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COMMENTARY: Church’s gaze must be turned outward Karen Greenwaldt, Mar 1, 2012
By Karen Greenwaldt Special Contributor
“What will the United Methodist Church be like in 80 years?” When asked this question recently, I responded, “Most of us now living will be gone.” Then I responded, “Goodness. . . . We need to ponder this question intentionally and purposefully.”
What will the church be like in 80 years? I believe the Church of Jesus Christ—the body of Christ—will be present and active. However, I wonder if the United Methodist Church will be a vibrant presence. Will the UMC be relevant? Will it engage the people of the world in deep, penetrating conversations about “Why Jesus? Why the Church? Why Now?”
Will we be making a case for why Wesleyan theological perspectives are necessary? Will we be inviting people to follow Jesus? Will we be a spirited movement of God that will reach the hearts, minds, imaginations, hopes and dreams of millions of people who have yet to encounter the living Word of Christ?
These questions are worth pondering. There are no quick or snappy answers. Rather, they strike at the heart of who we are as United Methodists.
Frankly, I worry that we United Methodists are so worried about membership statistics, finances and other important issues that we have dropped our gaze to the immediate future. Every four years, the UMC gathers to make decisions that will affect the church. In this upcoming General Conference, delegates will be making decisions about pensions, structures of the general church, ordering of ministry, leadership systems for the episcopacy, and many other items. Will the delegates to this General Conference lift up their heads to consider the long-term effect of their decisions? Will they and we ponder the potential impact of decisions on a church 80 years from now?
Years ago at a previous General Conference, a restaurant server asked me, “Are you one of those Methodists meeting down the street?” I responded that I was. His reply continues to haunt me—“I hope you [they] remember that the world is watching.”
Indeed, the world is watching. It is listening, waiting, hoping and wondering if anyone is paying attention. Many wonder occasionally or often if there is a Holy One who cares for them. Does the UMC have anything to say to these people who seek God but who likely do not have the language, the theological training, or even the impetus to engage in a journey of Christian faith?
We who are part of the church have decided already that the UMC is relevant to our lives and our lives of faith. Yet, there are untold millions who have yet to encounter our church or to engage the questions about whether our church provides any relevance for their lives.
What will the church be like in 80 years? No one knows the answer. However, I am convinced that we must lift our eyes from the immediate future to engage in ministries that reach outward to the world’s people. We do have choices that will affect the realities of what the church will be like tomorrow and what it will be like in 80 years.
Our choices will affect the future. Let’s not continue to talk to ourselves, to circle the wagons of “ain’t it awful” as we attempt to rescue our church from decline or to rearrange our organizational systems. Rather, we can turn our faces to the people “out there” who are watching and who are waiting for a word from the Lord. These people will tell us whether we are relevant or not. They will tell us how we are helping (or hurting) them as they seek to find hope and faith in the midst of their daily lives. They will tell us how we need to change—if we will listen.
We are a church that relies on the leading and grace of God that calls us forward to follow Jesus. Let us pray for a massive invasion of the Spirit to turn us from our focus on internal organizational struggles to a life centered in response to the leading of God—the One who seeks the lost and all those who struggle with the issues of daily life. May we become people who follow the commandment to love God and our neighbors—as (much as) we love (and care for) ourselves.
The Rev. Greenwaldt is top executive of the General Board of Discipleship. “Dreaming of Vital Congregations,” a series of five films produced by the GBOD that can be used as discussion starters, is online at www.gbod.org/dreaming/.