General Conference & Disciple-making

By Steve Manskar

The 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church has done its work. The quadrennial General Conference is an important event for United Methodists because it speaks for the denomination and produces the Book of Discipline that governs the church’s mission and ministry. We now begin to live with the changes and priorities it affirmed.

As important as General Conference is we need to remember that it does not make disciples of Jesus Christ. While it determines how the denomination is organized and funded, General Conference has never made a disciple of Jesus Christ. We need to remember that General Conference, Annual Conferences, General Agencies, and programs do not make disciples of Jesus Christ. Ideally, they provide the institutional supports that help disciples in local congregations and faith communities to make disciples.

The General Rule of Discipleship remains (¶ 1118.2a) unchanged. The paragraphs describing church membership were not touched. In particular ¶ 220

The Call to Ministry of All the Baptized – All members of Christ’s universal church are called to share in the ministry which is committed to the whole church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, each member of The United Methodist Church is to be a servant of Christ on mission in the local and worldwide community. This servanthood is performed in family life, daily work, recreation and social activities, responsible citizenship, the stewardship of property and accumulated resources, the issues of corporate life, and all attitudes toward other persons. Participation in disciplined groups is an expected part of personal mission involvement. …

When it comes to disciple-making, another important paragraph that is untouched is 256.1b. It provides important guidance to the Wesleyan way of Christian formation:

Accountable Discipleship—Historically class leaders provided lay pastoral leadership, and classes and class meetings were the basic structural means of Christian spiritual formation in the early Methodist societies.

Class leaders may be commissioned and classes may be organized within the local congregation for the purpose of forming persons as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ through mutual accountability and support for witnessing to him in the world and for following his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The best response we can make to the 2012 General Conference is for congregations and faith communities to focus on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We need to always remember that from the beginning of the church described in the New Testament to today disciples are made by disciples. John Wesley knew this very well. His deep knowledge of the Scriptures, Christian tradition, and human nature led him to develop a network of communities focused on Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples of all people” (Matthew 28:18-20). The muscle that moved the network of Methodist Societies was the small groups known as “class meetings” and the lay pastoral leaders known as “class leaders.”

Congregational and pastoral effectiveness will be greatly improved by re-traditioning the class meeting and the office of class leader for today.

Covenant Discipleship groups is a ministry supported by the General Board of Discipleship that is designed to foster the re-traditioning of the class meeting for today. Covenant Discipleship groups focus upon one aspect of the early class meeting that is most absent in the church today: mutual accountability for discipleship. These groups are designed to form leaders in discipleship who will help the church to participate with Christ in his mission for the world. Some CD group members will respond to God’s call and the church’s invitation to serve as class leaders (see The United Methodist Book of Worship, pages 602-604).

Class leaders for today are Covenant Discipleship group members who work in partnership with their pastor by “accepting basic pastoral responsibility for classes of church members. These classes are not the same as Sunday school classes, nor are they convened as class meetings. They are rather in the nature of pastoral groupings, consisting of fifteen to twenty persons who receive guidance and support from a class leader in living out their discipleship according to the General Rule of Discipleship” (from David Lowes Watson in Class Leaders: Recovering a Tradition, page 72).

Covenant Discipleship groups form disciples who make disciples. Some of these leaders in discipleship become Class Leaders. The class meeting and class leaders are important parts of the method of Methodism that help congregations and other faith communities live into the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Another General Conference has come and gone. The church’s mission remains: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We have the way (Christ and his grace) and the means (Covenant Discipleship, class leaders and class meetings) to carry out the mission. When we are focused on Jesus Christ and his mission, the vision of the church given by the apostle Paul will be realized:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).