Do United Methodists Want to BE Disciples?

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 united-methodist20logoNews, 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.  praying-handsOpenness 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.

tsunamibelmontumcnashville1But 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.

36 replies

  1. Dan –

    This is an interesting conversation in light of shifts in my own local church – from talking about “Christian education” to a “way of discipleship”. We are beginning to take seriously the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ as the formational center of our work and ministry together. We (ad hoc task force and visioning team of leadership over the past two years, and now Education Team) want to be sure that there are moments, opportunities for people to experience God for themselves (in worship, mission, even meetings) and to have a language to name that experience. Then we are taking seriously the journey of discipleship that recognizes following (the word used in your post) as the first and necessary stage of discipleship, followed by a conversion, growth and then conforming to the life of Christ.

    All that to say, I wonder how many people in the pews (or in the pulpits) recognize and articulate discipleship as a journey? In a workshop on children and grief, a pastor just told me that “a child can only ask questions for which he or she is developmentally able to handle the answers”. So I wonder if a Christians can only define discipleship as far as he or she has developed him or her self. Without an experience of God and justifiying or converting grace, how could or why would a “follower” of Jesus want to risk any further movement in discipleship?

    These issues are much on my mind in the current work and writing that I am doing, as well as our family’s recent personal decision to move to our next stage of discipleship and serve as Indiviudal Volunteers in Mission for one year in Malawi.

    Thank you for this forum!

    • Nice to reconnect, Kara, and God bless you on your year in Malawi! That’s fantastic.

      I agree that most people in the pew don’t see Christian discipleship as a journey — most don’t even think that much about Christian discipleship, and that is the responsibility of the key leadership. If pastors and laity leadership don’t speak the language or promote the vision and practices, people will not hear it. And you are right on target: you can’t ask the right questions or process experiences if you don’t have a meaningful context from which to do it. Some people hear me saying that everyone has to be a fully formed disciple or else they should leave the church (which I find interesting since I don’t believe it and — to the best of my knowledge — have never said it). My belief is that a congregational setting should be a disciple-making system where every person can enter at whatever developmental point they might currently stand, but that will actively and consistently challenge, equip, and support them to grow and mature in the Christian life. Discipleship is never static. And it is a process, a journey, intended for people to travel together, where the more mature in the faith lovingly and patiently lead the less spiritually mature to greater commitment and practice. This is why I am such a nag about beginning the conversation — talking the talk and returning to basics (what is a disciple? what is a disciple for? how is a disciple “made”? who makes a disciple? how do you know when you’re “done”? what do you do with a disciple once you’ve got one? what comes beyond discipleship? (acknowledging that you’re never “done” but that you graduate to higher, deeper levels — just as the original twelve disciples did at Pentecost — after which time they were never referred to as disciples again…) Just starting the conversation is catalytic for many congregations — it’s like visiting a new place for the first time and letting everyone explore.

      Glad you joined the forum!

  2. just a follow up. I asked in church this Sunday how many people felt like they were empowered and equipped to go out the door and truly be disciples of Christ and to transform the world… no one raised their hand. I asked how many of them wanted to go out there and change the world. I got a lot of uneasy faces staring back at me.

    BUT – I did get a lot of great feedback from the sermon and people are really interested to see where we go next as we look at our five vows. I think I’m going to frame them as “means of grace” in that we shouldn’t wait until we are disciples to do them… but doing them faithfully and accountably might turn us into disciples.

    • Fantastic! I believe real change begins with planting seeds. Much of what I have discovered about the malaise in United Methodism finds its roots in the simple fact that we don’t ask the right questions or give people a chance to talk about the basics. It sounds like you have set the stage for a very fruitful exploration. God bless you!

  3. Being in agreement with your last statement in your message to me, I believe there are 5 processes mentioned in the Book of Discipline. It would be very helpful to read comments about each of these processes, particularly how members of local churches may participate in each process. Peace,larry

    • Larry, check back in on Monday for “Methodist to the Core.” It addresses the core process of our mission as UMs and speaks directly to the points you are raising.

