We Look Good – On Paper

The United Methodist Church is a great church… on paper; just check out a Book of Discipline. The 2008 BOD won’t be published until January, but the 2004 BOD has 832 pages in it and is 6 ¾” x 9 ¼”. That compares to my 1984 copy which had 769 pages in it and was 5 3/8” x 8 5/8”. Our annual conference has 25 “Special Days” to take place on Sunday celebrations of worship, raising awareness of different ministries in our conference. We have lots of sub-groups, divisions, and special interests in our denomination that have their own offices, complete with budgets, staff, special study guides, even “lobbyists” that push their causes. United Methodism, by all appearances of structure and budget, must be busting at the seams.

Sadly, we know that’s not true. And my blog title is a misnomer, because while the METHOD of Methodism looks good (on paper), the facts and figures look very bad – we are continuing to lose members.

I’ve said this in blogs before – United Methodism is awfully good at majoring in the minors. Take the items in the first paragraph: 
  • The Book of Discipline. It gets bigger and bigger, yet the UMC gets smaller. Lots of rules and regs, but very little theology or instructions in Christian praxis. More and more about ordination requirements, but still no theology of ordination. 
  • Special Sundays. We place 25 Sundays in the Christian year as “special” in our annual conference – nearly half the Sundays in a calendar year. We have done that at the expense of liturgical days such as Epiphany, Pentecost, and Christ the King. Some of our folks know what Native American Sunday means, but have no clue what Epiphany means. 
  • Special Groups. Do newcomers to the UMC "get" all these groups, factions, caucuses, and causes? Are they really needed anymore? For example: United Methodist Women certainly hold a prominent place in our denomination, but isn’t it telling that rarely does any of its membership include women under 60 years of age? Are we welcoming to younger folks?

Our UMC rank and file leadership seems to go into two directions: (1) Are very wary and resistant of change, even in the midst of dying. (2) Realize change is needed, and often have to leave/ditch Connectional resources and ties to do so.

Resistance to change seems to be inherent to United Methodists – as progressive, inclusive, and “in touch” as we claim to be, I wonder if we really are? Have we become so inbred that we don’t want change and content to die? If this is true, we have really played a bad joke on ourselves. Instead of doing a 180° - as John Wesley intended us to – could it be that we did a 360°, and we are right back where we started? Are we living out Wesley’s greatest fear?

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. – John Wesley, 1786

I attended our annual conference's Connectional Ministries Team meeting the other night. I have to admit - I usually don't attend (I'm on it by virtue of a conference commission I chair). But the ideas outlined to go to the bare bones, re-prioritize, and to make disciples energized me.

What would happen if we asked ourselves, every time we took action as a conference, committee, or church: "How does this act/action contribute to 
  1. reaching people, 
  2. discipling them, and 
  3. being part of God's work of transformation?"

For one thing: it might put into question the very existence of some of our conference entities. Or at least question how we've operated them for some time (I know I am having to ask myself these questions as the chairperson of a conference committee).

To do these things, we will have to take our conference mission to heart: Making disciples of Jesus Christ who will transform our church and the world, through bold decisions, faithful sacrifices, and courageous actions.

Change is hard. Bold decisions are risky. Sacrifices are uncomfortable. Courageous actions take stoutness of heart. Sounds a lot like the beginnings of Christianity.

This could be exciting!