Connection

Connection

The United Methodist Church is a connectional denomination. The idea of connection is rooted in the movement led by John Wesley in England, beginning in 1739. Through his practice of itinerant preaching he organized a network of Methodist societies across Britain. The societies were connected to one another through their common mission (“to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.”), discipline (shaped by the General Rules, class meetings, and class leaders), and spiritual direction provided by John Wesley.

The first annual conference was held in London in June 1744. John Wesley invited a select group of Anglican clergy who were also Methodists to meet with him and his brother, Charles. Their agenda was “to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us.” The questions that guided the conversation were: “What to teach? How to teach? What to do; that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice?”

Those early annual conferences were very different from what we experience today at a typical United Methodist annual conference session. I attended my annual conference session a couple weeks ago. A few days later a young pastor asked to meet me at a local coffee shop. During the conversation he lamented that there was no real discussion of discipleship or mission during the conference sessions. He was troubled by the absence of any substantial discussion of how the conference is equipping congregations to carry out the mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I told the pastor that his comments brought to mind a lecture I attended many years ago. It was given by a prominent United Methodist scholar and historian. He argued that North American Methodists forgot how to be truly connectional when they abandoned the class meeting in the late 19th century.

Connection is relationship. Connectionalism is a reflection of the relational nature of Christian discipleship described by the Baptismal covenant. Since its inception in 1739 the class meeting was the small group in which Methodists met weekly with their class leader, a seasoned disciple of Jesus Christ who guided them in living the Christian life. These small groups, and the men and women who led them, were the heart of the Methodist connexion in Britain and America. They were the place where everyone knew you by name and helped you to grow in holiness of heart and life. People in the class understood what John Wesley meant when he said,

… Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.

            By Christianity I mean that method of worshipping God which is here revealed to man by Jesus Christ. When I say this is essentially a social religion, I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist at all without society, without living and conversing with other men.

The people called Methodists understood that their faith and discipleship were deeply personal, but they were not private. They knew that Christ called them into relationship with him and with one another. Jesus describes this connection in John 13:34-35

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

The class meeting is where Methodists learned how to live the Christian life. They helped each other grow in holiness of heart and life as they watched over one another in love.

North American Methodism in the late 19th and 20th centuries succumbed to the rugged individualism celebrated in the dominant culture. They became embarrassed by the relational interdependence of the class meeting. By the turn of the 20th century the Methodists discontinued the requirement of the class meeting and eliminated the office of class leader. In the process they removed the heart of Methodism and the soul of connectionalism.

The mission of Covenant Discipleship groups is to help congregations re-tradition the class meeting and class leaders for the 21st century. Covenant Discipleship groups are the small groups that form and equip leaders in discipleship the congregation needs to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Some will answer to call to serve as class leaders. They are the discipleship coaches who work alongside the pastor the model and teach members how to live the Christian life by witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and following his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Re-traditioning the class meeting for today will restore the connection and breath the new life of revival into The United Methodist Church.

Class Leaders: Pillars of the Church

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Have you ever seen or visited a gothic cathedral? Many of the most famous and beautiful cathedrals in the world were built in the gothic style. I am most familiar with Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England because the annual Wesley Pilgrimage in England is based at Sarum College, which is located in the cathedral close. Salisbury Cathedral is a beautiful building with the tallest gothic spire in Britain.

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The pointed arch is a distinctive characteristic of gothic architecture. It allowed medieval architects to build tall spacious buildings with large windows that let in lots of light. The pointed arch distributes the weight of the building downward onto pillars. The pillars hold up the building rather than the walls. This is why you see many pillars and arches throughout a gothic cathedral.

Image your congregation is like a gothic cathedral. It reaches toward God and is filled with beautiful windows, walls, ceiling, and decorations. Each part of the building contributes to the mission. All of it is supported and held up by the pillars. The majority of people of the church are like the walls, ceiling, windows, lights, etc. All of them are held up and supported by the people who serve as the pillars. These are the apostles and prophets Paul mentions in Ephesians 2:20. Jesus is the keystone of the arches that holds the church together, allowing it to be faithful to its mission of glorifying and drawing people to God and his kingdom.

Paul expands the list of the people (pillars) the congregation needs to faithfully carry out its mission in the world in Ephesians 4:11,

 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ.

The church needs to equip, call, deploy, and support women and men God has placed in every congregation to serve in these essential roles. They are the pillars that hold up the church and enable it to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world..

