Thursday, January 15, 2009

Call for Denominational "Do Over"

As a child did you ever call for a "redo" or a "do over?"

I'm calling for a do over!

I first wrote part of this around New Year's Day, and nearly forgot about it sitting in a draft file as the work days got very busy. I'm still plagued by some of those December thoughts about the Big 3 and the UMC. It's my love for the good and the ministry which have occurred through these denominations in the past which pushes me to desire a "conversion" of them so they'll be viable in the future. I'm merely asking how to appropriate the best of our tradition in sharing the Gospel yet be effective in reaching this generation.

The challenge is that the church tends toward status quo and pleasing our current constituency-- who happen to be disappearing faster than they are replicating! For every viable church, I see many across the mainline denominations which are either in ICU or in the hallway near the ICU. And our institutional leaders, who are usually the very best clergy we've got, are caught between a "rock and a hard place" as they must manage all the old clunky machinery of the institution with our formal and informal tomes of policy and procedure designed over 50-100 years for a middle class church. To look ahead 20 years is to see a different landscape in US religious life. Even in our strong areas for work the church is not maintaining pace with local and regional demographics.

Now I know this has been pondered ad nauseum for a number of years; the challenge is that too many of our denominations have talked for so long with so little action that we may have been lulled into a sense of complacency. So I work, and dream, and pray as a denominational loyalist who has benefited from finding a home in the mainline, yet who honestly desires to create a bridge from the present to the future which will allow MANY, MANY others to find a home here as well. That causes me at the start of a new year to dream of a fresh start for a denomination. Just think if we could start from scratch with all the knowledge, experience, and tradition we already have. Imagine if we could call a REDO! Rewind a couple of weeks and join the dream...

It's a brand new year. Ah, everything is new and fresh again. The calendar isn't a mess, though my desk at work is still cluttered. I've had some time off, a change of pace, and a clearer head prevails now after the hyper busyness of December.

It makes me wonder about the possibility of a fresh start for an institution. Imagine if a denomination might have Jubilee year. Think about a "re-do" that might start everything from scratch. Forget a small clean-up, a nip and tuck, or a partial renovation. Think current day REFORMATION! While Methodists enjoy claiming John Wesley I'm not sure we'd really want to apply his thinking or approach to our current denomination because it would be too radical and call for too much change.

But it's a new year dream so let's play with that thought. Throw out the current polity (except as a lesson of history and institutional clutter) and redefine the denomination based on mission and ministry, and especially what we need to do in the present and future. Go with a more flexible, faster moving approach. Go with national and regional approaches that help us to transform our churches, cities, regions, states. Recapture the circuit rider mentality and enthusiasm which engages clergy and laity, yet don't tame it with institutionalism. Move from institutional and agency driven to highly flexible and mobile with a strong basis on sharing the gospel in word and deed where the people are. Our aim wouldn't be to create yet another separate denomination, but to re-create and invest new energy and power as we would use the very best approaches for today.

With the economy as it is, and prospects that we may be in a lengthy down cycle, this isn't so far fetched. But rather than dwell on what we'll be missing, and merely engaging in the "same ol' behavior" yet with less, it makes sense to look for positive ways to refine and re-define a new connection. Forget dwindling away doing the same old things and reminiscing about the "good ol' days." This approach finds the best days are now as we respond creatively to the work of God in our lives and the needs of people in our world. So, we adapt our structures and approaches to the needs of THIS DAY while retaining the missional impetus and the theological heritage which made us useful in days gone by.

Let's renew a denomination, shall we?

What would you require in a "new" denomination? The local church and strength of that entity would be primary in my view. This would be the basis for staging mission and deploying for mission. The whole denomination would be structured in a way to emphasize this necessity. We would NOT do top down management, we would not create funding formulas based on the needs of the denomination, and we would not create much beyond the local church except for the most necessary, streamlined personnel and entities which would advance local ministries. The necessary elements that should be strong in each local church, or perhaps in a cluster of churches or in a district, would be expected in any supporting elements of the denomination. The local congregation and the necessary strong leadership and resourcing of the churches would be the key to the puzzle of the new denomination.

It is a challenge that funding and finances are a huge element in current denominational life and this whole equation. I think that like other institutions who are "re-converting" to be viable in the current economy that religious denominations should strip down to the most essential, bare bones work beyond the local church and re-deploy people into the local church. This will allow us to redefine funding and place more of the power in the hands of a local church while retaining and actually strengthening what it means for churches to work together for a common mission in Christ. Unfortunately, most denominational approaches have made funding beyond the local church feel more like a tax to local church laity, even if the clergy and denominational loyalists call it by proper name and emphasize the missional impact. So many denominations have become so agency oriented that the local church has lost the passion for and involvement in mission! We think mission means sending a check and paying 100%!! We think that means institutional advancement! A new emphasis, especially in funding, must be on the effective ministry of local congregations and engaging their passion and direct involvement and ownership in mission. This will not happen by merely selling all the old institutional priorities, but must be integrated into the total life of the local church in worship, education, prayer, fellowship, and service. This priority would be expressed at every level of a new denominational structure- district, state, national, and international.

Anybody game for a "Do Over?"

No comments: