Annual Conference Focuses on Making Disciples

I am often asked, “What is the theme of this year’s Annual Conference?” For me, the answer is always the same. Our theme is “to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The theme is the Conference’s core mission – to energize and equip local congregations. The second part of theme reflects the core mission of every local United Methodist congregation – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I don’t believe in a theme de jour or flavor of the year. To borrow from the slogan made famous by Ford Motor Company… This –“to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – is Job 1!

Underneath that theme we try to have a focused teaching piece (usually two or three major presentations) that will guide us as an Annual Conference through our local churches to better accomplish the mission of making disciples. Sometimes the best laid plans go astray.

I typically work a year and a half ahead in scheduling Conference teachers. About 18 months ago, I asked Rev. Rudy Ramus the Sr. Pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston to be our Conference teacher for 2014. My intent was that he would lead us in a focused teaching on how we might be more culturally and ethnically sensitive. Rev. Ramus graciously agreed to come lead us. However, he recently found out that his daughter will be graduating from medical school that day! We celebrate for her and for the whole Ramus family but have had to scramble to change our plans.

Rev. Rasmus has consented to come lead us in the same teaching piece in 2015 instead. I had planned to have us focus on intentional faith development – how we in fact grow and mature as disciples of Jesus Christ in 2015. Instead we have flipped the two subjects. We will focus on discipleship development (the path of disciple-making) in 2014 and receive Rev. Rasmus’ great teaching on cultural and ethnic sensitivity in 2015. (For those interested, our Conference teaching in 2016 will be on evangelism and witness.)

I am pleased to announce, with great appreciation for their willingness to come on short notice!, that we will have Bishop Scott Jones on Monday afternoon share an overview of intentional faith development using his material from Cokesbury’s The Wesleyan Way. Rev. Candace Lewis, Executive Director of Path 1 (the United Methodist Church’s new church development initiative) will share the critical learning that her Path 1 Team have made in discipleship development. Dr. Phil Maynard, a noted pastor, consultant and leader in the church, will share a path to discipleship based on his book Shift. Rev. Sue Engle, a leader in the field of intentional faith development, will use the material developed in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference called Charting the Course of Discipleship as a model for how local congregations can set out a clear and cogent path of discipleship. Each of the three presentations/break-out sessions will be for 1&1/2 hours. They are designed to help pastors, lay leaders and congregations work on drafting their own plans for discipleship formation in their respective ministry settings. It is our intent to give every congregation some very practical tools by which they may think through and enact a path of discipleship from a new Christian to a deeply committed discipline-follower of Christ. They will have components that involve education, Bible study, spiritual formation and applications in practice.

Over the next 5 or 6 blogs I intend to write on intentional faith development. My material will hone in on elements of a path for discipleship that move us beyond vague assertions in to practical applications.

What do we mean by a disciple of Jesus Christ? Arguments about definition (which clergy tend to love and laity tend to have their eyes glaze over!) are often exercises in work avoidance. While we may quibble about the words, the essence is straight forward. A disciple is a committed disciplined follower of Jesus Christ. Dallas Willard says a disciple is an apprentice of Christ. The great Saint Athanasius reminds us that Christ became like us that we might be like Him! It is an audacious claim with a missional call into evangelistic witness and ministry of love, justice and mercy for all – literally all! – of God’s people. Discipleship has membership intentions. We are to be followers of the way of Christ! And, we are to be a part of the living, loving, forgiving body of Christ, the church!

Discipleship is at the heart of what the Apostle Paul calls sanctification. “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30, NRSV). I love the way the Common English Bible translates the same passage: “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us” (I Corinthians 1:30, CEB). Eugene Petersen’s The Message paraphrase renders the passage, “Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:30, The Message).

In one sense discipleship is clear. We are followers of Jesus who seek to imitate Him in our life and witness. In another sense, discipleship can involve different, complex, and contextual applications. In all senses it is a life journey with the Lord living, as Wesley put it, in the full house of God.

Think about it. What is the path of discipleship for your church? How clear and clearly understood by all is it? Are you walking on that path? “O Master let me walk with thee in lowly paths of service free; tell me thy secret; help me bear the stain of toil, the fret of care” (“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee,” Hymn No. 430, The United Methodist Hymnal).

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