In the Wesleyan tradition the class leaders served as the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers who equipped the people called Methodists for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ.

Covenant Discipleship groups provide the mutual accountability and support for discipleship people need to discern God’s call to serve as a class leader. In other words, Covenant Discipleship groups form the pillars the church needs to support its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. They produce the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers every congregation needs.

The Church Is Built Upon Discipleship

 ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house’ (Luke 6:46-49).

Every house needs a good foundation. A weak foundation will result in cracked walls, slanted floors, and other serious problems in the structure of the house. While it is seldom seen or noticed, the foundation is an  essential part of a house.

In Luke 6:46-49 Jesus speaks about two kinds of houses. One is built on the solid foundation of stone. The other is built upon  sand. He says the house built on stone is a people who hear and obey his teachings. That house is able to withstand the flood and storms of the world. The ones who heard Jesus’ words but chose to disregard his teaching built their house on sand. That house could not withstand the flood.

Covenant Discipleship groups are part of the foundation that is obedience to Jesus’ teachings. The people who participate in the groups are the members who are listening to and acting upon Jesus’ teachings summarized by him in Matthew 22:37-39

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Covenant Discipleship groups form the leaders in discipleship every congregation needs to faithfully obey Jesus’ commission to

 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The weekly process of mutual accountability and support for their daily walk with Jesus in world, guided by the group’s covenant shaped by 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), helps the members grow in holiness of heart and life. Habitual practice of acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion opens the heart and mind to Christ’s love for the world. The process of daily practice and weekly accountability forms persons more and more into the women and men God created them to be. They are equipped to serve as small group leaders, Bible study leaders, and class leaders; they are the disciples who disciple others in the congregation and in the world.

Jesus tells us in Luke 6:46-49 discipleship is the foundation of the church. Discipleship is knowing, listening, learning, and obeying Jesus. I’m reminded of a quote from Mike Breen in his excellent book, Building a Discipling Culture:

If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples. …

Effective discipleship builds the church, not the other way around. We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause. If you set out to build the church, there is no guarantee you will make disciples. It is far more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professionals provide.

Covenant Discipleship groups serve as an essential part of disciple-making process that must be the foundation upon which a congregation is built. Other parts of such a foundation are shared pastoral leadership, catechesis (Christian teaching with formation), evangelism, and stewardship. Such a foundation leads a congregation to live and serve as a community that listens to and acts upon the words of Jesus.

The mission of Covenant Discipleship groups is to form leaders in discipleship the congregation needs to faithfully live out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Every congregation needs members who listen to and obey Jesus’ teachings.

When was the last time you took a look at the foundation of your church? Is your church built on the solid rock of obedience to Jesus’ teachings?

Fasting, the most neglected means of grace

 “‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

Entering the season of Lent is a good time to once again consider a means of grace John Wesley practiced all of his adult life. It is an ancient spiritual discipline found in Scripture that is part of Jewish and Christian practice. It is the first thing Jesus did following his baptism by John (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2).

Fasting is a powerful means of grace and the most neglected. It is powerful because fasting is a physical self-emptying that connects us with Christ (Philippians 2:7) and opens our hearts to his grace. Fasting is neglected for a at least one very good reason: people are naturally reluctant to voluntarily refrain from eating. No one wants to go hungry. Especially when we are bombarded by messages at all times of the day to eat and drink. This is, I think, all the more reason for followers of Jesus Christ to practice fasting; at least during the season of Lent.

By fasting I mean anything from skipping a meal at least once a week to refraining from eating for 24 hours. John Wesley practiced a weekly fast from sundown on Thursday to sundown on Friday. He refrained from eating food while taking water and tea during the day. On Friday evening he broke the fast with a light meal (broth, bread, and water or tea). During the fast Wesley spent much of the time in prayer and reading Scripture.

