Friday, September 2, 2011

What Will the New United Methodist Church Look Like?

Change must occur, and will happen in some form, but what will it look like for a denomination of John Wesley?

As the United Methodist Church moves closer to the conferences of 2012 the discussions will take on more frequency and more fervor. But why? Will it be to save a denomination or to make our budgets work out, or will there be any deeper motivations? Will we be more motivated by the Weems "death tsunami," declining finances and need for adjustment, or some theology from days gone by that we bring back to life (or, better said, allow God to resurrect).

You should be reminded that I write this as a deacon with primary work in missions and evangelism. So, even as I jot some thoughts I'm amazed at how irrelevant much of this is to the international United Methodist Church! How often should we remind ourselves of the Methodist movement that is working with few frills?

That Methodist troublemaker, Donald W. Haynes, often gets my attention. How can one person so consistently have you in agreement with him one minute and then aggravated the next? But, I've got to confess I like that about him! In his recent A Look at Connectional Table Recommendations he emphasizes the necessary focus of the denomination upon congregational vitality. He reminds us of Trueblood's writing about church needing a base and a field, and the simplicity and power of that view is worth examination. When your base is too weak you certainly don't have the strength, energy, and inclination to go to the field! The call is to the field and it is likely we need to "replant" many of our congregations with new clergy and churches that are United Methodist for this generation. That also means we need to look for different types of clergy, and likely adjust our approach to clergy training and deployment. Of course, how many of our "old" Methodists understand what this will require and boldly take hold of God's hand in some new ventures? Is there a place for entrepreneurial, evangelical United Methodist clergy and churches? And how will the "old guard" and conference leadership respond to such things? I'm feeling more and more like the old guard myself! It makes me curious what decisions would be made if the General Conference was composed of a majority of 35-40 year olds reorganizing the UMC for a bold 20 years of ministry.

I've got to add to the Haynes discussion by simply saying that most of our current agencies do not know how to work with congregations. It's not an indictment of the people, but recognition that they are often far removed from "the field" and their days revolve around meetings, paperwork, and ideas. While agencies may be effective at working with annual conferences our agencies have a built certain cultures over the decades full of middle management who are not free to make decisions and processes that are slow and methodical in all the wrong ways. For instance, my church was trying to work through GBGM to help fund a missionary on the field, but must go to a more direct process as July funds we gave in response to a need would not be available to the missionary until September! That is too slow for mission and too slow for a congregation responding to a need in 2011! Please note there are always exceptions to a general rule or blanket statement & I'm thinking of a few specific people at GBGM, GBHEM, & GBOD. Yet, in general, our general agencies are generally well suited to 1972, but not to 2011.

I will offer an exception to Haynes' comments re. GBGM. I believe that while the thrust of his argument is correct the exception I see is occurring with Patrick Friday and the work of "In Mission Together." If that strategy for connecting congregations with missions is the new way of GBGM then we do have a strong potential for the success and growth of mission as an international denominational approach that does engage congregations. Note that such a congregational movement of mission, beyond slick posters and special Sundays, will be the only way forward if we are to get serious about reclaiming a Wesleyan evangelical mission strategy that becomes the heartbeat of our churches. Can one office in an agency become the protocol and strategy for an entire organization?

Related to Haynes' thoughts and the Recommendations, is anyone else bothered theologically and practically with a separation of mission from the rest of the Christian and church life? How do you separate missions from evangelism? from discipleship? from worship? This sort of segregation of the various disciplines of faith is what has gotten us in some of this trouble now. I prefer a stronger integration of these elements of the faith. Why can't we house the denomination, and all the offices, in one location? Why can't they interact, inform, encourage, and strengthen each other just as we must allow in the local congregation?

Let's keep the prayers and discussion going as we seek to be the Church God desires for our day, and as we determine what the UMC will look like for the next generation. My hope is we hand off a stronger denomination in better position to confess the Risen Christ in word and deed for the entire world. We just need the courage and power to take those risky steps as the Spirit leads us. Perhaps we'll also realize that even as change occurs we can live without some of the frills that we thought were norms for the UMC.

After all, couldn't our best days, our most faithful days, be ahead of us?

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