In a book I am reading for one of my classes this semester, Inventing the “Great Awakening” by Frank Lambert I came across the following quotation:
“Beginning with a few Oxford students, Wesley embarked on a lifetime task of organizing Christians from the bottom up, banding small groups of Christians together in religious societies for the purpose of deepening their faith and then putting it into action through charities and evangelism” (85)
This sentence has stuck with me. I have not often thought about the pastor’s task being one of bottom up organization. But it seems to make quite a bit of sense. This also seems to be a way of agreeing with people who argue that it is too late for the UMC as an institution to return to Wesleyan practices, such as an equivalent of the class meeting. Lambert has given me an image that helps me to think about restoring an authentically Wesleyan approach to discipleship in the local church, and it is beautifully straightforward! If Lambert is right, one of the key roles of Wesleyan preachers and lay leaders was organizing Christians in small groups “for the purpose of deepening their faith and then putting it into action.”
In a sense, the beauty of early Methodism was that the weight of the institution was behind this. In other words, paradoxically, the idea to organize for the purpose of deepening faith that would lead to action came from the top down. The powers that be commanded a bottom down approach to discipleship!
Today the situation has changed. We live in a time of increasing bureaucratization of the UMC, and the institution does not demand this bottom up approach to discipleship. Yet, while the full weight of the institution may not be behind the necessity of small group formation, it is also not actively forbidding or hindering it. This means that every pastor or active lay person who wants to return to the riches of our Wesleyan heritage does not have to wait on the powers that be to give the green light. It also means that we should not use the behemoth that is the institutional UMC as an excuse for failing to organize Christians wherever we find ourselves in order to better position them to be transformed by the grace of God and practice their faith.
In other words, Lambert’s image of bottom up discipleship is a hopeful one for me, because it suggests that the only thing keeping people at the local church level from experiencing the blessing of “watching over one another in love” is a failure of people at the level of the local church to do it. And while that is not an insignificant obstacle, it certainly seems to be a far smaller one than trying to change everything that is wrong with the UMC – broadly speaking – before actually turning our attention to the people that are coming to our churches, seeking to live faithfully and experience the fullness of life in Christ.
What do you think? Is the idea of a bottom up approach to discipleship promising for the contemporary UMC?