Common barriers to congregational growth: Lack of intentional discipleship

October 02, 2013

Despite significant diversity, we United Methodists share a common mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Many of our churches also encounter common issues that have the potential to thwart this mission. In this series, I address five of the most common barriers to congregational growth in spirituality, number, and community impact. Previously, I addressed lack of vision, waning worship, and the challenge of shifting from a posture of welcoming to a practice of invitation. This month, I turn our attention to intentional discipleship systems as a means of breaking through barriers to growth.

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” This opening line of a beloved children’s hymn is also a profound statement of faith for all ages and stages of life. There was a time just a couple generations ago when the church could make such assertions and people would accept them as truth. Individuals knew the name of Jesus, and the Bible presumed a measure of authority. We no longer live in a predominantly Christian culture. In any given week, only 18.1 percent of the U.S. population attends worship, and that figure includes all faith traditions combined; among these spiritual communities, Christianity is on the decline. If we ever could, we can no longer assume that the Christian faith will be transmitted by osmosis.

The Minnesota Annual Conference sponsored an open seminar in August that was led by Dr. Doug Anderson, pastor, author, and retired director of the Bishop Reuben Job Center for Leadership Development. Speaking to lay and clergy from across our state, Anderson asserted, “We cannot substitute membership for discipleship.” He went on to observe that time and again, curious visitors act on a desire to belong to something larger than themselves. With no background or training, we welcome them into membership in our churches and celebrate the faces added to our pews and the numbers added to our rolls. We like to think that if we just get people rubbing elbows with other Christians, they will necessarily grow in their faith. The reverse is more often true. With no expectations for membership or systems to develop discipleship, the spirituality of a congregation can devolve to the lowest common denominator. “What would it look like” he asked, “if every potential new member was trained and supported in the practices of prayer, presence, gifts, service, and witness before they ever took these vows of membership?”

One of the most effective systems for disciple-making is small groups, and the class meeting was an integral strategy for the growth of the Wesleyan movement. One could say tongue-in-cheek that even Jesus was Wesleyan with his class meeting of twelve, but more accurately, John Wesley was Christian as he practiced and promoted the discipline of small groups for fellowship care, spiritual formation, community service, and personal accountability. When I inquire of colleagues from growing United Methodist movements in Asia and Africa about their strategy for success, they nearly always reply, as if their answer should be obvious: “Everyone is in a class meeting!”

In the first century of the Methodist movement, class meetings were a requirement of all church members. Over time, the discipline of small groups was relaxed. Perhaps not coincidentally, removal of the class meeting as a membership requirement in the Book of Discipline preceded our American denominational decline. From our Minnesota United Methodist “Vital Signs” reports, only about 13 percent of current United Methodist members participate in some kind of small group for spiritual formation. Addressing this single historic and defining practice of United Methodism holds the potential for significantly changing the depth and breadth of our Wesleyan work and witness.

The Minnesota Conference’s congregational development office provides resources to help churches in this ministry of intentional disciple cultivation. Give a call and/or consider a few of these resources:

                Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups (2008, Regal)

Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend (2012, Zondervan)

Deepening Your Effectiveness: Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation (2006, Discipleship Resources)

Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of your Church (2008, Regal)

Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (2011, B&H Books)

The Race to Reach Out: Connecting Newcomers to Christ in a New Century (2004, Abingdon Press)

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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(612) 870-0058