less subject to this trend. Think about what evangelism looks like in your community. Is it simply a marketing campaign designed to attract people to worship? Is it a one-on-one campaign of meeting people in the community? Is it the measurement of new members in your local church?

The problem with this individualistic view is not so much that we’re willing to use worship, authentic relationship, and mission as “tools” to “assimilate” persons to our way of thinking–though that’s pretty bad. The real problem with these methods of evangelism is the priority it places on human effort in carrying out the practice of evangelism.

For instance, take the example of one-stop-shop church programming. At what point do we offer so many programs that we stop doing anything well? Churches live by the example set by mega-churches who portray utopian church communities where all the needs we’ll ever have can be met under one roof. This “Willy Wonka view” of church becomes tainted when we use it as a means of separating ourselves from the world we live in. Church can quickly become an elitist community where one must “belong” to be welcomed. This all points to the compelling narrative that we must first be “attractional” to be “successful.” Unfortunately we often miss it when this takes the place of being faithful.

Secondly, look at the example of my denomination, The United Methodist Church, and our mission statement. It sounds well and good to consider the primary role of the church being the “making of disciples.” The problem with this is that it places evangelism in the place of searching out new people by those already in the church. It creates a binary world where you are either churched (disciple) or unchurched (not a disciple yet). In this world we become consumed with evangelism as corporate growth. If you aren’t churched, we’re coming to find you. And the life and breath of the church becomes reduced to the simple ideology of producing new products.

Finally, consider worship wars. Again this is rooted in the obsession of being attractional as the primary goal of the church. The practice of evangelism is measured by its “relevance” in the greater society, thereby defanging any hope of pointing to God’s presence as something different or counter-cultural. Proclaiming the reign of God becomes the candy-coated task where one hopes not to offend anyone while trying to be appealing to everyone. The gospel message is portrayed as one that hopes to make people feel good through a worship “high” (contemporary worship) or feel safe through a harkening back to “the good ‘ol days” (traditional worship). The sharp edges of evangelism as the proclamation of something new and challenging are smoothed out in order to make it easier to swallow and digest.

Therefore, I argue that God must always be the primary actor in the practice of evangelism. All hopes of human ingenuity, work ethic, and narcissism are put into proper perspective in light of God’s transformative presence in the world; a presence that comes not from within, but from without, as a gift of grace. This type of perspective would seek not to create a message of hope but rather simply point to the existence of hope in world. The evangelist can, at best, hope to discern God’s activity in the world and then boldly point to it for all to see. It’s not our message to craft. It’s not we who “make disciples” and it’s not us who sit at the heart of the life of the church. Church survival need not be a goal of evangelism because as our United Methodist Baptismal Covenant declares, “the church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.” Evangelism is the art of boldly proclaiming this narrative to all who would have ears to hear and eyes to see.

The primary actor in the practice of evangelism is always God. The message is that God in Jesus Christ is reconciling the world and making it new. Our best hope as evangelists, then, is to boldly witness to this message in all that we say and do.

 

The Primary Concern of Evangelism

One of the great misconceptions in the church is that evangelism is a practice that is saddled by what I call “para-practices.” It is my evolving argument that if evangelism is to be practiced with both integrity and effectiveness, we must understand what it is and also what it is NOT.

I remember talking with the leadership at the local church where I serve as I was coming on board as the Associate Pastor of Evangelism. Through our conversations it became very clear that this title was to be understood in terms of recruiting new church members. It’s a fine practice to seek to grow the church. But if evangelism is riddled with membership growth alone, then one is judged by the measurable growth of the local congregation. Growing a local congregation is a very worthy task that we should take seriously. But it’s NOT primary to the practice of evangelism.

To combat my apprehension to embrace the “church growth” mentality, I’ve worked to intrinsically link discipleship to the practice of evangelism. Before one joins a local church it’s vital that they are linked into some sort of small group that focusses on discipleship. However, we have to be clear that discipleship, while incredibly vital to the life of the local church, is NOT primary to the practice of evangelism. 

A third misconception of evangelism is rooting it in the practice of initiation into the Christian community. William Abraham makes a wonderful case for this in his classic textbook, “The Logic of Evangelism.” But this view inherently goes against the Wesleyan belief in prevenient grace. If God is already present and active in the world and in the lives of all people (universality of grace), then evangelism is not properly defined if initiation is the primary concern of evangelism. Initiation begins the process of recognizing one’s self as the person God intends them to be and then learning the language of life in the world of faith lived out in the church. But initiation is always a secondary concern to the practice of evangelism.

Another misconception of evangelism is riddling it with the primary concern of converting others. This is a classic idea of what evangelism is and it always comes with countless destructive stories laced with judgment and misplacing the importance of the gospel as an assurance (insurance?) of where a non-believer will spend the after life. Conversion is very important in the life of faith. One must learn a new orientation to life if one is to grow in discipleship. But this is not a primary concern of evangelism.

So what is the primary concern of evangelism?

The root of “evangelism” is the noun “evangel.” This word comes from the Greek word, “euangelos,” meaning “messenger bringing good news.” This root stakes the claim that the primary concern of evangelism is two-fold: 1) Know the story; and 2) Tell the story.

My new friend, Dr. David Lowes Watson, told me the story of his work with a church evangelism team. He said that this team met on a weekly basis and had a single task that they observed each week. They were to find two examples: one example of God’s kingdom breaking forth into the world and one example of God’s kingdom being stifled in the world. The group would meet and choose one example of each type every week. These examples were printed in the church’s weekly newsletter. This practice eventually raised the consciousness of the local congregation in that it helped them develop a lens to discern the presence of God around them as well as ways that presence is ignored or stifled.

On a larger level this story has challenged my perspective on the primary concern of evangelism. Too often I’ve allowed the practice of evangelism to be saddled with issues of discipleship, initiation, church growth, and conversion. While these are important, it’s equally important to treat these areas as secondary to the practice of evangelism.

Evangelism is at its heart primarily concerned with announcing the reign of God in the world as a means of identifying God’s vision FOR the world. Therefore the role of the evangelist, or the evangelizing community, is one of discernment. If evangelism is to have any integrity at all it has to separate itself from a transactional understanding that seeks to convert others to a particular way of believing through the means of manipulation. We also haveto be suspicious of linking the practice of evangelism too closely with growing and sustaining the organization we call the church.

Evangelism is, first and foremost, an announcement. Plain and simple evangelism announces to the world the good news that God, through Jesus Christ, is reconciling the world and making all things new. That’s a high and holy call to tell that sort of news through word and deed. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit will be present and work through this pronouncement in ways beyond our finite imaginations. This isn’t about growing the church, although the church’s growth ensures that more and more can be empowered to tell this story and participate in God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. This isn’t about deepening people’s faith in discipleship, although people will surely be called to a deeper understanding of faith upon hearing this kind of news. This isn’t even about converting or initiating others to a particular way of believing and living, although through the power of the Holy Spirit this kind of good news compels others to see their lives in a new way–through the eyes of a loving and holy God.

What’s the primary concern of evangelism? Learn the story of God’s mighty acts of reconciliation with the world and find ways to live and tell this incredible story because it’s of vital concern that the world hear this story. That seems to be a good place to start to me.

