It seems like the most obvious mission for a church: Steer people to God.
But Rachel Burns, lay person at Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, realized a few years ago that the route to that destination isn’t always so obvious. She said she was involved in strategic planning in 2004 when she and other participants agreed the church needed to focus more on helping members become better disciples, not just better church members.
“We decided we needed to change course,” Burns recalled. “We realized we hadn’t figured out the problem of interaction between a member and church and God. We needed to help members get their relationships with God right.”
“We were operating on the notion that if people attended church and took a Disciple Bible Study Class that they would ‘get it,’’’ she added. “But one of the ‘aha’ moments came when we realized that everybody is not at the same place at the same time.”
Drawing on the time-honored Wesleyan philosophy of God’s drawing people to him, members realized that Hyde Park needed to provide opportunities and tools to equip people for getting there, while also counting on God’s grace to see them through. The result? A Disciple’s Path, a six-week course of study published in January 2012 and now in use by more than 1,200 congregations in 45 states, according to Neil Alexander, president and publisher of United Methodist Publishing House.
Authored by Hyde Park UMC senior pastor James A. Harnish and the church’s director of Discipleship Ministries, Justin James LaRosa, along with key lay people such as Burns, the study is helpful as an introduction for new members or a renewal course for existing members. The study “meets them where they are,” Burns said.
Seven essential spiritual disciplines are identified through daily readings: prayer, scripture meditation, corporate worship, small-group community, financial generosity, gifts-based service and invitational evangelism. Each day’s reading includes a scripture, a message for the day, questions, prompts for personal reflection with space provided for writing responses, and prayer. A special introductory section includes material on the history, beliefs and structure of the church and answers to frequently asked questions.
Study participants are then encouraged to put the lessons into everyday practice.
When Hyde Park began crafting this approach, it was an evolutionary process, said Burns, who was so much a part of that process that Harnish dedicated the book to her. Her work on the 104 versions, making changes and revisions, paid off. The church tried a “soft launch” at Hyde Park by using the program and “living into it,” as Burns put it.
No attempts to quantify the results of using the program have been made, and likely aren’t possible; but, the success of this approach shows clearly.
“Attendance is up, giving is up and more people are involved in doing more things,” Burns said.
“Discipleship is about following Jesus and about becoming like Jesus because we practice disciplines that transform us into people who love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and who love others the way we have been loved by God,” Harnish said.
“As a result of those disciplines, we become a part of God’s transformation of the world.”
Said LaRosa: “This is not a program for us; it is a way of being. We are trying to help people grow in their love for God and others through spiritual practices. What is included in A Disciple’s Path has been around as long as John Wesley.”
And Hyde Park is not the only church that has used the study to grow spiritually. Others range in size and local settings. Thanks to the flexibility of the guide, churches of all kinds can make it their own. Harnish plans to work with clergy and educators in a variety of ways to introduce the guide, including workshops in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina and Michigan. He and LaRosa are conducting pre-conference workshops in Lakeland on July 13.
One local pastor, John Griswold of First UMC in Jupiter, thanked the publishing house for the program, saying, “We can’t say where all this is leading, but people are engaged, involved, and hopeful in serious numbers. Your work has touched the healthiest nerve we’ve discovered here in many years.”
Alexander is confident that A Disciple’s Path will be “an invaluable source” for thousands of congregations.
“Church leaders are looking for effective ways to help people new to the faith and new to their churches move deeper into relationship with Jesus Christ and move outward to bear witness to the Gospel in their communities and the world,” he said.
Harnish said the core of A Disciple’s Path is not about kingdom changing or changing churches. “The real question is not whether it will change the kingdom but whether we will allow the kingdom of God to change us.”
Copies of the book are available at www.cokesbury.com.