Disciple Dissipation

I listened with growing despair to a prominent United Methodist leader talking about our mission.  Within just a few sentences he completely devalued and distorted the entire concept of discipleship.

“Once we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we are forever after his disciples.”

“Discipleship is a gift, a privilege — it comes at no cost.”

“We (The United Methodist Church) have committed to get more disciples in worship each Sunday.”

“We will have 648,626 new disciples worshiping weekly; 794,074 new disciples professing their faith; disciples growing through 443,952 small groups; 806,770 disciples serving God through mission in their communities, in their regions and all around the world; disciples giving $3.6 billion to missional ministries for God’s mission in this world.”

What definition of “disciple” is being used here?  It certainly isn’t a Christian disciple, and it obviously does not come from our gospels.  Our church is faced with two basic options:

  1. to lift up a challenging and rigorous vision of discipleship grounded in our scriptures that requires discipline, sacrifice, commitment, lifestyle change, values-based prioritization, and behaviors that reflect those of the Christ — and invite people to engage their faith at an entirely new level, or;
  2. reduce discipleship to a sham, debasing the gospels and cheapening the example and teaching of Jesus the Christ so that discipleship is meaningless — something that anyone can claim with no investment or price

So, hmmm, which one are we choosing?  Well, just reflect on the unanimous parade of bishops at this year’s General Conference who espoused only #2 to the apparent exclusion of #1.  We clearly know where the bishops fall.  What about our General Boards and Agencies?  Well, it is split — most opt for #2, but a couple like Church and Society and Global Ministries are still promoting #1.  Our preachers?  Well, at least the larger church pastors are primarily in the #2 camp — though there are a few exceptions.  Whenever I write articles promoting a “vital” discipleship many people respond by saying I am expecting too much, that we will lose members if we take discipleship too seriously, that people don’t come to United Methodist churches wanting to be changed in any significant way.  That’s too bad.  We chose our mission “to make disciples,”  but when we realized that discipleship was hard and took work we huddled together and decided it was much easier to make discipleship easy and insipid.  What once demanded we take up a cross — an instrument of our own potential destruction — in order to follow Christ has now been downgraded by a couple of our bishops to mean “attending church when it is convenient.”  Jesus wept.

Let’s face it folks.  We aren’t doing a very good job helping the 7.5 million Christian believers we already have become anything close to resembling a disciple.  What makes us think we will do such a bang-up job with the next 648,626?  (Isn’t it interesting that we think we will get almost 800,000 new disciples, but only 650,000 of them will worship regularly?  Man, we set our standards low…)  I am in complete agreement that disciples have the God-given, Spirit-driven power to transform the world.  But sometimes Sunday show-ups?  Not so much.  If we continue down this path of reducing and diminishing the definition of disciple to match the pathetic effort we are willing to make, we are doomed.  I know people love to fantasize that they are star athletes or world-famous celebrities or American Idol icons, but it is all make-believe.  We can pretend we are disciples all we want, but anything less than a radical reorientation is simply making a mockery of something holy and sacred.  I close with the words of Wesley’s covenant prayer — just something to reflect on when we try to decide what a disciple might actually look like…

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

23 replies

    • I know there are some there who are trying to lift the banner. Would that I believed the leadership were in the #1 camp, I would gladly name GBOD. However, I was too close to too many projects and decisions that preferenced #2 to be able to endorse GBOD as a whole as pushing for a higher standard. As it is, I commend all my friends who continue to swim upstream when the current is so strong against them!

  1. making disciples “for the transformation of the world” — has that part also been totally forgotten?

    • I think our denomination would be much more comfortable with the mission “to attract people and call them disciples for the survival of the institution,” but it lacks something, don’t you think?

    • The problem with that non-scriptural addition is that it is much easier to “transform the world” than to be or make a disciple. All I have to do to “transform the world” is to convince all those brothers of mine to take the “mote”s out of their eyes. No need for me to be transformed because i know what is wrong with the word (capitalism, socialism, radicalism, conservatism, racism, sexism, etc.). To become a disciple, I actually have to deal with that” beam” in my own eye. I have to rely on God’s grace and forgiveness and recognize that maybe I don’t know what is wrong with the world (except in the sense of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful answer to what’s wrong with the world — “I am.”).

      We could also address the reason our church removed the “teaching them to obey all that I [Christ] have commanded” from Matthew 28; but that goes with the point that Dan is making. Obedience is hard. It involves crosses and all that ugly, unpleasant stuff!

