Leading the Discipleship Journey

Stan and Sarah, I am excited about your first full-time appointments as pastors. You have grown in so many ways—spiritually, personally, academically—over the years I have known you, that you are now ready for the significant responsibility the bishop is giving you this summer. In some ways you are very ready to be commissioned as leaders of congregations. In other ways, you will never be fully ready and your commitment to a lifetime of learning how best to serve God is an important part of your attitude toward ordained ministry.

You both wrote letters asking for advice as you begin your new appointments as local church pastors. Essentially each of you asked me “How can I be successful in ministry as a local church pastor?” Both of you used more biblical and spiritual language than “successful”, so please pardon me for summarizing your request that way. But I think all of us seek to be as fruitful as possible. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” (John 15:5) We want to be as excellent as possible because God deserves our very best. We want our lives to count and to be able to say with Paul at the end of our lives, “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race”. Neither of you has yet fallen into the trap of measuring success by your salary or the size of congregation or some of the other cultural traps we clergy are prone to encounter. Rather, I think you believe, as I do, that success is best measured by the increasing faithfulness and fruitfulness of the communities we are called to lead.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the missionary body of Christ. It has a spiritual reality best summarized by Paul’s image of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. At the same time, as Christ did on earth, it has a physical reality that is represented by people, property, and actions. Just as I believe in the two natures of Christ, I believe the Church is both fully divine and fully human. Remember that when you are immersed in the messy, sinful, less-than-perfect side of the Christian community. For some reason God has chosen to use sinful human beings to accomplish God’s purposes. When your congregations are arguing over minor details, or refusing to accept members who are different, or refusing to be generous with their wealth, please remember that the divine nature of the Church has not departed—it is temporarily obscured.

It is, though, the missionary part of ecclesiology that is most at risk in our time. The main danger facing all Christian congregations in the United States today is that of being a club which exists for the benefit of its members. When churches turn inward, they die. Such clubs may have the name “church” on the sign, but to the extent that they have focused on themselves, they are so far not the church of Jesus Christ. To be the missionary body of Christ is to take seriously Christ’s Lordship and the task of obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading. It is to follow the Scriptures carefully as the Spirit leads us to apply it to our current context. It is to know that God is in the business of saving the world. What a privilege that God has allowed sinners like us to be part of that saving activity! Thus, the missionary identity of the congregation is of paramount importance.

You as the pastor are the leader of the particular missionary community to which you have been appointed. Paying attention to its identity and self-understanding is one of your chief tasks. In my “Twenty Characteristics of an Evangelistically Effective Congregation” I call it “creating and sustaining a missional culture.” You do that over time because it is not created quickly and it requires sustaining activities. Your preaching helps to shape this culture. Your newsletter articles teach people the deeper meaning of church ministries. Your leadership of Bible studies, retreats and other small group meetings is a way of forming your key leaders. Even the ministry of administration—budget, property, supervision of staff and other such activities—can be done in ways that shape the church’s missional culture.

I hope that you will ask very soon about the mission of your new congregation. Is a mission statement printed in the bulletin? Is it quoted regularly in every worship service? Is it displayed on the walls of the gathering area or hallways? Can members quote it from memory? It needs to be short so that it can be memorable. It should be scriptural. It should also be capable of extended exegesis.  I think I can lecture for a whole semester on the United Methodist statement that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I agree with David Bosch (Transforming Mission) that Matthew 28:19-20 summarizes the whole Gospel of Matthew. John Wesley believed that the general tenor of Scripture was the way of salvation—original sin, justification and sanctification—which is another way of expressing the process of making disciples. Mr. Wesley said that you as preachers have nothing to do but save souls, so spend and be spent in that work. Remember what you learned in your class on United Methodist doctrine? When John Wesley talks about “saving souls,” he is using a short phrase to represent a much bigger set of ideas. One clue to understanding our doctrine as United Methodists is Wesley’s note on Romans 12:2. The King James Version reads  “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith;”. Wesley translates “proportion” as “analogy” to be closer to the Greek “analogion.” By so doing, he invokes a principle of biblical interpretation going back to the early church fathers. He says,

