Photo Courtesy of Dan R. Dick
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:
- 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;
- 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.