More than Sundays for Discipleship

ImageIn my last blog post I tried to think about Sundays.  What is Sunday about?  I mean, we gather week-in-and-week-out for an hour to sing, to listen, to pray.  Why?

Now obviously, we gather to worship God.  But what we do on Sunday mornings to worship God isn’t the only way we could worship. 

We could hold hands, share our week with one another and pass the offering plate.  Or, we could gather with a cup of coffee, light a prayer candle and sing a song to of worship.  We could even sit in silence, share communion and go out and serve the poor.  There are lots of ways we could worship.

As I look at the three options I have listed, I could imagine what kind of community, faith and church they might generate.  And while we don’t often think this way, I believe the same idea applies to what we usually do on Sunday in a mainline UMC gathering. And as I look at what local churches are like, I believe that Sundays in our mainline UMC are about introducing us and connect us to Jesus and his people.

Connecting in this way gives us a touchstone for our faith and that is important. So no matter what our week is like, Sunday we can drive to the church building, connect with others who are trying to live a Christian life, and spend time connecting with God through learning/praying/sharing the sacraments/fellowshipping.  This is good.

But we usually stop here. 

We put all our time, energy and financial resources on Sunday.  It is all about Sunday.  And I don’t think it is working.

Working? By ‘working’ I mean I don’t think Sunday is enabling us to live out our mission, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

As a local church pastor I was very conscious of this.  I spent hours on my sermon, the order of worship, the worship space.  I wanted people to connect to God and one another and making the space for that to happen takes lots of time and energy.

But what I realized was Sunday worship wasn’t making disciples who made disciples.  It wasn’t growing leaders who could articulate their faith and bring new people to God and move the mission of God more fully into the world.

In my most snarky days, I wondered if Sunday was really just the weekly gathering of consumers & complainers who saw the church as a cosmic vending machine of religious goods and services.

(And when I am honest, I recognize how I too have been in the line for this same cosmic vending machine. It is hard not to be.)

But back to Sunday: if Sunday is our entry point into the Christian life and our touchstone each week, what is it that take us into the deeper waters of the faith or bring us into the presence of our angels and demons so they might wrestle? What will help us grow us into mature Christians? What will enable us to be disciples who make disciples and live into the kingdom of God begun in Jesus?

Sunday morning worship cannot do that.  It was never meant to.

But we keep trying to make it.  I see the stress many clergy live under as they try. 

An article in Stresshacker speaks of the growing problem of clergy stress and burnout.  Clergy obesity is higher than the national average, the use of antidepressants is up and life expectance for clergy is down.  The article lifts up issues such as growing dissatisfaction among the clergy as there are fewer and fewer resources to do a growing job.

The issues here are complex, I know, but I think many of us know that clergy are in trouble.  I see it in the eyes of my brothers and sisters in ministry, I hear it in their voices.

Our churches are struggling because we have an issue with discipleship and church as we currently do it isn’t going to fix it.

And when I talk about discipleship, I am not just talking about a discipleship issue with the consumers and complainers.  I think many good people and pastors need help to grow & communicate their faith so that they might more fully take their place in what God desires to do in the world.

How do we move forward? For those in the United Methodist camp, all we need do is remember our history….

Methodism was originally not a Sunday morning worship gathering but a movement.  Methodism came into being to provide a place for disciples to be made and for people to not only learn but to live their faith.

Methodism was organized into Societies, Classes and Bands.

Societies were the largest of the groups – made up of groups of Classes they had a formal teaching time where theology was learned.

Classes were the basic form of Christianity, which for Wesley meant one did not attend a Society gathering unless one was in a Class. Their basic function was discipleship.  In fact John Wesley refused to preach in communities unless Classes were already set up to work with people in their discipleship.

Wesley writes that Classes began to “bear one another’s burdens,” and naturally to “care for each other.”  And “speaking the truth in love, they grew up into Him in all things, who is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplied, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, increased unto the edifying itself in love.”  Classes where about making disciples.

Bands were the smallest of the groups who (to quote Wesley) were for those who “wanted some means of closer union; they wanted to pour out their hearts without reserve, particularly with regard to the sin which did still easily beset them and the temptations which were most apt to prevail over them.”   Bands helped people deal with more serious issues, offered significant support and developed leaders.

Wesley’s original design was that these were not in competition with local churches but partners with them.  As it was all about the mission of God, anyone was welcomed as a partner in growing the kingdom.

People recognized that the local church pastor and staff could not do it all and that they needed partners who helped make disciples who made disciples.

So what keeps pulling at me is: what if we did this today?  What if we had Classes and Bands today?  Not in the exact same way as Wesley did–certainly the world is different–but what if we did this in a contemporary way?

In this new time, this is one of the two big things that captures my imagination—how to partner with local churches who have folks (as Taylor- Burton says) with “bright-eyes.”  These are people who have this interest of going deeper—maybe they are new to the church, are in need of a ‘tune-up’ or are returning after being away for a while, but they are searching for more than Sunday—they are hungry.  What if we started here?

I’d like to explore what contemporary Classes and Bands would look like in a Southern California context.  Not a reworking of Covenant Discipleship groups which felt dated when I was part of one 20 years ago, but a current casting of making disciples.

This would need to start small, need time and space to try things out, time to risk (and fail) and above all, we’d need to be willing to see where God would take this (as this is his)–

I thought before I tried this, I should be in this kind of group myself.  So in September 2011, I signed up for a Huddle through 3DM and have been working with a group of people weekly with Ben Sternke leading.  This has been so valuable in helping me grow in my own faith and also in my ability to give leadership to a more local Discipleship Huddle.

 I sent some of my friends to Ben/3dm and some have gone but most haven’t had the funds or the understanding. I knew we needed something more UMC and local church, so this is where I began. Last January I took a six-month church appointment alongside my work with staring house churches and tried it out.  We called it a Discipleship Huddle and over 6 months had three huddles.

What did we do?  Well, over 8 weeks we learned some tools that would enable anybody to uncover God’s hand in their lives.  We shared what God was showing us with one another so we could change and grow. We held each other lovingly accountable.  We explored how Jesus discipled people.  We looked at how we live a holistic Christian life.  We talked about how to use these tools in our daily lives and help others use them too. We set up a prayer practice and a plan to read scripture.  We laughed and found we were better together.

I found 8 weeks wasn’t enough to do it all so I added a second 8-week session. I believe after 16 weeks a couple people from the Huddle would take over leadership for on-going accountability.  Those who are leading these groups (and others who were doing some kind of leadership) would have access to a weekly Leadership Huddle phone call for further development.

 Is this what is needed?  I am not sure.  But I see some early signs of hope.  And I am committed to giving significant time and energy to it. In addition to leading huddles myself, I have also trained another pastor to begin one in his congregation and hope to train others.

 The next Huddle begins Jan 20 at Hope UMC.  Check out more.