Let us prophesy according to the analogy of faith–St. Peter expresses it, ‘as the oracles of God’-—according to the general tenor of them, according to that grand scheme of doctrine which is delivered therein, touching original sin, justification by faith and present, inward salvation. There is a wonderful analogy between all these; and a close and intimate connexion between the chief heads of that ‘faith, which was once delivered to the saints’.” Every article, therefore, concerning which there is any question should be determined by this rule; every doubtful Scripture interpreted according to the grand truths which run through the whole.

Let’s think through some of the basic logic of Wesleyan doctrine. I’ll summarize it in five points:

  1. Holy Scripture is our authority in all matters of faith and practice, and should be interpreted as a whole according to the analogy of faith.
  2. The analogy of faith—the general teaching of Scripture—is the way of salvation best summarized as salvation by grace through faith through conviction of sin, justification and sanctification.
  3. The mission of the church is to help individuals move forward on the way of salvation, thereby transforming the world to be more like God’s will for his creation.
  4. This process is also summarized as “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
  5. Each local church (as well as the entire worldwide church and all of its parts) should have as its purpose this process of making disciples aiming at fulfilling God’s will for the world.

Then add to it two corollaries about your roles as local church pastors:

  1. Pastors are preeminently leaders of missionary congregations.
  2. Your leadership is exercised through word, sacrament, order and service.

Everything else I am going to say about your ministry derives from these seven principles. They lead to this basic claim. One of the most important things you can do as a local church pastor is to understand the discipleship system currently practiced in your congregation and then lead the people to strengthen it in as many ways as possible.

Once I have said this, each of you would respond (I can hear you saying it now) “We were not prepared for this in seminary—what is a discipleship system and how do I lead a congregation to strengthen it?” Actually, you were prepared for this in seminary, by a variety of classes and activities that helped you deepen your understanding and increase your skills in various parts of the mission of the church. But I am not sure that anyone ever put all of the pieces together for you into a coherent whole. I hope to do that briefly in this letter. At various points I have already footnoted books you have read and I will continue to do that in order to draw together many of the pieces you have been given about being a local church pastor.

The first step is to gain clarity about the nature of local churches and their mission field. A fundamental biblical point, as expressed by Wesleyan theology, is our commitment to universal redemption. All human beings are beloved by God. Christ died for the sins of the whole world. As Charles Wesley puts it,

Come, sinners to the gospel feast

Let every soul be Jesus’ guest

Ye need not one be left behind

For God hath bid all humankind.[1]

You can go through many other Wesley hymns and note his use of “all” and “every” in descriptions of who is being addressed. The very emergence of the Methodist movement was an attempt to bring the gospel to persons who were not being reached by the Church of England in the eighteenth century. While we do not believe that all human beings will be saved (that would be universal salvation) we do believe that prevenient grace has been given to every person and that all are eligible for salvation. This is a fundamental point stemming from our belief that humanity is created in the image of God—natural, spiritual and moral—and that God’s love is universal.

When someone is awakened to their need of God—convicted of their sinful nature and the actual sins they have committed—the grace of God flows through the church. Wesley’s strongest articulation of this was a practical one—there is no such thing as solitary Christianity. He also taught that the means of grace are primarily conveyed by the church or in groups of persons.

Wesley’s ecclesiology was mostly assumed—it is a problem that has plagued his spiritual descendents ever since. Like other Protestants, our understanding of the church is woefully underdeveloped. But I am sure that you have been exposed to some of the current thinking by persons like David Bosche, Darrel Guder, and Dana Roberts about the missional nature of the church. I have often paraphrased the 20th century theologian Emil Brunner:  “Mission is to the church as a fire is to burning. Where there is no burning, there is no fire. Where there is no mission, there is no church.”

