Disciplemaking – Art or Science?

This weekend our neighbors at the Baptist church down the street are putting on a neighborhood fair, and as a part of that event they asked if I had any knowledge on someone who could lead a “square-dance” for them.  what they didn’t know is that 100 pounds and 2 kids ago, I used to call dances for the local country dance group, and that I have been working with a mandolin player in our church to put together a group, so I agreed to help put on a dance at the fair.

I had hoped that I could call on one of my old dance buddies to lead the dance so that I could just play guitar, but it turns out they are all booked, and so I have been brushing up on my country dance knowledge and skills knowing that I’m going to have to teach something I haven’t done for a while. In the midst of that I came upon a post I wrote in 2003 which described the role of the caller and asked if similar skills weren’t needed for ministry. At the same time I’ve continued to think quite about about the movement in our United Methodist communion toward a plan of action with a particular set of expectations for church leaders, and the split I’ve seen between those who question the direction we are headed and those who suggest that we have to do SOMETHING, and this is at least some positive movement. As dance and ministry have bounced around inside my brain, I’ve found myself wondering about whether the task of forming disciples is an art or a science.

What I think I’m beginning to discern is that part of the disconnect between those who question the assumptions of the Call To Action initiative in the UMC and those who embrace it whole hog is based in this difference in orientation – right versus left brained, artists versus accountants, intuition versus analytics. Each group brings a different way of thinking and a different set of assumptions about the nature of our mission . . . assumptions which fuel how we respond to programs like Call To Action, a project which aims to systematize reform in the United Methodist Church.

Those of us who are creatives shouldn’t be surprised at the systemization of religious practices, for that has been part and parcel of the American religious story for many years. Some could argue that John Wesley was the first mover of this in the development of a movement that brought a systematic approach to forming disciples through classes, bands, and a set of general rules which laid out a clear path to discipleship. Wesley (and the Methodists who followed) certainly were “methodical” in their approach to faith, but I argue that they left room for creativity in utilizing a structure which allowed for creative freedom – the band meeting which allowed for relational space to address issues of faith individually, drawing on the experience of others in creating communities of mutual accountability and support. The far broader influence throughout American Christianity however was Charles Grandison Finney, and his belief that revival could be systematized into universal practices which would guarantee success again and again. Finney and the revivalists who followed drew on the tools of the modern era to create repeatable rites which would become traditions which lost their moorings to the original purpose – to form true disciples of Jesus Christ. These systems – such as the altar call  — became their own ends, so that the goal became to get the most people to come forward at the end of the service, not necessarily to adopt the radical lifestyle that Jesus asked of his disciples. This systematization of religious practice became the norm, and has driven the church in America ever since.

If you are a left brained accounting type, the systematization of faith can be a comforting thing for it provides lists of things to do and measures of accountability. Yet, when the fundamental assumptions of that system begin to erode under the weight of cultural change, we find ourselves in crisis, for the system no longer works the way it should. For ministry “scientists,” the response often involves trying to develop ways to make an outdated system work in a new world in the belief that the system can’t be wrong – the world is.

Right brained ministry artists often struggle under the weight of the systematized approach to ministry, but find equilibrium in the system as long as we have some flexibility to exercise our creativity. However, there is always a tension for at our core we know and believe that each congregation, each disciple, is a work of art, not something stamped out on an assembly line. We believe that beauty is as important as efficiency and that they way we get there is as important as the final destination. Discipleship is less about creating widgets and more about being on a road trip to an unknown destination confident that will tell us we’ve arrived when we get there.

We struggle as a church with the two approached to being church for the scriptures themselves model both ways of being. On the one hand Jesus is portrayed as being primarily focused on relational disciple making, using creative storytelling and sign acts as means of teaching his followers the stuff of the Kingdom. On the other hand Luke’s story of the church in Acts is not hesitant to report numerical success and note that “…many more were being added…” to the community of faith.

The question we are faced with today is whether our responses are based in the assumptions of modernity with a trust in a system which no longer has meaning in a postmodern/postcolonial world, or if we are in fact responding to our cultural situation toward the adaptive change necessary for relevancy.

The fear among some is that we are focusing on accounting rather than creativity to address our eroding system, trying to use science rather than art to help the church be faithful.

What do you think?

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