Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Treat the Cancer, Not the Mole

I've been a skin-cancer sufferer for about 10 years - the technical name is basal-cell carcinoma - a result of genetics, being fair-complexioned, hauling hay in the summers, and playing a lot of golf, tennis, and baseball without sunscreen. The damage is done, and I've numerous places shaved off, frozen off, and excised out so much that I get frequent-patient discounts from my dermatologist. 

Because of this I've become an expert in knowing when a "spot" needs to be looked at. And while that sounds a bit ominous, I am thankful; it is at best a "nuisance" cancer. Rarely do folks die of basal-cell carcinoma. However, it's close cousin melanoma is a much different situation. It's dangerous and those cancer cells multiply rapidly. If not detected and dealt with quickly, it spreads to the lymphatic system. You can't just remove the top layer and call it quits; you've got to go deeper, check the margins. Sometimes, it takes chemo and radiation. You have to get at the roots of the cancer to eradicate it.

I recently read Bishop Willimon's article, "The Tough Truth About our Small Churches." Will is an acquaintance of mine, and I find that he is often right about a great many things (just ask him!). He certainly brings great insight and depth to many issues. However, on this piece - I think he's wrong. Having recently closed two churches, I can see how small churches are running out of resources - human and monetary - and I think many of them face difficult decisions sooner rather than later. While, as he says, "Small churches are doggedly resilient," they are experiencing the same woes as medium-sized churches - they are graying and not replacing their ranks. With an increasingly smaller base, fewer and fewer have to do more and more - and atrophy and fatigue finally wears them down. One older person at the last church I met with (which is closing) said, "I'm tired. I can't do it anymore." A younger couple said that they would stay but there was nothing for their children. And one very devoted but wise middle-aged man said, "I hate it. But we can't do it anymore with these few. We simply don't have the numbers." As rugged and committed - even stubborn - as some small churches can be, there comes a time when critical mass simply isn't there. It can no longer be sustained.

I will agree with the bishop that small churches can be petty, demanding, and even mean. But "clergy killer" churches are not limited to small membership churches. Medium and large-membership churches can be clergy killers too. And to be honest, some pastors can be "church killers." None of these things are to blame, however - they are the symptom, the mole of the cancer. We've got to address the root cause: failure to make disciples. 

We've lacked for a catechism for a long time. We've not developed a culture of discipleship and mission. Doing those things has never been easy or quick; Jesus modeled a three-year catechism for the first Twelve that was full of drama, tumult, and frustration - however, when it was over, he commissioned them to go forth: "Go make disciples... baptize and teach." We know that many of them met martyrdom. All left a legacy; it's no coincidence that the most popular Christian name in India is "Thomas." But it takes, as Jorge Acevedo says about church revitalization, honesty and courage: honesty to name the current reality, and courage to do something about it. That's where we are: small church, medium-sized church, even large-sized church. Bill Hybels showed all of us, clearly, that even the large church has missed the mark on discipleship. 

I preach root causes so much that my colleagues are tired of me saying it. But I don't see how we avoid it - if we don't do discipleship, we not only miss the mark where mission is concerned, but soon die from a lack of generativity. Pettiness and unrealistic demands are symptoms of the problem, but not the root cause.

It takes "guts" to do this very difficult work. But aren't guts at the heart of the incarnation ("God
taking on flesh") and discipleship? Discipleship is the invitation to embrace the God who takes on flesh in Jesus and to get down and dirty with others. And here's where I'll agree with the bishop at the end: Wesleyanism is called by God for a considerably larger vision, and we Methodists have the method to do this - and the method worked. But we have to treat our problem as a cancer rather than just a mole - it's deep, and it's not confined to small membership churches.

Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally. 
Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” - Matthew 28:16-20


Teddy Ray said...

Sky - what a great post! I've said before, and will say again, I'm glad someone in a position as you are is saying the things you're saying. The UMC has talked symptoms and business-style utilitarian strategy for a long time (see "Call to Action") while rarely addressing discipleship, which I agree is the real root.

So a question to a DS: how are you trying to inspire and enable real efforts in discipleship/catechesis in your district? We've obviously either been lacking in motivation or training if, as you say, our problem is such a tremendous lack of discipleship. What are we missing? And how can we get it back in place.

My fear is that it's too late to get these back on track before the institution crumbles. We've built a lot of big buildings, a big bureaucracy, and a salary and benefits system that would make the best-paid Methodists of earlier eras look like paupers. As you allude to, real discipleship can be a long path fraught with difficulty. To sustain the institution, most people think we need quick results and can't scare off too many people in the process. When push comes to shove, short-term survival of the institution and real discipleship may be at odds.

Anonymous said...

"we Methodist have a method to do this.....what is that method? My church does not have clue about how you penetrate the community about us...do you?

Anonymous said...

Sir: Thank you for this commentary. I am going to "copy & paste" it into an email message to share with folks in my very small church and others in our district. You and Dr. Donald Haynes--in different ways--hit the nail squarely on the head. Thank you for your ministry.

Dr. Tony said...