I do not know the congregations to which you are being appointed. But far too many Christian congregations in the United States have forgotten their mission. They will think the bishop has appointed you to be their chaplain. They function as a club which exists for the benefit of their members. They will measure your effectiveness by the entertainment value of your preaching. They will expect you to visit the members and they will argue about worship, parking and activities that please the people who are already there. They will give as little as possible in order to keep the church budget (viewed as membership dues) as low as possible. The children’s and youth ministries will be oriented to the young persons in the families of members. They will behave as if the slogan “Membership has its privileges” applies to their identity as Christians.

To the extent that your church functions this way, it is no longer the church of Jesus Christ. Practically speaking, such clubs masquerading as churches might have prospered during the 1950’s when the culture supported church growth. By the 1980’s and certainly in the twenty-first century, club churches will die.

You have not been appointed by the bishop as chaplain of a club. You have been appointed as the leader of a missionary congregation, called by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to make disciples of Jesus Christ among the people you can reach from your geographic place. Your mission field is all of the pre-Christian people in your geographic area. Sometimes we ask about a parish area—from how far away can people engage in your disciple-making activities? Now with digital communication, the geographic model of defining one’s mission field is more complicated—there are people participating through radio, television and the Internet in ways that were not possible previously. Nevertheless, you need to lead your church to clarity about who are the people God has given you as a reachable target population.

Perhaps you have already been appointed to a church that is on fire with this understanding of its mission. If so, you are blessed! But most pastors will be sent to churches that are more club than mission station, and you are called to lead a transition into a stronger missional culture. This is hard work and you should not expect radical changes to happen quickly. Instead, you should first gain the trust of the people. Love them. Learn about them as individuals, as a church and as the community in which they live. Spend time courting them just as you would a prospective new friend. Then find ways to focus them on the purpose of the church and continually teach people what God is doing and how the church generally and your congregation particularly can be a part of what God is blessing in the world.

You have a variety of opportunities to provide this kind of spiritual and missional leadership. Your preaching is crucial. Think about your whole time as pastor of this church—perhaps 6 years. What should the body of sermons you give to this congregation look like over that period of time? Your teaching is crucial. What classes are you personally leading? What retreats do you lead? What are the topics that you choose to address and what perspective do you bring? (I have always found Disciple Bible Study and Christian Believer to be excellent ways of sharing a holistic approach to Scripture with key people.) How you participate in committee meetings and other “working group” sessions is also crucial. In all of these settings, you can continually focus the people of the church on what God is calling them to be and to do. Eventually you will find people who understand the vision and are willing to step up and help you lead the congregation toward greater missional effectiveness.

For all of this to be done, you must be absolutely clear about the purpose and mission of the church. It helps if you think about the individual’s journey toward salvation. You have studied Wesley’s teaching on Christian perfection. Now as a pastor you have to bring that into real life. What is the end of the Christian life? Here I mean “end” as in the New Testament word “telos”—the goal or destination. After a lifetime of growth, what does a mature Christian look like? If you think of someone who spends a lifetime as an active disciple of Jesus Christ in the congregation you serve, what do they become? Our Wesleyan understanding of Scripture’s teaching on this matter is well summarized by sections 5 through 16 of John Wesley’s Character of a Methodist.[2] A Methodist is one who:

Has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost”

Has redemption through [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of his sins,

Has hope “full of immortality”

“prays without ceasing”

Loves God and his brother also and his neighbor as himself

Is pure in heart

Has the one desire “not to do his own will but the will of him that sent him”

Keeps God’s commandments, presenting his soul and body as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God

Does everything to the glory of God

Avoids evil, including laying up treasure on earth

Does good to all persons both in body and in soul

Remember the doctrinal outline of justification and sanctifying by grace through faith? Wesley’s vision of the Christian life is one of holiness. All of the ministries of your congregation should always aim and help persons move toward entire sanctification.

Now, imagine the typical member of your congregation. How are they doing on their discipleship journey? How are they being helped (or, God forbid, hindered) by the ministries and activities of your congregation? Thinking through how these persons participate in worship, in Sunday School, in Bible Study, in youth groups or women’s groups or men’s groups, in mission activities, in reading the newsletter—how do all of these facets of the congregation’s life shape their intentional faith development toward the goal of Christian perfection?

Then imagine the typical unchurched pre-Christian persons in your mission field.  Where are they on the journey? We believe that God is already working in their hearts and minds through prevenient grace. Thus, they are vaguely aware of their need for God and for salvation, and may be taking some tentative steps in that direction. What they need is stronger access to the means of grace which the church provides. Mr. Wesley reminds us that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary Christianity. People are saved in community. While Scripture is a means of grace and should be read individually, it is best read in community. While prayer is a means of grace and should be practiced individually, it also is best practiced communally. Worship, sacraments and Christian conference require community. While there may indeed be cases of salvation outside the church, the way of salvation if followed explicitly and intentionally always leads to the church. The pre-Christian people in your mission field need the church.

Robert Schnase’s books have helped us think through The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and the related Five Practices of Fruitful Living. I want to examine your leadership of congregations under those headings as well:

Radical hospitality

Passionate worship

Intentional faith development

Risk-taking mission and service

Extravagant generosity.

In each of these, Bishop Schnase tells us, it is the adjective that carries the most weight. Lots of churches think of themselves as hospitable. I have been in many churches that describe themselves as friendly. What they mean when they say “friendly” is “When I come to church I see my friends.” Over time they have lost their sense of mission to those who are outside the church. They do not invite outsiders to come and for the most part have no relationship with unchurched persons. They have transformed their congregation into a club which exists for the benefit of its current members.

(Please be aware that almost no church would self-describe themselves as a club and not a mission station. It is the role of leaders—both appointed pastors and lay leaders—to name the reality and help people to see it. In the process of helping people to see themselves, it is useful if you use your teaching roles to introduce the idea of club versus mission station with appropriate standards for deciding which is which, and then inviting people to ask which term is most fitting for their church at that point.)

At a slightly higher level, some churches are prepared to be welcoming if an unchurched person ever walks through the door. These congregations believe that American culture is stuck in the 1950’s when people sought out a church home because that was the commonly practiced behavior. It was a cultural expectation. Stores were closed on Sunday, and people could reasonably ask a stranger, “Which church do you belong to?”

Neither of these is radical hospitality. Club churches don’t practice hospitality at all. If a stranger finds her way into their building, there is nothing about the facilities or the behavior of the members that makes them feel welcome. In all sorts of ways they are told “you don’t belong here.” In the worst cases that message is actually verbalized.

Other churches are panicked about their future and are anxiously awaiting new younger members who will rescue them from their decline. When a family of four walks in the door they are immediately smothered with an outpouring of offers to join the choir, play the piano, teach Sunday School and chair the stewardship committee. This is closer to spiritual abuse than hospitality. Hospitality is making a connection with the new person and discerning their needs, hopes and dreams and seeing how your church can best offer them a community to facilitate their spiritual growth and service.

But 1950’s style churches and panicked churches, while practicing forms of hospitality, are not radically hospitable. Radical hospitality involves taking the church to the people. It means building relationships with pre-Christian, unchurched persons. It takes seriously the idea that America has changed since 1950. There are lots of books that can describe the changes. You are young enough you understand them well. However you understand the culture today, I think your job as a pastor is to help your congregations to improve their systems of radical hospitality.

Such hospitality begins with the engagement your church has with unchurched or pre-Christian people. That engagement happens by the interaction of individuals as well as through the corporate efforts of the congregation. By individual interaction, I mean the verbal witness that your members give all through the week. In The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor I described three levels of witness: invitation, testimony and mentoring. The most basic level is the most important and should be practiced by all Christians. Every United Methodist should regularly invite unchurched persons to meet Christ in a United Methodist worship service, Bible study, or small group. The sad fact is that most of your members believe that it is your job to do the inviting.

A number of years ago the North Texas Annual Conference developed “Bring a Friend Sunday” and “Home for Christmas”, two programs aimed at encouraging every layperson to invite an unchurched friend to worship. The first one was held two weeks before Easter, and the latter on Christmas Eve. In writing this program, the committee was seeking to shape the culture of all our congregations so that inviting the unchurched was a normal part of every layperson’s life, 24/7/365. When someone moves into a house, a United Methodist living in that neighborhood should take the opportunity to offer them a gift of food and with that an invitation to worship the following Sunday. When a conversation about spiritual issues takes place at work, the United Methodist person should say “My church is the best source of help I have received about that—why don’t you come and check out my Sunday School class.” We need to create a variety of events, from Vacation Bible Schools to mission projects like building a Habitat for Humanity house, to special holiday programs that unchurched persons will find attractive and interesting. Then our people should invite their unchurched friends and acquaintances.

The corporate side of radical hospitality is all about the visibility of your church in the community. Do the unchurched even know you exist? If the prevenient grace of God is moving someone to think “I need a church,” are you one of the possibilities he will consider?

For some churches their physical presence is an important part of the image of your church. Many of our buildings were built between 1920 and 1960’s when our communities had a particular shape and people traveled in particular ways. In most of our communities, the shape of the community has changed. I know one church built in the 1920’s at an intersection that was a key location for that period of time. Since that time, the new highway by-passed the old main street. As new subdivisions were built, they centered around the new highway. A wise man once said to the leaders of this church, “If you have to put up a sign to tell people where your church is, you should move the church to where the sign is.”

In the same way, many people walked to church 100 years ago, and our churches were built on that assumption with the appropriate number of parking places. Now, churches should assume that people want to drive to church in a car with an average of 1.8 persons in each vehicle. Thus, if you count the number of parking spaces and multiply by 1.8, you have reached the maximum capacity for worship attendance at any one time. In urban settings people may take public transportation to the church, and that should be considered also.

But your image as projected through various media is also crucial. When I began my ministry, the cutting edge tool was a display advertisement in the local yellow pages of the telephone book. Now, a good home page on the internet is the basic first start. Many young people I know start looking for churches by doing a search on the internet and evaluating which church might be right for them based on the website and what impression it conveys. Knowing you as I do, I believe you got on the internet and googled your new appointment’s website as soon as you learned what it was. How did it look? What message did it communicate both in words and design? Would an unchurched person your age want to attend the congregation described on that website? It will take a while to improve your church’s web presence, but it is well worth the effort.

But there is another way to raise your visibility—going viral. You want to have what we used to call a positive word-of-mouth reputation. How is that described digitally? You want young people texting their friends that your church is the place to be. In an old time example, back in my first appointment I dropped by the home of a family that had just moved to our community. I introduced myself as the pastor of the United Methodist Church in town, The man’s immediate response was, “Oh, we’ve been told that’s the church we should attend.” That was great visibility! How many people talk about your congregation in positive ways? How many of your members are saying good things about your worship services and your ministries? How many of your members are inviting their friends and acquaintances? There is no substitute for the “buzz” about your church among your target population.

Going viral happens in subtle ways, too. How many people in your community even knows that your church exists? How many of them think positively about it as a place people should attend if they are seeking a closer relationship with God? Two examples can be given here, both of them true. I stopped by one town of 2,000 people because I thought I might be appointed as pastor there. I asked at the convenience store along the highway “Where is the United Methodist Church?” One employee asked another, “Do we have a United Methodist Church here?” She said, “I don’t know. But there is some church north of town on the highway there.” It turned out to be the United Methodist Church, but one with low visibility. Years later I was headed toward a meeting at a United Methodist Church in a large city—over 100,000 people. The church was only 20 years old. They had relocated to a new facility just that week, and I did not have directions to it. I asked at a gas station where this church is, and the clerk said “Oh, they just moved. It is a great church. Here are the directions to their new place.” The first congregation has been stable and declining. The second one has been growing rapidly every year since it was started.

