Adult Discipleship in a Continually Changing World
By Warren Pattison
Testimony from First UMC, Lakeland, Florida
“The only constant is change,” so the old saying goes. In the last three years, we’ve all experienced seismic-level change– the COVID-19 pandemic, political instability, the reminder of systemic inequities that has sparked renewed work for racial justice, and upheaval in our beloved denomination. Making disciples in a time of transition is a challenge, though it is certain that change will continue and likely at an accelerating rate. (Just think about the emergence of ChatGPT and AI—artificial intelligence. How might we use these technologies for making disciples?) How do we as leaders in adult ministries provide opportunities for deeper discipleship when so many things around us seem to be in flux and uncertain?
The congregation I serve has also been navigating an additional layer of change with an extended pastoral transition that includes the retirement of a beloved, long-time senior pastor, an engaging interim retired pastor, and the anticipation of a new senior pastor coming later this summer. While these transitions have created some additional challenges, we know that the mission of the church and our call to make disciples continue. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
Like most churches, we have seen a significant decline in in-person attendance in worship, Sunday school, and small-group engagement. Even as those begin to rebound, we know that the world is different than it was in March 2020. Many lament that what worked in the winter of 2020 doesn’t work now. What we have gained, however, are some tools that might not otherwise have made it into our discipleship toolbox, especially digital tools like videoconferencing, cloud computing, and messaging.
The way we lead disciple formation has had to adjust as well. As a committed part of the United Methodist Church, our congregational mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We describe the vision and methodology to accomplish that as “Worship Plus Three” (Worship, Invite, Grow, Serve). This means that we believe worship is of prime importance and is our foundation. In addition, we are to invite others into a relationship with God, to grow in our own love of God and our neighbor, and to serve others as a continued sign of God’s work in our lives. While we strive to develop these practices in the lives of our congregants, the growth rate in these disciplines is slower than it once was. Initially, I found that to be quite frustrating, even maddening. However, through the wisdom of great coaches and leaders across the connection, I’ve come to realize that a slower process of development is still development. We are still growing in holiness, going on to perfection, even if it is at a different rate or using different methods than we might have had in the past. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in leading disciple formation in a time of transition.
I’ve come to recognize that some engagement is better than no engagement. While interest and engagement are not the same as commitment, they are
something. Post-COVID, many people have become more conscious and protective of their time, making choices about participating in activities and groups with greater scrutiny. While some people may balk at being part of an ongoing small group, they may be open to a four-to-six-week study or even a one-evening gathering with fellow believers around the firepit. While we hope that smaller touches will eventually lead to longer-term community and deeper discipleship, intentionally designed events and short-term classes can make a significant difference. It seems, at least in my context, that more people are willing to engage in the short-term than ever before. Let’s make those opportunities count.
The pandemic also fundamentally changed the way we relate to one another. It’s now commonplace for people to order everything online, from groceries to dinner from a favorite restaurant to clothing to gadgets, greatly reducing the number of in-person interactions that were once everyday occurrences. One consequence of this shift is that we have collectively forgotten our manners; we have forgotten the simple rules of social engagement. What’s more, the social skills that have fallen off are not coming back as naturally as we might expect. In many ways, we need to relearn what it means to be in community, and that presents a real opportunity for the church. We can help people learn skills to connect, not just with other believers, but with people all around us. While Christian community most readily happens in face-to-face gatherings, such settings are no guarantee for the formation of community. Additionally, remote and digital engagement can lead to real community if we approach them with intentionality.
From now on, discipleship will happen in a “both/and” world. With the advent of tools like Apple Vision Pro and the emergence of the metaverse, the need for “both/and” discipleship models becomes even more apparent. As the church, we can’t just (re)teach people how to engage in community in face-to-face, in-person settings. We must also work to build community in hybrid, online, and VR (virtual reality) spaces. Fortunately, there are pioneers already exploring these areas. We would do well to be open to their learnings and leadership as digital apostles.
What does this make possible? What is the opportunity before us right now?
Two other key questions I’ve learned to ask in times of change are “What does this make possible?” and “What is the opportunity before us right now?”
For a couple of years before the COVID-19 pandemic, we had been working to establish more digital discipleship options in our church. Our goal was to reach those whose travel and work schedules prevented them from regular participation in our formation courses and groups. Offerings included online classes through BeADisciple.com, ChurchNext, online courses we designed and hosted ourselves, and Facebook groups. Many of these included Zoom components to build some rapport with other participants, though none of our early efforts in those days were constructed entirely on Zoom. Our success with these early efforts was marginal, at best.
When the pandemic began, however, digital and online offerings became the only way we could connect with one another. (Nothing like a pandemic to spur growth in online faith formation!) Because we had made some exploration in these areas, we were better equipped to transition our adult formation ministry to an exclusively online presence. Though I would not have articulated that as an “opportunity” in the chaos and fear of those early months of the pandemic, it was an opening we likely would not otherwise have had.
Within the first few weeks of the lockdown, we were able to establish a conference call number or a Zoom room link for our Sunday school classes. Gradually, we added other opportunities, like a sermon discussion group with our pastors, book studies, and other Bible studies. One of our Sunday school classes (the oldest and longest-running group, established in 1945) had already pioneered the use of a local conference call number to stay connected with homebound members. That allowed us to move quickly to provide that technology to other groups. Eventually, that conference call service added video chat capabilities, and folks were able to see one another. We saw our Sunday school attendance numbers soar well beyond what we had been averaging for the previous few years, as people from all across the world were able to meet together in an online space.
When conditions finally allowed for some cautious face-to-face gatherings, we found ways to cobble together classroom systems for videoconferencing, eventually investing in portable and installed systems for all of our adult formation spaces on the church campus. Today, we still gather in a hybrid way, where some groups may have two or three people online joining another ten gathered in person, we have other classes where we may have sixteen online and sixty in person, with many variations in between. Our teachers and class leaders have learned how to lead in the hybrid environment, doing all they can to include all who desire to grow in their love of God and neighbor, regardless of where they may be geographically.
Change is all around us, and it always will be. The good news is, Jesus has promised to be with us until the end of the age. As we face the continual tides of change, how will we remain open to the Holy Spirit’s leading in using new tools to, in the words of Robert Mulholland, Jr, “engage people in being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others”? I look forward to finding out!
Warren Pattison is currently the Director of Adult Ministries at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, FL. He has served in the area of adult discipleship for more than twenty-five years, having served congregations in the North Texas and Florida Annual Conferences. Warren is a self-described Star Wars fan boy, and he enjoys collecting kaleidoscopes and playing the viola, which was his first career. He and his wife and teenage son live in central Florida with their adorable dog, Nugget.