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WESLEYAN WISDOM: We’re called to start an ‘exploration into God’ Donald W. Haynes, Feb 15, 2012
By Donald W. Haynes UMR Columnist
As we debate the Call to Action that will be proposed to General Conference, let us move beyond style and process and look at the ultimate question facing the United Methodist Church.
Both evangelicals wanting more personal conversions and liberals wanting more social justice/systemic conversions are pressing their agendas through the paradigms of structure. Reducing general board sizes, changing their scope of work, and reducing the number of districts in our annual conferences might save money in operational costs and might remove some layers of bureaucracy, but these moves will not bring us to a deeper level of spiritual vitality.
The Call to Action employs the wonderful and challenging term “vital congregation” as the key to turning around the flotilla of churches we know as United Methodism. The number of revitalized congregations will be the bottom line of measuring the success or failure of the new plan.
My heart is with those who insist that the church can retain its core values only by focusing on the “things of the spirit.” For some this means we are to conclude—with John and Charles Wesley—that the only mission of the church is to save souls. For others, this means dismantling the systems of injustice.
Many of differing persuasions do not embrace the idea of adopting measurable criteria, now called “dashboard indicators.” I understand that. It is said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true church.” To the baker’s dozen of women and children in the church of my childhood, the favorite scripture was, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” By any criteria of measurements, that little church should have been closed; yet eight people have gone from there into ordained ministry and it is stronger today than at any time since my grandmother founded it in 1904.
However, my head is with the objective research of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and the prescience of persons like Lovett Weems. Outside the Council of Bishops, Dr. Weems’ work might be the most influential data and commentary affecting votes by the General Conference delegates. His language is strong—“death tsunami.” His critics are many, but, are they reacting out of their hearts rather than their heads?
Lessons from outside
In the introduction to his widely read book, Focus, Dr. Weems writes, “The very practices that make an organization strong can become the practices keeping it from responding adequately to new challenges.” Some principles from the corporate marketing world can and must be admitted as relevant for churches. Dr. Weems cites the rise of discount stores that surpassed traditional department stores in connecting with the shopping needs of people, particularly those with less discretionary money. In thousands of communities across the land, new sectarian congregations are thriving where we once thrived.
Reality is that the most measurable free market in the U.S. is whether and where people choose to worship. Mainline denominations decided throughout the 20th century to “make” congregations “more sophisticated,” which often meant more liturgical, more dignified, more formal. No one really saw the “anti-establishmentarianism” of the 1960s coming. Since then, we have spent another generation clutching “outlived norms.” Our professions of faith dropped from 261,832 in 1968 to 148,446 in 2009. Surely that is a wake-up call. Each congregation, to be revitalized, must ask if there are more deaths than baptisms. If the cemetery is growing more rapidly than the nursery, or if the congregation looks like “God’s waiting room,” it is no time for pious platitudes; it is time for a true “call to action.”
I am both alarmed and saddened by the loss of our youth. In the southern county seat town where I live, the most “talked about church in town” is one with a holiness code heritage that existed for three-quarters of a century almost incognito on a short side street. The youth of the “Church Street” congregations never heard of it. Even in its own ultra-conservative denomination, it was one of the smallest congregations. Today, in that same location, high school youth of all socio-economic groups are packing it out for four services on Sunday. The congregation is Anglo, Hispanic and African American. High school students whom I query describe the pastor with words like “fun,” “interesting” and “a hoot.” That church is to Sunday worship what Walmart is to retail.
Listen to Lovett! “Clinging to forms of another time is understandable, but not logical. A form may no longer work for the new wine of new times, but our tendency is to expect leaders to preserve the old form and make it work! The need, however, is for leadership to . . . discern the new thing God is doing and find new expressions of faith that permit the church to join God’s redemptive work.”
Then he repeats the findings since 2007 of the Council of Bishops, which discovered every focus group reaching the same conclusion: “The United Methodist Church has a future only to the extent that we can find ways to reach more people, more young people, and more diverse people.”