The last way of gaining visibility which I will mention is in your presence and activity. As pastor, you inevitably represent the church. That representative part of your ministry is one of the reasons we hold all clergy to higher ethical standards than we do the laity. But it means that how you spend your time is crucial. In some communities you connect with the unchurched through civic organizations. I was always a member of the Lions Club, for example. Attending sporting events (even if you don’t like them) may be crucial as a way of connecting. Going places where you will meet unchurched persons and you can personally evangelize them is important. One pastor took a team of laity to clean toilets at the bars in town every Saturday night at 10:00 pm. His service to those the church normally doesn’t reach ended up in several significant conversions and ministries to the needy in his community.

So what happens if some of those you have reached actually start coming to church? This leads to the second part of radical hospitality. In a book entitled The Future of the United Methodist Church I contributed a chapter on “Living the United Methodist Way.” I talked about George and Jane—two fictional persons finding their way to salvation. Ask yourself if George and Jane, with all of their complicated spiritual histories, visited your church for the first time on a Sunday morning, what would be their experience? You can approximate this by having some mystery guests come to your church and write up their account of how your congregation rates at hospitality. My “20 Components of an Evangelistically Effective Congregation” (www.extremecenter.com) are a way of thinking through how a church might do this well. You need to pay attention to everything that affects George’s or Jane’s experience, from parking to signage to décor to the quality of the nursery. But most important is the welcome extended. Your greeters must go out of their way to speak warm words of welcome, and ordinary members should make sure that they get acquainted with George and Jane and invite them back.

All of this forms the beginning of the discipleship journey. If George and Jane are serious about continuing the journey, you should share with them the United Methodist way of discipleship. Disciples worship every week, and you should put a lot of your energy into leading passionate worship. Disciples participate in two small groups every week—one where they are spiritually fed, and one where they serve others. Sunday School and a group working at the food pantry are great examples of how they might get involved. Being involved in risk-taking mission is an essential part of the Christian life. That means giving of their time to those whom Christ loves and mentions in Matthew 25 as a start. The last practice Bishop Schnase mentions is extravagant generosity. Too many United Methodist pastors don’t talk enough about money. We need to teach tithing as a beginning place, and offering to give away as much as we can. When your people complain about this, just tell them that Jesus talked more about money than he did about prayer, and both are important.

Bishop Ruben Job has given the church a great summary of the discipleship journey by restating Wesley’s General Rules. He summarizes them as

  1. Do no harm
  2. Do good
  3. Stay in love with God.

By stay in love with God, we Wesleyans mean “use the means of grace.” You are now the leader of a community that is itself a means of grace. It is a high calling, and one for which you are both prepared and unprepared. You are prepared by the life you have led so far and the studies you have completed. Yet, God is God and the power of the Holy Spirit will bring you surprises that are unexpected. There will be challenges and hard times. You will experience frustration and discouragement. When those times come, remember that it does not all depend upon you. God has called you to leadership in the church whose mission is to make disciples. But that church is a pilgrim people, and God has promised to be with us always. Remember the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn,

Captain of Israel’s host, and guide

Of all who seek the land above,

Beneath thy shadow we abide,

The cloud of thy protecting love:

Our strength thy grace, our rule thy Word,

Our end, the glory of the Lord.

By thy unerring Spirit led,

We shall not in the desert stray;

We shall not full direction need,

Or miss our providential way;

As far from danger as from fear,

While love, almighty love, is near.

We are being led by the Spirit. Thanks be to God.



[1] United Methodist Hymnal #339

[2] Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, 9:35-41.

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