General Conference is perhaps at its lowest ebb of leadership since 1844, the conference that led to the division of the Methodist church, over the issue of slavery, into two denominations. I am hearing from someone in every jurisdiction that the effectiveness of Jurisdictional Conferences in electing bishops is also under question. The talk of “term episcopacy” is widespread, too. The truth is that our present system has elected some bishops who are not effective leaders. Even the annual conference is losing some of its historic role of energizing the base.
In 1997, Kennon Callahan of Candler wrote: “The day of the professional minister is over. The day of the missionary pastor has come.” In 1775, when few people had any image of the word “Methodist,” Thomas Ware was asked if he was a missionary. He answered, “I am a Methodist and we are all missionaries.”
If every church is a mission station and every pastor a “resident alien” reaching an increasingly secular culture with a message of grace theology, we must go to the bottom line of the defunct Call to Action plan: vital congregations. Now that everyone is back home, how do we jump start dead or weak batteries and re-energize our congregations?
Let me be personal. A pivotal moment in the fifty-sixth year of my ministry came when, in the winter of 2010, a man named John first visited our rural church. I asked several people seated behind him before worship, “Who is the distinguished man at the end of that pew?” No one knew; so I introduced myself. At the church door I asked if he lived in the area. He does. Then I asked if he had a regular church home. He didn’t. Then I asked if he could meet on Tuesday for lunch. He could.
As we ate, John walked me through his journey as a “PK” (preacher’s kid), a tour of military duty, college, a stint teaching science and math in a Masonic orphanage, and 30 years teaching in public schools. He closed with, “Sometimes I feel I have let God down with my life.” I responded, “John, are you ready to come home?” He said, “Yes,” and two gray headed men sat in a public restaurant, wiping tears from our cheeks. This conversation is the language I use in inviting people to get in touch with their soul.
John joined the church. With his teaching career, I asked him to teach a new Sunday school class for young adults. This has been one of our disappointments. He uses PowerPoint, brings refreshments, and is well prepared, but attendance has not gone well. I am not sure that traditional Sunday school is a viable option for re-vitalization; it is an old wineskin. Re-vitalizing is transformation of congregational culture and some old paradigms must be jettisoned. We are considering now a Skype class where young adult participants can chat with each other, or the teacher, via the Internet—perhaps a new alternative to traditional Sunday school.
Secondly, John expressed interest in word processing and website development. He is a prodigy who has brought us into a new paradigm of evangelism through the web. John and a young colleague presented an idea to the church’s Quarterly Conference: investing up to $23,000 in a multi-media package that included significant audio-visual upgrades in the sanctuary, and developing a website that would be monitored daily. Many of our older people had no clue what they were talking about, but the recommendations was adopted in a congregational business session with no dissenting votes.
John and Megan designed a website. Now we have outgrown its elementary sophistication and he has launched another. Among other things, every sermon that I “tweak” and convert from oral to written communication style is on the web. In addition to the sermons, I will write each week a paragraph or two about a book I am reading currently. Being small does not mean we are not on the cutting edge.
GC as wake-up
Re-vitalizing also means that “every Methodist is a missionary” with talking points they share with their own network of colleagues. Our local challenge is to bring new people to our church—even though it’s tucked away on a rural road, so far that, from the front door of the church, you can’t even see a house! Morale is high as our attendance has moved from the 60s to over 100. Our folks are often mobile on weekends, but on those Sundays when we all get there, we have 150. Most weeks I send an email or call absentees, express my hope that they are OK and tell them we missed them. It’s not a guilt trip, just an encouraging word that says, “You are important.”
In worship, we now show YouTube and movie clips that I have chosen as part of my sermon, via a motorized screen. We have a new mixing board in a new control room. Soon, we will be able to take DVDs of every service to homebound members and offer them to members to share with their un-churched friends. Our worship service will soon be accessible worldwide, via the Internet.
Why share this? Because we have no connectional leadership; we are congregational in polity. If Kallam Grove can do this, any church can! The United Methodist Church is at a tipping point. If we continue to commiserate about the failure of General Conference to change the Book of Discipline or our connectional organizational flow charts, we might come back in 2016 as a house even more divided. However, if we use the 2012 General Conference as a wake-up call, we can acknowledge that the word “vital congregation” is ultimately a local term. We must move our focus from institutional bodies at the global and regional level and focus on the local church and the pastor of that church.
During our recent history, we have looked to the upper echelons of the connection for “the vision” and “the mission,” even for the motivation of our ministry. Sadly for many clergy, we have drawn our energy from our ambition, too often looking to the next appointment. That old dog will no longer hunt! Dispirited clergy will result in dispirited congregations. Let us internalize Charles Wesley’s oft-sung words: “My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim/to spread through all the earth abroad the honors of Thy Name.”
God still has a mission for the United Methodist message. We must, by God’s grace, be open to the igniting ministries of the Holy Spirit. We must be creative, daring and bold, not timid or whiny or cynical. The small membership church can provide intensive congregational care, and to preach the message of Charles Wesley’s hymn: “Let every soul be Jesus’ guest. You need not one be left behind for God has bid all humankind.”
Using the web for evangelism is one way of doing that, but this summer is a time for every local congregation to develop what our forebears called “holy boldness” as we reach out and touch the people in our local community. The language of Wesley and early Methodism was “passion for souls.” Our pulpit message must move from old moralistic legalism chastisement and recent social justice castigation. Guilt trips are not motivational. The Gospel shows us what it means to experience God’s love in our messed up lives. God’s vision is for our local church mission to experience a transformation of congregational culture. Sundays at the small membership church can no longer be “same ol’, same ol’” or the “same old seven and six,” but re-vitalizing, re-visioning, re-awakening.
This is where the “John” to whom I refer comes in. Studies show that when church-oriented people are moving to a new community, they check the websites of churches in their new area. Every church has someone like John who is a whiz with social networking. If half of the members of a church sent a message to their Facebook or email network, even the smallest membership church would spread its message further than Billy Graham’s crusades ever dreamed of!
Something to say
The final test for web-evangelism is whether we really have anything going on! When Thoreau was informed by some technophile of his day that the new-fangled telegraph was so marvelous that “Maine can now speak to Texas,” Thoreau’s response was, ‘Does Maine have anything to say to Texas?” This is the Achilles Heel of all social networking. Okay, we can say what we wish to the world, but do we have anything to say?
When Methodism was the most rapidly growing religious organization in America, our clergy were poorly educated, our meeting houses were woefully austere, and the circuit riders arrived at respective preaching points about once every six weeks. What they had was a “first person singular” witness of what God was doing in their lives and a passionate mission to share their story with the world. The “world” was the American frontier and the beginnings of our cities. They had “fire in the belly.” Their secret strategy was the located Elder, the lay preachers, the exhorters, and the famous cl
ass meeting. In Bishop Asbury’s last year, 1815, he wrote, “We have seven hundred traveling preachers and three thousand local preachers who cost us nothing. We will not give up the cause—we will not abandon the world to infidels.”
“Rise up, ye saints of God, the church for you doth wait!” We do not have to be a mega- church to be a vital congregation!
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.