It’s hard to believe that we’re finally on the cusp of General Conference 2012. The last year has seen the fleshing out of the issues that will define this year’s gathering: reforming structure, clergy effectiveness, new emphasis on local congregations. The pressure is high for delegates because there’s a lot riding on the next few weeks. Jobs will hang in the balance. A whole lot of money will be up in the air waiting to be potentially distributed in a new areas. The hierarchy of The United Methodist Church could look and function drastically different. Delegates must really be feeling it right about now…
So how about we take a deep breath and consider a little reality check?
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
Before we get too distracted with issues of finances, structure, and authority, maybe we should reevaluate what the “main thing” is? We have a discipleship problem in The United Methodist Church. For those who want to push the Call to Action and similar reform efforts with the caveat that “this isn’t a final solution to what ails us” you should enjoy this reminder.
If discipleship is the main issue, then we should take a deep breath and remember that what happens at General Conference will not ultimately save or kill The United Methodist Church. We can do some top-down tweaks–many of which are probably long-needed changes. But take heart, delegates, what you ultimately decide in Tampa will not ultimately save or kill the denomination.
In a previous post, I introduced the idea that I believe small groups are the key to changing the culture of discipleship we currently have in our local churches. Before we can fully change a culture, we must evaluate the present state of the culture we have and find the grace to tell the truth about it. I believe small groups as we know it quite often are nothing more than an exercise for meeting personal needs (need for intimacy, need for autonomy, need for personal connection). All of these things are fine and dandy, but they will not form disciples of Jesus Christ. To form disciples, we literally need to form small groups that will gather around the idea that one’s personal needs are checked at the door in favor of seeking the needs of a greater story–namely, the kingdom of God.
I had some wonderful comments and critiques about this argument in my previous post. And I want to make sure I’m clear that I do not think all small group ministries are more concerned with meeting needs. In fact, examples like Covenant Disciple Groups and Emmaus FourthDay Groups should be lifted up as examples for all small groups everywhere. The difference between small groups that effectively form disciples and those that do not is the presence of loving accountability. Our Wesleyan heritage offers a blueprint for how small groups (class meetings) emphasize discipleship based on holding one another accountable to a communal covenant of living–”watching over one another in love.” In these small group settings based around accountability, the ultimate aim is to equip one another in the art of discipling–“disciples making disciples” as my friend Steve Manskar says.
And by the way, this practice of accountable discipleship whereby disciples help make disciples is the only faithful way to live into our mission statement, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Why Covenant Based Communal Discipleship?
Covenant-based communal discipleship ensures a couple of important characteristics in a local church:
- Discipleship remains a community effort
At some point we have to get past the idea that we can captain our own personal ships of discipleship. Individual-centered discipleship eventually turns into a self-centeredness that’s not conducive with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in service to the world. In other words, to be a disciple requires that we be reminded just how much we need one another. Small groups offer a format whereby disciples can gather in community in order to be held accountable for the fruits of transformation (the ongoing work of sanctifying grace). And the small numbers ensures that everyone can get an equal voice in the group during the alloted time designated for meeting (preferably 45-90 minutes per week). If the group gets too large you run the risk that someone can quietly slip into the background of the conversation.
- Group covenants demand a discipleship based on an alternative way of living
Here is a sample of what a covenant might look like:
We are disciples of Jesus Christ. God intends to save us from sin and for lives of love to God and neighbor. God has called us and the Spirit has empowered us to be witnesses of God’s kingdom and to grow in holiness all the days of our lives. We commit ourselves to use our time, skills, resources and strength to love and serve God, neighbor and creation, trusting God’s power through these means to make us holy.
Acts of Compassion
- I will actively seek out ways to show compassion and care for all people and all of God’s creation.
Acts of Justice
- I will witness for justice, inclusiveness, and equality, and encourage forgiveness always and reconciliation wherever possible.
- I will actively support a movement for world peace with justice, and will communicate regularly with my elected representatives on these issues.
Acts of Devotion
- I will spend time daily in reading scripture and offering prayer, including praying for enemies, and include the members of our covenant discipleship group in our daily prayers.
- I will care for my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Acts of Worship
- I will faithfully join in corporate worship each week unless prevented.
- I will offer my resources faithfully to support the work of God’s kingdom, beginning with the local church with which I am affiliated, with the tithe as my guide. Resources interpreted broadly to include money, time and talents.
Name:_________________________________________ Date: ________________
Final Thoughts on General Conference and Our Real Problem (for now…)
As we all get geared up for all the ramifications that will come from General Conference, let’s all take a collective sigh of relief that the future of our denomination will not ultimately be decided in that gathering. Sure, there will be some changes–many of which are probably long overdue, others which will cause some growing pains for the church. But we will still hold worship the following week across the connection. We will still serve the missional needs of our communities as they arise. And we will continue to live and work and grow together as a people called Methodist.
But just a couple of afterthoughts to keep tucked away for the days that will follow General Conference:
Can political divides take a Sabbatical?
Can we try to forge new ways of working with those with whom we disagree? General Conference is a time for caucus group across the connection to spend a lot of time and resources getting folks energized around a variety of issues. But can we just give it a rest come May 4th–even if just for a little while. Change will require we work together and at least seek to bury the hatchet of ideological divide in the name of unity. Maybe we could even fake it if need be, who knows what might come from pretending we actually love one another…
Can we focus on discipleship
Once we settle (at least temporarily) the issue of structural change, can we please focus on our real problem–namely, discipleship? The thing is, we can’t depend on General Conference to settle this issue. This will have to happen within every local church and station of ministry. Disciples of Jesus Christ do not magically appear from legislative reform. They come through time and effort being spent together–held accountable in mutual love and formed by the practices of the Church and in the ways of Jesus Christ. This comes as result of grassroots efforts being shifted toward the hard and often messy work of disciple formation. It’s not top-down and we have to stop convincing ourselves otherwise.
I have great hope for General Conference despite my apparent cynicism. I know change is coming and, by the grace of God, we will survive it. But I also long to be a realist–one who is able to see the reality that top-down reform cannot change the hearts and minds of a people wandering in the wilderness in search for manna. That comes as it always has for the people called Methodist–as grace, a gift from God. So yes, despite the press and cynicism and divide that abounds, I suppose I’m ultimately hopeful for a number of reasons.