We are better disciples together than we are alone, according to the Wesley’s. The spiritual life is very personal, but it is not private. From the beginning, when Jesus called people to himself, he invited them into a community of followers focused on learning together to follow him and to serve others with him. Faith is caught, taught, encouraged, shaped and lived out in relationship with others. That’s why Steve Manskar writes: “People whose only experience with church is Sunday morning worship and the occasional Sunday school class will never be formed as disciples.”1 Why? Because mature faith is formed in the crucible of trusting relationships where people hold one another gently accountable for living as faithful disciples. Is your congregation helping people grow stronger together?
The Methodist movement was from the start a discipling movement aimed not just at helping more people come to saving faith, but also at helping people live out their faith as they grow in both their love of God and their love of neighbor. John Wesley discovered that the best method for helping persons mature as disciples is to get them into safe relationships where they “watch over one another in love.” These faith-growing relationships are characterized by:
· A shared commitment to living as faithful disciples: more than conveying information, discipling relationships are about transformation. The purpose of the discipling relationship is not to learn more about Jesus, but to become more like Jesus.
· Trust enough to be transparent about faith struggles: modeled from the beginning by the more spiritually mature leader, openness about one’s own temptations and shortcomings is essential to spiritual growth. As trust develops over time, persons discover that what they thought was a private sin is often something that others struggle with, as well. God’s grace is embodied in the responses of others who know themselves to be forgiven sinners. Rather than hiding in shame, we are encouraged to step into the light of God’s healing love embodied in our fellow disciples.
· Accountability for obeying Jesus’ teachings: none of us likes being judged for our shortcomings. Accountability in faith-growing relationships, however, is only within an environment of affirmation and a shared commitment to becoming a more mature disciple. The purpose of accountability is not to beat up one another, but to build up one another in Christ. It is like taking a regular compass heading to assure us that we are staying in step on our walk with Christ and to enable us to make course corrections when we are not.
These accountable, faith-growing relationships can be lived out in a variety of ways.
· Spiritual mentor or director: A spiritual mentor is a more spiritually mature person who guides you to grow in your love of God and neighbor. Some persons have received a significant amount of training in coming along side others as spiritual directors. In both these relationships, the focus is on the less spiritually mature person, as Paul focused on Timothy.
· Small discipling groups: John Wesley made popular the class meeting in which persons gather weekly to give account of how they are caring for their relationships with Christ and with others. Class meetings are led by more spiritually mature persons. Members gave account of how they had kept the normal means of grace, like attending worship, praying and reading Scripture. Wesley also insisted that the following questions be asked of every member weekly: What known sins have you committed since our last meeting? What temptations have you met with? How were you delivered? What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not? Have you nothing you desire to keep secret? While the questions today may be different, these historic questions certainly suggest how serious Wesley was about helping people grow spiritually.
As persons matured, Wesley offered gender specific bands and select societies, which involved progressively fewer persons and were like class meetings on steroids. He discovered that as people grew in faith they needed an increasingly intimate and challenging environment in which to continue toward spiritual maturity. The leaders of the Methodist movement were nurtured in these groups.
· Discipleship partners: Another version of accountable, discipling relationships involves two persons holding one another accountable in their walk with Christ in the ways they choose. Over the last six months, I have been involved in such a relationship. We call one another every Wednesday at 8:30 AM. We share with one another how faithful we have been in our daily times of prayer and Scripture reflection and how we have heard God speaking into our life. We share where we have been struggling and how we might pray for one another in the week ahead. This has been extremely helpful in my own spiritual life.
There are many possible ways to structure accountable, discipling relationships. The point is that without them, the chances of us maturing spiritually are slim. John Wesley taught: “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and . . . to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.” (From the sermon, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse the Fourth.”) How are your congregation’s leaders modeling being in accountable, discipling relationships? Are they encouraging others to be involved in them as an essential part of your congregation’s discipling process?
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence