If the leaders of the Methodist church in 1850 had not changed their strategy perhaps by now the whole of Britain and the USA would be Methodists!
Many harvest occur through disciple making movements.
Disciple making movement are where, simply put, a Christian disciple goes out and makes a new disciple that in turn goes out to make disciples. It is the process of constantly making new disciples, a life cycle. One cycle or stage is called a generation.
Such movements multiply by multiplication and accelerate quickly to spread to the whole of society.
Here’s an easy example: Let’s begin with two Christians. For one year two people gather regularly. They learn the Bible and listen to the Holy Spirit and obey God. After one year has passed, they both find a friend and repeat the process, making disciples.
At the same pace, once a year for 10 years, each disciple finds just one new person. And by multiplication, in 10 years it will spread to 1000 people!
If you do the same process with five people it will reach 10 million people in 10 years!
For such a movement we need an exquisite balance between guidance and supervision.
We see in history, if the supervision and guidance are lacking or if you control too much the movement does not even start
or it falters in some way. And if you try to control a growing movement too much you risk killing it completely.
Let’s take a look at the roots of the modern Methodist church see what we can learn.
Of course this is not to criticise past or present Methodists but just look at the characteristics of the movement objectively for the purpose of learning. We have all benefited through the work of the Methodist church. The gospel was taken to various parts of Japan. Educational institutions, hospitals and universities were set up throughout Japan through the Methodists and their legacy is still seen in many places.
It all began through a young man called John Wesley in 18th century England. A huge revival and harvest began
Wesley had a strong faith since university and became a pastor and then a missionary. He was dispatched overseas but failed at his first endeavour and returned home.
At a gathering of Moravian brothers, Wesley sought the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He experienced the Holy Spirit and his life was changed.
He became an evangelist in the life and power of the Holy Spirit. While traveling throughout England evangelising, he emphasised two big keys:
- Christians gathering in small groups following a strict discipleship method.
- And the appointment people to oversee the small groups
Within a generation 3% of the UK population became Methodists and the movement became a global phenomenon.
America’s Methodist movement also had rapid growth and spread to over 5% of the population of the United States in about 40 years. According to researchers of Christian movements the key to the success of the Methodist movement was all participants using the set disciple training method and zealously following it. (Of course Methodist comes from the English word “method”!)
In other words, they were known for their very set methodologies; everyone evangelised and made disciples in a very ordered way.
Actually, I am a New Zealander of British descent and I learned recently that my great-great-grandmother, in the southern part of England, around 1870 was holding Methodist home meetings in her house.
However, as with many movements and harvest stories in the midst of the rapid growth of the Methodist movement growth suddenly stopped and eventually declined. How come?
From the graph it is easy to see the growth of British Methodists: The number on the left is the number of new members added each year. New believers increased steadily every year since 1765 then growth stopped suddenly between 1850 and 1875. Why?
During the period in which they continued to grow they kept to the original mission of evangelism and discipleship. All followers evangelised and made disciples. Everyone was able to lead home gatherings etc. after receiving training. Also, circuit riders travelled to visit the disciple groups for support and guidance. They did not need any special qualifications or training.
However, the Methodist leadership introduced a major change in 1850 and another big change 10 years later in 1860.Firstly in 1850 the Methodist leaders changed the qualification requirements for leaders.The un-qualified leaders of the Methodist groups had always been ridiculed by other Christian groups as immature and un-educated and looked down upon, because any person could lead a meeting.The group consequently mandated the evangelists and the local leaders to have 4 years of theological training. Straight away, the rapid growth ended.
And ten years later, in 1860, leadership made another change. The various discipleship groups and “band meetings” focused on discipleship would now be voluntary. Sadly, the Methodist church continues to decline from that time to today.
What a waste!If they had kept the same growth rate as 1830 to 1850 of 8% every year America could have been entirely Methodist by the year 1930! Ok, it’s only conjecture – but we can learn a lot from this story!
There’s an English saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
The British and American Methodist movement in the early 1800’s made a lot of disciples who made disciples. They followed the important example that Jesus showed us and kept Jesus’ great commission that he gave His disciples. Anyone with simple training could lead others. Disciples grew more and more and the movement expanded rapidly. But they feared opinion of the leaders of other churches. They added various rules and regulations and growth has declined over the years.
As I said at the beginning, when there is not enough direction and guidance a movement will not start. When there is too much control a movement will not start. But also if you try to control an actual growing movement you may well kill it completely.
Let’s pray for the harvest coming to Japan soon. Ask God to raise up wise leaders and supervisors who will maintain balance by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, intentionally and naturally. And let’s pray that a disciple making movement will spread in Japan!