Why are gracious accountability discipleship groups important?
As Christians, and as United Methodists, why should each of us be in a gracious accountability discipleship group? What is so important about small groups of disciples seeking to follow Jesus, while supporting, encouraging, and holding each other accountable to “live out” His teachings in our everyday lives? What happens in this type of small group that makes it different from other study small groups?
Jesus tells us, in three passages of Matthew, what is important if we are to follow him: Matthew 22: 36-40, Matthew 28: 18-20, and Matthew 25: 31-46. (All passages are from the NRSV.)
Matthew 22: 36-40
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, ” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus calls us first to serve God and others in love. Jesus’ Great Commandment (Matthew 22: 36-40) calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, plus to love our neighbor as ourselves. And yes, our neighbor includes our enemies. We can point to success, as well as some failure, in fulfilling the Great Commandment. It is both easy and hard to follow this commandment. It’s easy, because Jesus says His yoke is light and He is with us every step of the way. It’s hard because we have to maintain our focus on Him in the midst of all the distractions our culture throws at us every day.
John and Charles Wesley preached and sang about love being the goal. Yes, faith is our foundation, but love is always the goal. Always. We are saved by God’s grace, and when reflecting on this grace, our response is love. “Love divine, all loves excelling”, Charles’ well-known hymn says it well.
Matthew 28: 18-20
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Secondly, Jesus calls us is to make disciples. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) calls us to go and make disciples of all nations. Note that Jesus is not asking us to make believers, or church members, but disciples. So, we are called to love everyone and make disciples. What is a disciple of Jesus? What characteristics should one have to be a disciple?
If we are following Jesus, we can expect to exhibit different behaviors over time. These behaviors will look a little like how Jesus acted. When thinking about these behaviors, we could think of the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Or, we could think of the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
But how do we know if we are on the right path? How do I know if my behaviors and how I treat others are what God asks of me? As my friend and District Superintendent Beth Crissman likes to say, this question is similar to one we all asked our teachers and professors in school: “What will be on the final exam?” Jesus gives us the answer to what will be on the final exam in Matthew 25: 31-46.
Matthew 25: 31-46
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Wow! So, we are to love God and others, make disciples, and provide care for those who need food, drink, hospitality & shelter, clothing, and medical care plus visit those in prison. That seems like a very tall order. How can anyone manage to keep all of this in mind as we live our busy lives? Alone, I don’t think it’s possible to do this for a lifetime. But Jesus gave us a model (and John Wesley borrowed it) for doing it together: small groups that hold each other graciously accountable to a group covenant.
Jesus had a small group that learned from Him the way of discipleship. Twelve men and probably several women learned from Jesus as they journeyed together for three years.
Wesley initiated small groups that he called class meetings. Class meetings consisted of up to 12 women and men that met weekly as a “gracious accountability” group. Their focus was to individually answer the question: “How is it with your soul this week?”
Alone we will eventually be distracted by the competing demands of life. It will be difficult to maintain our focus over the long term. Together, we admittedly still have the distractions and demands of life. But, when we come together weekly, we remind each other of the covenant we have made together. We can each rejoin our journey with Jesus, and become the kind of disciple Jesus calls us to be.
Those in Wesley’s Class Meetings did not study a book. They may have sung a song, read a Bible verse, and had prayer. But, their main purpose was not Bible study, but a review of the state of their souls. It resulted in a wildly successful movement to revitalize the Church of England, and start the Methodist movement in North America.
So, if you want to start small gracious accountability groups in your church, what do they look like? How do we get them started? That will be the topic next time.
District Lay Leader, Blue Ridge District, WNC Conference