Discipleship Drift, or Why John Wesley Won’t Let Me Leave the UMC

This is the first in a series of posts about following Jesus in the UMC. I will be looking back to John Wesley’s three-tiered structure of discipleship for suggestions and hints of how Methodists ought to pray, plan, and proceed in the future.

A little over four years ago, I was a wreck.

We had just been forced to return home from four exciting years in West Africa as a missionary family, and I was appointed to a large suburban church as an associate pastor. I remember sitting in my little office, only a couple of months removed from navigating the rain forest daily in a four-wheel drive vehicle, and thinking, “What am I doing here?”

It took me awhile to sort it all out. I had to re-learn how to do pastoral care visits, sit in committee meetings, and preach to Americans. It wasn’t easy.

I struggled with my new situation. At times, I absolutely hated being in the suburbs, and I detested the Texas heat. There were days when I struggled with being an associate, rather than senior, pastor. And there were days I seriously considered leaving the ministry, or leaving the United Methodist Church. After all, despite my first name (Wesley), I did not grow up Methodist – it was the faith tradition that I had been led into by God. But I did wonder if God was leading me a new direction.

I kept re-examining the basics of my faith and the contours of my personal call.

Every time I got close to abandoning the UMC, God pushed me back.

That’s where this suburban appointment turned out to be a providential location. One of the members of the church is Dr. Elaine Heath, a faculty member at Perkins School of Theology and a leading figure in forming new Wesleyan models of discipleship, particularly new monastic, missional, micro-communities. I have received first-hand, practical training from Elaine by participating in her New Day communities.

Another member of the church turns out to be the son of David Lowes Watson and Gayle Turner Watson, both UMC pastors. David has been one of the leading proponents in the denomination over the last 30 years for re-discovering covenant discipleship, in particular reinstituting class meetings and leaders. I devoured everything I could find that he had written, and had long conversations with him.

Elaine and David helped lead me back … to John Wesley himself. Perhaps nothing has played a larger part in keeping me rooted in the UMC, than John.

That’s an odd thing to admit, I know. I’m not sure if I would have liked him if I knew him personally. He was surely OCD, and he had some odd habits. And I have some issues with his theology, particularly his view of the atonement. Plus he was far too accommodating to the English ruling power – he was a Tory …

But as a practical, every-day follower of Jesus, John was the bomb. He figured it out. And he managed to create a comprehensive, but fluid, system that assisted other people in following Jesus. The Methodist movement was a discipleship system that worked.

It transformed English society, then helped shape the American experience into the beginning of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, that’s where it seemed to have flat-lined. We’re left with the residue of the Methodist movement a century later.

The John Wesley who created societies, classes and bands in an attempt to form and train serious followers of Jesus is the John Wesley that I came to know and love over the last few years.

At the same time, however, I was also confirming my sense that contemporary Methodism had almost completely lost its way in discipleship matters. The hierarchy of the UMC doesn’t seem so much to be concerned about the lack of discipleship as it does the decline in congregational numbers, finances, and general cultural respectability. There was no greater example of this than the recent Call to Action report, which seemed to ignore Wesley’s genius for the advice of corporate consultants and church marketers.

The forerunner of this blog, “The MethoFesto,” was an attempt to cry out against this discipleship drift. For personal reasons, I shut down that blog during General Conference 2012, and awaited the results of Call to Action. When it failed, I decided to reboot my blog and start again. Thus, a “New MethoFesto.”

Consider this blog a cry against discipleship drift, against a church and faith that separates piety and politics, good news and good works, grace and action. Again and again, I find that John Wesley is a great example of a fully integrated follower of Jesus.

I am happy to report that, with Elaine, David, and John’s help, something new is afoot at the suburban church where I work. First Rowlett UMC is the anchor church for two of Elaine’s New Day communities, with designs of starting more soon. Involvement in New Day over the last year put the church in contact with the refugee community of Dallas, and has spawned a new refugee ministry, Project Daraja, which will launch this fall.

And … church leadership is reviewing the congregation’s discipleship model. We’re tired of the drift. So we’ve asked John to help. I can’t wait to report in this space how it all plays out.

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8 comments

  1. hollyboardman

    I am a retired pastor who is fed up with the current institution of the church; but so far, I am keeping my connection with the church because I long for a renewal of holiness among God’s people. I appreciate Elaine Heath’s work; but I wish it was not so focused on college-aged folks. I think there may be some other retired pastors who might be interested in joining such a movement. Recently, Elaine caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that laity should be permitted to consecrate communion elements. I would like to suggest that perhaps there are some pastors on the fringe of the church who would be eager to help out. Anyway, I hope this movement gathers some momentum. I am weary of being on the sidelines of the church.

    • wesmagruder

      I believe that Elaine’s work has involved college-age folk mostly because, up to this point, her influence has mostly been on seminary students. However, she has recently started an Academy of Missional Wisdom, and the first class of students is a lively mix of ages. And the New Day communities of which I’m a part are also mixed in terms of age and race. There IS a place for you in missional community.

  2. Joe Surdacki

    A couple of years ago, when I was at my orientation at Perkins, just before I was to start this life changing experience, Elaine Heath was one of the speakers at my orientation and I had a chance to talk with her about what she was doing during one of the breaks. It gave me a personal boost that I was doing the right thing in redirecting my life towards the ordained ministry. Don’t stop crying out, Wes…every situation and organization this important needs its squeaky wheels. I am a political moderate, and sometimes I truly feel like I get bombarded from both ends of the spectrum…its a funny place…I’m too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals, but I think it gives me a certain perspective. What I tend to see is people who are passionate for Christ and wanting to do the best for his Church and his Kingdom…they just have very different ideas about what that means and how to get there, but the motivation is the same. The more and more I get involved with the church in ministry, the more I feel both frustrated and enthused…it’s quite strange. But in the long run, I think the best change always comes from within…so I think you’ll find you’ll be in the UMC a long time…

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