If you’re a United Methodist, you’ve probably heard about the Vital Congregations movement that’s begun to help reform our denomination. A lot of money has been invested in studies, marketing, and analysis to come up with the conclusion that if we, The United Methodist Church, are to survive as a denomination and overcome a 50+ year decline, we need to “equip and empower people to be Disciples of Jesus Christ in their homes and communities around the world” (See homepage of Vital Congregations website for full quote).
Our agencies have gotten fat and our budgets are suffering the effects of malnutrition. The thought is it’s time to reform the larger denominational structure in order to empower our congregations to put action behind the mission statement of the church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We’ve put this mission statement on every poster, brochure, website, program agenda, and banner–we know it by heart, it’s now time to perform it.
As we get closer and closer to General Conference 2012, there is growing buzz around the denomination about the extent of reform that will come out of that important meeting of our church. How much of it will be centered around this massive renewal spelled out in the Call to Action Report and Vital Congregations Initiative? What will these new initiatives mean for the life of church as we know it? If we’re equipping congregations in order that they may be called “vital,” what does that mean?
Let’s review some of the proposed characteristics of congregational vitality, shall we?
We’ve identified key drivers that include:
- Effective pastoral leadership
- A mix of contemporary worship and traditional worship
- A large percentage of the congregation involved in leadership
- An assortment of small group opportunities for all ages
We’ve made some key proposals in how our structure should be aligned:
- Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church’s “true first priority” for at least a decade.
- Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
- Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement.
- Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
- Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.
All of this sounds great if you’re a fan of reform. I’m a big fan of reform and personally, I see a great deal of this only benefiting the way we operate as a large denomination.
However I do have a problem. My lingering question throughout this entire process is yet to be answered clearly and with the same depth that the rest of the analysis has been put together. That is, what does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like? We spend lots of time, energy and ink going into great depth on the need for congregations to become vital organizations. And we even believe this is done by “making disciples.” So if our mission is to “make [or form] disciples,” then what constitutes a disciple?
Let’s go back to our new source for all things “vital: Vital Congregations webpage. There you’ll find at the bottom right of the homepage a box named “A Disciple of Jesus Christ” and you’ll read 5 characteristics that characterize a disciple:
- worships regularly
- helps make new disciples
- is engaged in growing his/her faith
- is engaged in mission
- shares by giving in mission
Now before you get swept off your feet by the excitement of these characteristics [insert sarcasm here], there is biblical backing for such a description. The site notes Matthew 22:36-40 as the source for this description. And I would argue that the twofold law of the gospel is a great place to start when talking about how we view and grow our faith.
But I also have some major issues with this description [you knew that was coming]. For starters, why do we like to reduce everything down to bullet points and simple statements. It’s almost as though we don’t think the members of our churches want to get bogged down in an overly wordy and in-depth description of their discipleship. I reference us back to one of the great scenes from my all-time favorite show, The West Wing, for a better diagnosis of this flaw:
Gov. Ritchie: We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
Bartlet: There it is. That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. [Season 4 Episode 71 Originally aired 10/30/02]
You see, as a young pastor in The United Methodist Church, I’m not looking for short, simplistic answers to the great questions of how to live as the Church in our world. And frankly, over my short career in ministry I’ve found that most laity long for something deeper as well. I want the complexities that come with admitting that discipleship is hard. I long for the words of liturgy over the words of a grocery list rendition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. When do we get to the parts about “resisting evil, injustice, and oppression” in all forms? When do we talk about “confessing Jesus Christ as Savior” and “putting our whole trust in his grace”? And when do we get to the part that reminds us:
Through baptism we are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we [are welcomed] as members of the family of Christ.
When you put these vague statements on discipleship together with the clear, direct statements on what the church needs in order to reform, you get little more than a plea to save our institution without the cost of doing just that. We want to convince people that they should “be engaged in growing their faith” but we fail to say how to do so. We want people to “help make new disciples” but we fail to say that comes with a price–or rather, a cross. We want people to “attend worship regularly” and “give to missions” but we fail to disclose the truth that the life of a disciple is a life where worship is embodied everyday and missional is a description of a life given for service to the world.
I want to believe that the Vital Congregation Initiative is a positive step for the church. And maybe it is a good place to start. I want to believe that realigning resources accordingly will better enhance the ministry of The United Methodist Church to the world. But until we move past these neatly packaged, banal, vague statements into something with depth and [dare I say it] life-changing qualities, I suppose I’ll remain a skeptic–a skeptic devoted to the ongoing, transformative work of the church nonetheless.