As I’ve lamented before, the catch phrase of The United Methodist Church seems to be “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” I’ve lamented this because frankly it seems like this has replaced the old joke that “Jesus” is the answer to everything. Everything we do seems to call for the rubber stamp that what we’re doing is somehow “making disciples.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a local pastor, District Superintendent, or a Bishop, you feel the need to endorse everything you by justifying it as “making disciples.” In all of this, I contend that we continue to avoid the deeper question of “what does a disciple actually look like?” — but that’s a soapbox I’ll come back to (again) another day.
For today, I’d like to contend that in order to faithfully and effectively form disciples, we need to agree on a basic system that will act as the foundation for a culture of disciple formation. As Methodists know, we’re all about connection. And we often call layers of bureaucracy “connection” because we don’t like to admit that in many ways they function more on a bureaucratic level and less on a connectional level. Nonetheless, with many different parts and layers to our current system, we must try to (re)define the roles of everyone in the system if we want to effect the culture towards change (i.e. from our current system to a discipling system).
It’s NOT an Industrial Model
Disciple formation is not an industrial model where we somehow live in an assembly line model of doing things. Linear approaches to disciple formation often lack the ability to admit people rarely follow a neat and orderly process to becoming a disciple. Further, as Wesleyan Christians, we do not believe disciples are ever made — we are always in the process of being made. Approaching a discipling system by setting up models of universal starting points and ending points fails to meet people where they are. It also fails to recognize that context will also determine where we’re heading as disciples of Jesus Christ. After all, the call to discipleship is not one meant to make good church members — it’s a call to go into the world as new and different people.
The Role of Local Churches
The United Methodist Book of Discipline says:
“The local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” (par. 201)
If this is truly what we believe, then our greatest work as a connection as far as discipleship is concerned is to ensure that our local churches are able to do just that. Personally I believe this happens when local churches act as microcosmos for the church as a whole recognizing that people are at many different points in their faith journey. Some have heard the call to be disciples and want to do the work it takes to grow into a disciple. Others are still hearing the call or maybe even just worshipping and trying to be active. It will be the work of the church to provide the culture and environment where these people can hear the call of the Holy Spirit to a life of deeper discipleship. So local churches are tasked with the job of cultivating discipling communities within the life of the church. This way those who hear the call of discipleship will have a place within the local church to plug into without becoming separated from the overall mission of the church. Nonetheless, we ought to at least agree that discipling happens on a local level.
The Role of Pastors
Despite a culture of leadership that seeks to make pastors the center of church life, I would argue that the greatest act of leadership a pastor can display is to empower the laity to be the church. Whereas pastors can have the occasion to work with others on discipleship, they should always seek for this process to be reproductive. In other words, laity who grow into discipleship should understand that part of that growth is lived out when they help others grow as well. Pastors cannot disciple everyone. But in order to begin a culture shift in your local church, pastors can work with the first group of potential leaders in accountable discipleship. As those laity are called to lead, pastors help them plug into positions where they can help others. All of this ensures that pastors are neither the center of congregational life nor are they off the hook when it comes to discipling ministry. It’s a symbiotic relationship that forms whereby everyone grows, everyone follows, and leaders are empowered to lead.
The Role of Superintendents and Bishops
The Book of Discipline says:
“The purpose ofsuperintending is to equip the Church in its disciple-making ministry”
This raises an interesting question as to what the hands-on role of DSs and Bishops is when it comes to discipling. On the one hand, the Book of Discipline says their role is vital in helping the Church be a place where ministry happens and where disciples are formed. On the other hand, if the local church is the primary place where disciples are formed, what actual role can a DS or Bishop have given their large geographic territories? I would say that if we truly want to concentrate on local disciple formation, the greatest task a Bishop or DS can do to that end is to empower and equip pastors to lead their churches. Disciple formation is not a top-down sort of thing. Faithful discipling is always an organic, ground-up process. It’s created locally and lived our locally. Geographic districts within an Annual Conference cannot directly form disciples. Annual Conferences cannot form disciples. But good appointments can be made. Resources can be shared. Pastors can be equipped. And local churches can function effectively within the structure of an Annual Conference. All of these are primary to a Bishop or DS’s role in disciple formation.
So Who Actually “Makes” Disciples?
In short: Disciples make disciples.
Structure cannot make disciples. Structure can give disciples a place to live out their discipleship. But it cannot fully form disciples in the ways of Jesus Christ. That process is much more local, often personal, but always communal. Structure helps express a greater culture but life must thrive within any given structure. This is why structure must adapt when goals are not being met and when life does not reflect the underlying values in a culture. In the end, disciples make disciples. And it’s our job as leaders and integral parts of the overall structure to live into this. Otherwise I’m afraid we’ll be spinning our wheels for many years to come.