As most of you know, this spring and summer I was a delegate to two denominational conferences—our United Methodist General Conference, a worldwide gathering in Tampa, and the Western Jurisdiction Conference which took place in San Diego (I know, two terrible places to go for conferences, right?).
While at these conferences, delegates heard disturbing news about the United Methodist Church. Here are some of the numbers:
- Over the last five years, membership in the UMC in the United States has declined 5.3% (424,000 members)
- Worship attendance has declined by 8.7% over the last five years (291,600 less on an average Sunday than five years ago)
- Baptisms and confirmations of children and youth have declined by 21% over the same period.
- Only 15% of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. are considered to be "highly vital," a designation which is marked by:
- Effective pastoral leadership
- Multiple small groups and programs for adults, children, and youth
- Worship that connects across generations
- A high percentage of spiritually engaged laity in leadership
The vast majority (85%) of United Methodist congregations in the U.S. do not meet these criteria for vitality.
The upshot of all this, according to the report, is that in 25 years our denomination will no longer have children and youth in our churches, and in 50 years we will no longer exist if the current trends are not reversed.
That’s some pretty sobering news for the UMC. The General Conferences response to that was to do, well, nothing. Two weeks and $1500 a minute of discussion led to know significant changes or initiatives for changing the church’s focus. The denomination’s logo was plastered over everything from banners to mugs to t-shirts: “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But it’s pretty clear that we’ve forgotten how to do that.
I’m pleased to report that our congregation is part of the 15% (some may debate the pastoral leadership part, however). Our average attendance has grown by 20% in the last year. We confirmed 20 youth this spring, and our membership is over 600. Those are good signs that we are bucking the trend. But even with those good numbers, I really believe that congregational “vitality” is less about the numbers than it is about the outcomes.
A few years ago I attended a conference at Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area – one of the biggest churches in the country. They have 21,000 in average attendance each week (we would be a Sunday School class!). By all the metrics they would seem to be wildly successful. A couple of years ago, though, the church’s leadership began to wonder whether their large numbers of people were actually having their lives changed, growing deeper in their relationship with Christ and their love and service toward others.
They engaged in an internal self-study called Reveal which showed that even though large numbers of people attended the church, few reported a significant change in their spiritual attitudes (love for God and others) and spiritual behaviors (evangelism, tithing, etc.).
What they discovered, however, is that there is really a spiritual continuum along which people tend to move, and the deeper one grows in relationship to Christ the more their attitudes and behaviors change to reflect Christ. That makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: no one moves along that continuum unless they are invited to do so, and no one moves along that continuum unless there is a disciplined process to help them get there one step at a time.
The bottom line? Disciples of Jesus aren’t formed by accident or osmosis. You can’t be formed into a disciple of Jesus in just one hour a week, no matter how dynamic the worship service is (and Willow Creek has smoke, lights, and escalators!). Disciples get made because the church makes disciple-making its number one priority. The more disciples that get made, the more the church reflects Christ, and the more the church reflects Christ, the more impact it will have for Christ’s kingdom in their communities.
The irony is that Methodism was born as a disciple-making reform movement in the larger Anglican church, which was dealing with the same complacency and decline that we see in our own denomination. John and Charles Wesley developed and employed an intentional method for making disciples in small groups where people could receive instruction, support, and encouragement for moving deeper in their love for God and their commitment to the way of Christ.
It’s clear, though, that Methodism has lost this way and the only solution to revival is to recapture a laser-like focus on making disciples—disciples who are following, living, and teaching the Jesus way. And, you know, I think Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church can be a catalyst at the forefront of that revival. Over the next several weeks I am going to show you how I think that can happen—a vision that God is laying on my heart and the hearts of others to get back to our core mission of making disciples!
To begin, then, I think it’s important that we establish a framework for understanding what a disciple of Jesus is all about. Jesus established the process when he called his own disciples, gathering them around himself for three years, teaching them, challenging them, encouraging them, correcting them, and demonstrating to them how the power of God would come from God through Jesus to them and then from them to others.
Jesus was and is the Word of God made flesh, as John tells us in chapter 1, and through him we learn what it means to be fully human and fully in relationship with God. Through him we also learn what it means to be a disciple and carry out the mission of God in the world. Through him we learn what God is like and how we might become more like him. Genesis 1, the first book of the Bible, tells us how we were made in the image of God. We tarnished that image through sin. Jesus shows us how we can reclaim that image again and reflect God’s glory to the world.
Jesus invited those first disciples into his life with the simple invitation, “Follow me.” I think it’s interesting that they dropped their nets or got up from the tax collector’s table to follow him without asking at that point, “Where are you going?” It was an invitation to be a disciple who is “on the way” somewhere—to be on a journey.
The whole biblical narrative is a traveling story. God calls Abraham to go on a journey from his homeland to a distant place where God’s promise awaits him. Moses is called to lead his people on a journey from slavery to promise. Israel travels in exile to Babylon, far from home, where God teaches them a new way of living. The Bible is always inviting people to be “on the way” and in Jewish wisdom tradition, the “way” or “path” is the lifestyle of the person who lives under God’s wisdom. Proverbs 2:6-9, for example, talks God’s wisdom “guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones” who will “understand righteousness, justice, and equity, every good path.” Our Old Testament lesson today from Jeremiah taps into this tradition, where true “rest” for the soul is only found by walking on the “ancient path,” the “good way.” To be with God is to be “on the way.”
