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Conference committee seeks to define ‘disciple’

Conference committee seeks to define ‘disciple’

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference committee seeks to define ‘disciple’

By Erik J. Alsgaard | March 12, 2009 {0983}

NOTE: A headshot of the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins is available at

LAKELAND, Fla. — If the mission of a local United Methodist church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, how do its members know when they’ve made one?

It’s a question being asked in many circles of The United Methodist Church. And while it may be an easy question to ask, it’s not necessarily easy to answer, as members of the Florida Conference Congregational Transformation team discovered during discussion of the question at a committee meeting last month.

Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins

Led by the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Florida Conference Office of Congregational Transformation, district representatives, local church pastors and laity wrestled for more than 90 minutes with how to define what it means to be a disciple. It’s a conversation that is just beginning.

“There are numerous biblical passages that speak about being a mature disciple of Jesus Christ,” Stiggins said. “Doesn’t it make sense that we have some clarity about our target?”

Stiggins explained how the new United Methodist membership ritual helps define what a disciple looks like, while at the same time aligning with the five practices of The Methodist Way.

“The 2008 General Conference added the word ‘witness’ to the vows,” Stiggins said, “so that we now ask new members, ‘Will you faithfully participate in (the congregations’) ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness?’ ”

The “witness” pledge, he said, is seen in the radical hospitality piece of The Methodist Way, while “presence” is found in passionate worship, “prayers” in intentional discipling, “service” in salty service and “gifts” in extravagant generosity.

Stiggins posed several questions to the group. If a person practices all five elements, does that mean he or she is a disciple of Jesus Christ and working for the transformation of the world, he asked, and as congregational leaders work on improving the five discipling practices, what changes in people’s lives will indicate a congregation is fulfilling Christ’s disciple-making mission?

Committee members spent time trying to develop a one-sentence definition of “disciple.” Dividing into four groups, they sought to find some common ground among the definitions they wrote. They said a disciple is:

•  A transformed person on a lifelong journey who reflects the teachings,
    actions and sacrifice of  Jesus with the purpose of sharing him with the

•  One who has entered into a lifelong journey with Jesus Christ to
    become transformed into the likeness of Christ.

•  One who follows Jesus as Lord and Savior … changes heart and minds (in
    the world) … does what Jesus does … learns how and does it.

•  One who loves God, loves others and shares that love with others.

Stiggins said committee members will discuss the question further and work to refine the definition before sharing it with others, including groups within the annual conference. Denominations outside The United Methodist Church are also working on this same question, he said.

“The audience for our statement will be leaders of churches in Florida who are thinking through whether or not their ministries are leading people to become disciples of Jesus Christ,” Stiggins said. “Defining what a disciple is is very complex. The five elements of The Methodist Way point us in the direction of what a disciple is, but they don’t say all that needs to be said.”

Committee members learned more about how the Florida Conference is helping congregations measure their disciple-making through the new Missional Vital Signs data reporting Web site. Each month, every Florida Conference church reports data on the passionate worship, radical hospitality and extravagant generosity practices of The Methodist Way. By summer, the remaining two practices will be added. An easy-to-use online graph shows church leaders a barometer of a church’s health.

The new information churches supply will be added to data collected during the past 10 years.

“It’s not perfect, and it’s not everything about measuring a church’s health in making disciples, but it is a huge step in the right direction,” Stiggins said.

Other business

Stiggins and committee members expressed their appreciation of the Rev. Liana Perez-Felix, director of Hispanic congregational transformation, for her work with the conference during the past two years. Perez-Felix will be retiring this summer.

Stiggins noted that, as with any transition, a re-thinking of the position will take place.

Members also learned the Rev. Harold Lewis, a pastor from the Baltimore-Washington Conference, will join the conference staff, working with both the congregational transformation and new church development offices and the conference’s African-American churches. Lewis is expected to be on board in early May.

Two “Intentional Discipling” workshops have been scheduled this year, according to the Rev. Dr. Phil Maynard, director of congregational transformation.

The first workshop will be two separate, one-day events May 15 and 16 with Eric Geiger, the author of “Simple Church.” Locations and times have yet to be determined.

The second workshop, held Sept. 11 and 12, will also be two separate, one-day events with United Methodist pastors the Revs. Claudia Levy and Dan Glover, author of “Deepening Your Effectiveness.” Locations and times will be announced.

More information about the Missional Vital Signs Web site is available at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.