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Wesleyan Experience marks 'return to our roots'

Wesleyan Experience marks 'return to our roots'

LAKELAND – In a world where change seems to accelerate like a stuck gas pedal, it may be easy to forget that the road to improvement often depends on small steps, one at a time.

So make no mistake: When delegates break into small groups to discuss discipleship at next month's Annual Conference, the ultimate goal will be greater than just getting people to talk to one another about following Jesus Christ. 

Russ Graves
Russ Graves

"I wanted to find a way to begin a movement among the laity to step up to be what God called us to be," said Lay Leader Russ Graves, who is co-coordinating two series of small-group breakout sessions dubbed the "Wesleyan Discipleship Experience" at this year's annual  conference.

"There has become a disconnect between what God is calling us to do and what we as the church are doing, and pastors in general have convinced us of what we needed to do, which is not much."

The experience will bring together laity and clergy from all districts in more than 180 groups of about 10 each. The groups will contemplate scriptures about cultivating disciples and discuss how individuals and congregations can be more intentional about that biblical commission.

The first session will occur Thursday, June 13, after the keynote address by Rev. Jim Harnish of Hyde Park UMC, Tampa. The second session is scheduled for mid-afternoon Friday, June 14.

Graves, a Catholic-turned-Baptist-turned-Disciple of Christ-turned-United Methodist, has been pondering the decline in the institutional church since he became lay leader last year. For answers, he looks to the examples of John Wesley's small groups of the 1700s, and even further back, to the house churches of the early Christians. 

"The hope is a culture change that in some ways takes us back to our roots," Graves said, adding that participants will be encouraged to take the practice of intentional small groups back to their congregations.

The idea for the Wesleyan Discipleship Experience at Annual Conference also grew out of discussions with Bishop Ken Carter as Graves accompanied him on visits to the nine districts in the conference.

As a result, Graves settled on a model of small-group sessions developed by retired Bishop Dick Wills, who is helping Graves coordinate the Wesleyan Experience at Annual Conference 2013.

That model can be adapted to individual church and community needs, but Graves listed five essential ingredients: 

  •  Fellowship
  •  Worship
  •  Study
  •  Accountability
  •  Mission 
Portrait of John Wesley
John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, was a believer in the power of small groups.

Graves said the Wesleyan Experience largely targets laity with a challenge to evangelize and connect with others trying to walk in Christ's footsteps. It won't work without a buy-in from clergy, though, he said.

"It's a laity-driven and led movement, but it's got to be connected with the pastor," Graves said. Pastors are critical to holding people accountable by asking them if they are engaging in prayer and reading scripture regularly and guiding them to a relationship with Christ, he said.

Graves believes small groups grow Christians in ways that large-audience Sunday sermons cannot. Their success depends on the willingness of individuals to invest time, talent and discernment in one another.

"It's a place that you can be real … you can be honest," he said. "It's a place where you can receive love and encouragement and exhortation and rebuke in a way it's acceptable to you."

Annual Conference 2013 is scheduled for June 13-15 at The Lakeland Center, 701 W. Lime St., Lakeland. Preconference workshops and other opportunities will begin June 12.

The small-group breakout sessions are among new features this year. Others include food-packaging for those in need that delegates and guests are invited to volunteer for and a reconfigured Ministry Expo that emphasizes connectional relationships.

-- Susan Green is the editor of Florida Conference Connection.