Following the endless conversations about “what comes next?” in the United Methodist Church, it becomes more and more apparent that most of the suggestions, reports and recommendations made thus far are all designed for just one purpose: to avoid the hard work that actually must happen.
In my humble opinion—one I have espoused now since 1986—there are three things we MUST do to create a viable future:
Become Christian. We must actually embrace our spiritual disciplines, rituals and practices as the baseline standard for what it means to be United Methodist. You don’t care to pray? You’re too busy for weekly worship? You don’t give generously of time and money? All great . . . but you don’t get to be a Methodist.
Get out of our buildings. The ministry is in the world, not sitting on our butts in a sanctuary. Church suppers and craft fairs and bazaars are great fun—and we should enjoy the fellowship they bring—but they are not our ministry. More of our churches are known by the “witness” of their dinners, buildings, entertainment and websites than by any work of compassion, mercy, justice or spirituality.
Institute a learning culture with accountability. Here’s a clever concept: Let’s make “discipleship” our standard for inclusion rather than “membership.” The key to discipleship is a lifelong commitment to learning and improvement. As long as people are on the path of development—of their inward growth in relationship to God, Christ and others, as well as their outward service to neighbor, community and world—they are “active” members of the community. The only real change we would make to membership would be the acknowledgement that there is no such thing as an inactive member.
So, to summarize: growing, giving, loving, learning, out in the world = in; complacent, comfortable, consumeristic, coddled, contented = out. Results? Fewer folks, smaller and fewer buildings, higher standards for leadership, true accountability, and much stronger witness and impact.
We might not have the same access to resources, but then again we would quit mortgaging our future so that money for missions no longer is drained away in unGodly interest payments. Our leaders would stop thinking big buildings are actually indicators of good leadership. We would be embarrassed by our waste instead of so grossly proud. Smaller, better churches dedicated to serving God. Not a bad vision for the future. Good enough for Jesus, good enough for us.
Our current reports and recommendations are beautiful illustrations of worldly, materialistic, acquisitive values founded upon image, ego and popularity. We loved the report that showed how nice people think we are, but we have yet to find any report that points to our importance or effectiveness. Being liked is so much more important than being good. Actual inclusion in a community of faith should be dependent on our willingness to serve God, not on our demands to be served. Can multitudes attend our services? Sure, but they won’t be “members” (or friends, associates, affiliates, pals, Facebook friends, etc.); they will be the people the church serves, not the church. This is kind of biblical—check out the Gospels and Paul. . . .
The key to our future is simplicity itself: We must shun the cultural values of more, bigger, brighter, shinier, easier and insipid and embrace once more a commitment to quality, integrity, accountability, learning and improvement. Bigger isn’t better; better is better.
Let’s trade a Call to Action for a Call to Integrity—might be a good move.
The Rev. Dick is director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Conference.