I can think of at least four reasons to practice a weekly fast during Lent:

  1. Jesus did it and taught his disciples to do the same. Disciples are people who learn their teacher by emulating him or her. If you are a follower of Jesus then fasting is a practice you should try. Of course you must be discerning when taking on a practice that impacts your body and health. If you have a physical condition that is not conducive to fasting then Wesley recommends another form of fasting known as abstinence. Refrain from eating a favorite food for a time. When you miss the food or drink or habit, take time to pray. The fact that Jesus practiced fasting and taught his disciples to join him tells me that disciples today should also join him.
  2. Fasting reminds us of our dependence upon God and his grace. When you skip a meal, or two or three, and feel the discomfort of an empty belly you are reminded that your life depends upon food and drink. You cannot live without the produce of the earth and the labor of others to bring the food you need to your table. Christians believe everything we need to live is supplied by God who is the “maker of heaven and earth.” When you fast you are reminded of your dependence upon God and his grace.
  3. Fasting brings you into solidarity with the poor. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). He identified himself with the people of the world who are hungry and thirsty; the ones who are compelled to fast because they have no food. When you fast you share, for a time, in their suffering. When you share in the suffering of the poor, you share in the continuing suffering of Christ who calls you to join him in his mission setting the world right.
  4. Fasting is time for prayer. Fasting and prayer go together. When you feel the ache in your belly telling you of your need for God and his grace, you are reminded to stop and pray. Fasting is a time of self-emptying to make room for God. It tells you that God wants your heart, soul, mind, and Prayer is more than an exercise of the mind. It involves the whole self because God wants your whole self to participate in his mission in the world. Fasting awakens you to the needs of the world and reminds you that God loves you because you are part of the world he has made. We fast because the world is broken. Fasting and prayer helps us to hear and see what God hears and sees every day.

Lent is a good time to add a weekly fast to your regular acts of devotion. Perhaps your group could add a clause for the weeks of Lent to practice a weekly Wesleyan fast. From Thursday dusk to Friday dusk refrain from eating solid food. Take only water, coffee, or tea. When you feel hungry during the day, stop to pray for the world, the church, yourself, and your fellow group members. If your health prevents you from such a fast, then abstain from a favorite food or habit. When you miss the food or habit take time to pray. You could also set aside money for the cost of all the meals you miss and put into a jar. During Holy Week give the money from your skipped meals to Bread for the World, or other hunger ministry.

The Call to Ministry of All the Baptized

As I was preparing for my “Thoughts on Wesleyan Leadership” webinar last week, I discovered that the 2012 General Conference made significant changes to ¶ 220 in The Book of Discipline. I must say I’m encouraged by the acknowledgement of the importance of small groups focused on disciple formation in equipping Christians to join Christ in his mission for the world.

This paragraph appears in “The Local Church” section of The Book of Discipline. ¶¶ 216-221 describe what I call a culture of holiness for the congregation. Everything that happens in the church should contribute to forming members as disciples of Jesus Christ and equipping them to be his witnesses in the world.

¶ 220 is titled “The Call to Ministry of All the Baptized.” It argues that all professing members should be equipped to live the baptismal covenant by serving together with Christ and his mission in the world. Baptism is not initiation into a community that exists to serve you and meet your emotional and spiritual needs. Baptism is initiation into a community of servants called by Jesus Christ to serve with him in his mission for the world (see Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 5-7; 28:16-20; John 20:19-23).

 ¶ 220. The Call to Ministry of All the Baptized—All members of Christ’s universal church are called to share in the ministry which is committed to the whole church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, each member of The United Methodist Church is to be a servant of Christ on mission in the local and worldwide community. This servanthood is performed in family life, daily work, recreation and social activities, responsible citizenship, the stewardship of property and accumulated resources, the issues of corporate life, and all attitudes toward other persons. Participation in disciplined group such as covenant discipleship groups or class meetings is an expected part of personal mission involvement. Each member is called upon to be a witness for Christ in the world, a light and leaven in society, and a reconciler in a culture of conflict. Each member is to identify with the agony and suffering of the world and to radiate and exemplify the Christ of hope. The standards of attitude and conduct set forth the Social Principles (Part V) shall be considered as an essential resource for guiding each member of the Church in being a servant of Christ on mission.

How does your congregation make sure this happens?

How have you implemented covenant discipleship groups and/or class meetings?

Holiness of Heart and Life: Conclusion (part 6 of 6)

This is the last of six parts from a paper I wrote and presented in August 2013. You will find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, and part 5 here. Your comments are welcome.

