As I continue to think about the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, I have some thoughts about moving forward. Here are my hopes for the future:
Focus – One problem with our church is a lack of focus. We have a mission statement, two kinds of holiness, three simple rules, and four areas of focus. Additionally, we have other programs and agencies focused on ministry. Annual conference has their own programs, agencies, and ministries competing for our time, energy, and attention. My hope is that we can work towards a more focused approach towards ministry. I suggest taking our mission statement and using that as the starting point.
Discipleship – If we were to make our mission statement our focus as a denomination, it might be helpful to define what we mean by disciple. Literally a disciple is one how follows. What does that mean as a United Methodist living in the 21st century? Having a definition might help us focus on how to live out our mission statement. We might say that a disciple is a person growing in love with God, growing in love with their neighbor, and who lives out the membership vows of the United Methodist Church. Each local congregation might contextualize it.
It might be also helpful as a denomination to envision a discipleship process. How do we as a denomination create environments where people, by the grace of God, become disciples and, by the grace of God, grow in their discipleship? If Jesus is the one who invites us to be disciples, if it is God who provides the grace, then what can we do to be part of the process?
Local churches will need to contextualize it for what it means in the local congregation. At the same time, the denomination might be able to contextualize old ways of discipleship as well. Could we start neo-monastic movements that help us make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World? Are there ways we could recreate circuits of bands and classes where gifted facilitators might iterate between?
Simplicity – Once we have focused on our main purpose as United Methodists and defined what we mean, my hope is that we might work on making our United Methodist connection simpler. I would hope we would take an honest and hard look at: all that we do, all of our agencies, all of our ministries, all of our rules, and try to separate what will be fruitful to our primary purpose from what will not be.
The four focuses we currently have are important, but do they distract us from our primary purpose? The agencies of the church offer nice services and ministries, but to what extent are they making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Are they doing ministry or are they empowering, enabling, and equipping local congregations to live out our mission statement?
If the agencies are doing ministry that helps local congregations make disciples of Jesus Christ then let us as a denomination focus on those ministries. We could find ways to use those ministries to help empower, equip, and enable congregations to do the work God has called them to do. Ministries that are not empowering, equipping, or enabling should be spun-off or shuttered. With so many agencies, with so many agendas, with so many possible avenues for ministry, we lose the power of effective ministries if we don’t winnow away what is nice but not vital to our primary purpose. The more complex our structure the harder it is to focus on what is necessary. Congregations get pulled in many directions and lose focus. My hope is we work towards a simpler structure and system that helps us better live out our primary purpose.
Vision – Before the 2012 United Methodist General Conference, I tried hard to see how the various plans for restructure would make a real difference. Beyond the technical details, all I saw were some vague promises that these changes would make a difference. I watched the Reverend Adam Hamilton’s presentation during conference. While the presentation was nice and the visuals were great, ultimately, I still was not sure what the vision was beyond vague promises of small steps towards vitality.
I guess what I was hoping for was a sweeping vision of how any one of the plans would make a difference to the local congregation beyond finances. Sure we need summaries and technical proposals, but we also need vision. How do we feel that God is calling us to be the church? What does that look like? Can we some how articulate a vision that starts with the GC and works its way down to the local congregation?
Any of the proposals would have had more of an impact if they could have presented a vision of how the changes they are proposing would help the United Methodist church, by the grace of God, make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. My own annual conference, the Susquehanna Conference, has a vision team that has worked hard for the last few years trying to discern how God is calling us to be an annual conference. In 2010, the Pennsylvania churches of the Wyoming Conference and the Central Pennsylvania Conference formed a new conference. Leaders from both conferences have worked hard to discern how God is calling us to be a new conference.
This year at annual conference, the Vision Team has proposed some radical restructuring of the conference. The recommendation before the annual conference tries to paint a vision of what the new structure would look like. While it is not perfect, it does give me a vision of how God might be calling us to equip, empower, and enable local churches. It might be helpful for anyone proposing restructure to go beyond technical details and vague promises of vitality. Paint a vivid picture of why you believe God is calling us to structure ourselves in the way you are proposing.
I have read and heard a fair amount of people lamenting that General Conference cannot really do anything anyways. Revival in the United Methodist Church will start on the local level. While I strongly agree that the local congregation is at the heart of our future, I think the General Conference can set the tone, point the way, and set up the denomination to empower, equip, and enable local congregations for our mission as a church.
Empower the local church – I do not think that the General Conference or the annual conferences are responsible for the decline in vitality many congregations are experiencing. Sure if either had done things differently in the past, things might be different now, but who is to say in what ways, what extent, and to what end? Local congregations are struggling for a variety of reasons. Larger cultural forces are at work. Theological and spiritual issues are part of the problem. Ask ten different pastors about why we are declining in vitality and you would probably get ten slightly different answers.
My hope though is that we can continue to shape the General Conference and annual conferences to empower, equip, and enable local congregations. We should try hard to ensure that we focus our money, time, energy, and resources on local congregations. Local congregations, by the grace of God, are where disciples are made and the real power to transform the world can be found. Any ministry, agenda, or line item that is not equipping, empowering, and enabling the local congregation, in some reasonable way, is distracting us and ultimately taking away from the local congregation.
Summary – While very general, these are my hopes for the United Methodist church. As we continue to envision, dream, and talk, it is my hope that we work on focusing on our primary purpose as a church. We will hopefully define what we mean by discipleship and think about how we can as a connection better able to create environments where disciples are made and people grow in discipleship by the grace of God. Our church and structure is way too complicated and I hope we can work towards simplicity. I hope any proposals for restructure brought to General Conference in 2016 has an accompanying vision. If we believe our primary purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world then we need to empower, equip, and enable the local congregation.