( Christian Accountability-Part II) was first published on 8/31/11
Jesus gave his followers their mission statement in Matthew 28:18-20. “Jesus came near and spoke to them, “ I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB). We even call this “the Great Commission.” Therefore, the church’s mission is to “make disciples.” My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, has recognized this for a long time and first reflected it in a mission statement in 2000. This statement simply said, “The mission of the church is to make disciples.” In 2008 General Conference added the words “for the transformation of the world.”
Of course this raises the profound question of how disciples are made, which is really what this blog is all about. After years of seminary training and a lifetime of attempts as a lay Christian and a clergyperson, I have to confess that I have not been very effective. I’m still asking this question, “How do I make[i] disciples?
Having confessed my ineffectiveness over the years I will also share that I have seen more positive results in the last year and a half. So much so that I retired from the full-time pastorate in order to spend more time “making disciples,” or at least “helping” others become disciples. The key to greater success for me has been a renewed emphasis on biblical accountability.
Years ago when I began to seriously question how disciples are made I began to look around me for those who were successful. I discovered that while some were more effective than others, I could find no ” exemplar ” that really reflected what I saw in the New Testament. The closest thing I observed was the cell model. These churches usually hold a weekly celebratory worship service that encourages the entire congregation to attend. It also encourages the members to meet weekly in small groups, usually in someone’s home.
For many years I tried to transition the churches I served to this kind of model, or at least to create as many small “spiritual growth groups” as possible. I experienced some modest success with this. And I saw some spiritual growth take place in the lives of the people with whom I served. However, I had only limited success getting people to participate in the small groups since most church members saw these as an additional “add on” activity to already busy lives. And even with those who actively participated I did not see the spiritual growth that I anticipated.
Frustrated with my limited success I began to look again into the past history of the church. Coming from the Methodist tradition I examined closely the ministry of John Wesley. I had learned in seminary about his class meetings. These were small groups of Christians who gathered for mutual accountability. In 1983 David Lowes Watson published a book entitled Accountable Discipleship: Handbook for Covenant Discipleship Groups in the Congregation. In this book David explained how to contextualize Wesley style class meetings in our modern American setting. In 1991 he updated this book, renaming it Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation Through Mutual Accountability. I met David in the mid 80’s; I tried to introduce his procedures into my church but found little interest. I think the objection was that it simply appeared too demanding for those in my congregation.
For several years I limped along trying to get people into small groups, all the while attempting to keep people motivated to attend worship, Sunday School, and a whole host of other church activities expected of “good” church members.”
God has always given me a deep sensitivity for those a friend of mine calls the least, the last, the lost, and the lowly. Increasingly, God seemed to be sending people to me with addiction problems. Over the years I had encouraged many people to get involved in a 12 step problem, having studied the steps enough to realize they come right out of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes. I had long ago realized that Alcoholics Anonymous was a life-transforming organization. While it receives criticism from some people the fact is I know of no other group that has helped so many survive addictions and radically improve their lives.
About a year and a half ago I began a Celebrate Recovery program. Having developed a relationship with several people in recovery I asked these friends to help organize this new Christian 12 step program. Through this process I came to a new appreciation for AA. I had always known about their process of personal, one on one sponsorship. I have come to believe that this is the most powerful part of the AA program. The AA meetings are important. Having a personal sponsor is crucial for those with a serious addiction problem.
Over the last couple of years as I have come to know more and more people in successful recovery and whose lives have been radically altered in an amazing way, I have realized the importance of a mutual accountability partner in spiritual growth. I have become totally convinced that this is the missing ingredient in our disciple making process.
I’m not suggesting that a Christian cannot grow without this. Some alcoholics stop drinking without a sponsor. But making this the foundational component of our core process and building in this expectation among church members would, I believe, make a powerful contribution to the revolution we all seek in the church. In Christian Accountability-Part III I will suggest some ways this can be done.
[i] I’m a little uncomfortable with the translation “make disciples.” In reality I can’t “make” a disciple. I can only “help” an individual become a disciple. I can encourage, offer training, create a conducive environment, etc.