Of course, there is also another “way.” Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death.” God’s way is always contrasted with our way in Scripture. It’s right there in our Old Testament lesson, too, where Jeremiah calls the people to take the good way, God’s way, the ancient path, but the people say, “We will not walk in it.” A key biblical question is always this: Which way will you walk? God’s way or my way?
During my morning devotions I have been reading a wonderful little book by the 20th century missionary E. Stanley Jones, and one of his statements really grabbed me one day on vacation. He wrote,
“All of life becomes a choice between the Way and not-the-way. That applies to individuals and nations—the smallest and the largest. There are no exceptions anywhere.” The way of God vs. our way, which is not-the-way. Indeed, says Jones, God’s way is the way we were made to walk in the beginning. “The Christian way is the natural way—the way we were made to live,” he says. “Sin is unnatural. Yes, it is the customary but not the natural. If it were, we would bloom under it. Do we? On the contrary, sin is sand in the machinery.”
One of the major problems in our churches is that we’ve comprised the Way with not-the-way. Our churches have bought into the consumerism of the culture, the sexual ethics of the culture. Christians have merged the Jesus way with the Republican way or the Democratic way to the point that the Jesus way often has no correlation to the way outlined in Scripture. It’s no wonder our denomination is in trouble. We’re not on the way.
Jesus leads his disciples on a very specific way that is natural to him and invites them to see it as natural for them, too. He lives it right in front of them, but now, as he departs, they wonder how they will be able to continue to live that way, God’s way. Jesus does not mince his words. There is his way and not-the-way.
That’s when Jesus gives us this famous sentence in John 14:6. “How do we know the way?” Thomas asks. He is asking about geography. Jesus says, “I am the way, and [I] am the truth, and [I] am the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is talking about the way of being, the way of God. I am the way to God the Father’s way, I am the way to God’s truth, I am the way to God’s life. If you know me, you will know him. If you follow my way, you will be following his way.
To be a disciple is to be one on the way to the Father through Jesus. Too often Christians have assumed that what Jesus is saying here is about the way to heaven, but the context reveals that it’s much deeper than that. Jesus is revealing to them the way to the very heart of God, a relationship with God that is life-giving to them and, through them, life-giving to others not just in the future, but in the present. You want to know God, to see God, to do the work of God? You must follow the Jesus way. There is no other.
It’s interesting, though, that Jesus doesn’t just say that he is the “way;” he is also the “truth” and the “life.” Len Sweet argues that what Jesus is doing here is giving his disciples a natural progression for continuing on the way: first, belonging (the way), then believing (the truth) and then behaving (the life). This is reflected in the life of Jesus’ first disciples gathered around that table. First, they were invited by Jesus to belong to his traveling entourage, then Jesus taught them the truth about himself and about God’s kingdom, then he sent them out to live his life until his return, being his Body for the world.
Notice that this is a process, a continuum, an intentional movement for making disciples!
Eugene Peterson explains it this way: “The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.” Belief in the Person of Jesus is always tied to acting in the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus without the person of Jesus quickly becomes one philosophy among many, while the person of Jesus without the way of Jesus turns him merely into a religious icon. And yet, this division is what’s happening in the Church today. We have lost the way and the truth that leads to life.
John Wesley would have been appalled at this. His expressed his greatest fear for the church:
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Wesley’s fear has become realized. It’s going to take a revival to change that.
Wesley was the one who called the early Methodists to live what he called a “practical divinity”—a marriage of piety and compassion, word and service, belief in Jesus with the works of Jesus. Ken Collins, a Wesley scholar, says that Wesley had a “conjunctive theology” that was more both/and than either/or. It’s the same theology of Jesus who never separated faith from action.
My friends, if we want to know the heart of God, if we want to do anything for his kingdom, this is what we need to recapture—to be on the way of discipleship, the way of Christ. We’ll talk a little bit next week about how Wesley did this and how we will be working at it here at TLUMC. The future of our church lies in the DNA of our past—not just our Wesleyan past, but in the very framework Jesus gave his disciples around the table. We’ll talk about that some more next week as we look at the Methodist way of making disciples.
For now, though, the question I want you to be thinking about over the next few weeks is this: Are you on the Jesus way? Are you learning the Jesus truth? Are you living the Jesus life? What drives the rhythm of your life?
We’re going to be giving you some opportunities to reflect on this over the next several weeks. This week you’ll receive a mailing outlining our fall campaign, which is designed to help you take steps on the way to faithful discipleship. The six markers of prayer, Bible reading, worship, witnessing, financial giving, and service aren’t the ends of discipleship, but they are some of the means. When we take Jesus’ invitation to follow seriously, these are the ways we take the steps. I urge you to look that over this week and think about the next steps that Jesus is calling you to take in your life.
This Saturday, Joe and I will be sharing some detail about a vision for TLUMC to become a focused, disciple-making church in the Wesleyan tradition. Want to show you the way that we think Jesus is calling us to be on the way. We’ll meet from 8:00 to noon, maybe not that long, but we want to give you a chance to hear and respond. At least come for breakfast served by UMM! We have a chance to be part of a fresh a movement of God and I hope you are excited about what God is up to here. I’ll also be sharing some of this next Sunday if you’re unable to make it on Saturday.
You know, the name of the first Christian church in the book of Acts was called, “The Way.” That may not be our name, but may it be our passion as Christ’s church here at Tri-Lakes. Let us be a church on the way!