Conclusion

            The early Methodist societies lead by John and Charles Wesley were a JWmonogrammissional movement. Their mission was “Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”[1] They sought to be a movement of the Holy Spirit within the Church of England that would be outposts of the coming reign of God in Britain and America. For all their efforts the Methodists were held in low esteem by the leadership of their Church. They were regarded as troublemakers and an embarrassment. The secular and church press called the Methodists derogatory names, prominent among them, “enthusiasts.” In contemporary vernacular we would call such people “Bible thumpers” or “religious fanatics.” Those early Methodists were called names and embarrassed the church authorities because they expected God to do something big with them and with the Church. They believed that God would do what he promised in Scripture. They believed that Jesus meant what he said and that the Holy Spirit would empower and equip Christians to “walk just as he walked.”[2] The Methodists did not set out to become a separate church or “sect”, as Wesley clearly states. Rather, they set out to be agents of transformation and revival for their world and the church. The transformation they proclaimed and practiced is holiness of heart and life.

Holiness is rarely part of the vernacular or life of The United Methodist Church. We certainly hear the terms “social holiness” and “personal holiness” tossed about. But they are hollow and far removed from the meaning of the Wesley brothers and their followers. For example, when a typical United Methodist speaks of “social holiness” he or she typically refers to how a local congregation or agency is addressing a social issue such as violence, war, hunger, or homelessness. While these were certainly of great concern to John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodists, such application of the term “social holiness” would be foreign to them. They understood the term to describe the social character of Christian faith and life; “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”[3]

For Wesley, social holiness meant that Christian faith is deeply personal but it is not private. Christians are responsible for building one another up in love (see John 13:34-35) and for loving their neighbors as themselves (see Luke 10:25-37). One of the problems we face in contemporary Methodism is individualism and the all too common belief that faith is private, a matter between “me and Jesus.” This makes for a rather distorted form of holiness. It puts great constraints on the congregation’s ministry of Christian formation. It is also the reason why most congregations are driven by programs designed to interest individuals in learning about God, faith, spiritual disciplines, and personal development. The problem, however, is that the programs only reach the people who are interested and they are short-term, having little lasting impact on the congregation’s mission and no influence on the local context. This is one way the church reflects the individualistic, consumer culture of North America. Social and personal holiness become little more than simple options in a menu of interests and programs congregations offer to attract and keep members.

If The United Methodist Church has a future, it must once again become a movement that lives to “reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” We need a new Wesleyan movement within The United Methodist Church. Such a movement is resident in our DNA. We have the infrastructure needed in The Book of Discipline.

Of course, you will find part of our mDNA[4] in Part III, Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task (¶¶102-141). The mDNA needed for a Wesleyan movement within The United Methodist Church are found in our definition and meaning of membership and ¶¶ 215-221. Paragraph 215 provides the definition of membership in the local church. It describes the two categories: baptized and professing. Baptized members are persons who “have received Christian baptism in the local congregation or elsewhere.” Professing members are persons “who have come into membership by profession of faith.” The paragraph continues, “A baptized or professing member of any local United Methodist church is a member of the global United Methodist connection and a member of the church universal.” Therefore, both baptized and professing members are “full” members of the church. The difference between the two categories is that Baptized members are persons who have not made a public profession of Christian faith, either because they are not able (as in the case of infants or persons with mental disability) or who have been prevented from or chosen to abstain from actively supporting the church’s ministries by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Professing members are baptized persons who “make known their desire to live their daily lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. They covenant together with God and with the members of the local church to keep vows which are a part of the order of confirmation and reception into the Church.”[5]

Because The United Methodist Church is an ecclesia it cannot, nor should, it require or demand the high level of discipline developed by John and Charles Wesley for the members of the early Methodist societies. We have become one of the so-called “Mainline” denominations of the Protestant wing of the Church. Therefore, we must, as our recent marketing slogan suggests, be present to the world with “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” As this slogan suggests, the church must be open to accept and receive all people as they are. This is, after all, what Jesus did. In Mark 6:30-44 Jesus “saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mark 6:34). After teaching the crowd he fed them, with the help of his disciples. The Baptized members are like the crowd that came to see and hear Jesus in Galilee. They come to him for a multitude of reasons and he accepts and receives them as they are, asking nothing of them. Only after teaching them does Jesus invite them to follow him. The majority of church members will be with the crowd who comes to see and hear Jesus, but are not ready or willing to be his disciples; to follow him and live his way of life in the world.

