Effective UMC mission and outreach strategy at many local church and district levels seem to have fallen upon hard times.
How many churches or districts even undertake a mission strategy?
When we do get into strategy such assessment can merely showcase how poorly we are doing and never get to action steps for a way forward. Too often, in recent decades, mission in many congregations has descended to the level of merely writing checks or doing projects, and not engaging in the robust missio Dei which should frame the whole of church life. In my mind there are plenty of opportunities to connect church to community in helpful, transformational ways which bring life.
I believe that through Mission Celebration we have the potential to reclaim outreach as an effective strategy which could transform both local church and district ministry. Now, I'm not talking about a simple "dog and pony show" where you see a missionary, hear a story or two, and then are pushed to have a special Sunday offering. My experience of mission celebrations have been that they offer opportunity for true Methodist conferencing on the calling, purpose, and resources of a church within the context of a community as we consider what it means to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Mission Celebrations offer both preparation and event which might launch a church and district into transformational action and relationships for the Kingdom of God.
In my work with Global Ministries and North Georgia I have quickly realized a big difference in the way churches do mission celebrations. In some places it is only done as a congregational event. In other locales they become more of a district or conference event. Taken together I believe we might find the prescription for a more healthy United Methodist Church.
United Methodism in some places tends toward congregational mission celebrations while many areas elsewhere tend toward district mission events. I'm sure this regional variation is some mix of theology, church practice, and "distance" (in all sorts of ways) from the general church agency. Sometimes the dividing line seems to be built around the size or strength of a congregation.
In my mind, both models offer strong opportunities in mission, and in fact, if both are used I believe we can create a stronger connectional mission that elevates both congregation and district/conference.
The reality is that we want to create a strong mission theology, culture, and involvement in the congregation as this is the base of operation for our everyday work in the Kingdom of God. We also want to create a strong district mission approach so that we offer information, discussion, collaboration, and opportunity for connectional mission which employs historic Methodist ways of being the Church. It's not necessary to choose one or the other, and can yield a win/win scenario when Mission Celebrations are done well and maximized as a way of a shared, partnering strategy.
If district events are only "sales" pitches for funding mission then we've missed the opportunity. And, if we leave clergy or congregations completely on their own we've merely created greater opportunity for independent, congregational mission with a thin veneer of Methodist identity that is in large part disconnected from the Church. This later situation creates an "every UM clergy and church for themselves" approach.
More than ever we need to reconnect the Methodist missional connection!
Every congregation should dig deep and know their calling to love God and love neighbor in local, national, and international ways. This is more than a mundane exercise, but tied to the purpose of the church and the ways the ministry is exercised at every ministry level- worship, discipleship, prayer, outreach, etc. Further, this must also be tied into the work of the Church, as a particular Methodist congregation does not have all the calling, or all the resources, for the tasks of the Kingdom, but does best to actively be part of the larger Church.
I believe every vital United Methodist congregation should have a mission celebration (could be every year or every other year). And, in like manner, every UMC district should have a mission celebration at least biennially. It's a great way to know our focus, our assets, and our shared tasks in mission and ministry. The congregation would likely have much more emphasis on the local mission with acknowledgement and participation in the larger world mission. The district event would wisely have discussion, strategy and resources to engage the churches together in a shared approach of mission which would assist all of the churches in ways to reach the district and region for Christ. This district visioning and division of labor could also assist in our knowing how fruitful a congregation is, how demographics are shifting, and where the larger Church might plant new mission or churches.
Mission Celebrations, in both the congregation and the district, have a lot of potential when paired together as a tool for effective, United Methodist outreach strategy.