THIS WE BELIEVE
WEEK SEVEN: DISCIPLESHIP
Intro: “The Bible is true. The Bible is true for me. The truth of this Bible should change the way I believe and behave.”
We’re nearing the end of a series called, “This We Believe, Essential Christian Doctrine from a Wesleyan Perspective.” We’ve tried outline some basic Christian beliefs that the people called Methodist adhere to. In some cases, I contrasted these Wesleyan ideals with other beliefs and practices within our denomination, some of which are part of the debate over her future.
If you would like to learn what we’ve covered, I invite you to go to our website and read previous messages.
Today, on Father’s Day, I want to spend a few minutes talking about one of John Wesley’s keys to fruitful life and growth of Methodismà Discipleship.
[I want to give credit to one of the contributors to the book, A Firm Foundation, Andrew Forrest, for his insights on the importance of discipleship.]
One of the most profound growth trajectories in Christian history happened between 1776 and 1850 among American Methodist. Between the American Revolution and the Civil war, the Methodist Church grew from 8,500 members to 1.2 million—a growth rate of 14 thousand percent!
And yet, after the reconstituted United Methodist Church in 1968, American Methodism has shrunk from just under 11 million to just over 7 million. [Thanks to growth in Africa and Asia, the total membership of the UMC is around 12 million.] This begs the question WHY?
There are many social and cultural factors—since nearly all mainline denominations have been in steady decline over the past 50 years. Since the time of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, fewer people have found church necessary or relevant to their lives.
But Forrest would rightly argue that the root of the issue lies in two simple words: making disciples. The church’s shift of mission from making disciples to many other foci—such as creating dynamic worship experiences, social justice issues, and serving the marginalized (all good endeavors)—have created an institution that “looks” busy, but is seeing a world around it continue to spiral into moral depravity.
What did Jesus say was our mission? Let’s read his “last word” to his followers found in Matthew 28:18-20à 18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We played this little game years ago with this passage. Can anyone tell me what the imperative verb is in this passage? Not GO, Not BAPTIZING, Not TEACHING. It’s MAKE DISCIPLES. It’s the WHAT of that passage. The HOW of the passage is baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching everything I have commanded you.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a learner and imitator of Jesus. We are to become apprentices of Jesus. Making Disciples is THE REASON the church exists. We are to GO WHEREVER PEOPLE ARE and TEACH THEM EVERYTHING JESUS SAID AND DID.
If we take Jesus’s words seriously, we inevitably hold weekly inspiring worship services and be in ministry with the under-resourced and be engaged in issues of justice; but those things are the IMPLICATIONS of our mission of MAKING DISCIPLES, not the primary mission itself.
The ultimate purpose of discipleship is TRANSFORMATION…being changed into the LIKENESS OF CHRIST. That theme jumps off the pages of the New Testament. Listen to one example from 2 Cor. 3:18à And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. And how about this familiar passage from Romans 12:2à Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Turning our focus to fathers for a moment, it has always been God’s purpose for the man to be the spiritual head of the household. This is why many churches and denominations insist on spiritual leadership positions within the church to be men, citing passages from 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to uphold their view of male pastors and elders over the household of God. And while I do not wish to engage in a debate about women in such leadership positions, I would like to affirm the importance of men as spiritual leaders.
Proverbs 20:7 says, A righteous man who walks in his integrity– How blessed are his sons after him. His sons and daughters are blessed because they have a godly example to immolate, thus becoming godly fathers and mothers to the next generation. I think few would argue that many of society’s ills—a high divorce rate, a high mortality rate among young black men, an epidemic of single mothers, a large welfare system, etc.—can be traced to a lack of godly fathers living for Jesus and discipling their children and wives to do the same.
In the same way, the church is in desperate need of more focused discipleship. This was Paul’s concern as well when he offers Timothy, his son in the faith this powerful admonition: 1You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 Timothy 2:1-2 It’s a domino effect.
Do you remember what Jesus said to his disciples about vines, branches, commitment, connectedness, and fruitfulness? We read about it in John 15. Let’s refresh our memories from a few selections in that chapter: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower…Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches…If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disicples.”
Branches don’t strain, and they don’t strategize, branches produce fruit naturally, effortlessly, because they are connected to the vine. If we stay connected to Jesus, we WILL be fruitful for the kingdom.
Before I move on, let me make this important point: We don’t abide in the vine merely for our own personal piety. Discipleship deepens our personal devotion to Jesus, which then becomes our way of life. But this way of life is not for our own benefit. Jesus’s devotion to the Father was NOT for his own personal piety…it was for OUR SALVATION! Jesus gave his life for the world. True discipleship calls us to die to self so that we might live for Christ. And living for Christ necessarily requires us to have the mind of Christ… a mind of humility… a heart of unconditional love for the things God loves and an absolute rejection of the things God rejects.
