Disciples are formed in up-close relationships and experiences. God works directly with the individual and God works through human beings in the holy encounters with others.
The United Methodist Church has long stated that the local church is the primary arena in which disciples are formed. This belief was confirmed, once again, for me as I witnessed the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Certainly, the 4,000 or so people who attended General Conference as delegates, bishops, agency staff, vendors, worship leaders, lobbyists, conference staff, or guests found some instance of close encounter during the 10-day conference that made a positive impact on their own spiritual journey.
Most of these inspiring moments occurred when hearing or observing the Holy Spirit’s life-transforming impact on people all over this world. Through video or live presentation, we saw numerous examples of how people of all ages and every language are coming to know and follow Jesus Christ as Lord.
Also, we saw the world-transforming power that accompanies Jesus’ disciples as we connect and serve through the United Methodist movement. Whether the community was in a nearby town or far-off global village, we saw numerous examples of a more Christlike world being formed through the ministries of the church.
I say all this to affirm much of what we experienced at General Conference 2012. I am proud to be a United Methodist Christian.
However, a good bit of what we witnessed reinforces that the “institution” known as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church does not directly form disciples. In so many ways, what we experienced indicates how much further we have to go to really be the body of Jesus Christ that has a laser-like-focus on forming disciples who grow a more Christlike world.
Understandably, a group of nearly 1,000 people make a complex gathering for decision-making. Unsurprisingly, there are a variety of opinions on almost every major decision. That was certainly the case in Tampa last week. Without researching every vote, it appeared that there was around a 60%-40% or 70%-30% split on the most significant issues.
The longer the conference continued, the more the dissonance was expressed in parliamentary wrangling, which delayed or stalled action. Every motion or procedure known in Robert’s Rules of Order—and even some that were unknown to Robert’s – was exerted.
Frustration became the norm. Fun was nowhere in sight. The longer this went on the more clearly it became obvious to everyone that what we were doing had little positive impact on forming disciples of Jesus Christ. I heard many attendees longing to be home where the real disciple-formation action is found.
I, too, started romanticizing the local church until I remembered how easy it is for ministry within a local church to get derailed by disagreement and power struggles. Fights over carpet color, music style, worship service times, and clergy gender are just a few examples of how we turn our attention away from the church’s real purpose, which is to lead more people to know and follow Jesus.
The next time your church’s governing body gets tangled up in hot debate, would one of you ask those gathered if what we are fussing about, I mean, discussing, is really going to help us reach more people with the gospel and grow a more Christlike world?
And if the fussing is really loud and prolonged, maybe growing a more Christlike world needs to begin right now in your meeting!
Maybe someone should read 1 Corinthians 13 to remind us that without love we are nothing. Perhaps another could read a missional passage about how we are ambassadors of Christ, God making his appeal through us.
One more passage might just seal it: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
One thing is sure: the more we focus on our real purpose for existing as a church, the more disciples will have been formed and the more your church and community will reflect a Christlike world.
Dr. Brad Brady is the Assistant to the Bishop for Connectional Ministries.