      • “Non-scriptural addition”???? That’s not how I read 2 Cor. 5:17: “Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new.” (CEV)

  2. I’ve always wished we’d said our purpose was to “transform the world . . . and to make disciples.” I think it would also be a more effective numerical strategy.

  3. Amen. and AMEN!

    It hardly seems possible that it has been five years since I wrote a guest column for the United Methodist Reporter, “Beyond Discipleship: Empowering the Laity for Ministry” . How discouraging that nothing has really changed. Apparently we still can’t even agree on a definition of what a true disciple is.

    Dick Turner, Hewitt, Texas


  4. Amen and Amen. For what is worth, because of finally learning the hard way that being a life-long loyal Methodist in no way equated to being on a path of discipleship, I am seriously considering jumping ship–a position I never ever thought I would be in.

    An interesting insight: My “bestest UMC pastor”, who came out of nowehere and walked with me on the edge of the abyss, and who I admire and love greatly for his personal faith of which he is very passionate about told me that anything he ever learned about God had absolutely nothing to do with what a local congregation did or did not do. So what hope is there for a lowly pew sitter who has no other place to learn such things. At 50+ years, I have come to realize this pastor was my first up close and personal encounter with a person passionate about his faith and who is capable of talking about it in a reasonable and believable way; it was also unique in that it happened outside the confines of “doing church”– it made all the difference!

    The most important thing to take away from Gil Rendle in “Back to Zero” is the UMC has become all about “serivng the institution” rather than supporting individuals on a faith walk that has a chance of “going somewhere.”! Verbage wise, The Wesleyan Church seems to be on that track. In one sitting, back to back, I read Bishop Schnase’s address to the SW Jurisdictional Conference and then heard The General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church give her State of the Church address–absolutely no comparison; at the top of her list for the next 4 years was a call for all church leadership to lead authentic lives. She also asked God to double the membership because only He can do that. She also wanted the people to know that the first denominational level meeting after their General Conference began with 24 hours of prayer–no decisions, just seeking God’s guidance for 24 hours before the decision making began. They are a growing denomination; from their Spiritual Formation Division website http://headhearthand.com:


    Connecting belief and behavior for Christ and The Wesleyan Church by serving the church through training, resourcing, connecting and accountability.


    The purpose of Spiritual Formation is to showcase the attributes of holy living – helping believers become more like Jesus, one life at a time. (Head, Heart, Hands and Holy Habits

    Spiritual Formation Matters

    We desire to make more and better disciples of Jesus Christ. We come alongside the local church helping every child, student and adult become more like Jesus – one life at a time.

    The process of Spiritual Formation is for every person to become more like Jesus Christ every day. It involves every person and it involves every part of every person. One poignant way to communicate this is wrapped up in the words and concept of four words: HEAD, HEART, HAND and HABITS. In order to combat the enormous disconnect among followers of Jesus Christ between beliefs and behaviors, much emphasis needs to be rekindled regarding the knowledge, power and activity of God in every individual’s life.

    I would love to find some verbage like this in conjunction with the UMC, especially that last sentence–even if it was couched in the context of “this is where we need to be heading”–my life would be much simpler.

    I leave you with a quote ot of John Wesley’s journal following their first conference: “The next day we endeavored to purge the society of all that did not walk according to the gospel. By this means we reduced the number of members to less than nineteen hundred. But number is an inconsiderable circumstance. May God increase them in faith and love!”

    • Betsy,
      Thanks for the link. I hope that I can sneak some Wesleyan material into our church. I too yearn for that kind of focus on spiritual formation and personal holiness.

  5. Betsy, Dan, I need some help here. I am a Local Pastor to a small membership church with close to 100 on an average. I just finished 5 weeks preaching my heart and mind and strength on Spiritual Transformation to rave reviews. But, it is summer, you know; and I am about the only one who shoots for 52 equal Sundays. Two-thirds of our folks are duel working couples between the ages of 39 and 49 with kids from 8 to 14. Six days of the week they are taking their kids to games and practices, meetings, band, chorus, gymnastics, dance, etc. I have offered rock-star Bible studies in every which way with attendance of about 4 folks all over 60. Our parents truly bemoan their schedules and express their sorrow openly about inability to save a chunk for spiritual growth, a small group or any other offer.
    This little church has grown in Sunday numbers from 40 to 100 and these folks love their Sunday and their God; they really do. But, well, you see the quandry…..Can you share a word?