To make this point, I mention one passage. In Luke 14:26-27 we read Jesus addressing his followers with this difficult and challenging statement: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” We can’t be disciples without self-surrender. Enough said.
Churches are on every street corner in America, but few take discipleship seriously. I’m thankful that Byhalia UMC is turning the tide on discipleship. Back during the Great Awakening of the 18th & 19th centuries, we see that it was through intentional discipleship that Christianity spread. Wesley was convinced that being a Christian meant you were becoming more and more like Jesus.
Christianity is NOT just about being saved from hell. It’s NOT just about being forgiven of your sins. Christianity is about God’s power and desire to make you holy. God forgives us, then he frees us from the power of canceled sin. We become more and more filled with love and less and less enslaved to sin. That’s moving on to what Wesley called Christian perfection…meaning we have an undivided heart…we are entirely God’s.
John Wesley developed a clear strategy for making disciples. He organized Methodists into small groups that he called “classes.” The point of classes was to have the members “watch over one another in love.” Classes were co-ed groups of about 12 people, with a class leader who was the spiritual shepherd of the others. The primary question asked of every class member each week was this: “How is it with your soul.”
Can you guess what we call class meetings today? That’s right, LIFE GROUPS! The purpose of Life Groups is to watch over one another in love…to build one another up and spur one another on to love and good deeds.
You couldn’t be a Methodist in the first century of Methodism without being in a class meeting. The early Methodists took discipleship very seriously. Sadly, by 1850, membership in classes moved from being required to being optional…and ultimately being nonexistent. The church put its energies in other areas such as Sunday School and education. And while these are very important, they do not take the place of holding one another accountable in our spiritual walk.
Another part of Wesley’s discipleship model was the band. A band was a smaller, single-sex accountability group in which you confessed your sins with one another and found assurance that we are forgiven. The idea is that—if one knows he will have to give account for his sins to another human being—he is less likely to commit them in the first place. “I’m dead to that!”
Did you know that there are two bands that have been meeting for the past 6 months or more? You can do it too! We have a series of 5 questions we all answer regarding the way we’ve lived our lives that week. I meet with a group of UM pastors.
Some of you think you don’t need to confess your sins to one another, which is unbiblical thinking by the way. Some of you think you can just show up for church and be “okay.” While you can be saved by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, you cannot be a disciple of Jesus apart from saying and doing what Jesus said and did.
The key to discipleship, according to Wesley, was his insight that “there is no holiness without social holiness.” He’s not talking about social justice issues—although discipleship leads to a heart for the marginalized. He’s talking about doing life with other like-minded followers of Jesus.
If you want to learn how to play soccer, you join a team. To be a better golfer, play golf with other good golfers and learn from them. It’s been proven that, to overcome addiction, being in a group committed to the same goal is your best chance. Likewise, to become a disciple of Jesus Christ, it is most effective in small groups.
Let’s get practical. Making disciples in 21st Century America requires at least three things, none of which will be new revelations to you.
1.Teaching Scriptureà There was a time when people would learn basic truths of Scripture in public schools and even in the culture. Now, it seems the only place people can go to learn Scripture is in the church; and even there, it sometimes is watered down! We are doing a poor job of teaching the Bible. There is NO discipleship apart from teaching Scripture. That’s why VBS, small group Bible studies, and biblical preaching are vital. But it’s also why parents (especially dads) should be teaching God’s Word in the home.
2.Teaching PrayeràThere are more distractions than ever which keep us from grounding ourselves in prayer. Jesus would often withdraw to lonely places to pray. Wesley was also well known for his devotion to prayer. We need to be a people of prayer. I’ve devoted entire series on the purpose and practice of prayer and plan to do so in the future. Just this week, JD Walt of Seedbed made this statement: “Prayer will either be our navigational operating system or the window dressing of an otherwise nominal faith.” I like that. Which is it for you?
3. Connecting People Together. Relational discipleship was the engine of the Methodist method and we need its power today. Back in Wesley’s day, the only qualification to join a class meeting was a “desire to flee from the wrath to come.” Sadly, our culture sees God as a cosmic Santa Claus who knows if we’ve been bad or good. And if we’ve been bad, he’ll just pat us on the head and give us stuff anyway.
Gone are the days when folks are actually AFRAID of divine judgment. But I believe that the longer we commit to class meetings—to Life Groups—and to bands, the more we will actually want to grow in faith. And the more we grow in faith, the more we will take seriously those questions like, “Have you committed any known sins?” and “How is your life in God?”.
And—along with meeting together, and as we spend time in God’s Word and in prayer, we will be truly ABIDING in the BRANCH. The more we abide, the more like Jesus we will become. And the more like Jesus we will be come, the more holy—set apart for God’s special use—we become. And the more holy we become, the more fruitful we become. And the more fruitful we become, the greater the kingdom of God becomes.