A Deeper Dive into Making Disciples: Sustaining Fresh Expressions of Church
Eighth in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions of church, the Florida Conference and United Methodism, and our relation to the "Nones," "Dones" and the "Spiritual but Not Religious."
The Wesleyan movement began as a "method" of making disciples. Kevin Watson locates the essential shape of Wesleyan discipleship in the small group, which focused on "the free inquiry into the state of the heart" (Francis Asbury, quoted in The Class Meeting, 30). In groups small enough to know and be known, men and women were willing to leave the old life behind ( class meeting ) and make progress together in holiness ( band meeting ). In these relationships individuals "watched over one another in love" through support and accountability.
As Steve Harper notes, the early Methodist movement was "thoroughly ecumenical in character." No one had to leave his or her church in order to be a Methodist. For much of his life, Wesley saw to it that the Methodist meetings did not conflict with the worship hours of the churches" (The Way To Heaven, 123). Many of our questions related to the emergence of Fresh Expressions are shaped by existing forms of church; the early Wesleyan movement developed alongside the predominant patterns of church, taking up the essential work alongside them.
If we are to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" (United Methodist Book of Discipline, 121), we will rediscover the DNA in our own tradition and learn from leaders and practitioners of renewal movements in our own day. Our Fresh Expressions study/immersion team met this summer with Bob and Mary Hopkins of Sheffield, which is the community that shaped Mike Breen, co-author of Building A Discipleship Culture. The Hopkins and Breen speak of discipleship as being inclusive of information, imitation and immersion. It is critical that we not conceive of disciple-making as being exclusive to any one of these actions, for, as Breen has noted, "If you make disciples, you always get church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples."
So how are disciples being made in our own time and place? We can sketch the outlines of a response. Most United Methodists are exposed to sufficient information : texts, curriculum, sermon series. These are valuable resources and God uses them to teach us. Over the last generation, many have been formed through studies like the Disciple Bible Study. Other high-commitment bible studies are offered in local churches. Increasingly, the worship service itself is the setting for adult formation, particularly through the use of sermon series. These are highly visible examples of information, and in an increasingly biblical illiterate culture information is necessary. Anecdotal evidence teaches us as well that many men and women attend seminaries in order to be exposed, for the first time, to basic teaching about scripture, church history and doctrine.
Imitation is murkier in the present United Methodist experience. We are more committed to the reception of information than to the practice of imitation, where we learn from a role model who invests time in us; and, yet, many of us have been blessed by mentors along the way. The loss of the class meeting has separated us from the model of the class leader. Many imitate the clergy leader by discerning a call to set apart ministry of some sort. In a highly committee-based structure, there is much apprenticeship in what Ken Callahan called the "functional" areas of ministry, so the incoming trustee chair might shadow the present chair. It may be that we are stronger in discipling leaders for the administration of the church than in the more foundational areas of prayer, scripture reading, service and justice ministries. At least these latter ministries are perhaps more hidden and contextual.
Through immersion we make connections between the information we have received, the role models we have watched, and we discover ourselves to be in environments that are transformational. Immersion has happened chiefly in camping settings, short-term mission teams and in the Walk to Emmaus retreats. It is emerging in forms of new monasticism and in the work (theory and practice) of Elaine Heath. For many, immersion happens as students are formed (liturgically, intellectually, communally) in theological schools. A remarkable article appeared recently in a major U.S. newspaper about a new generation of students entering theological schools without a set of basic theological commitments.
This reflection on discipleship is somewhat institutional and theoretical, and my awareness of this has led me to move into reflection on the subject that might be more fundamental, constructive and helpful to practitioners-participants in Fresh Expressions and spiritual guides of these communities. When the traditional elements of parish, church and neighborhood are stripped away, as they have become for so many, and when the primary context is a network or a third place, we are forced (and perhaps this is good) to clarify what it means to become a disciple of Jesus and to make disciples of others.
In a poll taken of clergy and laity members of The United Methodist Church in June 2014, the two most important priorities were "creating disciples of Christ" and "the spiritual growth of members"; the third and fourth priorities were "youth involvement" and "decline in membership." We are often focused on other priorities in the life of the church; this data, commissioned by United Methodist Communications, reminds us of a core wisdom present in our people.
So how do we become disciples, and how do we make disciples?
I will sketch answers to these two questions in the next two reflections.
Questions: Where would one likely find accountability and support in your local church? Can you recall powerful experiences of information, imitation and immersion in your own journey?
Next: Becoming a Disciple: Spiritual Formation
To Learn More:
Mike Breen and 3DM Team, Building a Discipleship Culture
Kennon Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church
Samuel G. Freedman, "Secular, But Feeling a Call to Divinity School," New York Times (October 16, 2015)
Steve Harper, The Way to Heaven: The Gospel according to John Wesley
Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience