Church Vitality – Are We Making Disciples? – Small Groups

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I’ve been having some conversations on methodistconnexions.com about church vitality.  Most UM pastors are aware of recent studies on “church vitality” which attribute it largely to five areas of the church.  The areas which are factors in vitality are pastoral leadership, lay leadership, vibrant worship, small groups, and children and youth ministries.  

I see all five of those areas as important.  But as I did into the call of the gospel to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World” I think that the importance of “small groups” gets over looked in the wars over worship styles and clergy or lay leadership effectiveness.

John Wesley was a practical theologian and an organizational genius.  Wesley was never a systematic theologian so some of his greatest theological insights often get overlooked by theologians who cannot imagine theology without a grand system.  But I’ve yet to read about any leader of the Church who could envision a means of spreading the gospel and organizing that spread of the gospel better than Mr. Wesley.

Wesley’s organization of the church into “societies, classes, and bands” was really the largest experiment in structuring the church into small groups for study, prayer, worship, and discipleship in the history of the Church.  It was this structure which allowed people to gather with other believers in Christ to share their joys and sorrows, their victories and failures and to ask each Methodist in turn, “how goes it with your soul?”  

These small groups held each other accountable and accomplished much of the task of the Church of making disciples of Jesus Christ rather than just church attenders.  These discipling groups in turn led to the spiritual growth and revival which allowed circuit riders to spread the gospel all over the American countryside leaving little Methodist societies meeting wherever they went.

Later in our history as Methodists we abandoned the classes and bands for the newer latest and greatest idea known as “Sunday School.”  Our societies became churches, our classes and bands became Sunday educational classes, and we lost much of the discipling character of the original Wesleyan genius.  

Now in the 21st century we are finding that Sunday Schools are dying on the vine.  Even large churches have a hard time keeping Sunday School classes going.  But churches that are doing discipling ministries through small groups are feeding the vitality of the church.  People are again sitting in someone’s home and asking their sister or brother in Christ “how goes it with your soul” and it is making a difference in those churches that have established such ministries.  

If churches are to be vital and caring, if they are to be discipling communities who teach people to be more than church attenders, then a strong return of something akin the Wesley’s small group system is a must.  I do not believe you will have a vital congregation without it!

The motto of the UMC is to “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” For that transformation to happen in the world it is going to have to begin in us. It is going to have to begin with us becoming and making disciples.  

5 comments

  1. The problem is it is a motto. Mottos are intended to be sound bites and rather than paragraphs. So it is tough to cover all the bases in a motto.

  2. I think that our present motto of “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World” is inadequate. Only God’s preveniant grace can begin and God’s salvific grace can complete that task.

    I think a better motto would be “Making, Spiritually Supporting, and Maintaining Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” What we do as churches is, for the most part, doing spiritual support of Disciples of Jesus Christ, and helping the maintain their faith when the task seems to be overwhelming.

    What I find most offensive is that the phrase “making Disciples of Jesus Christ…” has devolved into “How many Professions of Faith did you have this year?” There is far more involved in making, spiritually supporting, and maintaining Disciples than adding to our Professing Membership rolls.

  3. James, thanks for stopping by! Can you say more about what you mean by a “present salvation.” For Wesleyan Christians the goal isn’t just “getting saved” it is growing in God’s grace towards sanctification. I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with the report on vital congregations. But I do think interpreting data is important. You have to drill down into the report to read all the results and some people just read the summary and miss a lot. When they don’t read the whole report they miss opportunities to promote discipleship in their church.

  4. Excellent post. I’m afraid that the “vital congregations” dog and pony show is simply a capitulation to a culture that is not comfortable with or simply not interested in vital religion that emphasizes a present salvation and the need to press on in our relationship with Jesus.

  5. Well Said! Vitality and small groups go hand in hand. Some our fastest growing churches STARTED OUT as small groups. In St.Louis, there is a several-thousand strong rapidly growing church that is actually housing itself (and it’s various campuses) in old closed church buildings, some that had just a dozen or so attending a few years ago; now have thousands in the SAME LOCATION.

    It started as a disciple group in the home of the current Senior Pastor (who was a Pastor of a small church elsewhere at the time); and grew into a rapidly swelling new church start.

    There’s a reason the very first churches met in peoples homes, the early church leaders met in the homes of new converts (sometimes even living with them for a few weeks!)

    We’re in a fast food society. We want our church like everything else. Quick, easy, and cheap. We evangelize to people like we microwave a baked potato. Spend a couple minutes on it, set-and-forget. But the reality is, discipleship is a lifelong process that we are meant to work at and for. Small groups, I think, help make that happen.

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