Practical Divinity: Moving from revival to discipleship

Andrew C. Thompson

Andrew C. Thompson

Spiritual revival is never an end in itself. It is, however, essential for deep discipleship becoming a reality.

Bishop Gary Mueller spoke those words as a part of his Episcopal Address at our recent Annual Conference session in Hot Springs. It was one of the main points that he shared as a part of his reflection on the relationship between revival and discipleship.

Understanding that relationship is critical for us if we want the fruits that come from spiritual revival to prove lasting in their effects.

Focusing on spiritual revival as an end in itself would be a big mistake for us. The word “revival” itself means new life. To be spiritually revived means to be given new life by the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit gives life, it is always for some good purpose.

The good purpose for which the Spirit gives life is, of course, the purpose of following Jesus! It is discipleship. So when we find ourselves given the gift of spiritual renewal, we should always be asking how that renewal can lead us to grow in our discipleship to Christ.

One other aspect of the bishop’s message shouldn’t be lost on us: his strong conviction that revival is the fuel that brings discipleship to fruition. Trying to live the life of discipleship without the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit would be like trying to bake a loaf of bread with no yeast in the dough. The grace that the Spirit gives us serves as the ongoing power for the Christian life in every respect.

Revival and discipleship in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John gives us a wonderful image to help us understand the spiritual rhythm of revival leading to discipleship. When the resurrected Jesus appears to disciples in the locked room on Easter day, he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Immediately thereafter, Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

This scene in the Gospel of John is a perfect image for this year’s Annual Conference theme: “From Revival Flows Discipleship.” Jesus gives revival to the disciples by breathing out the Holy Spirit upon them. He restores them from the fear and failure that they experienced prior to Easter morning. By giving them the Spirit, he gives them new life.

In the midst of his gift of revival, Jesus also shares words with the disciples that point them to the purpose their revival should serve. The Father sent Jesus, and now Jesus sends them. He sends them into the world to witness to the salvation Jesus brings through their own faithful discipleship.

Discipleship in the Wesleyan class meeting

So what is our next step if we want the revival that God is offering to us to move us into a deeper discipleship in our own lives?

One of the highlights of our Annual Conference session was a resolution passed on Tuesday afternoon. Its stated purpose: “Encourage the Formation of Accountable Discipleship Groups in the Local Church.”

The text of the resolution affirms our Wesleyan tradition of small-group discipleship formation. It then encourages local congregations to form small groups for women and men based on the early Methodist class meeting.

The class meeting was the most widely used small group in the early Methodist movement. Originally it was a group of 10 to 12 people led by a class leader. Its chief activities were faith sharing and prayer, and the question that the leader asked each class member during the weekly meeting was, “How is it with your soul?” Class members had the opportunity to share their joys and their challenges with one another. They prayed together. The purpose of the gathering was, in Wesley’s own words, “to watch over one another in love.”

Small groups based on the class meeting model are exactly what we need for revival to flow into the discipleship in the Arkansas Conference today. It is through the faith formation that happens in Wesleyan small groups that discipleship is given the rich soil in which to take root and grow.

There are aspects of discipleship that need to be carried out beyond the prayer and conversation of small groups, of course. There is evangelism and mission, worship and study, education and pastoral care. Yet if small groups are done correctly—on the authentic Wesleyan model—they provide a foundation of faith formation that can serve as a springboard for all these other elements of discipleship.

Sometimes the work that we do debating and voting on resolutions during the Annual Conference session is much ado about nothing. Resolutions typically don’t require concrete action by the Conference. They are statements of the Conference’s opinion on this or that matter. But I believe the resolution passed in Hot Springs encouraging all local churches in Arkansas to embrace the class meeting model in a contemporary context is something much more.

If we want to be faithful to the Savior who gives us the reviving gift of the Holy Spirit, then we will heed his call to be sent out into the world to live as his disciples. And the foundation of that life of discipleship will be found in small groups committed to engaging in the serious work of faith formation. The Conference has endorsed such a path. Now let’s follow it.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson serves as senior pastor of First UMC Springdale. He can be reached at www.andrewthompson.com.