The General Rule of Discipleship as Means of Social Holiness

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. 1 John 2:3-6

The General Rule of Discipleship shapes the life and work of Covenant Discipleship groups and the congregation, with the help of class leaders working as partners with the pastor. I recommend congregations adopt the General Rule of Discipleship as their rule of life.  A rule of life is a set of agreed upon spiritual disciplines aimed at helping the members to grow together in holiness of heart and life; loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind and loving those whom God loves, as God loves them. The General Rules are the rule of life of The United Methodist Church. The General Rule of Discipleship is a contemporary adaptation of the General Rules for use in United Methodist congregations:

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.

            The General Rule of Discipleship shapes the life and work of Covenant Discipleship groups, class leaders, and the congregation. It helps them live as witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world as they follow his teachings, summarized by him in Matthew 22:37-40

“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.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The General Rule of Discipleship provides practical guidance for Christians, and the congregations they serve in, to obey Jesus’ commands. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). The Christian life is defined and shaped by obedience to Jesus’ teachings. In the Baptismal Covenant you promise to “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church ….” The congregation, in turn, promises to proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ; to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others; to pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[1] In other words, participation in the Baptismal Covenant is how Christians obey Jesus’ “new commandment”

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 (John 13:34-35).

When Christians “watch over one another in love” and help each other to grow in holiness of heart and life through mutual accountability for living the Christian life they keep this new commandment of Jesus. Congregations keep Jesus’ new commandment when they intentionally develop a path to discipleship that meets people where they are and provides guides along the way in the form of small groups and the guidance of seasoned disciples along the way.

This is what John Wesley meant when he wrote:

Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.[2]

The General Rule of Discipleship is a practical guide for Christians to grow in love of God and neighbor together. It makes social holiness possible in that it helps Christians to center their life together in the life and work of Jesus Christ in the world. The rule points Christians, and the congregations that form them, towards the risen Christ and what he is up to in the world. Holiness is social because God is relational. He created human beings to be essentially relational creatures who become fully themselves only when we are connected to him and to one another. Social holiness is the practice of caring for relationship with God through building one another up in love. Human beings cannot become fully the persons God created us to be when we are alone. We need community, what Wesley called “society”, to nurture us into the persons God created us to be. The Baptismal Covenant describes the relationship between God, the baptized, and the Church. The General Rule of Discipleship provides the means for living the covenant and becoming agents of social holiness.

[1] The United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” page 34-35.

[2] John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Preface, page viii.

The Goal of Discipleship

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him; whoever says, “I abide in him” ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3-6, NRSV).

One of John Wesley’s most popular publications was “The Character of a Methodist.” It is his explanation of Methodism:

“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.’ God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!'”

In other words, Methodism is the means to the goal of a people who are forgiven and set free to love as God loves. Love flows through them for the world. They “walk just as he (Jesus) walked.”

Wesley believed the goal of discipleship is to become like Jesus; “to have the mind of Christ and to walk just as he walked.” The means to the goal is to act upon what Jesus told his disciples to do. His teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and summarized by him in the Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40):

He said to him, ‘ “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.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

John Wesley gives a helpful guide for how to make disciples of Jesus Christ who “have the mind of Christ and walk as he walked” in Sermon 92: “On Zeal.” The following paragraph is a concise description of the goal of the Christian life and the habits, attitudes, practices, and structures that help people reach it:

In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival. In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers;—longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, fidelity, temperance; and if any other were comprised in “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.” In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to. Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety;—reading and hearing the word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one body, the Church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the Church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.

The Church

In the outer circle Wesley describes the Church as the community in which the Christian life is lived. He says the purpose of the church is to “more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” To provoke is to stir or incite someone to act. Wesley is referring to Hebrews 10:23-25

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Typically, the word “provoke” is used with anger, wrath, fighting, and violence. But here the writer of Hebrews and Wesley use the word as a means to holiness. He is saying the purpose of Christian community is to provoke one another to lives of love and good works. Faith in Christ must be shown through works of love, compassion, and justice. Otherwise, if faith does not compel good works then faith is dead (James 2:17).

We see this reflected in the words of the baptismal covenant when the congregation promises:

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.[1]

This is another way of saying, that we are united in Christ “to provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” Baptism is initiation into the church and provides the ongoing shape of the Christian life. When the church honors baptism it is organized to provoke members to love, holy tempers, and good works.