    • First, let me say that the examples I can point to are in the dozens — not the hundreds, not the thousands, and certainly not the millions (which makes what we are currently saying in The United Methodist Church so dishonest and disingenuous…)

      I worked with a young couple — Meg and Adam (35 & 39 respecttively), with three school aged children — who made very specific lifestyle choices based on their faith. They both set aside an hour a day for prayer and personal devotion, they hosted a weekly spiritual formation/Bible study in their home, they made Sunday a Sabbath day (church together each week, no school activities, nothing to pull the family in different directions), they designated the first $5,000 of discretionary income for charitable giving — no luxury/unnecessary spending until they reached their $5,000 goal, a weekly commitment of $100 to their church, regular participation in community service and outreach ministries, and each took one leadership responsibility in the church. This couple ade choices, not excuses.

      Faith and John, a couple in their 50s, recent empty-nesters, chose to both go — as lay people — to seminary so that they could become better teachers in their church. They both worked full-time jobs, then went to school each night and did homework the rest of the time. Both volunteered regularly through their church. They made conscious decisions about limiting computer/Internet/television time. Both made commitments to limit their family spending, set aside 10% for savings, then gave the remainder — about 30% of their normal revenue — to church and charity. They both consider themselves novices in their discipleship.

      Where the treasure is, there the heart will be as well. What truly matters to us will govern how we steward our resources. We will invest in what is important, and make excuses for what is not. It is no harder — or easier — than this.

      • There will be a few bright lights like these. There will likely be a few others waiting in the wings to be invited more directly to go deeper. Watch for them, make the invitation (one on one), encourage them take their next steps, and connect them with others who will watch over them in love to help them all stay on this journey.

        Keep in mind that those others may not and need not be part of the congregation you are serving. Great if they can be, but in the setting you describe maybe not likely.

    • I have done a massive amount of reading over the last three
      years–books , blogs, “news articles”, Wesley’s sermons and journal, a book about Wesley’s “theology”. What I have determined that is missing–and I was aware of it pre crash and burn–is what I would call translation of book/head knowledge into “living the faith.” And that has to come from another person–Wesley wanted Christianity to be contagious and that takes people vested in the life. I am drawn to people who make Christianity doable on a daily basis. John Wesley set the bar. My “bestest pastor” is an example. That is probably why Rick Warren and Saddleback Church are “successfu”l. David Platt is a another one; reading his two “Radical” books about what is happening at the church in Birmingham Al. he is pastoring, totally upeneded my perception of what church can be even in 21st century America and even in a mega-church.

      There needs to be a certain amount of book learning, but somewhere there needs translation into life–getting Jesus out of the church and into our lives. One thing I have put together in all my reading is at some point Methodism was so successful, whole families were converted and at that point the church assumed parents were teaching the life. Which is all well and good when it works. With my family dynamics and nomadic lifestyle, I was given the practice of the religion–and I became an expert–without the reason why. Given the other “life options” I was exposed to, it was “good” to a certain extent. However, God was strictly at church and “Jesus was on the fringes, lurking in the shadows.” Through the older hymns, the Apostle’s Creed and other liturgy, I picked up “dots of awareness” that there was more, but there was no way for me to “connect the dots”. When I felt “pulled back to the church” as a young adult my goal was to “get it right/connect the dots”, but the atmosphere was not there for me to own up to my “deficiencies” so I kept hammering away at “what I knew: being a good and loyal Methodist” and waiting for something to happen. It was ultimately a three part train wreck with the timing of the three “separate events” creating “a perfect storm”. And the biggest problem was it all began at church so my “port in a storm” was already its own storm–my faith relied entirely on my being part of a church because that was where God was real on a routine basis.

      People need to learn that this is a process; a mixture of personal effort in what Wesley called the means of grace, but ultimately, God is responsible for enabling justification–the heart warming experience-and sanctification. Until God acts, it is strictly “head knowledge”. The best description I have seen of what the church’s job could be is from Kenneth Collins in “The Scripture Way of Salvation”: “…men and women must, after all, be prepared, at least in some sense (the overcoming of ignorance and fear), to receive the richest approriations of grace. This means then…at least people in some sense are responsible for whether or not they are justified (emphasis on process, synergism, cooperation, the means of grace, etc.) although they cannot jsutify [or sanctify] themselves (emphasis on realization, faith alone justifies [which is only recieved in God’s timing], divine sovereignity, human impotence, etc.)”

      My experience with Weight Watchers and going through their leader training exposed me to transformation of one person at a time in a group setting and each person has their own unique journey to travel. Weight Watchers knows how to create the atmosphere to enable that to happen. I learned the journey is best accomplished in the company of others, even when the journeys are not identical; it is also best to talk about the ups and downs of the journey. Also, the journey, in this case keeping eating under control, never ends and the leader knows that and fights her own battles with it on a daily basis, yet maintains her weight; but overall stays the course. Every church leader needs to go through their leader training.