The church has a responsibility to provide “the nurture that makes possible a comprehensive and life-long process of growing in grace;” toward becoming and living in the world as a Professing member and disciple of Jesus Christ.[6] I argue above that congregations must develop a system of intentional Christian formation that will provide the instruction, support, and accountability needed to help professing members keep the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant and to grow in holiness of heart and life as disciples of Jesus Christ, and participating in his mission for the world. If there is to be a Wesleyan revival within the church, it will arise among the professing members. They are the people who will lead the church in reclaiming its Wesleyan mDNA.

The professing members of the church are supposed to be accountable for living out their baptismal covenant and participate in the church’s mission in the world. The local congregation may establish minimum standards for professing members, e.g. participation in a small group for support and accountability for practicing the means of grace, regular attendance in weekly worship and the Lord’s Supper, giving in proportion to income (the tithe being a standard goal), participation in service with poor and marginalized people beyond the congregation. Annual evaluation of living out these standards could be done at the end of the year within the small groups. Professing members may then reaffirm their covenant at an annual Covenant Renewal service held on the first Sunday of the year or on Baptism of the Lord Sunday during which all members are invited to reaffirm the baptismal covenant. Persons who are not able or are unwilling to meet the minimum standards of professing membership will voluntarily remove their names from the professing roll. They will remain baptized members of the church with the understanding that professing membership is always available to them when they are ready. The congregation and its pastoral leaders have a responsibility to nurture such members toward professing membership through Bible study, worship, and pastoral care.

When The United Methodist Church begins to take seriously the meaning of membership through an intentional system of Christian initiation, formation, support and accountability it will rediscover its Wesleyan mDNA. For this to happen it must encourage and support a Wesleyan movement within the church among the professing members by developing a system of mutual support and accountability for following Jesus in the world. What I am proposing will require a significant shift in the culture of the church. Such a shift will, of course, take time and require committed, passionate, and gifted pastoral leadership at all levels of the denomination. I am convinced that Christ is calling us to reclaim our Wesleyan mDNA and to move toward becoming a missional, Christ-centered movement of the Holy Spirit.

In this series of posts I argue that Christians who participate  in missional engagement with the world must also be practitioners of their own tradition. They must know who, and whose, they are. I will be so bold as to say that Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition should be able to answer the following questions from Wesley’s historic examination:

  • Have you faith in Christ?
  • Are you going onto perfection?
  • Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  • Are you earnestly striving after it?
  • Do you know that General Rules of our church?
  • Will you keep them?[7]

Anyone who can answer affirmatively to these questions can be assumed to be a practicing Christian who may be equipped to participate in open and honest dialog and relationship with people of other faith traditions. As practitioners of holiness of heart and life they are equipped to present the gospel to their non-Christian friends, neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances. They will also likely be good conversation partners and open to work for the common good alongside their non-Christian neighbors.

An obstacle to developing a culture in which holiness thrives is the dominant paradigm that confuses study and programming with discipleship. Experience tells me that it is much easier to get United Methodists to study and discuss Christian theology and practice than it is to get them to actually practice what they learn. Discipleship is often presented as an option in a menu of church programs. It is seldom incorporated into the congregation’s missional infrastructure.

What happened during a gathering of active clergy from across a United Methodist annual conference illustrates my point. The purpose of the event was to hear from the bishop, director of connectional ministries, and one another ideas and strategies for navigating an uncertain future for The United Methodist Church. The conference director of connectional ministries gave a twenty-minute presentation focused on the importance of the denominational mission statement:

“To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[8]

She then instructed everyone to discuss with the people seated at their table the definition of “disciples of Jesus Christ.” The goal of the thirty-minute exercise was to get the clergy discussing with one another how they defined the word “disciple.” Each table was to write their definition on a piece of newsprint. After the allotted time had passed each table was invited to post their newsprint on the wall. We were then instructed to walk around the room to see the various definitions for “disciple.” The first thing that became disconcertingly clear to me was that there was no clear consensus in the room. In fact, there was genuine struggle for many of my clergy colleagues to craft a succinct, coherent definition of who a disciple is. Not a single piece of newsprint posted on the walls of that room contained Wesley’s definition given in “The Character of a Methodist”

           A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;” one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.[9]

I left the event at the end of the day wondering how the congregations of this annual conference can participate in the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world when their clergy leaders cannot agree on who a disciple is. While all of the pastors in that room had taken the required Methodist history and doctrine courses in seminary or the course of study, none could give John Wesley’s very clear definition of who a Christian is.