Works of Piety

One of the ways the church provokes members to love is through the works of piety, which is habitual reverence and obedience to God. The church is where people come to learn, experience, and participate in worship, sacraments, prayer, Scripture, and other ways of connecting with God and his love in Jesus Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Christian life begins with God’s reach towards you enabling you to respond in prayer, praise, hymn, confession, pardon, proclamation, sacrament, and service. Works of piety are the human response to God’s love for us. They are practices that keep us connected to God and his love. The relationship God wants with us is like the one you share with someone you love. The works of piety are the ways you participate in the relationship and grow in love with God.

Worship is like the time you spend with your beloved. It is being present to the beloved and giving your full attention and self in service to him or her.

The ministry of the Word is listening to your beloved’s story and learning who he or she is. Eating and drinking together comes naturally when we fall in love.

The Lord’s Supper is where God promises to meet us, to forgive our sins, give himself to us in the form of bread and wine. At the Lord’s table we receive the food we need for our journey with him in the world.

One of the ways we participate in our beloved’s life is through daily communication. You share the events of your day, your hopes, dreams, and fears with your beloved. In turn you listen to the beloved’s response and he or she shares himself or herself with you. Prayer is how Christians communicate daily with God. We share our lives, hopes, dreams, and fears with God. And we listen to what God has to say to us.

Searching the Scriptures is striving to learn God by reading and memorizing his story. This practice is like learning your beloved by reading the cards, letters, and other ways he or she shares his or her life story with you.

Love requires self-denial. To fully love requires setting your own needs aside so that you can be fully open to the beloved. When you love another you willingly set aside your own needs and desires to take on those of your beloved. Self-denial is how we “become what we love.” Fasting (or abstinence) is how Christians deny themselves and participate in the way of Jesus. By fasting, Wesley meant refraining from eating solid food for a day (For example: his practice was to begin his fast at sundown on Thursday, devote the day to prayer and Scripture, and break the fast with a light meal at sundown Friday). When we empty our belly and feel the discomfort of hunger we participate in God’s self-emptying love for the world in Jesus Christ. We also express solidarity with the poor and hungry people of the world with whom Jesus most closely identified himself (see Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; 6:20-26; 16:19-31).

The works of piety Wesley expected Methodists to practice are found in the General Rules. It is important to recognize the balance between social and personal character of the Christian life in his list of six essential practices that have helped Christians love God with all their heart, soul, and mind for millennia. Worship, the ministry of the Word, and the Lord’s Supper are social practices. Christians participate in them with fellow Christians in the congregation that gathers in the name of Christ. These practices draw us closer to one another as we grow closer to God.

Family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting (or abstinence) are practices that nurture your personal faith and love for God. These practices keep you in touch with God and with yourself through daily participation.

Works of Mercy

If a Christian professes love for God then that love compels them to love those whom God loves. Certainly, in the Wesleyan tradition, love for God is lived out by the way we love our neighbor as ourselves. John Wesley said,

… all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to.[2]

The practices Wesley called “works of mercy” are the ways Christians obey Jesus’ command to love their neighbor as themselves. He believed giving food and drink to hungry and thirsty people, hospitality to strangers, clothes to people who are in need, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners as much means of grace as any of the works of piety. In fact, Wesley believed that the works of mercy were more effective in conveying grace. I suspect this is because while works of piety affected only the persons participating, works of mercy open the heart of the person giving food to a hungry person and a hungry person is fed. Feeding a hungry person makes them more open to hearing and receiving the gospel of Christ.

Wesley believed Scripture teaches that Christians are saved by grace through faith. Salvation is a pure gift of God, made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He also believed that once a Christian receives the gift of salvation he or she has a responsibility to “work it out” (Philippians 2:12-13). This is why Paul writes “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Wesley believed salvation is both a gift (justification) and a way of life (sanctification). Therefore, works of piety and works of mercy are necessary for us to keep the gift for which God’s son died and we so freely received. If we accept the gift, then our life must be worthy of our Savior’s death (Ephesians 4:1-3; Hebrews 12:14). The acceptable response to this amazing grace is loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and loving our neighbor as ourselves in practicing works of piety and works of mercy.