Perhaps Len Sweet needs to be our teacher here. Len has become very suspicious of the words “lead pastor” or “pastor as leader.” Why? Because over and again in the New Testament, we are not called to be the leaders of an institution but followers of Jesus Christ. And then we should be mentors who bring others to follow Jesus, not leaders who cabin, crib and confine the faith journey.
Peter was such a leader of The Twelve that the Catholic Church still insists he was the first pope. In reality, in spite of his vision for preaching to Cornelius, Peter missed the paradigm shift. It was Paul who saw the “new market” for the gospel, tweaked it and virtually established the Christian Church around the Mediterranean world.
Far to the north, it was not missionaries sent from Rome, but Patrick who established Christianity in Ireland and among most Celts. Why? Because he was far enough from the heavy hand of Rome to indigenize the gospel in the land of leprechauns and river dances!
In the 60 years that Methodism became the largest organization in the U.S. outside the federal government (1784-1844), we had no seminaries—only a handful of colleges and a “Gideon’s army” of relatively unlettered preachers who had little more than a passion for following Jesus Christ. This is not to decry education, but to admit that without their “fire in the belly,” we will not develop vital congregations nor bring God’s lost children home.
We from the South know what denial can do to a region. Thousands of Southerners who clung to outlived norms kept serving mint juleps under our magnolia trees with the grace of royalty, and regaled guests about family heritage when the roof of the old mansion was leaking and the furniture was two-generations-old. Atticus Haygood said to Emory College students in 1880, “We of the South think of ourselves better than the facts of history and our present state of progress justify. Had we been less provincial, less shut in by and with our own ideas, we would have known ourselves better and there would have been no war in 1861.”
His message is no longer to a region; it is to a denomination. I do not want to see my beloved United Methodist Church in all geographic regions let a proud past prevent us from embracing the changing present.
By the late 19th century Methodism, and to only a slightly lesser degree the Evangelical and United Brethren churches, had begun “living out of the cradle.” That is, our only growth was biological. In Christian education we built the Sunday school on married couples with lots of children. As late as 1957, seven of eight professions of faith in the Methodist Church were coming through the Sunday school. Now, married couples make up less than half the households in what Thornton Wilder called “our town.” Over half of adults under 35 are single! Result? Sunday school in most churches is about a third of what it was in 1957. That well went almost dry.
As a denomination, our worship attendance declined 10.22 percent from 2001-2008. We are experiencing a “worship recession” that should be of greater concern than the economic recession. Are we willing to pay the price of radical outreach and radical hospitality?
‘Seeking lost sheep’
So how can we “reach more people, more young people, and more diverse people”? To do that we must move from meeting the needs of the “sheepfold sheep” and focus on the needs of the “hillside sheep” just as Jesus told us in Luke 15. To be vitally alive, we must do more than receive new members and tweak our worship and program ministries.
Adam Hamilton in his important book, Leading Beyond the Walls, reminds us that when Jesus looked upon the crowds he saw them as “sheep without a shepherd.” Pastors and lay leadership teams must be “shepherds seeking lost sheep,” reaching out to lost and troubled persons. While admitting that rescuing “lost sheep” is discouraging because “the lost act lost,” Mr. Hamilton says “we must love them, feel responsible for them, seek to protect them, and sometimes make significant sacrifices for them.”
From the vantage point of the megachurch Mr. Hamilton serves, it must be an enormous challenge even to identify the people spread over East Kansas and West Missouri! The good news for those of us in small membership churches is that we can easily know names, new home buyers and folks who have lost their jobs or are suffering other troubles.
Vital congregations are the key to our future. God will bless your church if you practice “following leadership.” That is, follow Jesus and then lead others, not to follow you but to join you in following Him!
Christopher Fry’s words ring in my ears every night as my head touches the pillow: “Wrong comes up to face us everywhere, never to leave us till we take the longest stride of soul [we] ever took. Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise is exploration into God.”
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.