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.
You are exactly right. I have tried to get people in small groups. A time or rwo I thought about requiring all members to be active in a small group, but decided it would cause too much trouble. The churches that embraced small groups. Grew faster and better than others.
George Whitfield was probably a better preacher than Wesley, but Wesley required converts to be part of a discipleship group with enforced accountability, and Whitfield did not. I have heard that is why we have a Wesleyan movement and not a Whitfield movement.
Hi Rev. Chuck,
Greetings in Christ and what a joy to receive your post and to know that the Holy Spirit continues to lead us to go back to the “road less traveled” described in Jeremiah 6:16 “This is what the Lord says; “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls. But you reply, “No, that not the road we want”. many people have become deaf to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
I am in my 4th appointive year at Toledo Zion UMC and have consistently shared with the leadership and members the importance of having vibrant biblically oriented and structured small accountability groups. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Jesus used small groups with His core disciples to great advantage and the early Church adopted the model and John and Charles Wesley simply followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in using Classes and Bands to great advantage to bring about a robust revival in Great Britain. sadly, despite the success of this model, contemporary disciples want to be lone rangers and set their own rules without the rigors and checks and balances of mutual accountability by other pilgrims.
While it may appear to be that simple, Small Groups will continue to be the key to personal spiritual and corporate growth. The sad thing is that not many who profess to follow Jesus want to be held accountable by others working out there own salvation.
I am currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH (just about wrapping us Semester 1) and the area of focus for me is how to leverage the strength of Small Groups to help with Church growth and also revitalization of stagnant communities of faith. I am so thankful to God that you are starting this much needed move in the life of the Church. You are quite right, regardless of how the current “Protocol” plays out at GC 2020, what will determine those who grow and continue to do God’s business God’s way is how we leverage the accountability model embedded in Small Groups where hard questions are asked of each member and no one gets a pass on sinful behavior.
I am a member of the West Ohio WCA Board and thank you and your team for the great work you are doing to ensure that the next Wesleyan Methodism here in the US starts off on a very strong footing. Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway has a been my Mentor for years and I had the privilege of serving under him at Reynoldsburg UMC prior to my current appointment
I was happy to see the image of the child with bible – a much used Bible and not one that just sits on the shelf at most Christian homes gathering dust. I started reading “The Pilgrim’s Progress’ this morning and was struck by how it reflects the challenges faced by mortals who desire to follow a God who is too holy to behold iniquity. Many fall prey easily to the “Master Worldly Wiseman” described in the Book. I am truly inspired by your example.
I have signed up for email updates on the new website and look forward to being a part of this faith based community that you are birthing in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Rev. ‘Debo Onabanjo, Pastor Toledo Zion United Methodist Church 2600 Copland Blvd. Toledo, OH 43614 Tel: 419-382-3403 Fax: 419-382-3404
“It is my eager expectati