April 21, 2013
By Phil Maynard
I come from a Wesleyan tradition so I confess that personal accountability is wired into my being. Having said that, it is also clear across denominational lines and theological perspectives that movement toward maturity in the Christian journey requires a level of accountability.
The genius of Wesley’s discipling process was centered in accountability. When people made a commitment to become part of the Methodist movement it was required that they participate in what is known as a Class Meeting. The Class Meeting met weekly with a group of up to 15 participants. It was led by a Class Leader serving as what we might call a Spiritual Director or Discipleship Coach. Each meeting included worship, prayer, the collection of an offering, and personal accountability to a Discipleship Covenant.
As disciples matured, they were invited into gender specific and much more intimate groups (3-5 members) with a much higher level of accountability. These groups were called Bands and Select Societies.
John Wesley discovered that the best method for helping persons mature as disciples is to get them into relationships where they “watch over one another in love”. They are characterized by:
- Life-transforming relationships based on a shared commitment as faithful disciples. They are focused on behaving like Jesus, not just learning about Jesus
- A level of trust that allows for an openness about temptations and short-comings. That transparency brings sin into the light of God’s grace and provides the experience of forgiveness and healing
- Accountability for obeying Jesus’ teachings. In no way is this experienced as judgment by others. Rather, they are lived out in an environment of affirmation and shared commitment to becoming more mature disciples
So, how does the church provide that kind of accountability for the discipleship process?
While we will have a later chapter focused on the relational support for discipleship, it is important even at this point in our discussion to note that the typical small group is not the only way to provide this support.
Small groups are the staple of most discipleship processes. However, the typical small group structure and focus in most situations is not really built around providing accountability. There are of course exceptions. For example, the Accountable Discipleship model offered by David Lowes Watson which is based on the Class Meeting model of early Methodism or the Reunion Group model offered by the Emmaus Community. Each of these models is focused on personal accountability.
Other forms of accountable discipleship include Discipleship Coaching, Mentoring, Spiritual Friends, and Spiritual Directors. Each of these will be addressed in detail in a later chapter.
There are several important considerations when building personal accountability into the discipleship process.
First, participation in accountable discipleship must be modeled by the church leadership including the pastor. Church leaders set the tone for what happens in the life of the congregation.
Second, accountable discipleship must be identified as an expectation for membership in the congregation. Some congregations use a Membership Covenant which clearly identifies “participation in a small group or some other form of accountable discipleship” as a standard for membership.
As a general rule, people will stay at the same level of commitment expressed when they join a church for the duration of their participation in the life of that community of faith. If they are not engaged in an accountable relationship when they join it is not likely they will decide to do so at a later time.
Third, the congregation will need to be committed to a variety of forms of accountable discipleship. This is not a one-size-fits-all type of proposition. We will discuss in a later chapter the types of relationships that are most helpful at different phases of spiritual development.
The good news for those building a discipling process is that people, especially in the growing and maturing phases of discipleship want this type of support from the church. According to the research highlighted in a study of over 1,000 congregations, between 75-87% of the congregation are seeking this type of relationship. (Source: Move, Willow Creek Association)