In 1996, The United Methodist Church clarified and refined its mission to be “making disciples of Jesus Christ.” Twelve years later, it amended the mission to include “for the transformation of the world.” In essence and in fact, we have declared that our reason for existing is to form, equip, empower, and encourage Christian believers to live as Christian disciples in the world, so that the world might be changed and come to more closely resemble the realm (kingdom) of God. This is an ambitious declaration. It is not enough to nurture people, to strengthen them, to teach them Good News, to offer them a panoply of services and programs — our primary and defining purpose is transformation — to make disciples out of mere believers. To take this seriously, most of our congregations must make a painful and laborious shift from ‘Christian service provider’ to ‘disciple making system.’
But the prior question is simply this: do United Methodists really want to be Christian disciples?
All too many of our congregational and conference leaders assume that the members of the church know what discipleship is, know what discipleship costs, and want to live the life of Christian discipleship. Most of our congregations have never tested this assumption. Research I conducted from 2004-2008 explores the United Methodist understanding and definition of discipleship, and examines our denomination-wide commitment (or lack of same) to the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Note that the research was all done prior to the “official” amendment of “for the transformation of the world.” (More about that later.)
To be completely honest, this is not a “yes/no” question. More accurately and helpfully, the question is “what percentage of United Methodists really want to be Christian disciples?” The most accurate answer to this revised question is, “Less than 10%.” This poses an interesting dilemma. What happens to The United Methodist Church if we take our mission seriously? What response can we expect from the 90+% who don’t really want to be disciples, but are perfectly happy pursuing a faith of low expectations and low demands?
The research study sample: over 7,000 United Methodists returned a very short, simple survey form asking them to define discipleship, name and prioritize the essential practices of Christian discipleship, to rate how well their congregation helped them understand discipleship and helped them to engage in disciple-forming practices, and to describe what the life of a Christian disciple looks like. The sample well represents the current reality of The United Methodist Church — 61% of the sample is female, 66% are over the age of 50, 58% is Anglo/15% African American/13% Hispanic-Latino/8% Asian-Pacific Rim/4% mixed-multi-cultural/2% Native American. 78% fall into a middle-/upper middle-economic-class. 35% are college graduates, with 11% holding post-graduate degrees. 22% are lifelong Methodists (or EUB), 79% are lifelong Christians, 43% have been in their current church for less than 10 years. 77% attend worship at least twice a month, 57% are members of a Sunday school class or Bible study.
Random results: 71% of respondents define a ‘Christian disciple’ as “someone who believes that Jesus Christ is the one, true Son of God,” (or a reasonably similar definition). 16% define discipleship as “following the teachings of Jesus Christ.” 8% define discipleship as “reorienting and reorganizing ones life to live like Jesus.” 4% define discipleship as “radically changing ones life to become the body of Christ in ministry with others.” 86% of respondents report that they believe they are “living as Christian disciples,” but it is important to note that the vast majority of these people come from the first two definitions (simply believing in Jesus or trying to follow his teachings).
Again, those who define discipleship as belief rather than action think their church is doing a wonderful job equipping and supporting them. The more demanding and sacrificial the definition, the poorer people feel they are being equipped to live as disciples.
The key characteristics of discipleship follow the same digression: for the 71% who feel that believing in Jesus Christ is the definition of a disciple, “going to church” (worship) and “praying” are the two primary (and only necessary) characteristics. Disciples can do more if they want to, but they don’t need to. Those who define discipleship as following the teachings of Jesus add, “being kind to others,” “reading/studying the Bible,” “helping out at church,” and “giving money to the church,” to “going to church” and “praying.” Then there is a distinct shift between this 87% and the remaining 13%. The next two levels describe a radical reorientation — changing core behaviors and practices to be more like Jesus Christ. Words like “daily” and “regular” are added to “worship” and “prayer.” Studying the Bible is paired with “sharing the faith.” “Teaching” is paired with “learning.” “Being kind to others” morphs into “doing good for others.” Celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion is more important. Connecting with other people to do good works in the community is more important. “Sacrificial” giving of not just money, but of time and energy and gifts is central. Doing for others is of high importance — not just for the individual, but in synergistic groups. Openness to strangers, the poor and marginalized, and to the needy is named as a characteristic of discipleship at these levels. Being willing to risk comfort, security, health, and safety are all mentioned here. The defining characteristics of discipleship for this 13% raises the bar and bears very little resemblance to the vision of the other 87%. For almost 90% of United Methodists, discipleship is passive, rather than active — a kind of spectator sport. For 1-in-8 (12.6%) discipleship is the game on the field — you can’t just watch, you have to play.
But even of the 1-in-8, it is interesting to note that, while they define discipleship the way they do, approximately half confess that they are not actively pursuing a life of discipleship. For some it seems too hard, while for others it simply isn’t a high priority. Of the 13% who hold a more rigorous definition of discipleship only 1-in-25 (4%) say their church does a very good job of pushing, promoting, or providing solid support for living as a Christian disciple. 96% of this group relate that the quest to live as an authentic disciple is pretty much left to the individual. This tracks closely with reports from serious disciples who have left the denomination because they find little help growing to the deepest levels of Christian maturity.
So that brings us to the 7% or so who desperately want to live as Christian disciples in the world and look to the church to help them with this journey. These are the people I followed up with by phone and email to hear what they had to say about being equipped to live transformed and transforming lives in the world. I offer five quotes that illustrate the five key hungers of disciples-in-formation:
I need discipline — I need help developing the kinds of habits and practices that bring me closer to God and enable me to live the kind of life that is most pleasing to Jesus. I need a “personal coach” (or coaches) who will train me spiritually the way a personal trainer works with someone seeking physical development. I need structure and encouragement to keep growing. I need a church that will demand something from me. I need someone to drive me beyond what I think I am capable of — you know, no pain, no gain, that sort of thing. I want those more mature than myself to guide me to new heights.
I need a tight cadre of like-minded, like-spirited people who will hold me accountable and who are deeply committed to growing as disciples as I am. I need help to be better than I am now. I need a team — a family — a network of people who will work with me and grow with me. And I need them to be willing to do whatever it takes to perform.
I need to be different than the rest of the world. I don’t want to waste my life. I want to make a difference. I don’t want to sit on my couch and channel surf. I want to go out and work with people and help people. I want to learn all I can about discipleship so I can take it into the world. I don’t want to be a hearer, I want to be a doer.
When people look at me, I don’t want them to see me. I want them to see Jesus. I want them to understand God better because of what I say and do. I want to let people understand that a life lived in God’s light is better than anything else. I don’t want people to criticize the church because it is full of hypocrites and liars. I want to let my living do my talking for me. I want the church to help me live in such a way that other people notice and say, “I want that for my life, too!”
I have a deep hunger to know God’s will, and I want a faith community that will help people to DO God’s will. I want to immerse myself in God, to know as much of God as I possibly can. I don’t want a lot of legalistic, narrow-minded church talk. I don’t want to know who to hate or condemn. I don’t want to focus on sin. I don’t want to know what’s wrong with everybody else. I want to know God, to know God’s will, and to do God’s will. I want to understand LOVE as the embodiment and identity of God, and I want to learn how to be LOVE for others. I’m so tired of churches making me less than I need to be. I would love to find a church that could help me be more. But churches (in United Methodism) seem so much more focused on themselves than they do on God.
There is is significant segment of United Methodists (if we are a denomination of 8,000,000, then 7% is 560,000!) who deeply desire to be real, authentic, living, breathing Christian disciples. Over a half million people want to assume the mantle of Jesus the Christ to be the body of Christ for the world. Where Jesus struggled to find 100, we have available to us over 500,000 people wanting the church to help them take up their cross to walk in the world as Jesus did. This is AMAZING.
But there is a problem. Essentially, it is this: the 7-13% of people most committed to discipleship are predominantly the leaders of our local congregations — and their primary work is not to transform the world, but to provide ministries and service to the 87% who have little or no desire to become disciples! The United Methodist Christians most committed to living as Christian disciples feel that the church is not helping them to do that very thing. In fact, they name Disciple groups and Companion in Christ groups and Walk to Emmaus groups and Habitat for Humanity groups as their “real” church.
What happens when church leaders get serious about discipleship in The United Methodist Church? Three things: people not interested in discipleship leave, conflict (in the short term) increases dramatically, and the system (Conference leadership) tends not only NOT to support the shift, but in fact often works against it. So, do we really want to be Christian disciples in The United Methodist Church? The answer seems to be “NO.”
Christian discipleship is much more than merely confessing Jesus Christ is Lord. It is about living a particular kind of life in the modern world. Disciples want discipline and structure that pushes them to be better. Disciples want a tight-knit community of like-minded pilgrims to join them on the journey. Disciples want to be radically and distinctly counter-cultural, pursuing a scriptural set of values that demand sacrifice and commitment. Disciples want to be a witness in thought, word, and action that show the entire world how awesome and wonderful our God is. Disciples have an insatiable hunger for God that motivates them to dedicate themselves to prayer, study, worship, and service that completely transforms their lives and makes them “new” people. That’s what disciples want, but it is not what almost 9-out-0f-10 United Methodists want. This is an important issue that all levels of our denomination — from the local church to the council of bishops to the General Conference — need to address.