Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Call to Action: Don't Trash It Yet

Pastors, even bishops, have written against it. Church caucuses are against it. Pushback is present among laity and clergy alike. "It can't work... It won't work... It's marketing/corporate language... The statistics are flawed... The death tsunami is a myth... Clergy and churches shouldn't be judged by numbers; there are better ways to measure churches..." You can probably add a few more. Before we can even implement it, some folks want Call to Action and Vital Congregations rescinded. Some have gone so far to say that it's dead on arrival.

No one can argue that the UMC is hurting in every way measurable and in some ways immeasurable. Our membership continues to fall even though our population continues to rise. Resources are starting to dwindle. Reassessment and realignment of denominational boards and agencies is causing distress and frustration. An upcoming General Conference and proposed legislation and resolutions are causing angst. It is very easy to give in to a climate of fear and go into panic or survival mode.

It may be helpful to be reminded of Wesley's vision for the Methodist movement: to renew the Anglican Church, to bring scriptural holiness to the lands, and to "flee from the wrath to come," (words said first by John the Baptist, not John Wesley). At best, he hoped that we'd do a 180° - but I fear that we have done a 360°... coming full circle back to a church that just about resembled what Wesley was trying to reform. Even Wesley himself caved a little, taking matters in hand and ordaining Francis Coke a superintendent so that America could have some clergymen. Coke ordained Asbury, and before you know it we had bishops AND a church. Many historians and theologians lament over this move, as this fledgling but highly successful missional movement morphed into a Church and churches.

Like many things, what we evolved into could have been avoidable. Many outside of Methodism have told me how wonderful the Method of Methodism is, but how we have given the Method away - and I have to agree. Methodists should be teaching others in Christendom about mission, discipleship, holiness, and piety, for those were the things that we were founded upon and took on as our vision for ministry. And like so many things, success bred comfort. We were, for a while, able to build churches, universities, and mission societies to fulfill our mission to make disciples for Christ. Now, we realize we cannot do as much as we once did; indeed, we are in danger of not being to support what we already have.

It seems that in the conversations I read and am a part of, there is a sense that the church is not built to be successful but to be faithful. In part I agree - faithfulness definitely is our call and priority. But when the very structures we built (physical or otherwise) begin to falter, we are not being the trustees that we vowed to be when these structures were begun. Someone will say "New wineskins for new wine." I would say absolutely! And if the General Conference were to agree next year that we need to not be a denomination/communion of churches and revert to being a missional movement, I will abide. That would mean that we no longer believe that the local church is the best conduit to fulfill the mission of our Church... and I believe THAT is the conversation that we need to have, and quickly. Otherwise, given all appearances, we will continue in slow decline until, by default, we will cease to be by attrition.

Can the local church be the best expression of Jesus Christ, the hope of the world? I think it can, but not in present form. My experience is leading me to believe that many - if not most - clergy and laity are comfortable with (and prefer) a chaplain-approach to ministry. It has worked for a long time. But the law of entropy is kicking in: the ice cube is beginning to melt. I believe our failure to make disciples has caught up with us in every way possible.

It seems to me that the Call to Action and Vital Congregations projects are needed to help us with some baseline indicators and accountability - for pastors AND churches. But we cannot stop there; in tandem, we need to be encouraging and equipping pastors and congregations to enhance their discipleship and mission. Doing a critical analysis of our local churches and pastors may help us realize that the very things we once thought were primarily about making disciples turned out to really be more about paying the bills or ministries that are "just for us church members." How much of our ministry in the local church is geared toward discipleship? Do we vision and set goals with our communities in mind? Do local churches see themselves as parishes? Those are questions we need to be asking ourselves.

This is risky business, I know. But if our growth is going to be mission and discipleship-based, we're going to have to be bold, innovative, and ever-faithful. I think Call to Action and Vital Congregations can help us do that, but not by themselves - otherwise, they'll just be another program. At their best, they can be tools to prop up discipleship and mission for Kingdom work: to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Let us try to use them as such.