Discipleship, Formation or Information?
It was my privilege to participate in a Disciple Bible study group in 1986 following my initial training as a disciple Bible study leader. I will never forget the emphasis I was taught at the very beginning when the leader of the training session said, “this will be a study focused on formation rather than information.” The idea was to move beyond the simple accumulation of facts to the application of the Bible to the life of discipleship. Each of the 34 lessons included a statement called, Marks of Discipleship. There were 34 marks of discipleship and each Mark came in the form of a statement that began, disciples of Jesus Christ do, followed with some practical form of applied Christian faith. Over time I completed Disciple five times, helped train 17 laity as Disciple leaders, and saw more than 300 local church members participate in Disciple groups. It was a great experience!
Over time The DISCIPLE Bible Study created by Bishop Richard B. Wilke with his wife, Julia, has been completed by nearly two million graduates in more than 10,000 congregations and 30 denominations. The DISCIPLE series is now available in German, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese.
In my opinion Disciple Bible Study is one of the most effective things we United Methodists have ever done. There is however an interesting phenomenon that baffles me. In 1986 the goal of Disciple Bible Study was to renew the church. However, since that time our denomination has continued to decline in membership. A church growth consultant recently observed that as high as 85% of our local churches are in decline. How can this be?
I think the authors of Disciple Bible Study had it right from the very beginning. The need of our local churches is formation more than information. Take for example the five membership vows of our church which state that we will be loyal to the UMC and support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. These vows are an overlap with the marks of discipleship outlined in Disciple. A close look at how we live out these vows reveals the following statistics: in regard to prayers few members are able to pray out loud in the presence of others, in regard to presence (worship attendance) statistics tell us that even church members attend worship only once per month on average, in regard to gifts (stewardship) the numbers tell us that average giving is 2.4% of income, not the tithe we often speak of, in regard to service many have identified their spiritual gifts but are not effectively using them for ministry, in regard to witness researchers tell us that only one percent of Christians have ever led another person to a personal faith in Jesus Christ.
During my 54 years of pastoral ministry I have noticed that many, myself included, would rather spend time on informational pursuits rather than formational pursuits. I have observed that many church members would rather do a Bible study than participate in a formational group focused on inviting and discipling new people. Bible study is informational. It is easy compared to doing personal evangelism which is formational. Bible study feeds the self rather than reaching the unchurched. There is nothing wrong with Bible study unless it becomes a selfish retreat from witnessing, giving, serving, and doing mission.
In light of the current dilemma I have created a follow-up process to Disciple Bible study. I call it TLC Groups for Busy Disciples. I have noticed that those who complete Disciple Bible Study receive a pin and a certificate and graduate from the course. This creates a problem. What comes after Disciple Bible Study? Too often the answer is some form of informational pursuit (Bible study) rather than a formational pursuit or continuing process. I believe that we need a continuous process experience that perpetually challenges Christians to further develop their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. This is where TLC Groups come in.
A TLC group is a small group that meets weekly for 59 minutes in a host home for the primary purpose of Christian nurture and growth. The group is led by a TLC pastor trained by the church pastor and staff. The group meets in a host home of church members also trained by the pastor and staff. The group follows a flexible schedule which includes prayer, sharing, lesson discussion, mission and growth. The group is designed for busy 21st century families. The meeting length is kept to 59 minutes (a fun way of saying that it is strictly one hour long). Vouchered expenses for child care are provided to help families with children participate. The groups are intergenerational and focused on individuals from the youngest infants to the oldest adults. Child care is provided for infants through sixth-graders via vouchered reimbursements and/or a provided list of child care persons. The small group participants range in age from seventh grade through adults.
What Do TLC Groups Actually Do?
The groups study the Bible in relation to its teaching about “the purpose driven life, and the Christian calling to follow Christ by praying, worshipping, giving, serving, and witnessing. Group members support each other with prayers and group discussions. Each group adopts a mission project to reach out to others in the community and/or world. Technically speaking TLC groups are not study groups though they will study the Bible. They are not prayer groups though they will pray. They are not mission groups though they will do mission. They are not therapy groups though they will give support. They are not men’s groups, women’s groups; singles groups, youth groups, or parent’s groups, though they will include individuals from all ages and stages of life. The ultimate purpose of the groups is as described, tender loving care.
The Order of a TLC Meeting
The weekly order of a TLC Group is very flexible and will generally include four parts. 1). Get Acquainted Time, 2). Conversational Prayer, 3). Lesson Discussion, and 4). Vision Sharing. However, the basic purpose is TLC, so some weeks study may be shorter and prayer longer or vice versa. Some weeks visioning may take more time. Some weeks icebreakers and get-acquainted time may take longer. All depends on how the Holy Spirit is leading and the needs of the group present themselves each week.
Can the Church Become a Movement Again?
TLC groups are counter intuitive in nature. The groups challenge participants to move beyond the comfortable style of informational meetings to a process that includes the following elements: the meeting is only 59 minutes long, there is no food, the groups multiply annually and do not stay together, the focus is on constantly bringing in new people, participants learn to pray out loud together, participants learn to win others to Christ through their witness, participants learn to worship weekly rather than monthly, participants learn to apply their spiritual gifts via involvement in personal mission. There are 43 discussion lessons that are repeated annually. The focus is on constantly bringing new people into the discussions rather than bringing new information or lessons to the same old group members. People have often asked me, how long are we going to repeat the same lessons? My answer is, “until Jesus comes.” We are not looking for new lessons (information) we are looking for new people.
It’s all about Jesus!
When we speak of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness we’re talking about our relationship with Jesus. This is called discipleship. When the church is making disciples for the transformation of the world it is involved in a process of helping people meet Jesus personally, follow him, learn to pray, worship, give, serve, and witness. The missing component in the modern church is this formational process. I challenge us to get back into the formational process that will not only reverse our decline but multiply our church exponentially!
Training for Local Churches.
Dale Turner is available for training events on TLC groups. Dale prefers events involving 3 to 6 local churches together rather than individual church events. For more information contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-335-0162 or www.daleturner.org
Book Available at Amazon.com
Dale’s book entitled, TLC Groups for Busy Disciples, How to Multiply Groups from House to House and Grow Your Church, is available at Amazon.com Go to Amazon and type in Dale R. Turner.