United Methodists have a mission statement but do they have the time and the understanding to take disciple-making and world-transforming seriously? Glenn Wagner says, “Yes!”
GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications
The stated mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” (Check out Matthew 28:16-20 and Acts 1:8 to find the biblical foundation of what we are called to do.)
At official gatherings of United Methodists, this denominational mission statement is oft-repeated. It is hoped that keeping the mission as our shared focus will promote unity of spirit and passion for our purpose.
Our mission is easy to remember. It is a noble objective. Yet I know from focused effort that our stated mission is difficult to achieve.
I have heard one expert liken it to “pumping water uphill.” Even with continuous effort, this disciple-making, world-transforming aim is steadily resisted by oppositional forces.
Remember. Fulfilling the mission of the church is not simply the responsibility of church leaders. This mission should be a priority for all who have made a personal promise to follow Jesus.
If you have pledged or are interested in following Jesus with your life, I hope you will find my personal reflections on our missional task helpful.
There are three challenging parts of our stated United Methodist mission.
1. Making myself a disciple of Jesus Christ.
A disciple is a person who has committed to learning from and following the teachings of Jesus. It is hoped that a disciple will make loving God and others a personal priority, will practice forgiveness, exercise compassion, and embody hope. A disciple of Christ will work to become biblically literate and will choose to live by the community-enhancing lessons set forth in the Bible. A disciple will live in the present while valuing our past and keeping eternity in mind.
Living as a follower of Jesus implies discovering one’s personal spiritual gifts and finding ways to use those special talents for the strengthening of the community and building up the body of Christ (the church). If you don’t know what your spiritual gifts are, this free online spiritual gifts assessment is a helpful place to start.
Disciples are influencers of others in an inspirational way through their personal embodiment of the Holy Spirit. Just as a violinist makes time to practice, take music lessons, and perform in the orchestra, so a disciple of Jesus chooses to make time for the basic exercises of being a follower of Jesus which include things like prayer, worship, stewardship, study, and service.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, encouraged those who were serious in their desire to follow Jesus to freely join a small group which he called a “class meeting.” These class meetings gathered once a week for the purpose of prayer, Bible study, and mutual encouragement in doing good works. Class meeting members who remained in good standing and maintained regular attendance were issued tickets that granted them admission to the larger weekly “society meetings” for the privilege of participating in corporate worship. I have found ongoing participation in small groups devoted to Christian learning and service to be very helpful in the growth and exercise of my own faith.
It should be remembered that John Wesley encouraged all “Methodists” to live with a “single eye,” which was a focus on giving glory to God with every aspect of living including things like dress, speech, personal habits, stewardship of time and money, and politics. Wesley regularly exercised discipline and expelled persons from his class meetings who weren’t willing to maintain a basic commitment to intentional and continuous growth as disciples.
Truthfully, it is a challenge for many to find time to be a disciple at the basic level of a weekly commitment to community life, let alone to think about figuring out how to influence others towards discipleship.
“Tithing my time for Christ would require 16 hours a week!”
Consider the mathematics of living. There are 168 hours in every week. Let’s assume that many of us need 8 hours of sleep each night for optimal functioning (168 – (8 X 7) = 112 hours left for being a disciple after sleeping). Then assume that you must work for a living for 50 hours a week in a secular job to help support yourself and your family (112-50 = 62 hours left).
Set aside 3 hours a day for food preparation and consumption. (62 – (3 X 7) = 41 hours left.
An exercise guru I admire has convinced me that we ought to build into our daily routine for living at least 60 minutes of physical exercise in order to help maintain our health (41 – 7 = 34 hours left).
Add in at least an hour a day for basic household maintenance like yard work, laundry, cleaning, paying bills etc. (34 – 7 = 27 hours left).
Many people that I know have a 30-minute commute to and from work five days a week (27 -5 = 22 hours left).
If you have a marriage, children, a pet, and extended family needing your attention add in another 2 hours a day minimum for this family care time (22-14 = 8 hours left).
Suppose you have hobbies, like to read, are engaged in social media, enjoy movies, need to go shopping, or have favorite TV shows you like to watch.
I know that we are called to be disciples all of the time but in the normal course of ordinary life, it isn’t hard to imagine how our small amount of discretionary time that is left after we care for our personal maintenance can be swallowed up with little left for any intentional personal or missional discipleship.
The groups I have belonged to that mean the most to me meet every week and expect some commitment from me. Participation in communal worship, taking part in a small group, giving myself in support of the church, finding time for regular personal Bible Study/devotional time, and participating in some kind of missional service beyond the church can be as much as five hours per week. Tithing my time for Christ would require 16 hours a week! Making time to practice and grow in effectiveness as a disciple for Jesus takes discipline, and consistent effort amidst all the other daily demands on our time. I have been blessed by mentors who have modeled for me how to be more organized and a better time manager for the sake of missional living.
2. Making disciples of others in the wider world.
Making disciples for Jesus is a bit easier when the focus is on self-directed personal growth as a disciple. I do have more control over my own personal priorities. But Jesus’ commission and our denominational mission statement also imply that we need to be engaged in helping others to become disciples, too. This outreach is a challenge and not simply because of all the other previously mentioned demands on our personal time.
While 9 in 10 Americans say they believe in a higher power, only 56% of us profess to a belief in God as described in the Bible according to a Pew Research poll. Another study shows that only 17% of Americans are participants in weekly worship.
