Methodist House Churches: Discipleship and Leadership Development

July 9th, 2018

The following article is part three of a ten-part series exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here.

Doing What Needs to be Done

Here’s a quick test of leadership: spontaneously ask for volunteers to read scripture, pray, or to lead music or liturgy in worship.

We do this every week in our house churches, because one of the basic tasks of discipleship is to step up when there’s a call to do something. House churches facilitate both leadership development and discipleship, because in a smaller group there is more demand for people to lead. In larger churches, I’ve often heard people cite the 80-20 rule: twenty percent of the congregation does eighty percent of the work. Churches which rely on professional staff often have recruitment programs to help the congregation understand that every member is in ministry.

The 80-20 rule does not apply in house churches: if nobody leads, church doesn’t happen. Nearly every regular attender, even the children, leads in some way. When we have twenty or more, we try to avoid having the same folks lead every week. When gatherings are as small as three or four, if one person leads liturgy, one person reads scripture, and one person prays or brings a message, one hundred percent of the congregation is doing the work.

Part of this is probably due to selection bias: house churches are not as visible as sanctuary-centered churches, and the people who find them are likely looking for something different. Those who want to grow deeper in their discipleship may be more motivated to seek out alternative forms of Christian community and lead when they find it.

So, every Sunday, I ask for volunteers. Sometimes I’ll ask in advance, especially for prayers, because not everyone feels comfortable extemporizing. But if we want to model a culture of doing what needs to be done, we need to ask, publicly, every week. Asking for people to lead liturgy is as much part of the liturgy as the written words. Folks who speak, whether leading the call or participating in the response, are practicing speaking their faith every single week.

I distinguish between discipleship and leadership development, but the two are closely intertwined. Some folks have social anxiety and may not feel comfortable reading or leading in worship. They may still be devoted disciples who lead in other ways. A key component of discipleship and leadership are the same: a willingness to do what needs to be done.

Discipleship and Leadership

“Disciples” refers to any who are deliberately following Christ and growing in this work. “Leaders” are those who are called, at various times, to lead this community of co-learners in the work. They may lead for a task or for a season and then step back, but they are always disciples.

The word “disciple” means student. But the New Testament model of teacher-student is not the institutional model of an expert dispensing knowledge to empty-headed recipients in a classroom. Instead, it’s a community built around a set of practices where we are co-learners. Through repetition and discipline, we make ourselves available to be shaped by grace into the image of the Master.

Likewise, “student” does not mean primarily one who thinks or believes the right things. I tell folks that we are students of the Way, or students of love; love of God and love of neighbor. The goal of discipleship is to become better lovers.

Jesus transforms the concept of leadership. In church, a “leader” is not an institutional, hierarchical, sovereign-style ruler, but a servant (Matthew 20:26). A servant-leader is one who a) does what is necessary and b) gets others to join them. That can mean sweeping the floor, preaching, baking a cake, organizing, creating art, or risking arrest at a public protest. As long as they are inviting others into the work, they are a leader. Since God gives us all different gifts and talents, and since we all have different leadership styles, servant-leadership will look different for different folks.

Since a house church depends on shared leadership, we’re also practicing taking turns as leaders. John McClure calls this “temporary inequality.” In the radically egalitarian church in Matthew’s gospel, even calling someone “pastor” is suspect (Matthew 23:8-12). Jesus indicates that his relationship to us and our relationship to each other is defined ultimately not by authority, but by friendship (John 15:15).

In our house churches, every partner takes the Gallup StrengthsFinder. We use this instead of a “spiritual gifts” inventory, because it helps us put together work teams whose leadership skills and strengths are complementary.

Practices, not Programs

I tell my congregation that we grow and are shaped by practices, not programs. We use a model of discipleship that has five areas of practice. (I’ve borrowed some of this from the concept of Covenant Discipleship Groups, but it is important to distinguish between house churches and CD groups: one is a worshiping community, and the other is an accountability group.)

The five-areas model helps our whole church clarify what we’re after when we commit to following the Way of Christ and when our leadership team decides where we will direct our energy as a church network. In this model, we commit to loving God and loving our neighbors. We also commit to doing works of love as individuals and as a community. Loving God as a community means worship, while loving God as an individual means devotion. Loving neighbor as an individual means doing works of compassion, while loving neighbors as a community means doing works of justice.

To these four areas practiced by CD groups, we add a fifth: witness. Although church culture usually thinks of witness as telling, the first meaning of witness is to see or observe. The second meaning of witness is to tell. Because our church emphasizes the observing part of witness, “witnessing” means we have to listen and ask questions more than we talk. We witness when we encounter stories in worship as we hear the Word read and proclaimed; in devotion as we read scripture and reflect on God’s action in our lives; in compassion when we meet Christ in our neighbors; and in justice when we live out our calling as a prophetic community. I tell my congregation that these areas are like four chambers of the human heart, with witness being the blood that flows through worship, devotion, compassion, and justice. The stories we hear and tell, the relationships we form through story, all empower the work of the whole Body through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of these areas, the most neglected in our modern North American church culture is justice. For this reason, the institutional church is heart-sick. I firmly believe this is one reason worship sometimes feels flat and stale: we do not have a sense of being a prophetic, justice-seeking community. When we give glory to God in song, it is often all about me as an individual and my salvation. We have to reclaim our prophetic mandate. I believe more people would sing in worship if they knew the power of freedom songs, but that only comes through standing up for justice and seeing the power of God affect public life.

We use the graphic above as a visual reminder of what it means to follow Christ. It is a way to remember the three general rules of Methodism: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. It reminds us of the Great Requirement to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). It reminds us of the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). And it reminds us of the Great Commission to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).

comments powered by Disqus