By: By Christa Meland and Eric Van Meter
In his Wednesday morning teaching session on next-level discipleship, Rev. Junius B. Dotson focused on giving church leaders a way to take the inspiration from Annual Conference home in practical ways—beginning with the “why.”
“I believe God deserves our best at all times,” said Dotson, general secretary of Discipleship Ministries. “Churches that are good at discipleship are pursuing the right thing. They have a core process that leads people to Christ, equips people with the skills they need for ministry, and empowers people to share their faith with others…They have not lost sight of their ‘why.’”
But many churches have lost focus and mistaken activity for accomplishment, Dotson said. Most churches lose the memory of why their systems were put in place to begin with. Discipleship begins when churches and church leaders reconnect with the “why” of their processes, and as a result develop mature disciples that can repeat the processes with others.
To counteract this mistake, churches need to focus on the key mission—the “why” of their work. Drawing from Simon Sinek’s popular Start with Why, Rev. Dotson reminded Annual Conference attendees that disciple-making is the reason churches exist.
“Can you clearly articulate your why?” Dotson asked those gathered. “Our why isn’t so that we are able to fill pews. Filling pews might be a result or byproduct, but it has absolutely nothing to do with our why…When you know your ‘why,’ your ‘what’ has meaning.”
If churches are to refocus around the “why” of their work, it will begin with the simple practice of being intentional. Discipleship, Dotson insisted, is something done on purpose. Every church that succeeds in making disciples has both a process and an ability to articulate that process.
He gave an example of a growing church with effective discipleship processes. The church encourages members to invite their friends and coworkers to Bible study instead of lunch—and then to take them to lunch a few days later so they can unpack what they learned and discussed, and continue the conversation. The church describes its process as teaching people “how to strategically hang out.”
“Any effective discipleship system is going to have to teach people how to strategically hang out…leverage influence as they build relationship,” he said.
The key to successful ministry in the 21st century does not lie with programs but with people, Dotson explained.
“It’s going to take movements of ordinary believers who learn how to strategically hang out, who leverage gifts of laity, who are willing to be the presence of Jesus in the hard places,” he said. “People are not a means to an end. They are not how we reach our goals. They are the why of our goals.”
Churches must also learn to be innovative, looking to the future in order to see what to do in the present. In particular, missional engagement means being authentic in relationships, allowing them to develop organically so that discipleship emerges from natural contexts. Every disciple is strategically located among people God is calling them to reach, and opportunities to share stories of God’s work arise from those relationships.
As a way to think about natural relationships, Dotson pointed to “See All the People,” an ethos championed by Discipleship Ministries that encourages congregations to connect with real people in their local communities. To build disciples, he said, congregations must stop trying to fix the church and instead focus on the individuals God is calling to discipleship. (Watch “See All the People” video.)
He also encouraged churches to be relentless in their pursuit of the “why” of discipleship. The path to successful discipleship does not involve pursuing many ends at the same time, but in developing and practicing one unifying idea.
“We should always be asking: What role does this activity, event, or program have in helping us make disciples?” he said.
Finally, Dotson urged those who would be next-level church leaders to remain hopeful, despite the narrative of decline so often told in relation to The United Methodist Church.
“Our best days are yet ahead of us,” Dotson said. “Our best days are not our yesterdays but are ahead of us…My prayer is that you will offer leadership that is future-focused, mission-driven and filled with hope…Let’s inspire a new passion for making disciples for the transformation of the world. I believe in Jesus’ name that our future shall be blessed.”
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church