I know from observation that many persons are opting to do other things with their discretionary time and resources and lack personal commitment to Jesus, church, or growing personally as Christian disciples.
The climate for even having a discussion about Christian discipleship with non-Christians has been soured by things like widely publicized clergy scandals and ongoing acrimony over sexual identity issues. Many believers openly disagree over issues like reproductive rights, and issues of inclusiveness. Christians passionately disagree with each other in a polarized political environment and are known participants in on-going global religious conflicts with local consequences. Negative stereotypes of Christians on primetime entertainment further undermine efforts to influence others in the direction of committed discipleship for Jesus. An honest look at some of the horrific things that followers of Jesus have undertaken in the name of Jesus like the Inquisition, the Crusades, treatment of Native Americans, support for slavery, and staying mute during human holocausts prove that we all share a deep need for repentance and forgiveness.
There are willing audiences for public debates on hot-button topics like climate change, minimum wage, immigration, inclusiveness, gun control, health care, college tuition debts, and our opioid epidemic. Engaging others about how faith in Jesus can positively influence these significant concerns is a tougher sell.
What I have learned about faith-sharing is that it is more likely to meet with success in the natural context of an ongoing meaningful relationship. Evangelist, Author, and Seminary Professor, George Hunter has noted that most new converts to Christianity come to follow Jesus across ‘natural bridges.’ They respond to an invitation from someone they already know and trust like a parent, friend, neighbor, or colleague from work. Hunter has observed that each of us has a circle of persons around us of 12 to 15 others who are most likely to be influenced by our personal encouragement in the direction of discipleship. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to reach beyond our natural circle of belonging but simply to acknowledge that living faithfully in our immediate circle of influence is very important.
“Christian disciples do not come fully formed but rather mature in faith through a series of loving relational nudges.”
A former pastor and Bishop of the Church, Emerson Colaw introduced me to the important idea of “relational evangelism.” Bishop Colaw noted that going door to door as a cold-calling disciple for Jesus is not a very effective use of time and that the typical witness employing this technique will likely knock on 350 doors before finding someone at home who is willing to listen while alienating many at the door who will be irritated by the uninvited solicitation. Instead, Colaw urged consideration of identifying real needs in our church community like grief support, or financial management, or a need for parenting skills. After identifying the need via survey he suggested designing a class, securing leadership and resources for meeting that real need. Extend an invitation to church and the wider community via press releases, social media, and advertising. Colaw found that need-based self-help groups will usually attract participants from both inside and outside the congregation. Over the course of a series of meetings in a small group, significant relationships can develop which make the non-church participants more receptive to further invitations for involvement. One church that I know grew by 50 after starting a support group for adoptive parents. Another grew in average worship attendance by 40 after beginning a children’s choir. New opportunities for growing disciples are connected to the creation of ministries that meet real needs.
Relational evangelism is also a proven strategy for more far-reaching mission. Missionaries who bring disaster relief, offer medical care, establish schools, and who work to adopt a foreign language and culture as their own are more effective witnesses for the love and grace of Christ.
Christian disciples do not come fully formed but rather mature in faith through a series of loving relational nudges. I have seen how followers of Jesus who set aside time for devotion, study, community building, and service are also able to grow in the effectiveness of their witness. When who we say we are as disciples is in alignment with who we actually are, there is congruence in our witness that communicates the good news of Jesus’ love with authenticity. The influence of congruent witnesses for Jesus is magnified by the power of God’s Holy Spirit that shines through our “earthen vessels.”
3. Transformation of the world.
The final part of our denominational mission statement which anticipates the transformation of the world is also challenging. Sadly we don’t have to look very far to see how negative realities like poverty, political differences, acts of violence, or addiction to drugs are capable of adversely transforming life in a disfiguring way like a toxic virus. The world is also full of evidence of how things like greed, racism, and insecurity have worked together to create ugly.
The global transformation that we are aiming for through Christian discipleship is recognizable when enemies choose to set aside their hatred to pursue the hard work of peace. I have seen transformation when the homeless are given shelter and a hand up from the vice grip of poverty. Haven’t you recognized heavenly transformation in families that honor commitment and exercise love for one another? I have learned that life is transformed like the anticipated spring that follows the cold of winter when, individually and collectively, God’s people seek to make following Jesus a top priority. I have seen families and children transformed when growth happens in the context of loving community where sacred worth is affirmed and exercising spiritual gifts is encouraged. I believe that community has better outcomes for most of us when we get the “growing as disciples of Jesus Christ thing right.”
“Life is transformed like the anticipated spring that follows the cold of winter when … God’s people seek to make following Jesus a top priority.”
Despite the aforementioned challenges, I believe the personal and communal transformation that comes as a by-product of faithful Christian discipleship and focus on our shared mission is worth our best effort.
Like a traveler on a journey understands, it is helpful to have a destination in mind for mapping the route. Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is where we are headed. God’s blessings on our efforts.
Recently on Sunday morning, we were visitors in a United Methodist Church. The service began with a report by two volunteers who shared with the congregation about the prior week’s congregational effort to host the community-wide warming center for 60 of their area’s homeless residents. The church offered cots, meals, hospitality, showers and a listening ear as well as hundreds of volunteer hours free of charge. The altar that morning was filled with donations of food supplies and school supplies that had been freely offered for distribution to needy neighbors. Before a hymn was sung in that worship space the Holy Spirit was moving and I wept.
When we get the mission right, God is glorified and humanity is blessed.