A visitor appears in your congregation and is attracted to something that causes him or her to return. The port of entry varies. It might be a friendship or the worship environment or the message or the lived wisdom of the pastor or the hospitality of the participants or the missional actions of the faith community.
Most church leaders know from experience that visitors as well as loosely committed participants will eventually exit through a back door unless they experience a shared Christian life with others—a discipleship pathway. Some congregations offer a traditional membership orientation and suggest a group. Other churches seem more independent or are attuned to local cultural expectations and thus work on belonging and discipleship before articulating a formal membership commitment.
The early Methodist movement literally began and thrived because of a discipleship pathway articulated by John Wesley, which is based on small groups. The Wesleyan innovation for small groups is a convergence of evangelism and discipleship. A shared and disciplined Christian life together attracts others to this way of following Jesus. The groups (“societies”) attracted participants with no previous religious experience as well as Christians from Anglican, Presbyterian, Quaker, Moravian, and many other faith communities. As the small groups multiplied, John Wesley’s earliest published resources were foundational and established the discipleship practices that formed the Methodist identity. This guidance from Wesley is found or repeated in many writings, but it is crystallized in the following:
- General Rules (1741)
- Character of a Methodist (1743)
- Means of Grace (174_)
- Wesleyan Covenant for Renewal (1755)
Over the centuries the Methodist small-group movement morphed into congregations, where these foundational practices for discipleship can be overlooked or forgotten by subsequent generations. Now a congregation can recover and standardize Wesley’s discipleship pathway by offering a series of small-group experiences, perhaps to the entire congregation or any given class or group, and subsequently for visitors or inquirers who are encouraged to walk in the Wesleyan way of life together.
John Wesley’s foundational instruction for the formation of a Christian and Methodist identity is updated into four small-group study experiences, which each include a participant book, a leader guide, and brief teaching videos. Each study experience is completed in six weeks and is described as follows:
Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, Rueben P. Job
This study experience is drawn by Wesley from the ministry of Jesus, which is taught as a “rule” (a way of life) for Christians, who are expected to do the following:
- Do no harm.
- Do good.
- Stay in love with God.
If this simple Wesleyan rule for life in your congregation is practiced, it becomes a yardstick for the ministries offered in your mission field.
Five Marks of a Methodist: The Fruit of a Living Faith, Steve Harper
Wesley describes the “character of a Methodist” in terms of the marks or habits or practices that produce desirable fruit from a faithful follower of Jesus. These marks can bridge our differences and produce mature fruit:
- A Methodist loves God.
- A Methodist rejoices in God.
- A Methodist gives thanks.
- A Methodist prays constantly.
- A Methodist loves others.
After an individual understands what is expected for this approach to Methodist discipleship, the marks become a powerful habit when the participant practices. One rhythm for practice is to reread a chapter from the book each day of the week (Monday through Friday), which can turn the marks into habits.
Five Means of Grace: Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way, Elaine A. Heath
(available for preorder, ships August 2017)
Notice that the previously mentioned general rules and five habits for a Methodist include love of God. The Methodist way of life is thoroughly based on God’s love for us and our love for God. Wesley confirmed our tendency to allow the love of God and others to grow cold so that we drift away from the gift of God’s unmerited grace. So Wesley showed us ways to reorder our lives through the “means of grace.” These means are the ordinary channels that God uses to draw us into a fruitful and faithful relationship:
- Searching scripture
- Receiving the Lord’s Supper
- Conferencing (worship together)
We reorder our lives by recognizing and affirming the outward signs, words, and actions of an invisible divine grace. Through these “means” we receive God’s gifts together, and we experience the power of a spiritual relationship with God.
One Faithful Promise: The Wesleyan Covenant for Renewal, Magrey deVega
Any discipleship pathway tends to crumble and develop potholes. Wesley saw the need for renewal of the Methodist movement a mere fifteen years down the road. So he pulled together the people called Methodist and taught for several mornings about “the means of increasing serious religion.” This renewal was taught through five steps:
- Confide in God
- Compose your spirit
- Claim the covenant
- Choose faithfulness
- Connect to God in prayer
Then they worshipped together and reaffirmed their promise through a Covenant prayer to stay on the pathway. Charles Wesley also wrote a hymn supporting the prayer: “Come, Let Us Use the Grace Divine.” Wesley’s covenant renewal can function now as an accessible church-wide campaign that culminates in the liturgical affirmation and faithful promise to love God and neighbor faithfully. The campaign could be
- used during Advent and culminate on New Year’s Eve with the Covenant prayer committed to memory and resolve;
- used from mid-September, with emphasis on homecoming and harvest, and culminated with the liturgical event on All Saint’s Day;
- used prior to Lent and culminate on Ash Wednesday; or
- used during Lent and culminate during holy week.
Nearly all church leaders yearn to help individuals and groups grow in faithfulness through love and service. The Methodist way of doing this can be instantiated through our three rules, five marks, five means, and one promise. This is a handy way to remember our method.
Paul Franklyn is Associate Publisher for Bibles, Leadership, and Textbooks at The United Methodist Publishing House. He directed the Common English Bible translation.