      • Just back to Matamoros after a quick trip to Dallas and may have missed the “Methodist to the Core” post. Saw the “Flatline” post which caught my attention for all the precautions we are taking here with the influenza. If already posted, where may I find the “Core” post? How many times have we seen people argue not to resolve the issue but to avoid getting to the real work? Peace,larry

  4. I am a GBGM long term individual volunteer in mission in Matamoros, Mexico. I am grateful for the opportunity to read your posts and the comments they generate. A long time ago I was one of those leading a very large international business. We spent a lot of time talking about our viability long term and our “numbers.” We continued to decline until we decided to forget the numbers and focus on our mission as a business and the processes by which we go about our mission. The company started prospering, not because we changed our mission but by getting back to paying attention to the processes to accomplish our mission. In preparing/studying to serve in Matamoros, I was surprised to see the UMC Book of Discipline mention the processes by which we go about our mission (Section 122?). I am confident that the UMC will accomplish its mission as long as we attend to those processes. Peace,larry

    • Preach it, brother! If we get back to the basics, stay focused on our mission, strive to create communities for faith formation and spiritual empowerment, the world will be changed, and for the better. I think we sometimes make it a lot harder than it needs to be… but that it will take time, dedication, and massive cooperation to get us where we need to be

  5. So the conversation continues,
    Believers, disciples and doctrine, dogma, law. Does the “answer” to a vital denomination rest in the right term or the next dynamic strategy that promises so much? All this sounds like we are just concerned about continuing to prop up an increasingly irrelevant institution. I wonder if denominational integrity/ loyalty is a concern of the average church-goer?
    And if its not is that such a bad thing? Oh, oops as a minister then I would be out of a job before long? I don’t think so. Human suffering will still necessitate a refuge and a word of hope from churches and neighborhoods. So if our institution teaches transformation it has to be willing to undergo a little transforming too. What would that look like?
    Who can say. I am forty-two years old this May. I might ocassionally daydream that I am actually 29 but the reality is my middle is softer, I am a lot wiser and my concept and experience of the Divine has evolved and strengthened as I have grown and lived. Should’nt we anticipate that the institution we call the Methodist Church do the same? Just random thoughts really.

  6. Glad to be able to “participate” in this conversation. Greetings friends! Seems like the “application” step in almost any bible study ought to be pointing people to this sort of making a difference in your life choices direction. I’m certain that’s what we want for our youth and also what United Methodist Women strive for in our program resources, mission studies and retreats.

    I think that’s the kind of thing that my monthly column in Response also points to–you can find them on line at our website if you’re interested.

    I’m guessing that Wesley Foundations, chaplains and others would make similar comments. That doesn’t feel quite as “foreign” to the work of board and agencies as the prior discussion suggests.

    I’m interested in the basic survey information at the start of the conversation. 13% of the respondants expect changes in their lives and 5% are willing to work on changes in the world….(my paraphrase) how do we extrapolate the # of those that are in local church leadership? Just missed a step there. And, if they are leaders and they are unsatisfied with the directions in which we’re headed, we keep heading that way because…..?

    Another thing that the classes and bands did was to talk about the continuing impact of sanctification in the life of the members. It was “normal” and expected to make life decisions based on one’s growth in faith. We talked about that sort of thing in my Sunday School class….. Others?

    • Good to reconnect, Harriet. The only thing I can answer for certain is the question about people in church leadership positions and their higher commitment to discipleship. Of the 940 people who comprise the 13%, 479 of them hold church leadership positions. A grand total of 505 (of the 7224 sample) checked that they held a leadership position in a local church. That would at least indicate that 94.8% of our church leaders share a vision of church more closely aligned with disipleship rather than a basic belief. I find this a very hopeful sign. However, in following up with these folks, most of them feel that they are on their own regarding future faith formation and development. Many lament that there is very little geared toward them in the church they serve. Instead, it is the reponsibility of the more spiritually mature to shepherd the less mature — nothing wrong with this. In fact, a good model — but only if the leaders feel they are being fed, challenged, and stretched as well. Two other blogs — “Lowest Common Denomination” and “How Deep the Well?” address what I believe are related issues.

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