First, I would say to anonymous, "If you choose to be anonymous in posting a comment, do the people in your community know who you are?"

I would say, as one who served many of those small churches that Bishop Willimon criticizes, that is not where the problem lies. But when your model for development is based on a large church, it is very difficult to say to a small church that it has any relevance in the structure of the church.

Bishop Willimon also pointed out that sending well-trained clergy to the smaller churches is a waste of time. So we send the rookies, the ones who have no clue what do to in their neighborhood and have no one to turn to.

The well-established churches should get the rookies and the small churches should get the builders, the ones who help churches grow.

Now, I know some churches are going to die - they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are in the midst of rural areas where the population is dying. It isn't the church that is dying in these places; it is the whole town. And that is why the church needs to be there.

But if a church (and I can think of quite a few in my neck of the woods) is in the middle of growth area, then you need a pastor who can help the people grow their church and a district and conference willing to put money and backing into the effort.

Jesus told the parable about the fig tree that wouldn't grow; the gardener said to give it some time and if it didn't grown in a year, then they could cut it down.

We are cutting down the churches without even going through the motions.

If our focus is on the individual church and where it is at in its neighborhood/community, we can help them to grow. But we cannot do it but using some model that requires a large number to begin with.

David Kueker said...

While I have been deeply blessed in many ways by Bishop Willimon, I must disagree with the complaint about small churches. The complaint boils down to the reality that the description of Christians in these church are descriptions of very poor disciples who care little for obeying Jesus or carrying on the mission of Jesus in their community. It is the purpose of the UMC to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Here's the paradox - how can such poor disciples result from the ministry of the excellent disciple making pastors they are sent?

I think it is well past time to admit that we need to return to the drawing board and figure out HOW to make disciples in this context ... because working harder isn't enough if you are working hard with tools that don't work.

PS Wrote my DMin Project on this subject and the cliche that Methodism "went where the people were" is a gross oversimpification that approaches historical dishonesty. Methodism succeeded in the wilderness due to sociological factors that are no longer in existence ... which is why what worked then will not work now. The same churches in cities surrounded by thousands of people are likewise dwindling and we are closing many of them.

Betsy said...

Sorry about the delayed response to this, but I just now read it. I am a UMC person in the pew of more than a few decades. I have spent the last 18 months apart from the church in order to gain some perspective. For the last several years I have been in an intensive search mode which resulted in a phenomenal amount of reading of blogs, articles, books. In the course of my reading I have learned about the UMC, Christianity in general, Christianity in North America, and about Wesley and what brought Methodism to life. It felt like I was lead down a path that brought me to my own conclusion of what is wrong; and it is based on my own experience and listening to and observing others within the local church. You are absolutely right that there is a root cause to what has gone awry within the UMC. Failure to make disciples is an answer but there is a failure at even a more basic level: the UMC has lost the ability to clearly articulate a gospel message that impacts "me", the individual. In the past, I have been told that I had more spiritual depth than most which I did. But the problem is and was that I only had an instinct about things of God but no clear knowledge/understanding of who God is and who I was and how Christianity impacts my life. I was a faithful and loyal church member, but on Monday morning, God was a mystery. I had come to the conclusion that my messy life during the week did not belong in Christianity; and that understanding was fostered a very long time ago. This past March I landed on the Heidelberg Catechism and three books written about it. It has been an overwhelming, mind-blowing experience to work my way through it. My initial reaction was "Where has this been all my life?". And added to that has been "Why did nobody ever tell me this?" The core thing I learned about the origins of Methodism is that it began with Wesley and others laying down a good foundation of the gospel as it impacted each and every individual life and then Methodism took shape in response to the people's question: "What does this mean for my life?" My humble summation of the problem is that in many ways the "doing part of Methodism" has survived very well; the reason behind the doing--the gospel message--has not. Concurrently, as I am spending time with the Heidelberg, I am also working my way through the very newest collection of Wesley's sermons compiled and edited by Kenneth Collins and Jason Vickers. It is unique in that the order of the sermons reflects the "way of salvation". I want to see how closely the Heidelberg compares to Wesleyan thought. So far so good, but I have a ways to go. I appreciate the work and effort and concern that you and others like you are putting into the UMC, but I am afraid nothing short of a spiritual revival is going to have an impact. My money is on the up and coming revivalism of Wesleyan thought. The newest addition to that is a brand new website by Maxie Dunnam called "Wesleyan Accent". outside of learning who God is and who I am, one of the best things I have learned is actually from a Presbyterian pastor, M. Craig Barnes. In his book, "When God Interrupts: Finding New life in Unwanted Change"--a book I can recommend for UMC leadership--he talks about approaching everything from an attitude of gratitude that there is a Savior and it is most definitely not me. In conclusion, Christianity is exactly where my messy life belongs! One more observation: as referenced above, I found a practical guide to living as a Christian from a Presbyterian pastor. I became aware that for practical guidance, there is no Wesleyan/Methodist "voice out there", which is ironic since that was the whole basis of Methodism being launched.