Engagement vs. Inertia – Discipleship Development


Worship guru Dean McIntyre raised the question in my last post as to how to differentiate between those congregations that are engaged (leading toward vitality) and those who are driven by inertia (surviving and perhaps even growing numerically, but disconnected from the source and power of vitality). He asked for practical descriptions of the differences – in worship, Christian Education, Stewardship, etc. I am certainly no expert on church vitality. My ministry has for the most part been in congregations that were in decline and while I think I helped move them in a different direction, they aren’t shining beacons of church growth that folks are going to lift up as examples to be emulated. However, as one who has found himself serving in the midst of inertia and has experienced the power it holds, I can get a general sense of some differences between the two.

Christian Education and Discipleship Development

The Bishop’s Call to Action report identifies the presence of multiple small groups as a driver of vitality and certainly I agree with the notion that faithful disciples are developed and strengthened primarily in small groups settings, more so in most cases than in corporate worship. However what the research failed to address is the difference between quantity of small group interactions and the quality of the offerings.

Inertia driven churches generally place all their eggs in a single basket in regards the types off small groups and discipleship development, usually driven by history more than any evaluation of effectiveness. In the congregations that I have served this has usually been focused on the Sunday morning Sunday School as the sole repository of ongoing small group ministry, with little desire to consider alternatives to the tradition. While these Sunday School classes engage in some form of discipleship development, it tends to be on a superficial level.  Rather the focus of these classes is primarily social in nature, based in personal relationships more than in a desire to grow in faith. There is nothing wrong with social groups in a congregation, in fact I believe they are important to a congregation developing a cohesive and coherent mission and identity, however in inertia based congregations this becomes the primary driver in the Sunday School, with faith development taking a back seat.

Part of the reason this happens is the lack of engagement by both clergy and laity in providing and obtaining training for class leaders. It isn’t necessarily for a lack of desire on the part of the clergy, but in most single pastor congregations like the ones that I have served, it becomes hard to prioritize this task in the midst of planning and leading worship, visitation, and the ordering of the church. In my own case I know that I find myself scanning the teachers on-hand to ensure that they aren’t teaching stuff that is TOO off the wall, and then letting them go on their own, letting the inertia of class relationships and traditions carry them forward. I’ve tried at times to schedule regular meetings of teachers and class leaders in an attempt to create a more cohesive system for discipleship in the church, but it ends up being more of a goal than a priority, and we find ourselves maintaining the status quo rather than thinking about discipleship in intentional ways.

It isn’t simply a Sunday School thing, though. In my previous appointment, the inertia tendency was most closely seen in regards to Vacation Bible School. Every year we would “gear up” to to vacation bible school, even though it was a struggle to find folks who wanted to lead it, and those involved seemed to vacillate between excitement and dread. We offered VBS because we had ALWAYS offered VBS, but there was not much thought given to WHY we were doing VBS, WHAT we hoped to accomplish, and HOW we could help kids connect with Jesus beyond learning the stories of the Bible. For several years I indirectly supported our offering of VBS by inertia by failing to challenge the assumption that VBS was something we HAD to offer rather than one part of an overall plan to help our kids develop in their discipleship. However there came a part when it was clear that inertia was draining the energy of our members, and I began to ask the WHY question, leading to some additional thought on what we were hoping to do. Those questions led to a leadership team that was more invested and engaged in the process, and willing to think outside the box about what we offered, even considering abandoning the traditional VBS structure to consider new possibilities.

Inertia for the most part is focused on the maintenance of the status quo. Engagement on the other hand involves intentional conversation regarding the purpose and methods of our discipleship development program, willing to use existing tools but also create new ones as needed to best help church members be formed in the image of Jesus Christ. Engaged churches may continue to use Sunday School as the primary small group ministry, but there is greater coordination between classes, and an agreed understanding that the purpose of these classes is not social but formational. People in engaged congregations attend Sunday School with an anticipation that they will learn things about themselves and about God which will bring them closer to Christ.

Engaged congregations understand the importance of resourcing teachers and small group leaders, providing training and opportunities for growth for those folks who are charged with teaching others. While more often than not this is best carried out in situations where dedicated staff can devote themselves to this task, the solo pastor can likewise do this when he or she is willing to recognize that this as a priority, and willing to give a small amount of time on a monthly or quarterly basis to helping teachers be more effective. Most importantly, these pastors have to be willing to ask the hard philosophical questions that are required in developing a coherent discipleship system: Why are we doing what we do? What do we hope to accomplish? When do we need to offer opportunities based in the needs of our congregation? How do we teach effectively.

At the bottom line, inertia is primarily reactive, while engagement is predominantly proactive. It’s pretty much true across the board, but especially pertinent in regards to Christian education.

One thought on “Engagement vs. Inertia – Discipleship Development

  1. Jay, regarding the question of the quality of small groups. As I understand the Call to Action, there is no way to quantify the quality of small groups. They simply asked for a total count. And they found a positive correlation between the sheer number of small groups and the membership, giving, and average age of the church.

    For most of my adult life, I would have pooh-pooh’d the idea of aerobics, quilting, or movies as being appropriate church classes. Give me a good old-fashioned Bible study or prayer meeting, thank you.

    I have looked at hundreds of UMC websites, and here is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of examples of what UM people are offering to one another.

    • Bible study
    • Prayer meeting
    • Movie night
    • Habitat for Humanity
    • Haiti Relief
    • United Methodist Women
    • United Methodist Men
    • Sunday school classes
    • Quilting
    • Choir
    • AIDS/HIV support
    • Aerobics
    • Ethnic/Language groups
    • Homeless ministries
    • Progressive theology
    • Teen groups
    • Hiking
    • Buddhism/World Religions
    • Bicycling
    • Mental health ministries
    • Senior groups
    • College/career groups
    • Novels
    • Food closet
    • LGBT support
    • Grief/bereavement support
    • Hand bells/chimes
    • Piano lessons
    • Homework

    There are UMC churches with 15 or 20 such groups going. I believe they got big because they allowed small groups to flourish, not because they had enough people to populate them.

    Quality? Too much social and not enough discipleship? Too much political and not enough spiritual? Scary and intimidating? Risky and controversial? Unfocused? Too off the wall?

    Actually, for many pastors, with that many groups there’s just too much that can go wrong. Too many fires to put out. Too much going on to feel like you’re in control.

    There are indeed philosophical and spiritual issues that pastors need to work through to multiply ministry and ministry groups in their churches. Three key characteristsics for a pastor to feel comfortable with 15 or 20 small groups functioning would be

    • Generous Trust
    • Light Control
    • Relationships that Work

    Paul said the Body of Christ has many different members, each with its own function. Many tissue types, many organs, each of which eventually develops to do what it was intended to do. I told my pastor, “Trust the Body to be the Body.” He didn’t respond cynically, saying, “Yeah, trust the Body to devour itself.”

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