Ben Gosden: The motion I wish I’d made at annual conference

By Ben Gosden, Special Contributor…

As much as I was enthused about annual conference here in South Georgia, I do have one regret: I wish I had made a motion from the floor to define discipleship for our annual conference. You see, I counted some 70 times that the phrase “making disciples for the transformation of the world” was mentioned in one form or another. But not once was that phrase defined or elaborated on. Much of our business set as its goal the “making of disciples” but we never defined discipleship clearly. My great concern is that we endorsed a great deal of business on the premise that we all understood and agreed on a basic definition of discipleship.

So I regret that I didn’t follow my gut and propose a motion that would do three things:

  1. Admit, as The United Methodist Church, that we’ve failed in our attempts to form disciples in the ways of Jesus Christ. This addresses something bigger than merely a decline in membership. This confession puts front and center the fact that we’ve been more consumed with our own self-perpetuation than we have the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Failing to make disciples admits that while we may have enjoyed some years of good attendance and participation, by and large we failed to make committed disciples of Jesus Christ. This is an admission that measuring our current health by the standards of 1968 is based on the myth that we were once a perfectly healthy church who formed disciples. The truth is while we may have formed many disciples, we also failed as the years went by in forming new disciples. Therefore 1968 should NOT be our baseline for success in terms of disciple formation.
  2. Locate the primary setting for discipleship in the local church. I’ve heard a number of people advocate the idea that discipleship can happen in different areas of church life. And while this may be true, discipleship must always be focused on the local church level first. Annual conferences do NOT make disciples. Districts do NOT make disciples. There is no discipleship without a local community whereby disciples can worship, attend to the ordinances of God, participate in the sacraments, etc.
  3. Define discipleship. If discipleship is our primary concern as an annual conference; and if this concern is one located in our local churches; then it would be helpful to finally define discipleship. The goal would be to form a working definition that could be lived out in a variety of contexts. Discipleship, at its very best, will have both universal values and local expressions. The goal of this definition would be to define our values and priorities while at the same time leaving the definition open-ended enough to plug into any local setting.

Below you’ll find an example of the motion I wish I’d proposed from the floor of my annual conference. Maybe some of you will take this and tweak it (hopefully improving it) and propose it from the floor of your annual conference. If more of us did this maybe we could finally begin working towards the mission we claimed called us to.

Whereas, we admit that the greatest issue facing the United Methodist Church is a lack of depth of discipleship; and

Whereas, the local church is the primary and most significant location for the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ according to paragraph 201 of the Discipline (2008 ed.); and

Whereas, it is necessary that we define discipleship as it pertains to the life of our local churches in the South Georgia Annual Conference and in the transformation of the world;

Therefore, be it:

Resolved, that the primary focus of ministry, proclamation, and life in the local church should be the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — all ministry should serve as a means to this end.

Resolved, that the primary locations for discipleship are the local church communities across our conference—any conference-led initiatives towards the goal of disciple formation should be focused on how best to achieve this goal at the level of the local church.

Resolved, that discipleship is the process of being formed in the ways of Jesus Christ as taught in Scriptures and expressed in acts of justice, mercy, worship, and devotion under the empowering guidance of the Holy Spirit — all teaching and practice of discipleship should meet this criteria and it should be emphasized that such formation and practice is meant to be lived out both personally and corporately.

The Rev. Ben Gosden is associate pastor at Mulberry Street UMC in Macon, Ga.



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