Missional Methodism & Rigorous Discipleship

One of the books I recently bought is really good and thought-provoking. The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church by Alan Hirsch is a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. Turns out it was worth the wait. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book, but so far I’ve been mesmerized by Hirsch’s description of mDNA (missional DNA, not to be confused with mRNA – messenger RNA – sorry, science humor). I’ve really been too engaged in the book so far, even when I disagree, to underline anything so far.

However, this passage is too important for us United Methodists to leave alone.

In the opinion of Stephen Addison, a missiologist who has spent much of his professional life studying Christian movements, the key to Methodism’s success was the high level of commitment to the Methodist cause that was expected of participants. This cause declined to the degree that the movement had moved away from its original missional ethos or evangelism and disciple making and degenerated into mere religious legalism maintained by institution, rule books, and professional clergy (p. 103).

He goes on to talk about the catechesis of the early Church,

…far from being “seeker-friendly,” by AD 170 the underground Christian movement had developed what they called the catechisms. These were not merely the doctrinal confessions they later became; they involved rigorous personal examinations that required the catechumen to demonstrate why he or she was worthy of entry into the confessing community. Not only could proposed converts lose their life, because of the persecution of the time, but they had to prove why they believed they should be allowed to become part of the Christian community in the first place!

…it was this element of vigorous discipleship that characterized the early Christian movement that was blighted by the deluge of worldliness that flooded the post-Constantinian church when the bar was lowered for membership and the culture was “Christianized.” (p. 104)

To be honest, I have totally mixed reactions to this. The concept of proving oneself worthy of joining the Christian community strikes me as a little antithetical to a gracious understanding of God. However, I do think that the concept of rigorous discipleship, as shown in early Christianity and Methodism, is incredibly important. For instance, the other night my wife was watching this stupid show about becoming a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader on CMT. They kept saying how important their identity was, and several girls didn’t make the team because they either didn’t live up to the values of the team or they didn’t have a certain level of commitment. I thought to myself, how is it that the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders have more rigorous set of practices and ideals than the Church?!

But that’s the tension isn’t it? Christ died and is risen for all, right? So how do we balance inspiring committed discipleship with the message of God’s free grace? Also, do you agree with Hirsch’s comment about legalism maintained by institutions, rule books, and professional clergy? Is that what United Methodism has become or not? How could the UMC become a Church that more fully embodies full-bodied discipleship?

Hopefully these questions can initiate a conversation in the comments. What are some of your first impressions?

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4 thoughts on “Missional Methodism & Rigorous Discipleship

  1. Matt – Amazon had already sucked me into being interested in this book by recommending it based on my purchase history. (I don’t know whether to love or hate that feature!) After reading your reaction to it, I am definitely going to pick up a copy. I agree with his focus on Methodism. I think a very good case can be made historically for linking Methodism’s decline (spiritually and numerically) with the decline of the class meeting. (The class meeting for me is a place holder for an insistence that Christians come together not just for one hour a week to worship, but also come together to open their lives up to each other and talk about how they are living or not living out the faith that they proclaim.)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I hope to hear more from you on this book.

  2. Matt, I can understand your struggle between the apparent “success” of strict standards and the need to proclaim the grace of God for all. But the issue I keep coming back to is, in the process of proclaiming grace for all, we have lost our identity.

    It is hard to proclaim the full message of the grace of God without encountering standards set by God. The grace measured out in the Old Testament was balanced with standards of lifestyle. The grace of the New Testament, while available to all, appears to be limited by the exclusive channel through Christ.

    The standards that the early church put in place were practical issues for a church that was already being “tainted” by false teachings. They had to insure a future for themselves as a whole.

    Now we are struggling with identity issues. What does the church stand for? Are all churches the same? Do all religions lead to the same end? These are all relevant questions that asks us to understand our identity, and even set standards for who is counted among our number.

  3. I think one of our problems is a merge of receiving salvation with joining the church. God’s grace is given freely to all, and so none of our limits or restrictions or rules apply to it. But membership in the church and being saved aren’t identical things. One is God’s act and can’t be limited, the other is participation in the body of Christ and its work here in the world and by definition has some requirements and limits.

    It seems like we’ve gotten to the point that we’ve said that everyone who wants to join our particular incarnation of the body of Christ is not only welcome, they can all be the appendix and just hang there uselessly.

  4. Hey guys, thanks for the responses. I appreciate the points you’re bringing up. Things have been crazy this week, so sorry for not interacting more!

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