One of the reasons for this reality is the many clergy have limited understanding of the nature of discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition. They have been taught in seminary about John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodist societies. They have studied, discussed, and written papers about Wesley’s theology. And they have read the history of Methodism. But by no means all have ever actually put into practice Wesley’s method of Christian formation. Few have participated in a class or band meeting. Fewer still have entertained the idea of introducing Wesley’s method of catechesis and Christian practice into the life of a local congregation. I suspect one reason for this is that John Wesley and the early Methodist movement he and his brother led are required subjects of study. Seminary students read Wesley’s sermons and books about his life and theology and Methodist history. They write papers on Wesleyan soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology, and anthropology. All this is well and good. Persons offering themselves for ordination in The United Methodist Church should be required to learn about the man who led the movement that became the church they hope to serve. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, does the study of Wesley ever lead to practicing what he did.

Seminaries are very good at teaching the “what” of Wesley and Methodism. The important missing piece is the “how.” Pastors learn about Wesley but they are not taught the organization and practices that made him a great leader in discipleship. We need a renewed emphasis on the practice of Methodism that is integral to the curriculum.[10]

The class and band meetings were essential to the method of Methodism. The interrelated system of small groups formed people into disciples of Jesus Christ. Discipleship was shaped by a simple rule of life (the General Rules) and weekly accountability and support in the small groups (class meeting) guided by a mature, seasoned leader in discipleship (class leader).

Efforts to re-tradition this simple and effective system are routinely neglected by contemporary church leaders. For example, since 1986 the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church has provided resources and staff support for Covenant Discipleship groups and Class Leaders. The goal of this ministry is to help congregations re-tradition the class meeting and the office of class leader. Yet, these resources are routinely ignored by United Methodist schools of theology in their pedagogy and by episcopal leaders in their evaluation of their clergy.

Holiness of heart and life are essential to Christian participation in genuine missional engagement with the world. The Wesleyan Methodist tradition offers a simple, Christ-centered way of helping people to know Christ and grow in love of God and neighbor. Why then do our schools of theology and episcopal leaders do a fine job of teaching about Wesley yet hesitate to train leaders in the basic practice of what Wesley did?

[1] Wesley, “Minutes of Several Conversations between the Reverend Mr. John and Charles Wesley, and Others,” in Works, 10:845.

[2] 1 John 2:6

[3] Wesley, Sermon 24, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse the Fourth,” § 1, in Works, 1:533.

[4] This is shorthand developed by Alan Hirsch in his book The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. He writes in the book’s glossary: “I have appended the m to the letters DNA purely to differentiate it from the biological version—it simply means missionalDNA. What DNA does for biological systems, mDNA does for ecclesial ones. … [W]ith this concept/metaphor I hope to explain why the presence of a simple, intrinsic, reproducible, central guiding mechanism is necessary for the reproduction and sustainability of genuine missional movements. As an organism holds together, and each cell understands its function in relation to its DNA, so the church in given contexts finds its reference point in its built-in mDNA (page 282).” My point here is that an essential element of United Methodist mDNA is our doctrine and discipline contained in Part 2 of The Book of Discipline. Other pieces are the Standard Sermons, Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, and the inter-related system of small groups that developed in the early Methodist societies.

[5] See The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2004, ¶ 217, pages 136-137.

[6] Ibid., see ¶ 216, page 135-136.

[7] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church-2012, ¶336, 262.

[8] Ibid., ¶ 120, 91.

[9] Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist,” ¶ 5, in Works, 9:35

[10] Most United Methodist related schools of theology offer students various extracurricular opportunities to meet in small spiritual formation groups. These groups are certainly beneficial to the students personal spiritual development and learning. Only Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. requires student to enroll in student-led covenant discipleship groups during the first year of study. Students receive academic credit for their participation. However, even at Wesley, the practice of Wesleyan discipleship are not integral the pedagogy of the curriculum. We are not properly teaching Wesley unless the practices that were integral to the Methodist societies are incorporated into the pedagogy.

Holiness of Heart and Life: A Disciple-making System (part 5 of 6)

This is the fifth of six parts from a paper I wrote and presented in August 2013. You will find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here. The final installment will be posted on Monday, January 5. Your comments are welcome.

