small-groupsWesley clearly understood that Christian formation (disciple making) does not happen by accident, but by intention and with discipline. Discipline, for Wesley, is simply a habitual practice of the means of grace (or Christian spiritual disciplines, known as “works of piety” and “walks of mercy”) supported by weekly accountability in a small group. He knew that Christians are formed by initiating persons into a new way of behavior shaped by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christian discipline is summarized by three words: believing, behaving, and belonging.

Beliefs are enacted in behavior. John Wesley understood that people are much more likely to behave their way into believing than they are to believe their way into behaving as a Christian. That is why he required all Methodists to participate in the weekly Class Meeting. He taught them the means of grace—doing no harm by avoiding evil, doing good to all people as often as possible, prayer, reading and studying Scripture, public worship, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting or abstinence. These are the behaviors that equip Christians to deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23).

United Methodist Beliefs

The beliefs (or essential doctrines) of Christian faith for United Methodists are contained in the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, (found in Part II: Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task of the Book of Discipline) and the standard sermons of John Wesley (Sermons #1-52). Congregations must assure that all members know and grasp these essential teachings. The beliefs contained in these doctrines are enacted by the congregation in the rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are summarized when the congregation recites the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds in worship (Hymnal #880-882).

Learning and practicing the means of grace is how most Methodists came to believe and receive the gift of faith. They behaved their way into believing. Behaving and believing are a part of belonging in Christian community. The practices of Christian belief and behavior define the character of Christian community described in the Baptismal Covenant as being a “community of love and forgiveness” that forms people as “disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

Behave, believe, and belong are all entry points into the way of Jesus. They are inter-related parts of the process of disciple formation that builds upon the relational nature of human beings. “You become what you love.” If the goal of Christian formation is for persons to become more and more like Christ, then we need to know him as a living Savior. Congregations make disciples of Jesus Christ when they offer safe places for people to explore Christian beliefs, practices, and community.

Steven W. Manskar, Guidelines for Leading Your Congregation 2013–2016 – Small Group Ministries: Christian Formation through Mutual Accountability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).