I was in conversation with some of my colleagues about the state of The United Methodist Church. We each took a Post-It® Note and wrote what we thought was the most pressing need/critical issue facing the church. Most of the notes were about declining numbers — not enough new members, not enough young people, not enough dollars, too many old people (and them dying off). My note said “Low expectations.” This brought a response from the group that if we expected more from people, it would hasten our demise. I disagree. We have instituted low expectations as a norm for over three generations and it hasn’t served us well. And in recent times we have lowered the bar to the point where it has dented a groove in the foundation — I am afraid we cannot go any lower. Four illustrations.
I was talking with a pastor who proudly stated that his church was getting serious about discipleship. This a church of approximately 300 members. He told me that five people (all retired women) are covenanting together to “follow Steve Manskar’s Accountable Discipleship book,” and meet once a quarter for 90 minutes to model discipleship for the rest of the congregation. I responded, “you mean weekly, don’t you?” He explained that, no, when they all looked at their calendars, they couldn’t commit to more than once every three months, and even then not everyone would be able to attend every meeting.
In recent conversations with three completely unrelated twenty-somethings I discovered what may be a growing trend. It also may apply to older people as well, but I haven’t heard from anyone but these three younger adults. Each one of them explained to me that they have cut-and-pasted their favorite passages from scripture formatted into a single document, downloaded it to an iPad of Kindle, and this is the “Bible” they use. Titled “Kathy’s Bible” or “Kevin’s Bible,” these young people read only the parts of scripture they like. I asked “Kathy” if I could see her “Bible” and I noted that the vast majority of passages came from the Old Testament or New Testament letters — very little from the gospels (Nativity story “in,” Passion story “out”). She said, “Yeah, there just isn’t as much that’s interesting in the gospels…”
My colleague, Don Greer, and I taught a seminar called “The Congregation as a Discipleship System” last year (2014) and one of the resources we recommended is Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism. This is a very down-to-earth interactive engagement resource to revitalize evangelism as a “normal” practice in the congregation. I checked in with one of the pastors who told us he was really excited about strengthening the congregation he serves in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. He proudly reported that his Church Council is on chapter 2 of the book. (The whole book is 200 pages long, with many illustrations, lots of white space — each chapter is approximately 10-15 pages long.) “When did you start reading it together?” I asked. “Last November,” he answered. “You’ve been reading it for ten months, and you’re on chapter two?” I responded. “Well, yeah, we’ve got lots of other stuff we have to get done, too.” he explained, a little defensively.
I was in a church recently where every member received a nametag with the church name across the top, the person’s name in larger letters in the middle, and in 6 point type across the bottom, “A Disciple of Jesus Christ”. These were all nested on a board in the Narthex, probably about 150 nametags in all. Everyone in attendance was wearing their nametag — so there were about 40 empty slots. I noted that about half of the remaining nametags were still in plastic sleeves that had never been opened. The lay leader explained that those were people who hadn’t shown up since the nametags were purchased. “How long ago was that?” I asked. “We bought them at Easter in 2013,” he replied.
The United Methodist Church clarified its mission in 1996 to be “making disciples of Jesus Christ,” and amended it in 2008 with “for the transformation of the world.” Since 1996, our bishops, general agencies, seminaries, conference leaders, pastors and key lay leaders have systematically eroded the definition of a “disciple.” Rarely using the gospels as a reference point, discipleship has become anything anyone wants it to mean. In a survey conducted by myself when I worked at the General Board of Discipleship in 2005, 71% of United Methodists chose “believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God” as “the best” definition of “Christian Disciple”. (Other choices included, “being a faithful member of a Christian congregation,” “organizing one’s life and service around the teachings of Jesus Christ,” and “sacrificially striving to become like Jesus the Christ in thought, word, and action”.)
We want a definition of discipleship that costs absolutely nothing. People often comment that they think I make discipleship too hard, that I expect too much of people, that I am unrealistic in my expectations. I always wonder where people got the idea that discipleship was supposed to be easy and convenient. Can people be Christian “believers” and not read the Bible and not pray, and not attend church regularly, and not give or serve as an expression of their faith, and not fast, and not share their faith? Obviously, a lot of people think so. But be a disciple? Discipleship has some built-in defining characteristics that are much more demanding than occasionally showing up. People who haven’t shared in public worship for two years should not be called disciples. Those too busy to pray, who have no time to meet with other Christians for accountability and spiritual practice, who neglect a sacrificial commitment of time or money should not be called disciples. Those who do meet to debate carpet colors, criticize the pastoral leadership, snipe over music styles, and decide who isn’t welcome are not disciples. Those who only pay attention to the parts they like and that make them feel comfortable and lovable are not disciples. Come on! Why would anyone want to be a disciple if the key qualification is breathing? The current crisis of The United Methodist Church isn’t structural or financial — these are merely symptoms. By devaluing discipleship so completely we make our church irrelevant and ignorable. If we hope that others will value what we have, we first need to value it ourselves. Shame on us for mistaking church membership with discipleship. Shame on us for robbing discipleship of its discipline and sacrifice. It is time to raise the bar, expect more from people, and to develop a community of faith with the spiritual power and grace to transform the world.