Developing the Intentional Discipleship System at Panama UMC
March 14, 2022 / By Tory Irgang, Growth and Vision Team Leader, Panama UMC
“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, and teaching to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20
As the foundation of our Christian faith, this verse has compelled followers 2,000 years with the same urgency that fueled the disciples who heard it commanded by Jesus himself. At the Panama United Methodist Church, we have recentered ourselves around this as our mission as we strive to lovingly give every person in our community the opportunity to believe in and follow Jesus.
In 2019, our congregation cut the ribbon on a beautiful addition to our church building. This addition answered a need for gathering space for our church family and for the broader community. However, we knew that God wasn’t just calling us to be welcoming and hospitable to non-believers; he was calling us to the tougher, more important work of discipling.
For more than 10 years, Panama UMC has utilized its Growth and Vision Team to provide the visioning and strategy necessary to keep our church healthy, vibrant, and responding to God’s call. This team is blessed with gifted members who are using those gifts to glorify God. That team prayed fervently for the Holy Spirit to guide discussions and what emerged was a clear call to evaluate how we were building disciples and identify ways to strengthen that work.
This vision and commission were energizing to us, but we also knew we needed support. We discovered a wonderful resource in the Rev. Dr. Aaron Bouwens, Director of Vital Congregations for the Upper New York Conference. Pastor Aaron brought us tools, examples, and teaching. He conducted a retreat for our Growth & Vision Team that launched our Intentional Discipleship Process. In the fall of 2019, we adopted what we refer to as “waypoints” that illustrate the discipleship journey for believers of all backgrounds and experience levels.
We reviewed our existing ministries to see how they aligned with these waypoints. This naturally led us to discover opportunities for new ministries that would aid believers in deepening their commitment to discipleship. We created graphics and visual representations that were easy to use and intended to be shared with the entire congregation. We hosted a workshop that brought Pastor Aaron back to meet with our Church Council and introduce the waypoints to all team leaders.
When the time was right, we brought the concept of an Intentional Discipleship Process (IDP) to the congregation through a sermon series. For each waypoint, our pastor, the Rev. Steven Taylor, offered biblical teaching and practical application from the pulpit. This allowed the IDP to launch into the hearts and minds of all believers and connect them to the work.
While having the shared language and visuals were key to our progress, one challenge was making sure the content remained on everyone’s minds after the sermon series concluded. The Growth and Vision Team found an opportunity to integrate the waypoints and biblical teaching into a devotion booklet to be used by team leaders at the start of their meetings. Like many churches, Panama UMC has a culture of beginning all team meetings with devotions and prayer, which can be a challenge for some leaders who feel this is outside of their giftedness. Dedicated members of the Growth and Vision Team, blessed with the gift of teaching, compiled twelve devotions, two for each waypoint. These devotions have been utilized throughout the pandemic, supporting team leaders and deepening our understanding of discipleship as a body of Christ.
Panama UMC experienced the same challenge as all churches when our plans were interrupted by the global pandemic. Some of our IDP continued, while other aspects of it hibernated. As a sense of normalcy returns, we are rededicating ourselves to the work we’ve yet to do. This includes working with the Staff Parish Relations Team to incorporate IDP language into job descriptions and performance evaluations. We are exploring new models for streamlining the administrative function of our church and its teams to maximize the time for kingdom-building ministry. Most importantly, we are putting the graphic representations and the refreshed mission and vision statements in key locations around our church building and on meeting agendas. It is our prayer that all members of the Panama United Methodist Church will be able to articulate the mission statement and understand the IDP as the way this gets accomplished. God has richly blessed our church to usher in this fresh look at our two-thousand-year-old call.