“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
If you’re a United Methodist, then you probably recognize this as our mission statement. As a denomination, we proclaim these words make up our missional identity in how we exist as the church.
We crafted these words as our denominational mission statement over the last 20+ years and, in the process, we’ve worked on perfecting the language, teaching the biblical basis for the statement, and ensuring that no United Methodist forgets those important words.
We’ve plastered these words on letter-head, banners, websites, flashy ads, and church signs.
We’ve used this statement to justify just about every change and argument against change that comes our way.
We use this statement to set our goals, cast our vision, and critique those who may fall short of our desired outcomes.
If you know your Scripture (and if you’re reading this blog I’m assuming you at least know some Scripture), then you know this mission statement is based on Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel:
“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 them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20)
I’ve been a Methodist pastor for 3 years now. And I’ve been raised as a United Methodist for my entire life. But it’s only been recently that I’ve noticed something missing from our mission statement and how it aligns to Jesus’ words in The Great Commission. Maybe you’ve heard it explained how important the verbs are in this statement: We’re called to make disciples by teaching and baptizing.
The only problem is, we tend to forget one very important verb when we talk about the mission of the Church…
As we grow into a more heightened awareness of what ails the church, we naturally search for solutions. It’s only normal that when there’s a problem, we look to find the solution. But why is it that so many of the resources out there on how to “make disciples” says so very little on the church’s need to go? We talk a lot about what we need to do but so much of it seems to be confined to what happens within the walls the church buildings and program calendars.
I know what you’re thinking: “We have more and more out there on how to attract people who are outside of our church walls.”
Yes, but how much of that involves the church leaving its walls to go and find and be with those who are outside? Too much of our mindset is geared around attracting people to us when we ought to be following the Spirit’s call to go and leave the comforts of our buildings and programs and agendas.
Theologian, Marva Dawn, puts it this way:
“When we say we go to church on Sunday mornings, we’re exercising a bad theology. We don’t go to church. We participate in worship so we can be church everyday of our lives.”
We measure things like membership and worship numbers in order to gauge the health of a congregation. And these are important things to measure…to a degree. But too often we forget how easy it is to sit in a pew and never be a true follower of Jesus. And we fail recognize that what we need most are not more studies, meetings, circles, and small groups. What we need most are people who have the guts and inspiration to try to live like Jesus in their normal, everyday lives. And we pray that we learn to do that with some sense of community as the Body of Christ.
If we want to find our missional identity as the church, then it means confessing and asking forgiveness for the sin of self-preoccupation and narcissism. It means being willing to seek out real and authentic relationships with people for no other reason than because they are children made in the image of God. And it means learning to worry a little less about opening our doors, so that we can worry a little more about closing our doors behind us so we can go into the world where God is active and alive and at work in surprising ways.
This short (3 mins) video says this even better:
It’s 1:30pm on Sunday afternoon. I’ve finished my lunch and settled in for another routine Sunday afternoon filled with reading and writing and baseball whenever I’m not chasing my 16-month old daughter around the house. By all accounts it’s a typical Sunday afternoon except for the fact that this particular afternoon didn’t follow a typical Sunday morning worship service. You see, I felt the Spirit of God this morning in a way I’ve haven’t experienced for some time. And it all came about because of a simple change in rhythm.
This month at Mulberry we’re changing the rhythms of worship a bit. We’ve asked for people to submit their favorite hymns – preferably ones they haven’t heard in worship in a while. We received a good many submissions so we’ve decided to tweak our order of worship a bit to include more singing each Sunday during the month of July.
Maybe the change of rhythm was at fault, but I found myself noticing things in worship I’ve never noticed.
As we listened to a wonderful soloist, I noticed a mother and her 8-year old son on the 4th pew. The son had his head settled in his mother’s lap for the music. The mother sat and gently stroked the hair on the back of his neck. And for a moment, while everyone around her was focused on what was happening in front of them, she seemed to be taken to a special place. I watched as she stared at the back of her son’s neck gently stroking his hair relishing in a moment where her baby who was too big to be called a baby anymore found quiet rest in her arms. He soon will be much too big for these moments and yet, by God’s grace, they found this moment in the place and space where we worship the eternal God. And I got to peak into this moment where the in-breaking of God’s grace was quietly evident for this family.
