In a book I am reading for one of my classes this semester, Inventing the “Great Awakening” by Frank Lambert I came across the following quotation:
“Beginning with a few Oxford students, Wesley embarked on a lifetime task of organizing Christians from the bottom up, banding small groups of Christians together in religious societies for the purpose of deepening their faith and then putting it into action through charities and evangelism” (85)
This sentence has stuck with me. I have not often thought about the pastor’s task being one of bottom up organization. But it seems to make quite a bit of sense. This also seems to be a way of agreeing with people who argue that it is too late for the UMC as an institution to return to Wesleyan practices, such as an equivalent of the class meeting. Lambert has given me an image that helps me to think about restoring an authentically Wesleyan approach to discipleship in the local church, and it is beautifully straightforward! If Lambert is right, one of the key roles of Wesleyan preachers and lay leaders was organizing Christians in small groups “for the purpose of deepening their faith and then putting it into action.”
In a sense, the beauty of early Methodism was that the weight of the institution was behind this. In other words, paradoxically, the idea to organize for the purpose of deepening faith that would lead to action came from the top down. The powers that be commanded a bottom down approach to discipleship!
Today the situation has changed. We live in a time of increasing bureaucratization of the UMC, and the institution does not demand this bottom up approach to discipleship. Yet, while the full weight of the institution may not be behind the necessity of small group formation, it is also not actively forbidding or hindering it. This means that every pastor or active lay person who wants to return to the riches of our Wesleyan heritage does not have to wait on the powers that be to give the green light. It also means that we should not use the behemoth that is the institutional UMC as an excuse for failing to organize Christians wherever we find ourselves in order to better position them to be transformed by the grace of God and practice their faith.
In other words, Lambert’s image of bottom up discipleship is a hopeful one for me, because it suggests that the only thing keeping people at the local church level from experiencing the blessing of “watching over one another in love” is a failure of people at the level of the local church to do it. And while that is not an insignificant obstacle, it certainly seems to be a far smaller one than trying to change everything that is wrong with the UMC – broadly speaking – before actually turning our attention to the people that are coming to our churches, seeking to live faithfully and experience the fullness of life in Christ.
What do you think? Is the idea of a bottom up approach to discipleship promising for the contemporary UMC?
Dan J Frisby said:
If the ‘CHURCH’ is understood to be ‘those called out’ to serve the will of God,as Jesus invited his disciples, it would seem that each age,ancient or contemporary, would find ways to reflect that experience and project that dynamic to serve the needs of humans.
When the ‘CHURCH’ understands itself to be an organization to serve other purposes it will encourage and exploit its influence to fulfill more materialistic and terrestrial agendas. When a church seeks to serve an individual or group it has denied its very definition and has destroyed its very foundation of ‘faith’ and ‘grace’.
The ONE who started the ‘CHURCH’ affirmed and confirmed that he had come ‘to minister’ and not be ‘ministered unto’.
The true understanding of ‘CHURCH’ is defined by ‘their fruits’ and their ‘love for one another’.
Matt Judkins said:
I think you’ve got this one right Kevin. It is encouraging to see a sign of hope and life that doesn’t involve shifting the entire bureaucracy, which is likely impossible if you face it head-on.
Kevin Watson said:
Matt, Good to hear from you, and thanks for your thoughts.
Incidentally, your comment reminded me of the lectionary reading for this week… with humans this is impossible. But with God all things are possible.
Kevin, in one sense I believe you’re right – the institution doesn’t exactly hinder creation of small groups directly, but I wonder about indirectly. If the pastor feels this is her mission, how much time can she give to it if there are many requirements from the institution that need to be fulfilled that take time away?
I am only slightly exaggerating about the situation over in England when I say there is a feeling that at 16 one ‘graduates from Sunday school’ and one’s Christian education is finished. With that gap, it takes a lot of work for the minister to get people to understand this idea. I would say the biggest hindrance to me is the inability to continually preach this without being at the same church week after week.
I fully realise I may be justifying myself for my own faults and trying to over-blame the institution!
I have been considering the best way for a congregation to become more receptive to the Spirit. A primary obstacle seems to be the lack of a forum to wrestle with what it means to be followers of Jesus as a community. If the church leaders…admin board, council on ministries, church council or whomever….. try to dramatically change the “seriousness” level of the congregation to the deeply committed state it is almost impossible to get buy in from the congregation as a whole. The small groups seem to be the key to allowing the Spirit to lead and us to follow. This approach allows each group to wrestle and grow at their own rate. I feel it would also go a long way toward overcoming the institutional inertia that makes it difficult for us to be responsive to the Spirit. Do you think any pastor would be bold enough to require each member to be an active participant in a small group? I remember one who did and it worked well. Let us bring back the class meeting as a requirement for society membership. I know this is subversive, but it is not as subversive as Jesus or the Bible so I will take a chance.
to struggle in awareness,
Kevin Watson said:
Will – Thank you for raising these issues. I had your point about indirect hindrances on my mind as I wrote this post. There are many things that we are required to do by the institution that take time, and as a result take away time from other things that we might like to do.
I also had not thought about the difficulties that are involved with itinerating (and thus not preaching in every church every week, which you are doing as I understand. Once the culture has been changed such that something like the class meeting is no longer seen as constitutive of what it means to be a Methodist, it does seem like an uphill battle to turn the culture around.
An off the cuff thought to how I might approach this is to try in a preaching or teaching setting to introduce people to the distinctives of Methodism and then send out a “feeler” to see if anyone is interested in something like this. If there are folks who are interested, just start with them and go from there.
Thanks for your thoughts and for giving me a chance to think about this more.
Bart – Thanks for your thoughts, and for the reminder that early Methodism had high expectations of its members… and that was not a hindrance to their growth, but seems to have played an important part in it.