What in God’s name do we think we are doing?  If I hear one more prominent church leader define discipleship as going to church I will scream.  We aren’t going to count the number of people who attend church anymore.  Some genius decided we will count “disciples” in worship.  What?  We can do that with one hand!  And I keep hearing about discipleship “programs” and “systems”.  Do we not have any clue what we are talking about?  Well, we did form a Board of Discipleship, so it isn’t a new confusion, but really… let’s take the heart and soul of the Christian movement and reduce it to just one more institutional church growth travesty.

No one with a lick of common sense or the ability to read the Bible defines discipleship as church membership/participation/attendance.  The only way to do this is to believe that Jesus was wrong and had no idea what he was talking about — in which case, it is hard to defend the idea you are a Christian.  There is no such thing as a passive disciple.  Discipleship isn’t about believing in God, believing that Jesus is God’s Son, wanting to live a “good, Christian life,” or attending worship whenever you feel like it (sorry Vital Congregations/Vital Signs dashboard…).  Discipleship is a lifestyle — a commitment to live as Jesus lived and taught.  It is “high-end” Christianity — where we actually integrate beliefs and behaviors and give ourselves to God’s will for our lives.  It is not for the faint of heart, the Christian consumer, or apparently for a significant number of people in prominent positions of leadership in our denomination.  No, many would like to make Christianity easy and simple — undemanding and appealing.  Let’s reduce everything to an insipid broth so anyone anywhere can choke it down.  Jesus wept!

We should be raising the bar, not lowering it.  Have we not noticed that by making our church all about numbers and attendance that we have created a mediocre and impotent presence in the world?  Do we not realize that when we make our church about TV ads and door-hangers we shout to the world that the church is cheap and vulgar?  Does pandering to the lowest common denominator of American culture actually get us where God wants us to be?

As I prepare for General Conference I am reminded again that there are two churches in today’s United Methodism: one that is concerned with its own survival and existence that will spend exorbitant amounts of money to justify its own existence and a much smaller church that wants to serve God and Jesus Christ in the world.  One is concerned with numbers, the other is concerned with lives.  One is concerned with image, the other is concerned with integrity.  One is concerned with power and control, the other with justice and service.  We stand at a crossroads.  We need to make a choice.  Will we sell out to a lesser vision of church as social institution or will we rise up to BE the body of Christ?  It begins with discipleship — and if our leaders are going to make this rich and wonderful concept meaningless, we are in deep, deep trouble.

32 replies

  1. ” It begins with discipleship — and if our leaders are going to make this rich and wonderful concept meaningless, we are in deep, deep trouble.”

    They have and we are.

  2. Exorbitant amounts of money will be spent by both the larger and smaller churches mentioned above. An outcome of sharing everything that none will have too much and none too little may actually take more resources than an outcome based on number of glossy doorknob-hangers distributed.

    I think this is confirmation of your point and speaks to a way through another wrath to come mentioned in this week’s epistle lection.

    What holds a “lowest common denominator” group together in the midst of hard times? What holds a “discipleship oriented” group together in those same times? That is, what trust is claimed and evidenced in each model?

  3. Spot on, as you usually are!

    I do have a question about your critique of discipleship programs and systems. I understand that discipleship is modeled, taught, learned and lived. I would think that discipleship systems/programs are part of the solution, not the problem. Won’t these systems help us make (grow) disciples that will transform the world? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • For me, this question is the problem. Very early in our history, the discipleship movement became institutionalized into “the church.” No longer the body of Christ, church became somewhere to go and something to do rather than something to be. Taylor Burton Edwards and I carry on a constant conversation about how the institutional church really hasn’t ever been about discipleship; much more about gathering for worship and education. Yet, I maintain that the church, by definition should be a discipling system. Paragraph 122 of our beloved Book of Discipline lays out the core process of United Methodism — to reach out and receive people in the name of God, to relate people to God and Jesus Christ, to nurture them in their Christian faith, and to equip them to live transformed and transforming lives in the world. This is who we are and what we do. So why do we have to create new “programs”, “models,” and “campaigns” to do what should be intregrated into everything anyway. In my opinion, we in the church have no business doing anything that is not cultivating discipleship in individuals and communities. My deepest fear is that we will make discipleship such an innocuous term that anyone who attends a church occasionally will be considered a disciple. This is where our “vital” congregations project is leading us, sadly, and there are bishops and general secretaries that are not only allowing this to happen, but they are promoting it. Instead of encouraging us to improve the quality and integrity of what we do to raise the level of discipleship, some are lowering the standards so that what we already do is good enough.

