In-Sight: Making Disciples

Those of you who know me know that I am a pragmatist more than a theorist when it comes to theology.  I can work with abstractions and principles, but my mind keeps wanting to know how the doctrines and affirmations play out in the lives of individuals, groups, congregations, and in society.

I feel this way when I hear folks say that the current concerns about human sexuality are a diversion from the Church’s mission to make disciples.  Let me be the first to say that I do not want anything to erode this mission.  And I would also agree that the Church (and the part where I am involved, The United Methodist Church) has spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money dealing with human sexuality. But the practical side of me will not allow me to view this as a diversion from our mission.

The practical reason is this:  when individuals, groups or congregations overtly or subtley cease to be welcoming and affirming of all God’s people, gay people stop coming. Oh, I know there are exceptions in the nearly half million congregations here in the USA–to say nothing of the rest of the world.  But pastors of churches where the delicate dance of “welcoming but not affirming” is attempted will tell you it is tricky and difficult.

In most congregations that I know about personally or read about in my research, those who are not inclusive soon have a reputation for not being so, and gay people go elsewhere, or they stay in the closet, knowing that if they came out, their place in the congregation would immediately be viewed differently.

The practical side of me says, “That has a direct impact on a church’s ability to make disciples.”  We cannot share the good news with anyone (straight or gay) who views us or our congregation as a bad news church.  We cannot claim to be loving when the word on the street is that we are judgmental and mean-spirited.  We cannot make disciples of people who are not there, or make disciples of those who know we will hand them a second-class discipleship ticket in the process.

This is larger than our position on human sexuality, but human sexuality just happens to be a bellwether indicator of a person’s or congregation’s disposition and design. People, by and large, give us the opportunity to make disciples of them when they feel genuinely (not conditionally or provisionally) loved by us–and when our definition of “disciple” appears to be the kind of person they want to be as they pay attention to their imago dei and respond to the work of the Spirit in their lives.

So, it seems to me there are always sub-layers to our mission statement of making disciples, and we must deal with them if we want the mission to occur.  One is surely the extent to which those we seek to reach, receive, nurture, and send view us as formative rather than deformative.  If people view us as “hot stoves,” they will not touch us, no matter what we claim to be cooking up for them.

Open hearts, open minds, open doors must be a living faith–an experienced reality–or it will soon be perceived by seekers and members alike as a slogan devoid of transformative content.  When the words “kind of” or “sort of” are placed before the word “open,” many will turn and walk away.  And that is what is happening among gay seekers when they attend or hear about some of our churches.

So, I cannot separate the mission to make disciples from the human sexuality issue, because the spirit with which we make disciples and the atmosphere in which it takes place is a necessary prerequisite to the process itself. I  believe that whenever the Body of Christ is working to become more loving, more non-judgmental, and more conversational, we will enhance our ability to turn a missional phrase into a reality–what John Wesley called ‘practical divinity,’ and what Jesus meant in the Great Commission when he told us to make disciples of all God’s people.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to In-Sight: Making Disciples

  1. gemmygem2013 says:

    Thank you Steve for this thought provoking article that touched my heart on many levels. I once attended a church who was “kicking off” their Open hearts, open minds, open doors campaign and I attended their initial meeting, that was announced in the bulletin, only to be told that I was not officially invited to the meeting like the other attendees. Right from the start this church failed to embrace what they were wanting to live out.

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