Rev. Tom Griffith recently wrote an article about the structure of The United Methodist Church where he states that the core business of the church is NOT “making disciples of Jesus Christ.” He writes,
If we truly believe in the Wesleyan concept of God working through God’s prevenient grace that brings a penitent to the point where s/he is ready to accept God’s saving grace, we must admit that we are not the ones who are doing the “saving” or creating of new disciples. That is God’s job!
Griffith goes on to say this:
Rather, our core business, from no later than 1840 on, has been the creation of worshiping congregations or communities in every possible geographic community.
He also states,
It was the job of those congregations, not to “save” peoples’ souls but to give to those whom God had “saved” a place where they could live in Christian community and grow in their discipleship.
This is a pretty radical statement, and it makes huge sense to me. I personally have wrestled for years with the question, “How do I make a disciple of Jesus Christ?” No matter how I parse the question, I end up with the same answer: I can seek to live as a disciple, but for me to “make” a disciple indicates a power I just don’t have over the life of another, nor is it a power I should have. That is in God’s hands–I am a participant in that task but not the primary mover. I do not save people; I offer them a way to hear and respond to the saving grace of Jesus.
I am in the midst of writing a book about the church as garden, and am more and more aware that it is my job to create good soil where the seed, AKA “the disciple,” may grow, reproduce and serve others, but I myself can’t make the seed do its job. I can only create the best place for it to live into its potential.
The actual growth of the seed is very much in the hands of God and is also affected by multiple outward factors, such as weather, systemic diseases, unexpected pests and dozens of other things that are out of my control. My primary job is to provide rich and supportive soil so the seed can grow well. That’s what the worshiping community can and should do.
I look afresh at Matthew 28:17-20, here from The Message translation. After the resurrection, the eleven disciples are looking for Jesus.
The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally. Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.Jesus has the authority–and gave a responsibility to those who followed him closely: “Go out and train everyone.” That is what Methodists have historically done by our methods. That’s what makes us Methodist. We train those who are responding to that glorious prevenient grace by giving them a place to grow, thrive, and reproduce, and in so doing, feed the world. When we are not doing that, we have lost our way. And that is best done by the local connection where people can indeed say to one another, “How goes it with your soul?”
Out of these worshiping communities has come some of the greatest good offered to humanity. Hospitals and other significant health care movements, schools and universities, food and clothing for those who need it, political action to address systemic societal injustice, and courageous voices to speak prophetically about sin and oppression.
The problems come when those great goods become the reason for the worshiping communities to exist, i.e., when the local communities have purpose only to keep the things outside the immediate community alive. When that happens, the core purpose has been breached and we find ourselves desperately trying to keep the lifeboats in working order because the mother ship is rapidly sinking. Lifeboats are wonderful–but we really need a healthy mother ship as the base.
To touch yet once more then, on the structure of The United Methodist Church, here may be the problem: the function of the lifeboats have taken priority over the health of the main ship. There are times when, as pastor, I find I must actually protect the congregation from yet one more initiative by a lifeboat ministry because to support it means taking a plank out of the side of the main ship, i.e., the local worshiping community. Eventually, we’re all going to sink.
Can we wait for the next General Conference to address this, or expect that those who benefit most from lifeboat ministries to change their focus? Perhaps it is up to those who have been given opportunity to serve the core purpose of the church, the local communities of worship, to take a powerful stand for our health and vitality, while retaining our holy responsibility to the larger connection.