I’ve decided to begin 2012 with a new series that I hope will take us at least most of the way to General Conference. If you’re a United Methodist, you know by now there’s a great deal of change coming out of Tampa that will affect the entire Methodist Connection. The Call to Action is being used as a basis for assessing the health and vitality of our local congregations. There’s a good chance that there will be some major changes to the ordination process as a means of addressing ineffective clergy and hopefully stem the tide of decline in our churches.
As you also know, I’ve been a bit of a critic of many of these changes. I’m not convinced that implementing some sort of contrived plan of action will do much more than make us feel better for having “done something.” And yet, over these past few months and after studying and following much of the debate, I can now see some of the merits of the plans that are being proposed. We do have a problem with unhealthy congregations. And we do have a problem with clergy who feel more entitled than empowered to preach to preach the gospel. There’s a lot to be said for these plans in holding clergy and congregations accountable for doing good work of ministry. Are the priorities dangerously close to being self-serving? Sure. Are there still merits with the plans in spite of some shortcomings in theological integrity? I think so.
But that’s not why I’m writing this series. If you want a more candid and electric view of criticism for the Call to Action, check out my friend, Jeremy–he’s got some convincing material out there. I would rather examine what I’m not hearing much of in these debates: our failure in Christian Discipleship.
This upcoming series will seek to address the practice of Christian discipleship at the most local levels. Yes, there will be some theoretical approaches to my work: you can’t study practices without a little theory. But I hope this series will address some of our denominational shortcomings at the most practical level. Recently a friend of mine offered a thought that has stuck with me:
“It’s not about who or how many people or dollars we’ve lost, but how well we disciple people”
Therefore, I want to undergird this series not with our shallow mission statement of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but with The General Rule of Discipleship:
“To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
And so as I begin I want to ask you for your help. Please feel free to interact on this blog and offer your thoughts along the way. I want this to be a community experience of sorts. And frankly, I probably need some help fleshing these thoughts out. So please feel free to respond!
Is discipleship our greatest need in the Church today? How do you see our failure of discipleship in American Christianity? What do you see as our greatest need in forming disciples of Jesus Christ?
There was a time when conferencing in the Methodist tradition meant something closer to a direct democracy than it did to the now more prevalent sense of representative government. For example, the Christmas Conference of 1784 saw the majority of itinerant pastors in America gathered in attendance. Over time, however, as the church grew both in size and structure that the proportion of representation grew less and less. Now annual conferences are allotted a certain amount of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference based on size and the number of church in a respective area. This is very similar to the method found in the United States House of Representatives and how they are organized and allotted. The way we organize ourselves in light of governing speaks to the heart of what it means to exercise our voice.
In a day and age that has seen massive political upheaval across the world and major demonstrations here at home from both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, one must ask whether proportional representation still suffices as the prominent way we make our voices heard. We’ve seen many examples of masses of people gather to cry out against the representative governments. We now have to ask whether that’s a truly faithful way of organizing as the church. Where are persons being shut out? Who and where are the absent voices in our church? And how can we see too it that no one feels left out of the process of organization?
Interestingly, a new development has started to have an impact on larger meetings around the church. Whether it’s a conference event or a continuing education conference wireless internet, smart phones and portable tablets (think iPad) have allowed participants to log on to Twitter and react to what is heard at these meetings. Yes, social media has, in fact, infiltrated the church in new and exciting ways.
Now for those who don’t know, Twitter is known as a social networking website. Posting on the site is called “tweeting.” You can search for and follow the posts of whoever you want. And there’s a wonderful method of tagging your tweets to allow others to see what you’ve said called a hashtag (# symbol).
Let me give you a recent example of how this works in the life of the church. I went to the Wesleyan Leadership Conference in Nashville put on by The General Board of Discipleship back in October 2011. At the beginning of the gathering we were notified that our hashtag was “#WesleyLC2011.” So every time we tweeted, we ended our tweet with #WesleyLC2011. This way those who were not physically present could interact with what we were discussing. Essentially, Twitter allowed for a meeting of 75 participants to be opened up to whoever wanted to interact through the virtual world.
By now you may be asking what in the world does the Christmas Conference of 1784, political upheaval, and Twitter have to do with one another and The United Methodist Church?
First, for the first time those who were elected as delegates to General Conference do not have to be the only ones present. There will hundreds of United Methodists physically gathered in Tampa from all over the world. But there will also be hundreds gathered through the power of social media.
Secondly, many analysts have noted the fact that social media has helped drive the transformative power of political change. The Arab Spring in the Middle East was largely organized and driven through social media, often by younger adults. The same power has been seen among movements here in America as well. It is because of this influence that we have to plead with our denominational leaders to see to it that the Convention Center in Tampa is 100% wi-fi enabled. In the 21st Century, to disable Internet access would be likened to cutting off phone access. It is a means of communication and information access.
Finally, the politics of running for and being elected as a delegate to General Conference can no longer forbid access to those who are not elected. Social media has granted us unprecedented access to follow what’s happening and to voice questions and comments in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Christmas Conference of 1784. The system is in the process of being upended and we’re in the process of watching the way we exercise authority shift in a major way.
Social media has had a hand in some major change in the Arab world and here at home in America. It’s driven the voice for change and empowered those who once had no voice. By utilizing the power of social media I’m convinced that conference will no longer just be a place or an event—it will be a way of acting uniquely as United Methodists. It will be a return to a way of life that maybe we’ve forsaken in recent pursuits for efficiency and streamlined organization. And it will be a 21st Century example of honoring the Methodist sense of gathering to conference–a true means of grace–in such a way that I’m sure would make even Mr. Wesley himself very proud.
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:
We’ve made some key proposals in how our structure should be aligned:
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:
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.
I was reminded this past weekend of just how difficult it can be to let Christmas truly be a Christian observance. We spend the season fighting against the hustle and bustle of a commercialized rhythm that can leave any church in the dust.
We did 4 worship services over the course of the weekend (3 on Christmas Eve and 1 on Christmas Day). I figure the vast majority of churches probably followed a similar pattern. It wasn’t until I read an article via the Patheos blog that I even realized just how many were not planning to hold worship on Sunday, December 25, at all. In fact, around 10% of Protestant pastors polled by LifeWay said they did not plan to hold worship on Christmas Day. Why? Well, many churches cite the need for the staff and ministers to have a day to spend with their families. One church’s website I found (and won’t disclose) even said that “Christmas is a day to love and appreciate family, we will not have worship on Christmas Day so that families can do just that.” Very interesting.
I hear the tension that exists for pastors who try to balance their family life with their vocation of ministry. I now know first-hand just how much work goes into Christmas Eve services so I get the fact that many would rather hold the very best services throughout Christmas Eve and then take the next day (Sunday) off. It’s hard when much of your logistical work is done by volunteers who have conflicts on a holiday weekend. It’s hard when you consider the paid staff who would like a day off as well. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.
But let’s at least be honest that underneath the family needs on Christmas Day, we’re also canceling church because we think no one will attend. The truth is, if we were guaranteed the same crowds on Christmas Day that we see on Christmas Eve, we wouldn’t consider canceling worship even if you paid us. So yes, there are family needs at play here. But there’s also a marketing mentality that informs us to believe that low crowds don’t merit our best efforts so maybe it’s more efficient to close up shop instead.
So in that spirit, I wonder what sort of message a mass canceling worship sends to those outside of the church?
The author for the atheism section of about.com makes the ironic connection in his article titled, “Christmas: So Christian that Churches Close for Christmas Day.” It is a bit ironic that we spend so much time preserving some sense of religious observance throughout the season just to say that we’ll close on Christmas Day itself in favor of “quality time with families.”
Rather than trying to make the point that short of natural disaster or weather that makes it unsafe for travel you shouldn’t cancel worship–period, I want tease out this idea of family. What constitutes our sense of family? And how is that sense informed by our identities as Christians?
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Worship contains the wording of the Baptismal Liturgy we practice in the life of the church. In it, there are some interesting ways this idea of family is reoriented in light of one’s baptism:
“Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church…we are given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” [BOW p.87]
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God…” [BOW p. 89]
“Through baptism you 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 welcome you as member(s) of the family of Christ” [BOW p. 92]
You see, while canceling worship might be more convenient for pastors in our observance of family time, we are, in fact, neglecting the family time of the community of faith. Limiting family to one’s immediate family at Christmas is not Christian at all. We have to be honest about that fact. As members of the baptized community of faith we have to hold fast to the idea that for us, “family” has been expanded to touch the far-reaches of the church universal.
So is an hour on Christmas Day really a sacrifice when it comes to spending quality time with our family in light of our baptismal identity? I guess that’s a question pastors, members, and churches should ask themselves. But don’t worry, I hear 2016 will give us another opportunity to respond to such a challenge.
Relevance. It’s a word you seem to hear more and more in church circles and leadership training seminars. The mainline church has been in decline for over 50 years and, many argue this can at least be partially attributed to the fact that, by and large, the Church can’t seem to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. If we can’t speak the language of a changing world, there’s no way we can ever hope to have a viable presence in said world.
It’s no secret that one of the biggest signs of this lack of relevance shows up in the lack of persons between ages of 25-35 on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard many make passionate and well-founded arguments that “you have to understand young people if you want them to come to church.” “This generation will take or leave the church.” “They aren’t like their parents or grandparents.”
Now besides the fact that such statements are vastly over-simplified and do not reflect any sort of consensus among younger adults (or their parents and grandparents for that matter), there is something to be said for the fact that a gulf between the church and society in America at large that is becoming more and more evident with every study of worship attendance and membership that comes out.
As a member of this elusive demographic, I would like to explore this idea of relevance in the hopes that I might at least spark a hearty discussion in the process.
Generation of Target Consumers
Somewhere around the mid-1970s or so a revolution in advertising happened. You see, ads are always run at particular times of day on particular channels during particular shows in order to target particular people. Around the early to mid 70s toy companies decided to shake things up by advertising straight to children. Whereas they always centered ads around parents and tried to attract parents into buying particular toys, these companies took to Saturday morning television (prime-time for kids) and centered their ads right at kids so they could then beg their parents for whatever the latest and greatest toy was that morning.
What does this mean for the church’s quest for relevance?
For starters, if you’re centering this quest for relevance around that elusive 25-35 year old demographic, you need to understand that we’re the first generation ever that will be advertised to from the cradle to the grave. Therefore, any quest for relevance that is anchored in advertising will very easily become white noise to a young adult. The church doesn’t need to try to be “hip” or “cool” in order to attract young adults. Frankly, the church isn’t very good at that stuff.
Secondly, the style of worship your church offers has much less of an “attractional” element than you might think. So many churches think, “if we just offered that rock band style of music young folks will knock our doors down.” That isn’t true. Very rarely do young post-grads ever search out the nearest church with the biggest rock concert to offer on a Sunday morning. Young adults will, however, ask a trusted friend or a co-worker about the church they attend. And this church could come in any shape, size or style–just so long as someone they know and trust is there to welcome them.
Relevance or Authenticity?
You see, if the church really wants to speak to younger adults, rather than striving to be “relevant” why don’t we just be authentic. Honesty goes a lot further than folks give it credit. If you don’t believe me just look at a big chunk of Ron Paul’s supporters–younger adults longing for a politician who will be honest and not speak from talking points. And the church ought to try that for once–speaking from the heart instead of a script of doctrinal talking points.
If you want your church to be relevant, then it won’t happen with slick ads or flashing lights and loud music. It won’t happen only in the form of a preacher who wears t-shirts and blue jeans and who sits on a stool to preach on Sunday mornings. It won’t be a part of any sort of manufactured and packaged effort that hopes to make your church somehow “attractional.” You don’t boast about “being real” either–you just are real and don’t make a big deal about it.
If you really want to be relevant or real for younger adults, then why don’t you do some truth telling about yourself and the world we live in? The world is a complicated and messy place and, frankly, it can be hard to stomach simplistic theology that tries to make God and the meaning of life into a 2+2=4 formula.
Why don’t you ask us what our passions are? Why don’t you sit down and listen to our dreams? Our fears? Rather than imposing some set of assumed “needs” you see younger adults having, why don’t you just ask? Remember that when, as a church, you attempt to “meet the needs” of younger adults without listening and learning you often just project your own needs upon folks you don’t even know. Just know that when you do listen and learn and love you have to be ready for some truth-telling in return. If the offer of Christ is to come in the form of love, then it can’t have an agenda. These young adults may not come to your church right away. They may drift in and out depending on where life is taking them–and that’s okay.
If you want to speak to the issue young adults face, be relevant if you will, then try being bold about who you are as a church. Talk about issues that matter beyond the walls of your church and leave room for questioning. Let us bring our black, hispanic or even gay friends to church because, after all, many of us simply see them as friends who don’t need a special pass to be allowed into worship. Talk about relationships in ways that aren’t trite and simplistic. Our lives are complicated and we need help navigating the rough waters of relationships without having a judgmental wave try to knock us off course. In all of this, don’t try to be everything to everyone and just try being authentically who you are.
When you do worship, dare to sing big beautiful songs about God and the world and not the pithy little anthems that only tells the story of my faith or my salvation. There’s a big world out there and we need the language of faith that recognizes we aren’t actually the center of that world. These songs can be sung with both pipe organs and electric guitars. Heck, many of us might even like it if you occasionally mixed a good banjo in with your guitars. And when you finish singing these big beautiful songs, dare to send us out into the world like we might actually be able to make a difference. God’s grace is big and mysterious but we need to know that it’s with us nonetheless, even when we don’t totally understand it. Oh and please, please, please do the sacraments often. Don’t rid the church space of mystery and iconography. I’ll let you in on a little secret–mystery is actually one of the biggest reasons many younger adults attend church (even if it is sporadically).
As a wise frog once taught us, “it’s not easy being green”–but it is beautiful. Rather than wasting a lot of time and energy trying to be relevant, why not just dare to be the church. And know that you’ll have to ease some of us along and teach us a new language. But if you’re faithful to that language, not sacrificing it for the sake of “relevance” or growth, you might be surprised who shows us ready to hear an actual word from the Lord on a Sunday. They might even decide to put that word into action the other six days of the week as well. If you don’t believe me, just go down to your local coffee shop or happy hour bar and just ask a young adult yourself. Tell the truth, be authentic, and don’t worry if it makes you look a little green. “Authentically green” is a good color for the church.
A lot of ink is in the process of being spilled over what ails the United Methodist Church. Everyone seems to have their own take on what our shortcomings are and what could ultimately save us. With General Conference coming in 6 short months I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface of ideas to save our denomination. It is in the spirit of offering ideas that I would like to explore an avenue that could inspire us to think anew, or at least differently, about who we are and what we’re about as The United Methodist Church.
Russ Richey explains in his book, Doctrine In Experience, that from the outset, Methodists saw their purpose as one of Providence. With Methodism’s timing in America, at the beginning of a new nation, Richey notes:
“Methodists conflated the kingdom of God with the nation, construed denominational purposes in terms of those of a Christian America, and in making the church subservient to Christian nationalism, intimately tied the former’s health to the later’s” (p. 21)
Now this problem isn’t exclusive to the UMC by any stretch. Protestantism in America as a whole fell victim to tying its mission too closely with the utopian notion that somehow America would, unlike its European older siblings, form itself into the perfect mix of Nation/Church. The past 200+ years have illustrated the slow demise of this mission. One of the major problems churches all over the country now face is a lack of vision and mission. I would argue that much of this is due to the fact that our earlier purpose was faulty at best. When the promises of democracy and liberty as the ultimate form of being the church failed and the realities of pluralism in a global society revealed the fault-line in the vision of a so-called “Christian America,” The United Methodist Church (along with all other mainline denominations) suffered a blow to its structure that we’re now all trying to assess and hopefully heal.
So what has Providence looked like throughout American Methodist history?
For starters, the historical questions that have been asked of Methodist preachers at ordination over the many, many decades can offer a glimpse into our earliest views of providence. The 3rd question, What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?, became nuanced very early. Over the years this answer has offered a statement of Methodist purpose through the wording: to reform the Continent, and spread scriptural Holiness over these lands. And thus our purpose from the beginning was tied to the development and evolution of the nation.
Methodist historian, Abel Stevens, drew the providential connection of church and nation firmly. In his book, Compendius History, Stevens sketched Methodist system as one mirroring that of a machine. It was no mistake that he sought to link the physical work of James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, with the moral work of John Wesley. Stevens firmly believed that the mechanistic design of the Methodist system was a perfect fit for a nation encountering the evolution into the Industrial Age.
Matthew Simpson, the Methodist pastor/historian famous for being a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln, extended this vision of a conjoint mission between the Methodist Church and America. For Simpson, it was through the experience of the Civil War that the Methodist Episcopal Church found itself wedded to the nation. If the American Revolution offered the roots of our “revolutionary spirit,” Simpson saw the Civil War as the fundamental act whereby the American Methodist Church separated itself as a church unto itself. Therefore he told the amazing stories of American church growth. He reveled in the success of the institution that displayed superior organization and efficiency. But when it came to providence, Richey notes that Simpson let the nation be the beacon of light:
“Such claims had led [Simpson's] predecessors almost inevitably and immediately to invocation of providence. Simpson made much less of providence than they. When he did speak of it, the nation rather than the church came into focus” (p. 31)
In linking the mission of the church to that of the nation, Methodism essentially practiced a form of Christian Triumphalism. And now, in a post-Christian nation/world, we’re left to fight the temptation to fall into a new sense of triumphalism. Many are both very critical and very supportive of the Call to Action statement offered by the Council of Bishops. It’s a major structural change that seeks to address the excess and inefficiency identified as a primary source of our “lack of vitality.” But just as the Methodist church has done before, it adopts major practices from the American culture to find a source of providence. The structural changes promise a priority on the building of congregations. We’re no longer to be a connectional church as much as we’re called to be a collection of churches. But the problem is, as far as I can tell, we still don’t address our lack of vision and self-awareness. “Making disciples for the transformation of the world” easily gets linked to church growth when we fail to recognize the measures of what disciples look like and how they are formed by the grander vision of what the church is called to be (found in paragraph 201 of our Discipline but often overlooked in favor of the “bumper-sticker” approach mission statement). All we seem to be left with is the natural inclination that a bigger church will be a better church and we need to get bigger in order to get better.
I’m a self-avowed critic of the Call to Action not because I don’t like accountability, and not even because I don’t think statistical reporting is a good thing. I think there’s some merit in how the Call to Action addresses both the need for accountability and the need for diagnostics as a church failing to live up to God’s call. My concern is in the end-game. What do we believe God is calling, nay demanding, of us as a 21st Century Christian denomination? What do we think will actually come of building more churches? And if providence is at the heart of the Methodist mission, then what does that look like?
Whatever we think will come of this, we should be wary that we don’t fall into the trap of creating yet another manifestation of Methodist mission shaped by American ideals. That experiment didn’t work the first time. So we need to spend some time thinking and praying about not only where to go, but who we actually are. If we’re going to spread scriptural holiness by forming disciples in the practices of holy living, we can’t domesticate this mission into any sort of vision of Christian America or franchised brand of the Methodist system.