Congregations as a Whole Can’t Make Disciples…And That’s Okay

It seems as thought I need to clarify some thoughts from my previous post where I declared: Congregations can’t make disciples. Apparently this phrase was a little offensive so let me offer some follow up thoughts to clarify my point:

  • The phrase congregations can’t make disciples is intended to apply to congregations of a particular size. The push behind applying measures of the Call to Action is an odd logic that says growth in size (width) and growth in discipleship (depth) can be achieved by the same means. I disagree. But in disagreeing I believe there is a place to concentrate on growth in BOTH size AND depth of a congregation. I would even argue that often these two arenas of growth can be interdependent. But growth in numbers and growth in depth of discipleship are not identical in nature. This is why I argue that once a congregation reaches a certain size, the best structural measure it can take to ensure growth in discipleship is to empower lay leadership to create covenant groups in order to invite those called to deeper discipleship.
  • My rationale is not new at all. It’s a part of our early Methodist roots! The Wesleys and the early members of societies and class meetings met because they felt something more than the ritual observance of worship and sacraments were needed to grow in holiness of heart and life. These groups held one another accountable to live according to a particular Rule of Life. This didn’t remove persons from a local congregation. Quite the contrary, Wesley required that members continue worshiping and receiving the sacraments in their local church. These groups cultivated discipleship in addition to the ritual observance of weekly worship. I’m arguing that much of what we’re talking about these has very little to do with helping people grow in their depth of discipleship and everything to do with meeting the organizational needs of our congregations. Organizational needs are very important to meet and should be a priority. But we can’t go on disguising our need to meet organizational needs as a means of discipleship. Therefore, it’s important that the needs of discipleship growth and church growth be kept as separate categories of needs to address. Organizational needs to grow are important but the call for discipleship is the very opposite of growth and vitality. Discipleship is a call to come and empty one’s self…take up one’s cross…and be willing to sacrifice one’s life for others even unto death–I don’t think the CtA mentions language like that.
  • We must recognize that congregations are structurally able to perform 4 tasks very well: 1) Provide regular worship/sacraments; 2) Teach basic doctrine; 3) Offer pastoral care; and 4) Be a reliable institution in the local community. If congregations can do these 4 things very well I think we’ll go a long way in establishing a new sense of vitality. But discipleship is essentially an arena that happens within a local congregation and is addressed best when it’s not carried out by the congregation at-large. Consider the picture above. If the congregation at-large is the center of the diagram then covenant groups are the smaller bubbles around it. This relationship works best when there is a healthy line of porous communication between the two and also when both the group and the larger congregation understand what the other can offer best. According to the 3rd general rule, “attend to the ordinances of God,” covenant groups depend on the larger corporate group because of the need to live a life by the weekly rhythm of worship and sacrament. The beauty of these early class meetings and societies is that they saw themselves as a renewal movement within the Church of England. We all talk about the importance of a movement mentality within the Methodist Church. But what happens when we find ourselves exactly in the place of the Church of England from 200+ years ago? We need a renewal movement now from within ourselves. We can’t destroy the institution but we can seek to renew it from within. And I believe this happens when congregations offer covenant groups that seek to order the life of members around the ways of Jesus.
  • Stringent membership criteria is not exactly Wesleyan. I really do sympathize with the call to make joining a church harder on people in order to ensure that we get “real commitment” from them. But I would argue that this is not exactly Wesleyan in terms of church membership. Remember that Wesley’s stringent criteria applied to classes and societies–not local congregations of the Church of England. I’ve advocated before that it would be a good to differentiate classifications of membership within a local congregation. Doing this allows persons along the spectrum of conversion and discipleship to experience the work of the Holy Spirit through worship and sacrament. But we need to lose this language of conversion and discipleship as an event. That kind of language is not Wesleyan–it’s more reflective of industrial American business that would lead us to believe that we can “make disciples” like we make products on an assembly line. For those who want to make membership so hard on the front-end, I would ask, what about Confirmation Classes? Do you really think that these children fully understand the commitment they make to the church when they go through this process? I went through confirmation 16 years ago and I can tell you that I had no idea what it all meant. I knew it was important. I knew it was a process that began a journey that eventually allowed me to hear a call to ministry. But I had no idea what I was really doing. And that’s the beauty of God’s justifying and sanctifying grace–it comes with a mystery! We need to hold people accountable to discipleship but that needs to be done within covenant groups. The job of the congregation at-large is to faithfully proclaim the Good News in such a way that the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit can become a tangible force both within worship and, in turn, within the lives of those who are exposed to it.
I’m enjoying the conversations that my earlier post has started. I would love to continue them. If you have any comments or push back, please feel free to comment below. 

