Reclaiming lay leadership key to revival

Reclaiming lay leadership key to revival

A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn

The United Methodist Church can experience revival by returning to the spiritual practices of Methodism’s early years, say two scholars leading an effort to develop passionate lay leaders.

In joining the mainline establishment, the church jettisoned many of the activities that made John Wesley’s movement so vibrant, said Scott Kisker, associate professor of church history at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

“Methodism was a method of helping people, a discipline that enabled people to have their lives transformed by the gospel and become holy,” Kisker said. “Mainline means we are an establishment religion that basically doesn’t see much difference between creating good citizens and creating Christians.”

In the 18th century, Methodist preachers took to the road to share the gospel and Methodist laypeople gathered each week for class meetings to discuss the state of their souls. Often the class leaders — rather than ordained clergy — performed pastoral duties for their communities.

It was all a bit countercultural. The early Methodists were the Jesus freaks of their day.

Kisker and the Rev. Steve Manskar, director of Wesleyan leadership for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, would like to see the church recapture some of that 18th century spirit.

To help with this revival, Manskar and Kisker will lead the Wesleyan Leadership Conference on Oct. 14-16 at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. The theme of the conference derives from Kisker’s book “Mainline or Methodist? Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission.” Manskar is working to get United Methodist congregations across the country to establish Covenant Discipleship Groups, based on the model of lay-led class meetings.

“Lay leadership is essential,” Manskar said. “That’s where the revival is going to come from. We need to have laity taking the lead in the visiting, the caring and the mission of the church.”

Small group vitality

The conference comes on the heels of a recently released Congregational Vitality study that identified small groups as one of the main “drivers” of church growth, attendance and giving.

Such a finding would not have surprised John Wesley. Kisker said small groups were a key part of Methodism from the beginning.

Wesley started out with band meetings, intimate groups divided by sex and marital status where people met weekly to confess their sins.

At band meetings, participants each had to answer five questions:

  • What sins have you committed?
  • What temptations have you met with?
  • How have you been delivered?
  • Do you have any questions?
  • Do you have any secrets?

“It was a way to experience God’s grace,” Kisker said, “and have more compassion on your neighbor.”

Wesley next added class meetings where people could discuss how well they were following Jesus’ teachings. At a time when professional clergy were scarce, class meetings led by lay men and women became one of the core units of Methodism.

Membership in the Methodist church required membership in a class meeting, Kisker said. A person who missed three class meetings risked being dropped from the church rolls.

However, as the church grew in size and its members grew in prosperity, Methodists started to want to be more like their Presbyterian and Episcopal neighbors, Manskar said. They stopped wanting to attend class meetings each week, and they wanted pastors who no longer traveled but served one congregation.

By the middle of the 19th century, many of the circuit riders had dismounted, and such practices as field preaching and class meetings had fallen by the wayside.

In the process, many laity lost their passion for discipleship. The church still attracted new members. But as a percentage of the U.S. population, it stopped growing sometime after the Civil War, Kisker said.

“I think we became more about building an empire and less about creating disciples for Jesus Christ and redeeming people,” Kisker said. “We became more about building a church instead of building the church.”

Applicable today

The practice of class meetings still works amid people’s busy 21st century schedules, Kisker and Manskar said.

Kisker is part of a class meeting with fellow members of Hyattsville (Md.) United Methodist Church. The group usually gathers in a member’s house on Friday evenings.

“We’ve seen some amazing things happen — people making dramatic life changes,” Kisker said. “One woman who was a lawyer decided she was going to become a nurse. … I just think making yourself aware of what God is doing in your life and having someone who asks you about it every week is pretty profound.”’

Manskar hopes Covenant Discipleship Groups will lead others around the country to have similar profound experiences.

In these groups, members hold each other accountable for following Wesley’s three simple rules: Do good, do no harm and stay in love with God. The goal, Manskar said, is “to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minn., which has a weekly attendance of about 200, has seven such groups of four to seven members.

They meet for about an hour each week. Members go around in a circle sharing what they have done in the past week as acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion. Then they discuss their spiritual promptings and share prayer requests.

Dan Thielen, a member of one of the groups, said the gatherings help him think about what is important in his life.

“We support each other through the bad times and pat each other on the back in the good times,” he said.

The Rev. Michelle Hargrave, the church’s senior pastor, said she and others have seen their faith deepen because of their Covenant Discipleship Groups. She is a member of a group with six other women.

“It’s such a foundational piece of Wesley’s own thinking, and it lives out in our lives so concretely,” Hargrave said. “That’s a pretty exciting tool for the church.”

The Wesleyan Leadership Conference costs $95. Further information is available at

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

Reclaiming lay leadership key to revival

Blessing your community

By Brett DeHart

How can a small and shrinking church, which no longer matches the demographics of its community, be faithful to the task of making disciples of Jesus Christ?

That is the question many smaller churches across the country face. It is the question that 170-member Austell First United Methodist Church has tackled head-on.

When I arrived a year ago, after having served as an associate minister at a large church, I realized quickly that the attractional model just wasn’t working here. We didn’t have all the bells and whistles of large church worship. We didn’t have the programs that parents expect and want for their children. We didn’t have the resources or money that would give us any hope that we could become a successful attractional church.

When you have been trained that church and making disciples is about attracting people to worship and to programs, it really knocks you for a loop when you realize you are at a church that isn’t successful at that and probably won’t be even with a lot of effort. It’s not that the leaders of Austell First didn’t want to attract new people and grow. But the odds were so stacked against them.

There’s nothing wrong with the attractional model, if you can make it work. But what about all those churches that aren’t and can’t? There’s more than one way to do church. We decided that if people won’t come to us, we’ll go to them.

“Bless Austell” is the name of the church’s vision to live out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Internally, our goal is to have our church and its members focus on blessing our community: being the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Externally, we hope the campaign will signal to the community that we are ready to serve, to be an asset to this community. We hope others will want to join us in the blessing and eventually in the life of the church.

The church has developed ongoing programs for the community including free aerobics classes Wednesday nights, a free community dinner (Grace Cafe) every Thursday night, and a tuition-free, 5-day-a-week preschool (Feed My Lambs) for lower-income families.

The church is making a real push to engage area schools. It is involved in extensive outreach to its neighbor, Austell Primary School, where the church holds teacher appreciation lunches twice a year, volunteers at the school’s annual Spring Fling, and recently purchased and laid 60 bales of pine straw at the school. As a result of this growing partnership, the school naturally turned to the church to help sixteen families who lost everything when record flooding hit the city in September 2009. In addition, Austell First supports the community food pantry and clothes closet, delivers birthday baskets of goodies to residents at an assisted living home, and volunteers at community events.

While Austell First members are focusing outward, the church is also celebrating the work the Lord is doing inside the church. In the first six months of this year, compared to the first six months of 2008, worship attendance is up 13 percent and giving is up an amazing 27 percent.

The truth is that this church was already making an impact for Christ in this community through outreach. By placing that activity in a theological context with the Bless Austell vision, we can now celebrate the impact we are making for the Kingdom instead of being depressed because we aren’t a big attractional church.

Our community has changed and thus our definition of a successful church has had to change as well.

Brett DeHart is the pastor of Austell First United Methodist Church in Austell, Georgia. This article first appeared in the North Georgia Advocate and is reprinted here by permission.