“This disciple-making venture is a very tough nut to crack,” Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton declared in his State of the Church address at a Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference focused on the theme Disciples Making Disciples.
“We have spent countless hours developing theories, statements and catch words that affirm our belief in this theme,” he said on the opening day of the June 13-16 gathering. Yet, he added, we continue to struggle.
“The drive to grow our churches with disciples seems to, at times, be an afterthought in our worship and yearly planning,” the Bishop said.
“On one extreme, we have churches that are so good at getting people to come to church that they downplay that true discipleship is about commitment, theology, stewardship, and clear expectations of what it takes to be a disciple," he noted. “On the other we have churches who state very clearly that they don’t want anyone coming to our church because we like it just the way it is.”
Citing examples of disciple-making throughout scripture, the Bishop noted that biblically speaking, “Disciple-making is about offering someone the possibility of a better life, a way to move beyond our sin into a fresh start. It’s about offering people a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit and a way to understand that conversion is a possibility for even the worst of offenders.”
Although United Methodist theology puts us in a unique position to do this in the 21st Century, the Bishop said, there are “quiet, subtle ways that evil has lulled us to sleep. That presence of evil sitting on the back pews of our churches and lurking quietly in our minds and heart causes us to put more priority on a meeting or piece of legislation than on how we create a posture that will cause us to make disciple-making THE priority of every church meeting and motion we make.”
Bishop Bickerton offered some ways to reposition our congregations to prioritize disciple-making:
“We can’t be leaders who tell our people to ‘do what I say.’ We have to be leaders who invite people in a journey of ‘doing what I do.’… The disciple-making ministry must be driven by clergy who make it a part of every conversation that takes place in the local church you are serving… The disciple-making ministry begins with those who are set apart, ordained & licensed to serve. There is a higher standard set for you – this is what you do – this is who you are.”
"Laity are the best disciple-makers in the world. You are the ones who interact with the people of the world. They are your co-workers, your neighbors, your friends. It is our calling as Christians.” The Bishop cautioned, though, that Sunday piety must be demonstrated throughout the week. He quoted from the old hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
“I do not believe that we are doing what Jesus Christ and John Wesley intended for us to do: communicate the gospel! And, as a result, we have gotten back what we have communicated that we expect….High expectation churches state clearly what it means to be a disciple and, as a result, they grow. We need to raise the level of accountability.”
“We don’t win converts by telling people how bad they are. And, we don’t make disciples by asking little of them. We make disciples when we tell the story: I was down and out and I found Amazing Grace. It becomes magnetic when the culture of your congregation moves from telling the story of how bad it is to embracing the story of how good Jesus is! It multiplies when we tell the story of how little I thought of myself and how much love lifted me!”
“Our struggle in disciple-making in Western Pa. might be summarized very simply: We are not asking anyone to take us up on the offer of Jesus Christ making a difference in their lives. Have you been asked by someone else what difference Jesus has made in your life?”
Potential disciples are hunting for hope, joy, peace, a place of acceptance and love. Churches that have a vision of their churches inviting people into the heart of God and work a plan to do it are churches that grow.
“You can be the best disciple-maker God has ever used if you have a willing heart to let God direct your path, not you.”
Often people are put in leadership positions simply because they are willing. “They may be well trained and have willing hearts. But are they disciples? Do they live a disciple-making life? Do they pray daily for their church to become more inviting? Friends, we need disciples in leadership.”
The Bishop urged pastors and church members to engage people in conversation wherever they go and to “pray with me that somehow something will be said or done that will cause us to go home better able to see the need, sense the call, discern the vision and work the plan of disciples making disciples in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Further, he urged conference members to: