I love The United Methodist Church. As General Conference approaches and I, a self-identified church polity geek, watch the debates and discussions with great interest. One of the central issues on the table is the need for a radical restructuring of The United Methodist Church. This vital restructuring needs to be more than re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it must move us to being more missionally agile and disciple making focused. There is the proposal form the IOT (Interim Operations Team) and the counter proposal from an equally knowledgable group who offered a PlanB. There are those who want to do nothing, and those who want to throw out everything. I’ve gotten emails, phone calls, and correspondence for every side, and I’m just an alternate. No matter what the General Conference decides I pray that they will take a few things into consideration. I believe that for The United Methodist Church, especially as it is operating in the United States, to remain not just viable, but prophetic it needs to focus upon actually making disciples, putting the church even more into the hands of the laity, and radically eliminating its current “program focus” and moving toward a “missionary focus” for all ministry.
The United Methodist Church must return to actually making disciples as a practice and not just a proclamation. Yes I know making disciples is the mission of the church, I’ve read The Book of Discipline. I also know that it is often more of a announcement than a action. Our churches struggle with actually creating an effective disciple making practice. Sure, we have professions of faith, but a decision does not make a disciple. We provide information without any way to facilitate application and imitation. The United Methodist Church’s roots lie in the practice of active and intentional disciple making. We need to eliminate our obsession with nickels and noses and start asking how many disciples do we have that are actually also engaged in making disciples. How many of the folks who show up and pay up on Sunday morning are also engaging in a life that shares the gospel the other six days of the week. No matter what structure we inherit on May 6th, it absolutely must empower our churches to create an effective, indigenous disciple making process.
Secondly The United Methodist Church absolutely must structure in such a way to reclaim and empower of the ministry of the laity. Putting the church back into the hands of the people was part of John Wesley’s apostolic genius! During the past two hundred years we (the clergy) have so professionalized ministry that we have made it seem unattainable. When Jesus told the remnant to “go and make disciples” he was talking to fisherman, tax collectors, and sinners who could give witness to a relationship, not espouse overly educated doctrinal truths. We must return to the practice outlined in Ephesians 4, recognizing the five-fold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers and then releasing them out of the church and into the world to share the gospel with deeds and words. Those of us set aside for vocational ministry must spend most of our time equipping and giving ministry away, not holding onto it for job security and occupational ladder climbing. (For more on this style of ecclesiology read ThePermanent Revolution)
My last challenge to my friends who are heading to General Conference to wrestle with restructuring is that whatever structure we inherit on May 6th should provide for a radical elimination of the “program focus” of the church and a return to the “missionary focus.” We do not live in a Christian culture than needs reforming; we live in a secular culture that needs missionaries. We need to become fluent in the language and culture that surrounds us and be empowered and released to discover new ways to reach those who have never really encountered the power of Christ. We do not need pronouncements from on high or any more “one size fits none” style programs that become burdensome to local churches. When the U.S. was young Methodist circuit riders were some of the first to move into any community, right after the initial pioneers. These, mostly lay pastors, learned the language, became part of the community, and lived a fearlessly Christ-centered life. They lived like missionaries. We must reclaim our missionary stance where our church buildings become outposts to reach the community not just places to gather the chosen and wait for the end.
Which structure will provide us the best chance to make disciples, empower the laity, and become missionaries? I am not sure. Please join me in prayer for The United Methodist Church, our gifted delegates, that God’s will will trump any agendas, and that the Holy Spirit will once again inspire us to ignite a fire so bright folks will come just to watch us burn. I remain:
Consumed by the Call,