      Summation: Methodism at all levels needs to focus on the souls of its people, not its structure or budget. It needs to reclaim its amazing message about God’s amazing grace and His love for us through Christ. It needs to reclaim its method of people gathering in groups to “talk about how things are going–the ups and the downs” and watching over one another in love. It also needs to reclaim the concepts of sin, salvation, repentance, justification and sanctification–even if it needs to come up with new wording. Most of all it needs people passionate about their faith who can talk about it ina reasonable and doable fashion–and that is not the same thing as being passionate about “doing church”. In his blog, Kevin Watson has more than once stated that people no longer have a vocabualry to talk about “the state of their souls”–we no longer have a vocabulary to talk about our faith; we no longer understand the process.

      In “On the Threshold of Grace”, Donald Haynes removed the scale from my eyes when I read this which rings so true for my own personal experience: “…a different journey to faith began in Methodism as long ago as the 1880s. Methodist Sunday School literature began to emphasize the ‘stories’ of the Old Testament and New Testament and ALMOST CENSORED ANY REFERENCES TO THE CROSS AND EXPERIENTIAL CONVERSION [all caps mine]. The philosophy of the religious education movement replaced conversion with ‘gradualism’. … ‘Church-ianity’ unwittingly replaced ‘Christianity’…confirmation classes became the major means of bringing children to personal faith and/or CHURCH MEMBERSHIP [all caps mine and at 8 years of age I was glad to be joining the curch because it put me on equal footing with my older brother]…most emphasis was placed on history, creeds, worship and membership vows rather than the Wesleyan ‘way of salvation’…We had slip-slided our way from the experiential grace confirmed by a ‘witnes of the Spirit with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16)’…to decision confirmed by attending class.”

      Wesley thought he was on the course of gradualism–after encountering the Moravians, he abandoned that concept. I thought I was on the course of “gradualism”–after the crash and burn, I too abandon the concept. It is still a process/journey, but it is one marked with moments of God’s amazing grace at work producing instaneous results.

      Haynes also hits the nail on the head when he sums up 20th century Methodism: “While the church is God’s mission to the world, we err to see it as an end in itself. The sad mistake of the 20th century was to develop a sophisticated “church-ianity” that was not synonymous with “Christianity.” We developed “churchmanship”…rather than discipleship. We assimilated new members by placing them on finance committees and program teams when they were babes in Christ looking for soul nourishment.”

      One final quote form Haynes: “Through Moravian mentor Peter Bohler, Wesley realized he had omitted one vital stage on the way to holiness–faith in Christ as one’s personal savior! Without that, it is useless to try to be holy.”

      Amen and Amen on two fronts: it is absolutely true what he says about Christ. Also note that it took a mentor, an encounter with another person living the faith. But also note, Wesley saw something he liked in Peter Bohler and the Moravians and he took the initiative “to go looking”; Peter Bohler was contagious. It is a group effort which includes God working through the Holy Spirit! My “bestest pastor” gave me a safe place to voice my “deficiencies” and by who he is removed my fear of desiring a life of following Christ–he was contagious. I then pursued enlightening my igonrance and have experienced my own “heart-warming moment of assurance that Christ did indeed die for my sins.” And yes, what I have learned about God these last three years had nothing to do with what a local church did but in some ways very much had to do with what they did not do.

      Within the UMC there are “pockets of excellence” that are about transformation one person at a time –I read the most amazing blogs and visit the most amazing church websites–but locally my options are limited. Where I am currently a member is nowhere close to being ready to even “start the discussion” and my “bestest pastor” has moved on. The people of this church are “good hearted” individuals, but with a group dynamic that is fatal to anyone outside of it. They are wondering “what is wrong”. But even after I shared some reading materials with him in the hopes of at least tweaking his curiosity, a significant leader has publicly stated he is “clueless” as to what needs to happen to “fill up the pews” again. A DS recently shared that “The church shoots its wounded” is one of the negative perceptions out there. I had never heard it put that way before, but it feels like an apt description of my last three years in this local UMC. The concept of “shaking the dust from my feet” has been eminent for about a year.

      Thank you Dan Dick, Donald Haynes and others who have enabled me to “question the church”. A good but woeful experience. My queston is no longer “Why Christ?” it is now “Why church?” But I long for the company of others along the way.

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