My senses must have been heightened after that because I couldn’t help but see grace in other moments during the worship service – in the face of a squirming child; in the quiet dedication of couples who had been married much longer than I’ve been alive who innately know how to worship together; in the faces of families facing loss and heartache and stress and yet know that they need to be in worship even if they can’t fully explain it. Grace, present and palpable all around us.
Holy Communion was especially grace-filled. I found myself noticing peoples’ hands as they took the bread and dipped it into the cup.
“This is the body of Christ broken for you…”
Hands of all shapes and sizes and ages. Some were young and delicate. Some trembled as they approached and were visibly worn because years of love and work and dedication have a way of leaving its proof on our hands.
“This is the blood of Christ shed for you…”
I saw children bounce up the stairs to our chancel area to join their families around the altar for prayer. I saw young couples at the very genesis of adulthood kneeling together in prayer. I noticed one woman slowly make her way up the stairs with the aid of her cane. Aches and pain and a lack of mobility would not dare keep her from the altar of prayer.
We fit some more hymn requests into the communion time. Soon I heard the words of one of my all-time favorite hymns begin to add even more depth to the tapestry of this scene of grace.
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine!…”
“This is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for your sins and the sins of the world…”
I saw faces in the communion line light up as the congregation sang. Everyone began to sing that hymn particularly loud. It was as if we all knew that through this sacrament – this simple bread and grape juice – we were, in fact, sharing in a foretaste of God’s eternal glory.
The sacrament ended and we closed the Table. Timing worked out perfectly to where we had one more verse to sing together before we could proceed.
“Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Savior and happy and blest. Watching and waiting, looking above. Filled with his goodness, lost in his love. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior, all the day long.”
By the time we finished no one needed to say a word. We knew this worship service was delightfully surprising. Together we gave thanks for the holy meal and asked God to send us out into the world in the service of others. You could almost hear in the collective recitation of the prayer that this particular sending forth carried with it a certain hope and enthusiasm.
You know, we spend a great deal of time worrying and trying to brainstorm new ways to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We even run the risk of programming and gimmicking ourselves to death. Today I was reminded that our most basic (and primary) act as disciples is to faithfully offer ourselves in worship to the God who alone is worthy to be praised. So I challenge you to consider shifting your rhythms of worship and look around and listen. God is there, active and present, calling us all to be a people of worship. We are called to gather in praise. We hear God’s Word. We share in the holy meal together. And we are sent forth into the world to offer ourselves in service to all of God’s children. Sounds to me like the very heart of worship is also at the heart of discipleship.
Chapter 1: What the heck do we mean when we say “Connectionalism”?
Connection: The principle, basic to The United Methodist Church, that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede, local concerns. (found in glossary of terms on umc.org)
As everyone across the United Methodist connection wraps up another season of Annual Conference gatherings, I thought it only appropriate to write a couple of pieces about the meaning of connectionalism as we face the challenges of trying to be a 21st Century denomination. These posts will address some of the challenges of connectionalism as well as critique some of the current ways the term is defined through our shared ministry.
I contend that if we are to truly live into what it means to be a vital church, connected to each other and to the world in the 21st Century, then we need to expand our definitions of what it means to be connectional beyond dollars and structure. It’s high time that “connectional” become a verb that describes the way(s) we engage in ministry at all levels.
Chapter 2: Stop Hunger Now Project, South GA Annual Conference
This year our annual conference gathering focused on the theme of justice. In between the annual reports, budget proposals, and debate over whether or not to cut districts from our annual conference, we were invited to participate in a mission project sponsored by the organization, Stop Hunger Now. Below is an excerpt from their “About Us” page on their website describing the nature of the event we participated in during annual conference.
Stop Hunger Now is an international hunger relief agency that has been fulfilling its commitment to end hunger for more than 15 years. Since 1998, the organization has coordinated the distribution of food and other lifesaving aid to children and families in countries all over the world.
Stop Hunger Now created its meal packaging program, in 2005. The program perfected the assembly process that combines rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix including 21 essential vitamins and minerals into small meal packets. Each meal costs only 25 cents. The food stores easily, has a shelf-life of two years and transports quickly. Stop Hunger Now works with international partners that ship and distribute the meals in-country.
The packaging operation is mobile enough to go wherever volunteers are located, and can be adapted to accommodate as few as 25 and as many as 500 volunteers at a time. One SHN packaging event can result in the packaging of more than 1,000,000 meals. The use of volunteers for product packaging has resulted in an extremely cost-effective operation while, at the same time, increasing awareness of global hunger and food insecurity issues across the world.
So how does this foster connectionalism, you ask?
I had the duty of weighing meal packets that contained rice, grains, and the essential vitamins and minerals for the meals we were sending off. The packets had to be in a certain weight range and once they were packed by volunteers, they had to be weighed and adjusted if need be in order to move to the sealing and packaging stage of the process. During this process I had the opportunity to work next to Ken and Gloria.
Ken is a fellow clergy person. In fact, he’s moving to the district where I serve this year. I had not met Ken before this service project even though we both serve as clergy in South Georgia. But serving next to him on this assembly line gave me the chance to have a great conversation with him as our hands were busy doing work neither of us were used to doing.
On my left was Gloria. She is a lay person from a small, two-point charge in an area of South Georgia I doubt I could find even if I had a map. Gloria was a delightful woman with a contagious laugh which I got to enjoy as we fumbled bags of rice together. I realized how annual conference tends to be a setting where the clergy/laity divide is accented. Clergy see friends they haven’t seen in a year and often don’t get the chance to engage laity in-between sessions. But this wasn’t the case with Gloria. Through the power of mission, she and I shared a space together we otherwise would not have shared. And it was delightful!
Chapter 3: When connectionalism should mean more
I worry sometimes that we have defined connectionalism too narrowly. Surely it should mean more than dollars and internal structure. A couple of examples to illustrate my point.
We voted this year to reduce the number of districts in South Georgia beginning in June 2014. One of the arguments against this change was that churches would feel less connected when a district superintendent with a larger territory to cover visited less often. And so I wonder: Do we really depend on district superintendents to fulfill what it means to be connected?
Another example we hear is that we need to be more connectional through giving apportionments at the district and annual conference level. This call for giving is only heightened in a day and age where financial resources are harder to come by. And let me say this is a very important expression of what it means to be connectional. But should it be the primary expression of connectionalism? I know we’re Americans and we can’t help but buy into the rationale that all of our problems can be solved with our pocketbooks. So while connectional giving is vitally important, we also have to be honest about the fact that the vast majority of apportionment giving goes to support our own structure, while a much smaller portion goes toward outside mission. Do we really want to argue that connectionalism means first supporting ourselves?
I am a supporter of apportionment-giving. I believe in the importance of a district superintendent. But I also believe “connectionalism” should be more than structure and dollars. It should also mean relationship and working together at even the local level instead of seeing each other as competition. If we have any hopes of being a connectional denomination in the 21st Century, then we have to learn how to work together — clergy and laity, local churches with other local churches — and not depend so much on a top-heavy structure. We need to foster more collaboration amongst ourselves and not simply expect a structure to do the work of connection for us. [Spoiler Alert: More on this in an upcoming post...]
]That’s what I took away from annual conference. And to think, all it took was an hour or so of joining with others to worry about something other than ourselves.
Before we were known for our massive processes for doing ministry; before our bureaucracy grew to a size rivaling only The United States government; and before our Book of Discipline grew to the size of a graduate school textbook:
Methodists were known as a singing people.
Those were the days when the movement was new and fresh. People were excited to be apart of something new and growing. And thanks to John and Charles Wesley, singing was at the heart of what it meant to be a Methodist (so much so, Mr. Wesley felt it necessary to print “Rules For Singing” that all Methodists were to follow and which are still found on the first page of our United Methodist Hymnal).
As time has marched on, we’ve seen a great deal of evolution in worship. Styles have changed, some have been blended. We’ve evolved from a liturgical church with an emphasis on disciplined living through class meetings, to a denomination focused on revivals and being a central power in the nation, to a church in decline searching for an identity with various styles and influences vying for our attention. All the while, we’ve tried to discover and rediscover what it means to worship God in such a way that gives proper praise to the Triune God and also seeks to connect us to God and each other in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, I would like to make a modest proposal:
Let’s have fewer choir anthems, fewer solos, less volume from our praise bands, and turn our focus back to congregational singing.
I know this may sound crazy at first. Who doesn’t love a stirring anthem or a moving offertory solo? Who doesn’t love hearing their favorite praise song led by that worship band who knows right where the drum solo or guitar riff goes to make the song soar to a new level? Who doesn’t enjoy going to worship on Sundays to hear talented, and in many cases professional, singers and musicians showcase their talents in ways that we only wish we could do?
But worship is not about listening — it’s about participating.
If church leaders fear that people are becoming consumers of worship, then we need to plan worship that places the average worshipper in the role of participant and not observer. There’s already a big chunk of the worship service devoted to listening to a sermon (15 minutes…or 25 minutes…or 45 minutes). That time needs to be balanced with opportunities for the gathered assembly to offer itself as a sacrifice of praise. And there is very little sacrificed when we’re afforded too much time to sit back and passively listen. Worse yet, it comes all too natural when we’re already formed as a people who enjoy consuming.
Let me recommend an article written last year by Dr. Timothy Tennett where he advocates we learn to unplug worship, turn down the electronic sound, and turn up the lights. His best lines for me are when he makes the case to emphasize the priority of the congregation singing together over the individual focused on their own personal time of worship:
It is very common today for worship leaders to dim the lights of the sanctuary during the singing part of the worship service. As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row. However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people. I actually think it makes better sense to keep the lights in the sanctuary on during worship. One of the big conceptual differences between the “chorus movement” and the earlier “hymn movement” is that the former tends to conceptualize an individual singing and worshipping God, whereas the latter tends to conceptualize the corporate people of God, singing. I think dimming the lights has tended to send the message that this is your “personal” time before the Lord. Since it is impossible to “compete” with the electronically amplified voices, people often either just stand and watch, or they quietly move their lips but don’t feel that “joining in” can really make a substantial difference.
Before you think I’m simply picking on contemporary, praise band style worship, let me also offer a word to the more liturgical worship planners (because I am one):
A friend of mine told me recently, “a theology you cannot sing is not a very deep theology at all.” Singing requires we engage our faith with more than just our brains and this can be hard in a culture that says religion is simply a set of beliefs you either agree with or not. True faith, the kind of faith that shapes and forms us in ways we cannot begin to describe, will touch on all of our senses. And congregational singing has the power to reform us from individuals who simply ascend to a set of ideas, into a community that instinctively understands our shared life and faith are best sung about.
[For a powerful non-church example of congregational singing check out this clip. The National Anthem is one of the greatest soloist hymns of our time but I bet you've never heard it sung with this kind of power and emotion]
It was a hot, June day in South Georgia. The word “hot” doesn’t even seem sufficient. After all, June in South Georgia can bring days when the heat sits on you like a 50 pound backpack.
It was the sort of day when you couldn’t keep water cold for long. But you don’t care because you’d settle for tepid water if it means rehydrating after just a few minutes in the oppressive heat of the day. It was the sort of day when any indoor space became a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey, and air conditioning. On this particularly hot day, the assembly gathered in the convention center, fleeing the heat and anxiously awaiting the start of the next business session.
