Andrew C. Thompson ~ Making Disciples in the Wesleyan Way

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The church today puts a lot of focus on the need to make disciples of Jesus Christ. But do we take seriously what that work requires of us?

I’m not so sure. I am very sure, on the other hand, that we’re living in a culture that does us no favors when we even begin to approach the work of disciple-making.

Think about it. In the West, we live in a world where most things we want are within reach. We’re not good at delayed gratification. We think we have a right to gratify every felt need we have. We don’t like to suffer.

Discipline isn’t easy. That’s particularly the case when we’re talking about a discipline beyond what it takes to make it to work on time, get through the day, keep the kids fed, and pay the mortgage.

So what about the discipline required to become a disciple?

We’d like it to take about as long (and require about as much suffering) as it takes to warm up a HotPocket in the microwave. And that’s a problem.

We find the command to make disciples in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. It’s one of the best known teachings of Jesus. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus says. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (RSV).

It’s the mission statement for the whole Christian church! It couldn’t be clearer what Christ Jesus wants his followers to be busy doing.

So how do we do it?

I want to ignore the cultural challenges we face in disciple-making for a minute and instead turn to the deep spirituality around faith formation in the Wesleyan tradition. I believe the latter offers a wonderful context for how to understand disciple-making.

Disciples are not made overnight, in truth. They’re made through a process of formation that takes a great deal of time and dedication. Here are four Wesleyan commitments that can help us think about that process—

1. Being comes before Doing

John Wesley explains in “The Character of a Methodist” what he thinks is distinctive about Methodist identity. He says that it has nothing to do with different opinions or customs about things that don’t strike at the heart of the Christian faith.

So what is a Methodist, then? Wesley says, “I answer: a Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him’; one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength’. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is constantly crying out, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee!’ My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!” (¶5).

In other words, becoming a disciple is first about receiving new birth by the Holy Spirit. It is about being filled with the love of Christ—knowing that because of Christ you have been adopted into the family of God. It’s about receiving God’s saving grace and knowing yourself as forgiven. Discipleship is about being before it is about doing.

2. Holiness always moves from heart to life

Wesley’s favorite phrase to describe the life of sanctification is “holiness of heart and life.” There’s a lot wrapped up in those five words. We are made holy by grace, and this happens to us through an inward renewal of the heart. When that renewal begins, though, the experience is going to radiate outward into every aspect of our lives.

So “holiness of heart and life” is a kind of shorthand for describing a type of discipleship that is authentic and real just because it has taken root within us and then begun to express itself in our daily living.

In his sermon, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, IV,” Wesley describes the heart-to-life rhythm this way: “Love cannot be hid any more than light; and least of all when it shines forth in action, when ye exercise yourselves in the labour of love, in beneficence of every kind” (¶II.2). So there is a deep inward spirituality to true holiness, but that spirituality is ultimately directed outwardly through active form of discipleship. That’s also the logic of what it means to love both God and neighbor!

3. Trust that God’s grace will be found in the means that God provides

For Wesley, the practices that he calls the means of grace lie at the heart of practical Christian living. He calls the primary means of grace “instituted” because he sees them as instituted by Jesus Christ in the gospels. Prayer, Searching the Scriptures, Fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and Christian fellowship are given to us by Christ through his teaching and personal example. Thus, we can expect that Christ will meet us in them when we practice them faithfully in our own lives as well.

If we take Wesley’s counsel about the importance of the means of grace seriously, we will begin to see how revolutionary Wesleyan spirituality really is. He believes that the means of grace should be the defining pattern of daily life for a Christian believer. Not our consumer choices, not our workaday jobs, and not our entertainment or extracurricular preferences—rather, it is the daily and disciplined use of the means of grace that are the characteristic mark of the Christian life. If this sounds difficult or even dreary, then it is only because we are so tied to consumerist materialism that we have a hard time imagining another way to live.

For Wesley’s part, he believed that the transformation we can experience by grace gives us the only real happiness we can know in this world. In the sermon, “The Important Question,” Wesley says that the “fruits of love” we experience through our use of the means of grace within a community of other Christians “are means of increasing the love from which they spring; and of consequence they increase our happiness in the same proportion” (¶III.4).

4. Practices of Piety are intimately linked to Practices of Mercy

The instituted means of grace are what Wesley elsewhere calls “works of piety.” They are practices of worship and devotion. But there are other practices that Christians engage in. These are the “works of mercy” that Jesus points us toward when he speaks of finding him in the context of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and showing hospitality to the stranger (Matthew 25:31-40). When we pursue this work of compassion and justice, we find that the works of mercy, too, are true means of grace.

In Wesley’s teaching, piety and mercy go hand-in-hand. “But what are the steps which the Scripture directs us to take, in the working out of our own salvation?” Wesley asks in the sermon, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation.” We should always “be zealous of good works, of works of piety, as well as works of mercy,” he says (¶II.4). Wesley does not believe authentic discipleship can ever exclude one or the other. Indeed, he seems to believe that they mutually reinforce one another: our practices of devotion and worship ready us for works of mercy, while actively pursuing compassion and justice in the world reveal to us the deep need for a life of piety.

These four Wesleyan commitments for disciple-making may not sound like good news to the person who is enthralled with the easy-as-you-please culture of our present day. It may just give us the right insight into what it really takes to make a disciple of Jesus Christ, though.

Discipleship is not about techniques and gimmicks. It doesn’t happen HotPocket-quick. It is about being formed in a way of life over the course of time, and with a deep immersion into the practices of the Christian faith. We’ll find transformation in that process, too, and it will reveal within us something we’d never dream of otherwise.

3 COMMENTS

  1. As a former student of Professor Thompson, I appreciate his genuine passion for the United Methodist church and the Wesleyan tradition (and, yes, I have already completed my degree, therefore not trying for a better grade). I find this article to be well articulated with just enough common language and humor to resonate with even those new to discipleship. Making disciples is one are within the UMC that needs our attention and deliberate focus. We are called Methodists for a reason. But what has our ‘Method’ been for nurturing up disciples in this present era? Professor Thompson reminds us of our Wesleyan heritage and points out one very simple concept: Intentionality.

    If we are to continue the mission of making Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the world, we MUST become intentional in our efforts and weather all storms.

    Calvin Coolidge said:
    “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

    I believe that we, as United Methodists, can become better at making disciples if we are regularly reminded of these insights from Professor Thompson, and pair them with these words from Coolidge. Being told no is nothing to fear or dread. Not making ever attempt is horrific.

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