 

 

 

Church Members and Disciples Are NOT the Same…And That’s Okay

This past week I attended the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville. TN. It was a wonderful experience that not only stretched my understanding of discipleship but also allowed me to integrate into a community of leaders who share my convictions about the importance of discipleship as a focal point of revitalization in the church.

In considering my take-aways from the week, I found myself coming back again and again to an exchange that we had on Friday morning.  Somewhere late that morning we took a few minutes to talk about what we learned over the course of the first day and a half or so. Dr. David Lowes Watson stood and shared some words that have stuck with me for the past few days. He said, “Congregations are a place where grace is already at work and where people may not have been called to be disciples…YET.” And it occured to me, everything I’ve been taught recently in my local area has been taught with the intent to build congregations. But instead of saying we’re building congregations, we call it “making disciples.”

What if being a church member and being a disciple are NOT one in the same? And what if our local churches can house BOTH church members AND disciples?

I want to be clear about the fact that I’m not opposed to building the local church. There are organizational needs that must be met if the church is to survive.  Strengthening the local church means we can offer more effective pastoral care. It also means we can proclaim the gospel week in and week out as the essential practice of evangelism (future post to come on that thought).

But meeting these needs by growing the church cannot be disguised as forming disciples–those are two separate activities.

Consider for a moment the assumption that small groups are essential in the life of the church. Most church leaders I know would agree with this statement, if for no other reason than most churches that are growing quickly have put this element into their DNA as a congregation. It’s good to be a part of a small group for many reasons. We can meet and get to know new people. We can participate in a study that enhances our knowledge and understanding of Scripture. We can even enjoy life-giving fellowship through small groups. But we have to be honest that not all small groups necessarily form disciples.

As Wesleyans we’re reminded that our movement began as one of small groups meeting outside of the worship hour in the church. But these small group had specific requirements and expectations. They were NOT necessarily small groups as we might define them today. These groups were orgainzed around a particular order of life that persons were committed to living out. They met regularly for accountability and the assurance that they had the support of a community in living this alternative lifestyle. Small groups were never meant to be used as a means to build up a congregation. Instead they were seen as a specific calling to greater depth within the life of the congregation. And often, these class meetings were gateways into the congregation. Essentially the “new order of living” served as an existential foundation for the acts of worship and giving within the life of the congregation.

I suppose one of the most crucial points I took away from this conference is that people are not disciples when they join our church. They are not disciples when they volunteer for a committees or to support activities. And this doesn’t make them any less a memeber of the local church. Being a disciple is a calling that is different than one to come and experience the grace of God. Instead, it’s one to come and “carry a cross…” dying to self that one might live in Christ. Being a disciple means we seek to order our lives in a community in such a way that we look different even in the corporate worship setting on Sunday mornings.

It’s the job of pastoral leaders to find creative ways to empower lay people to lead these groups. Pastors need to energize a lay movement that would seek to form other lay people in the ways of Christ beyond simply observing the rites of ritual and enjoying the fellowship. We need congregations, yes. But we also need covenant groups within our congregations to ensure that people who are called to be disciples will have a place of nurture, growth and accountability they can turn to. And we have to be serious about the fact that being a disciples means we dare to live differently than the status quo we observe in our affluent American churches.

Adding new church members is very important to the vitality of our organization. It’s a worthy task that we should not take lightly. But please, let’s call it what it is and stop trying to fool ourselves into thinking that “making disciples” and making church members are one in the same. Church members are disciples who live in the midst of grace awaiting a call to come and die to the way they’ve always lived their lives. But they are NOT the same as disciples…and that’s okay.

[UPDATE: Here's a follow-up piece that I hope will clarify my thoughts even more]

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