Elements of the Disciple-Making System

            The Wesleyan way of making disciples of Jesus Christ is designed to formChurch as Organic System the habits, attitudes, and character of Christians. John Wesley called these holy tempers. The Apostle Paul called them “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

At the heart of the process are relationships formed in Christian community, a set of practices (the means of grace), and a system of mutual accountability and support. The goal is to form Christ-centered congregations that live and witness as signs and foretastes of the reign of God. These congregations intentionally help their members to learn and practice holy habits that form holiness of heart and life. They teach and interpret essential Christian doctrine, provide a community for the practices of Christian discipline, and help persons to grow in love of God and neighbor.

As sign-communities they point beyond themselves toward Christ and his kingdom. They also work intentionally to equip their members to serve as witnesses to Jesus Christ and to participate in his mission in the world. To that end Christ-centered congregations in The United Methodist tradition are organized for the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The basic elements of such a Wesleyan disciple-making system are:

  1. Clear Expectations: The mission and ministry of the congregation are focused upon making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The congregation trusts God will keep God’s baptismal promises and that God will act in, with, and through the people to prepare the world for God’s coming reign on earth as it is in heaven. In response to God’s amazing grace the members will, according to their ability, follow Jesus’ teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The congregation’s vision is to become a Christ-centered sign-community for the coming reign of God.
  1. The congregation provides an intentional “disciple-making” system designed to provide the means for persons and the congregation to fully participate in the Baptismal Covenant and grow in holiness of heart and life:
  • An interconnected, intentional system of small groups focused upon Christian formation is foundational. Because Christian formation is a relational process, congregational leaders must develop contexts for the baptized to obey Jesus’ command to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[1] The congregation will provide groups that meet people where they are—seekers, new Christians, growing, and mature Christians—and help them to grow in holiness of heart and life. The small group system of early Methodist societies provides an excellent model.[2] Such a system is how the congregation will cooperate with the dynamic of grace that seeks to draw people to Christ, awaken them to who and whose they are, accept the gift of God’s love through faith, and live and serve as daughters and sons of God who are channels of grace for the world.
  • Worship that is sacramental and evangelical in which Christ in all of his offices (prophet, priest, and king) is proclaimed. By sacramental I mean worship that is directed toward the triune God and invites people to come to Jesus Christ, his very body and blood. The mystery, majesty, righteousness and justice of God are lifted up through prayer, music, Scripture, proclamation, ritual and sacraments. Evangelical means that worship conveys the good news of God given to the world in the person, life and work of Jesus Christ. This good news is conveyed through word, hymns, praise songs, sermons and ritual that invite congregational participation. Finally, the congregation worships the whole Christ in all his offices because Christ saves and redeems the whole person. Therefore, liturgy and proclamation must proclaim Christ as prophet, priest and[3]
  • Every member participates in a curriculum for Christian initiation and formation. This is integral to the small group system discussed above. The “entry level” groups will focus on catechesis, similar to the early Methodist class meeting. The leaders for this catechetical process will be seasoned, responsible Christians who can be trusted with the care of souls. An essential element of the catechesis will be teaching basic Christian doctrine and the practice of the means of grace (discipline): works of piety (prayer, Scripture, worship, the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence) and works of mercy (feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, peace-making, and witness to Jesus Christ in the world). The goal of catechesis is to form persons as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who help one another from “holy tempers” and who strive toward growth in holiness of heart and life.
  • Ministry in and with the local community and the world, especially with poor and marginalized people. This ministry both meets physical and material needs while also sharing the good news of God in Jesus Christ in ways that they receive it as good news. This acknowledges that Christians are commanded by Christ to do good to their bodies and to their souls.
  1. Practice evangelism that is contextual and centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The congregation and its leaders understand that the practice of evangelism is a responsibility of all Christians. It is not a program delegated to “professionals.” The congregation understands that evangelism is witnessing to the good news of the coming reign of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “To evangelize is one way of bearing witness to what God has done in Christ and is doing through the Holy Spirit today to convey the good news. One shares the message in both word and deed.”[4] The evangelical task and responsibility is to share the good news of Christ in ways that it is received it as good news indeed and they desire a relationship with Jesus Christ, freedom from sin, and new life in the reign of God.

[1] John 13:34-35, NRSV

[2] Henry H. Knight, III, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1992), 95-116.

[3] for more on the importance of this see John Deschner, Wesley’s Christology: An Interpretation (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 73-77.

[4] Scott J. Jones, The Evangelistic Love of God & Neighbor: A Theology of Witness & Discipleship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 15.