By Chuck Griffin
Chair, Holston WCA Board
The so-called “Protocol Statement” has everyone’s attention at the moment, and rightly so. We should remember it is far from a done deal. But it also provides a clear outline for how theologically liberal and orthodox United Methodists might go their separate ways in a reasonably fair manner.
With all this going on, I hesitate to roll out a new concept. Much can get lost in the bright lights of excitement and controversy generated by the Protocol Statement. It does keep our minds on the future, however, and I believe the idea I want to introduce here is critical to the future of orthodox Methodism.
Perhaps I should say “reintroduce.” There’s nothing new here, just much that has been forgotten in far too many of our churches.
I’m talking about the idea of Methodists gathering in small groups for true discipleship and accountability. Such small group gatherings are the original basis of Methodism. They also remain the basis of healthy churches today—and we do not have nearly enough clergy or laity who grasp their importance.
As orthodox Methodists who claim to have a good understanding of our history, we have to return to small accountability groups, regardless of what sort of denominational structure we ultimately retain or create. I will go so far as to say this: If we don’t recover properly functioning small groups as the basis of Methodism, we will be a branch of the vine destined to wither and die, regardless of our orthodoxy.
I’m not talking about approaching small group development the way we’ve done it in the United Methodist Church the past few decades. There are positive exceptions, of course, but as a denomination we’ve largely paid lip service to the importance of small groups as the basis for discipleship and Christian accountability. We’ve gone so far as to count small groups at each church as part of our annual reporting system, but in many places we’ve then systematically redefined what a small group is so our reports don’t reveal how severely we lack them.
Clergy and lay leaders, let me ask if you’ve heard this question: “On the annual report, can we count our Sunday schools as small groups?” Too often, the answer has been, “Yeah, let’s go ahead and count them,” when realistically, it’s unlikely a Sunday school or similar gatherings qualify.
Wherever this has happened, we’ve dodged the hard work of discipleship, the work that makes a difference in whether we are effective for the kingdom. We’ve avoided the deep relationships that encourage followers of Christ to experience sanctifying grace, which once made the Methodist life so attractive.
In properly functioning small groups, here are some key elements:
I know, I know. For Methodists used to going to church on Sunday morning and maybe sitting on a committee, it sounds like too much, particularly when we start talking about sharing our spiritual struggles within the group. But that’s our problem. We’ve lost touch with what it means to be Methodist. We’ve let a weak paradigm for “doing church” take hold.
I am a realist. I expect we will not convert most current orthodox Methodists to this form of deep discipleship. But we have to convert some, and leaders of any Methodist movement need to steer new Christians into small group discipleship.
We need at least one genuine small group in every church. If that group functions properly, there will soon be more than one.
We also need groups established outside the traditional church settings, in our workplaces and play places, a process that could redefine what church is. People willing to make such commitments would serve as the growth engine of orthodox Methodism.
For orthodox Methodists in the Holston Conference of the UMC, I’ve created a separate website for people who want to take small groups seriously. You’re invited to visit this site, register your e-mail for blog updates, and begin to live the Methodist Life.
The address is that simple: Methodist.Life. Note the “dot” between “Methodist” and “Life.” No “.com” or “.org” is needed—”.life” is the ending for the internet address.
And please, don’t think a simple website still needing development is the solution. The website is just a communications tool. The solution is a widespread, renewed commitment to a very old concept.
Most of all, we need Methodist Life Group leaders. If you are one of those rare people with experience leading a true small group, please let me know. If you want training as a leader, please let me know.
We can do this! For so many reasons, we have to do this.