What We Did
In 2008, I was appointed to University United Methodist Church in San Antonio to be the Discipleship Pastor. At my previous appointment at Grace in Corpus Christi, I was doing a lot of work and research into systematic discipleship. I was trying, in a modern context, to connect back to John Wesley’s methodical ways of helping people grow as disciples.
Rev. Charles Anderson, the Directing Pastor at University, was looking to implement a new systematic discipleship plan. The bishop and cabinet saw fit to appoint me to work alongside him as an associate pastor.
We did good work there. We created and implemented a Pathway to Discipleship. We had classes, and we had the infrastructure. We tracked people as they came into the system and as they moved along as disciples. I said then, and I say now, the structure of staying connected to people and guiding them is just as important as the classes themselves. I think we got the tracking part right.
What was Wrong?
The only problem was participation. No matter how well we stayed in contact with people and encouraged them to learn and grow as disciples, a high percentage was just not engaging in any further spiritual development after joining the church. The level of attrition from the first session of a class to the last was always disappointing. And the attrition from one phase of the pathway to the next was even worse.
Because this whole thing was an experiment, and we were carefully tracking everyone, I was able to ask people what was going on. For most, it wasn’t a lack of interest. It was a lack of time.
We can talk all we want about people’s need to make the time for what is important. But we all know the pressure we face in our culture. We are all crazy busy. We end up making decisions, not on true priority, but on perceived lack of friction. “Which of these things is easiest to say no to?” The church tends to be a graceful and low-conflict institution. (By the way, those two things are not the same.) We don’t like to make people feel bad, we don’t like to push. We are afraid people will leave. And honestly, we would rather have them showing up for worship once a month than leaving entirely.
If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t necessarily push harder. I think, I hope, if I had it to do over again, I would have skated to where the puck was going, not to where it already was.
Where was the proverbial puck going? Online.
During my tenure overseeing discipleship, I had one staff member who started seminary online. I had another who completed a large part of her college degree online. That did inspire me. But not enough. We started one online class.
If I had it do over again, I would have dumped all of our efforts and resources online. The “in person” class would have still existed, but it would have become the outlier. The online class would have been standard. And, I think, we would have helped a lot more people become disciples.
I can hear the pushback already. I know people need to come together for prayer, mutual support, and Bible study. But they are not.
However, I do believe, if we truly equip them as disciples, they will come together for prayer, mutual support, and Bible study. That is what disciples do. We can teach that. But to teach it, we may need to go where people are already: online.
Teaching people to make Christ a priority in their lives means finding a way to reach them where they are. If we can accept that they are busy, overwhelmed, stretched to their limits, maybe we can offer to teach in a way that they can handle.
Fortunately, we live at a time when all of this is possible. Online learning has come a long way in the last few years. Just getting started can feel like a big step. However, it is not that difficult and it is that important.
I will be sharing some information and resources about online learning. In the meantime, have you taken any courses online? If so, what was your experience like? How would you feel about online bible study?