The works of mercy “form the Savior in the soul.” They are how we develop holy habits and attitudes Wesley called “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). Loving those whom God loves opens hearts and minds to the grace that forms “the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5) and equips to you to “walk as he walked” (1 John 2:6).

Holy Tempers

Wesley taught the goal of the Christian life is having “the mind of Christ” to “walk as he walked.” He frequently conflated Philippians 2:5 and 1 John 2:6 to make the point the Holy Spirit works in the heart to heal the brokenness of “inbred sin.” The habitual practice of works of piety and works of mercy within the community of the Church is how Christians cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work. Sanctification is the theological term for this process. It involves the transformation of affections and tempers.

Affections are what motivate human behavior. They motivate our desires and lead to behavior. Affections determine what we love. Tempers determine how we love. When sin rules in the heart the affections are turned inward upon the self and self-gratification. The heart is directed toward what the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh.” Self-centered affections lead to “works of the flesh”: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). When sin rules upon the heart the affections and tempers are focused upon the self and are opposed to God and God’s reign.

The good news is that grace is stronger than sin. It turns the sin-damaged heart towards God and opens it to the healing power of grace in the person of Jesus Christ. Grace, which is the power of God to overcome sin with love, opens the door of the heart to love in the person of Jesus. As the person participates in a relationship with Jesus through faith and practicing the works of piety and works of mercy, grace transforms the affections and tempers.

Participation in the church that promises to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness and does all in its power to increase faith, confirm hope, and perfect you in love equips you to cooperate with the Holy Spirit through formation of new habits (works of piety and mercy). These new habits enable the Holy Spirit to form new ways of thinking and behaving. Wesley called these “holy tempers:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Life in the church that encourages and supports growth in holiness of heart and life through practicing works of piety and works of mercy leads to persons who have “the mind of Christ” and who “walk as he walked” (Philippians 2:5 & 1 John 2:6).

Love

Love is the power of God. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s love for the world. To learn what love is and looks like, look to Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The most complete description of this love is provided by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.[3]

Love brings forth life, righteousness, and justice. Love overcomes the powers of sin and death that naturally reign in the human heart. When Christians cooperate with grace and participate in the redeeming and healing work of the Holy Spirit they are set free from sin’s power to diminish and destroy life. Grace, which is God’s love at work in your heart and in the world, sets you free to become the person God created you to be, in the image of Christ.

Love ruling upon the believer’s heart is the goal of the Christian life, which is directed toward God and his mission in the world. The Wesleyan way of making disciples of Jesus Christ is directed toward teaching and equipping people to pursue holiness of heart and life; which is another way of saying love ruling the heart and governing the life of the Christian. The whole of the Christian life is pursuit of this love of God and loving those whom God loves. Love is the beginning and the end of the Christian life.

Conclusion

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3-6).

This passage echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:24-27. The writer makes the connection between obedience to Jesus and the holiness that follows. Following and obeying Jesus will change the hearts and lives of the people who receive the waters of baptism and take up the Christian life. Wesley famously wrote there are no solitary Christians. By this he means that following Jesus in the world necessarily requires participation in a community devoted to him, in the company of others who know him and who are pursuing “the mind of Christ” so they may “walk just as he walked.”

The Christian life of discipleship is a relational endeavor. This is why baptism has marked the beginning of the Christian life since the days of the first apostles. Baptism initiates you into the church that promises to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness so that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others. The church promises to pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[4]

Christians need relationships with women and men who have walked with Jesus in the world. They serve as leaders in discipleship whose lives witness to Jesus Christ in the world. They teach others the disciplines of loving God and loving those whom God loves as they practice the means of grace. They serve as coaches and mentors for new Christians to emulate as they begin their pursuit of holiness of heart and life.

Covenant Discipleship groups are one of the places in the church where leaders in discipleship, disciples who disciple others, are formed and supported. They are the means of grace God uses to raise up women and men who will serve with Christ in the work of disciple making. The leaders who emerge from the weekly process of mutual accountability and support for discipleship assure the congregation hears Jesus and acts on his words. They serve as the solid foundation of discipleship the congregation needs to carry out its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

[1] The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship, “Baptismal Covenant I,” page 35.

[2] John Wesley, Sermon 92: “On Zeal”, §II.5.

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

[4] The United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I”, page 35.

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.

DSCN1651

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?