“Yes, microphone number 1. Do you have a speech for or against the motion on the floor? Please tell us your name and district.”
And then suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind filled the convention center. Some wondered if it was a summer twister – the ones famous for rolling through South Georgia at a moment’s notice on a summer afternoon. But then they saw it – fire. Tongues of fire rested on all who were gathered in that place. All at once clergy and laity alike began to speak in one accord telling of the glory of God. The business of annual conference became a revival where worship and singing sprung forth in true Methodist fashion. And there was no more division between people based on theological stances and worldviews. Friend and foe alike began to praise God and speak of his mighty acts of salvation.
Onlookers began to ask questions about the absurdity of the scene.
“They must be drunk!” one said.
One of those on the floor of conference responded, “We’re not drunk, we’re Methodists!”
In the midst of the singing and praising someone remembered the words of the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.”
What would happen if Annual Conference really transpired like this?
It can be easy to long for dramatic scenes of revival in the midst of what seems like mundane business sessions. We’re United Methodists, and these days we probably feel less evangelical and Spirit-led and more method-oriented and process driven. Sometimes it may feel like we listen to Robert’s Rules more than the Holy Spirit.
I’m still very new to the ministry (this is only my third Annual Conference session as a clergy-person). But I wonder if we don’t miss the forest for the trees in front of us when it comes to preparing for Annual Conference?
Maybe we long for the return of a past that we’ve romanticized so much that we miss the glory of the present and the future unfolding before us? We swear up and down on our grandmother’s grave that the Annual Conference sessions of 40 years ago used to be simpler and more spirit-filled. In an age of church decline it can be hard to see the movement of the Spirit among us.
Maybe we wonder if the mundane business of Annual Conference sessions – the policies, procedures, and Lord knows, Robert’s Rules – doesn’t serve as the perfect distraction from listening to where the winds of the Spirit are blowing.
But what if the Spirit of God is present even (and especially) in the moments when we aren’t expecting it?
What if the Holy Spirit is present in and guiding our talk of budgets and mission and even district realignments?
What if God’s Spirit is leading us even when we dare to talk about radically changing how we function as an Annual Conference?
What if, by the grace of God, we could see the Holy Spirit’s presence in our agendas and budgets, rules and procedures, reports and motions when we least expect it?
I’m looking forward to my third Annual Conference. I’m looking forward to breaking bread with friends and worshipping with the people called Methodist in South Georgia. But even more, I’m looking forward to being a witness to God’s mighty acts in and among us.
We do not orchestrate God’s redemption of the world – we simply look for the signs and participate in it. And we don’t have to wonder whether we should call on the Spirit to move among us – God’s Spirit is already at work in amazing and unexpected ways.
So I guess our prayer as we approach Annual Conference should be something like this: “Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear the signs of your mighty presence among us.”
Oh, and don’t be surprised if the cool rush of air you feel on the back of your neck at the Macon Centreplex is not the air conditioning at all. It might just be the quiet rush of the Spirit’s wind reminding you that God is indeed among us.
[This post originally appeared in The South Georgia Advocate on 5/3/13]
The United Methodist Church has an amazing document entitled This Holy Mystery that outlines our doctrinal and practical understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe you’ve heard of it or even participated in a class where it was taught. I have the privilege of leading a small group in studying this document over the next six weeks.
One of my initial thoughts in approaching this series with a group of lay people is that it might be helpful to blog about it and share it with the wider United Methodist community. Therefore, I invite you to join me for the next few blogs as I process my experience in both studying anew and teaching this fantastic United Methodist resource on sacramental theology.
Spoiler alert: I think it will have a lot to say not only about how we celebrate Holy Communion, but also how we seek to form and be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Session 1: Hungering for the Mystery
An excerpt from the teaching resource written by Gayle Felton:
The story is told of a little girl whose parents had taken her forward to receive Holy Communion. Disappointed with the small piece of bread she was given to dip in the cup, the child cried loudly, “I want more! I want more!” While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses the feelings of many contemporary United Methodist people. We want more! We Want more than we are receiving from the sacrament of Holy Communion as it is practiced in our churches.