      • I agree with what you’ve said, however, P 122 says who we are and what we do, but not how to do it. Nor does the rest of the Discipline. And the “how” is what I believe gets too difficult and leads us to chasing down other easier paths. The reality is that most churches don’t have the organizational competencies to live into our divine calling.

        There are systems that incorporate or infuse discipleship into every aspect of church function. However, leaders tend to cherry pick what they like or what they can implement without irritating others. Such is the tension between making disciples and saving the institution. (And we are such highly accomplished cherry pickers – we do it in so many aspects of our faith and lives!)

      • I may be naive, but by making true disciples of Jesus Christ would our institute not feel the positive effects of that (grow)? I contend that the decline of the our denomination is because most of us don’t look any different from the world. We’ve not been transformed, so how will we transform others?

  4. Wow – I hear your complete frustration and certainly see your point. The only encouragement I can give you is that I am constantly uplifted by meeting so many UM’s who really are trying to live out discipleship. And many of those are in leadership roles in our church, conference or General Boards. If you don’t know Bill Mefford, you should meet him!
    I just pray that people like you and Bill and countless others will be able to sound the alarm that turns this ship around before we hit the iceberg. I think that some of what is happening in trying to “connect” with the people in the pews is a synonym with what is happening in our country politically…the majority of real people seem to have been drinking the Koolaid, and many of them sit in their local UMC on Sunday. Unless and until we can make our faith about discipleship, and make the case that God rises above politics, we are going to keep showing the split as a church that we are as a nation in the good ‘ol USA.

  5. The advertizements I see concerning Church outside bulletin boards has to do with offering a better supper than the others around the area. Isn’t that what restaurants are for?


  6. My belief is that it’s easy to see the institutional church in the New Testament … it’s the temple paradigm, the temple building, the temple hierarchy, and their divisive church politics that led to the destruction of the temple by Rome in AD 70. It’s not that “the discipleship movement became institutionalized into ‘the church’” with Constantine (as is frequently said), but that when it lost its focus on disciple making it reverted to what preceded it – the instution was all that remained. Institutional religion is a human thing and derives from natural revelation; the “leaven of the scribes and Pharisees” will always be with us. Nothing much has changed.

    I have a lot too say on these issues and therefore often talk too much because I wrote my DMin project on how to reverse this trend in local UMC churches. The basis is methods for making disciple makers based on what is working most effectively in the third world today.

    The problem Dan describes results from a simple issue: an institutional “two step” plan for fulfilling the Great Commission that results in a lot of dancing but few converts.

    Step One: get the “lost” to “come” to worship. (Jesus said “go” and we say “come” – which requires us to provide a place for them to come)

    Step Two: convert them in a worship service and make disciples in a worship service. (Jesus never conducted a worship service in the New Testament, nor did the church of Acts).

    Practicing the Great Commission leads to very different behavior.

    The second problem is viewing the conflict as a struggle between two images of church. When we define the issue as two churches we get this dichotomy which Dan has stated very clearly: “one that is concerned with its own survival and existence that will spend exorbitant amounts of money to justify its own existence and a much smaller church that wants to serve God and Jesus Christ in the world.”

    The latter definition of the church – the currrent “missional” fad of “serving the world” – is inadequate to make disciples and does not fulfill the Great Commission. It is a portion of the system of making disciples Jesus taught, but inadequate when put forward as the entire solution. It is not supported by the New Testament except in the most simplistic reading of what Jesus did.

    The apostolic band Jesus formed is an entirely third type of church which the current “organic church” movement is attempting to form. The best definition I have found for what they are trying to do is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wgg2KYdMpqc
    (It can be downloaded and shared with the permission of the maker for local church use from http://www.disciplewalk.com – the link is at the bottom of the page.) Again, there is a problem because the organic church Jesus formed utilized the temple system and the religious culture rather than rejecting it as the modern movement seeks to do. The temple system can shelter an organic disciple making movement the way a flower can grow in a flower pot – it’s what Wesley did within the Church of England and that religious culture.

    And we can do it again – if we will equip people to make disciples that make disciples that make disciples. Sheep make sheep; people make disciples.

      • Rev. Dick: would you please let me know how to get in touch with you directly? I want to invite you to visit us in Memphis, TN. You already know our pastor and we need your help. Many thanks.

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