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Leaders consider difference between member, disciple

Leaders consider difference between member, disciple

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Leaders consider difference between member, disciple

By J.A. Buchholz | July 21, 2010 {1199}

LAKELAND — Are conference churches making disciples or members?

Conference leaders asked laity and clergy to consider that question and its implications for ministry during a report of the Center for Congregational Excellence at the 2010 Florida Annual Conference Event.

The annual session convened in June at the Lakeland Center under the theme “Transforming the World by Eradicating Extreme Poverty.”

Laity and clergy members discuss the definition of a church member versus a disciple. Photo by Dave Summerill. Photo #10-1514. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Citing a study by George Barna that concluded there is no observable difference between how American Christians and non-Christians live, either in terms of how they spend their money or time, the Rev. Vance Raines said conference and church leaders should be asking whether they are making disciples or members.

That difference — between authentic Christians and people who attend church — can be seen on college campuses, said Rains, who serves as director of the conference’s Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry and pastor at the Florida State University Wesley Foundation in Tallahassee.

“They are very nice,” Rains says of the young people he meets on college campuses who grew up in conference churches. “You would like them very much, but for the most part they don’t have a clue about the Bible. For the most part they don’t have a clue about Methodist theology. They have no idea about spiritual discipline.”

As to the argument that all young people are like that, Rains says that’s not true.

“The Baptists on campus know how to get their friends saved. The Pentecostals on campus know how to exercise spiritual gifts. The Catholics on campus know the importance of the sacrament. The Methodists are so nice,” Rains said. “But nice doesn’t transform the world. Nice won’t eradicate extreme poverty.”

These young adults are hungry to know and understand God, Rains said, but they have a low tolerance for boring.

“It’s not what we’re doing, but how we’re doing it,” he said.

What a disciple looks like

A person doesn’t automatically become a disciple after joining a church.

Instead, said the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, director of the conference’s black congregational excellence ministry, members must actively participate in the Christian lifestyle.

That means a life of worship, as defined in John 4:23, and a life of hospitality, found in John 13:34-35. It also means living a life grounded in scripture — Matthew 5 — and leading a life conformed to Christ — Matthew 28:19.

A true disciple is someone who is modeling the character and life of Jesus Christ.”

— Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis

A true disciple, Lewis said, is someone who is modeling the character and life of Jesus Christ — leading a life of service and generosity.

That generosity, he added, can only be cultivated by serving others, not by being served.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Center for Congregational Excellence, said members may know the attributes of a disciple, but don’t practice them.

Churches can provide that opportunity for growth, he said, by embracing The Methodist Way — five practices of fruitful congregations that embody the Wesleyan model of disciple-making. They include passionate worship, intentional discipling, extravagant generosity, radical hospitality and salty service.

By ensuring those practices are in place, Stiggins said, churches can make disciples of Jesus Christ.

The path to discipleship

Becoming a disciple takes place in phases and starts even before a person enters a church, said the Rev. Dr. Phil Maynard, director of congregational excellence.

The first step, he told the group, begins with a search for meaning in life. People in this phase may not know exactly what they are seeking, but they know something is missing.

Next is a time of exploration, when people begin participating in worship services to see if members are living out what they say they believe. The third phase is a new life in Christ, as described in Matthew 7:24, followed by a deepening of that relationship, in Ephesians 4:14. In this last phase, Maynard said, disciples are seeing and responding to people as Jesus would.

With the title “A Disciple is a Follower of Jesus Christ for Life,” members consider a handout describing the phases of growth as a disciple. Photo by Dave Summerill. Photo #10-1515. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

It’s a process that takes people out of their comfort zones, said the Rev. Emily Oliver, assistant director of the Florida Conference Center for Clergy Excellence.

During the exploration phase, she said, people aren’t sure what they’re going to find at church. They are asking, “Am I dressed appropriately, will people talk to me and be friendly, where will I sit?” 

In this phase, Oliver said, church members should make a concerted effort to notice what explorers see so they know how to make them feel welcome.

The phase is also important, she said, because it is the time for building a strong foundation for their faith.

It is not a time, she said, for members to see newcomers as potential way to boost Sunday school attendance or another pair of hands for an area of ministry. Instead, Oliver said, the objective is for members to see what they can do to help new members build that solid foundation.

Grace in discipleship

The responsibility of growing as a disciple is up to the individual, the church and the Holy Spirit, said the Rev. Jack Jackson, pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Lakeland.

But there’s a whole lot of grace involved, too, he said.

“God’s grace, God’s love, it works all the time, whether you want it or not,” Jackson said. “God’s love is pouring into the world, but we will experience it differently.”

Prevenient grace is available to everyone, without asking for it, Jackson said. Even before people acknowledge God or say yes to God, it is at work. Justifying grace, on the other hand, is God’s grace making people right before God.

God’s grace, God’s love, it works all the time, whether you want it or not.”

— Rev. Jack Jackson

But stopping there is like missing the boat, Jackson said. There’s also sanctifying grace, a state of Christian perfection, with love for God and neighbor.

Jackson said churches must provide opportunities for disciples to experience all three.

To do that, Jackson said, pastors must go where the people are, just as the early Methodists went into the fields and to class and society meetings.

“If you didn’t go to the meetings, people were kicked out, even if you tithed,” Jackson said. “You had to follow the method to be a Methodist.”

That also applied to preachers, he added, who were told to leave the church if they did not visit their flock.

Only by talking with someone one-on-one, Jackson said, can a pastor determine the spiritual health of a person. At the same time, he said, churches must provide opportunities for disciples to experience God’s love throughout their lifetimes. It is only then that they can experience grace in their lives.

Disciple-making in action

A panel of conference clergy and members facilitated by Maynard shared what their churches are doing to help members mature as disciples and reach out into their communities.

The Rev. Joreatha Capers, pastor at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami, said her church had to overcome a number of obstacles before they could make a positive impact on members and the community. The church was afraid both of the unknown and rejection.

Jessica Neely (right), a member at Grace United Methodist Church in Ft. Myers, tells Florida Conference laity and clergy that her church “egged” neighbors in the community surrounding the church. It was part of an Easter outreach in which the church delivered eggs filled with candy as a way of inviting residents to church. Also pictured is the Rev. Joretha Capers, pastor at Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Miami. Photo by Dave Summerill. Photo #10-1516. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

The key to tackling those issues, Capers said, was taking advantage of conference training and resources. The church participated in a Celebrate Jesus mission and started a prison ministry. Members also looked inward to discern who they were at the core. They remembered they weren’t always “saved,” she said, and could talk from that perspective with non-members about what Jesus did to get their attention.

Jessica Neely, a member at Grace United Methodist Church in Ft. Myers, said her church took small steps to reach out to its community, first by delivering Easter eggs filled with candy telling people they had been “egged” and inviting them to church.

The Rev. Jack Stephenson, pastor at Anona United Methodist Church in Largo, stressed the importance of the invitation and said the lack of that practice is making The United Methodist Church extinct. He said only 2 percent to 3 percent of members invite people to church.

Once people are members, Capers said, it is important for them to realize everyone has something to offer. Once members discover their passion, she said, they will become engaged in the ministries of the church.

The session ended with the Rev. Scott Smith, pastor at Community of Faith United Methodist Church in Davenport, sharing how his life has been transformed — how his relationships with his wife and children have improved — since putting God first in his life.

The more time spent with God, the more he becomes “part of who you are,” he said.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.