The resounding response from our group in hearing this story was, “YES!!!”
We began our session by going around the room and naming 1 or 2 words they think of when participating in the sacrament. Some said, “renewed.” Others said, “forgiven.” Still others said, “strengthened and nourished.” Oddly, no one said, “bored.” I wonder how many lay people are sitting in our pews wishing we could celebrate Holy Communion more often. Where I serve, the Walk to Emmaus has served as a great source for helping people find new love for the Holy Communion. A couple of Emmaus alums in our group noted how let down they were in finding that after a wonderful weekend away where Holy Communion was so prominent, they realized just how much their local church kept it off to the side as though was not central to worship.
Frustration was expressed when clergy rush the liturgy, when the table is not carefully and lovingly prepared, when the theology expressed is questionable, and when clergy do not teach on the rich meaning and mystery in the sacrament. The laity all said they wished they heard more about the sacraments. They wished practices matched the deep meaning the sacrament had in their faith lives.
I wonder, too, if the disconnect felt has more to do with what we see as the primary focus of our worship — do we see the sermon as the primary turning point of worship or do we see the Table? For our Anglican brothers and sisters it’s the Table. Sermons are short and normally lead straight to the Table. But we’re United Methodists (and I’m in the South) so preaching and revival-style worship holds a special place in our cultural imagination. Legends are told of the great preachers of our past. Preaching is viewed as a primary skill for the ministry (and it should be).
I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has come at the expense of emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion?
A couple of years ago I did a very informal, unscientific poll on Facebook asking whether or not Communion would lose its meaning and importance if it were celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly. Interestingly my responses were split into two categories — everyone who voted for celebrating MORE often were laity and everyone who noted the difficulty in celebrating more often were clergy. Now I’m drawing my own conclusions but I wonder if that doesn’t have a little something to do with our emphasis on preaching. In other words, do we preachers secretly enjoy knowing that our sermons are the pinnacle of the worship service? Another thought could be that with more observances comes more planning and responsibilities — is it just easier on preachers and worship teams to stay with fewer observances?
But it’s not just a critique of the place and priority we give preaching. Emphasizing the sacraments calls into question how we view worship as a whole. Giving the sacraments a primary place in worship means not only allowing, but inviting mystery to be primary in our worship. This means we have to be okay with not being able to explain our the0logy and rituals in neat, compact ways. It means being okay with allowing the Spirit to move without our putting a formula on how it moves. And it means seeing worship as something more than just entertainment or comfort where style trumps content and we think we can become full off of a steady diet of thin, shallow meaning.
Don Saliers notes that emphasizing the sacraments in such a way as to make the link between ritual, mission, and discipleship will require some change in how congregations approach the sacraments. First, he says, congregations would be forced to teach and learn more about the sacraments on an ongoing basis. We need to teach worship instead of just doing it and expecting that folks get something out of it. But we cannot marginalize the sacraments just because they’re cloaked in some mystery and not easily understood. We can still teach in the midst of mystery. Secondly, Saliers notes, preaching would need to root itself in a sacramental sense of church and world. We cannot simply preach that salvation is found in Jesus’ death. The entirety of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the foundation for our preaching and worship. The liturgy of Holy Communion covers the spectrum of this foundation, invites us to “taste and see,” and then sends us forth in mission as we participation in the fullness of life in Christ. Thirdly, congregations would have to celebrate the sacraments with more vitality and enthusiasm. Baptisms are not meant to be rote and routine. Holy Communion is not a funeral service. We offer ourselves in thanks and praise as we participate in the very life of God’s redeeming action every time we celebrate one of the sacraments. Why would we not want to do this as often as possible???
Question: How does your congregation celebrate Holy Communion? Do you wish you could celebrate more often? How are the sacraments taught in your congregation? Do you wish they were taught more?