I recently gave a lecture at The Pacific School of Religion in which I attempted to set up a discussion about the UMC Call To Action, the Methodist Federation for Social Action alternative, and the newly minted response of the Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction.
I referenced my good friend Rev. Jeremy Smith (of course!) but also reflected upon some areas where I might find some disagreement with him. We had an email exchange after I alerted him that he might be getting some traffic from PSR this weekend and Jeremy said, “you have to blog this.”
My lecture, “The UMC Inside Out: A Conversational Thought Experiment” was intended to spur some thinking and discussion about the Call to Action and what promises to be one of the most exciting and terrifying General Conferences for The UMC since the 1968 merger. Whatever we think about the Call to Action Steering Team report and resulting legislation, we can all at least thank them for one thing– we’re finally having this conversation as a denomination. Forgotten in the dust of last 16 years is the Connectional Process Team work that culminated in their 2000 report and legislative items to the General Conference. This was ostensibly a move to discuss how to change our church to be relevant in the 21st century. However, in the oldest of United Methodist conferencing traditions, it was “affirmed in principle” then pretty much set aside and referred for study. The 2008 constitutional amendments seeking to restructure our denomination to create the North American church as a body analogous to the Central Conferences might have been the last gasp of the CPT. Although it passed there, it died with the Annual Conferences.
But the Call to Action seems to have us talking in ways the CPT never did. And whatever we think of it, it’s about time we have this conversation. This is what gives me hope despite the anxiety over what we might pass. My biggest fear is that we’ll simply “affirm in principle” the idea that we need to change then carry on as usual.
I opened the lecture with a clip from the 90′s animated Nickelodeon series Invader Zim from which the still picture above is from. Zim is of course an incompetent little alien whose leaders sent him away “out there” (appointed him?) just to get him out of the way. He stumbles upon Earth and takes it as his mission to prepare Earth for horrible immanent alien invasion. When Zim’s own incompetence isn’t foiling his plans, his classmate Dib is. Dib is a believer a wide variety of paranormal and conspiracy theories. His father is the incredibly busy scientist Professor Membrane, so Dib has access to a wide variety of scientific equipment for his “para-science.” Dib’s creepy sister Gaz is eternally annoyed by Dib’s obsession with exposing Zim and simply wants a smooth annual Family Night Out at Bloaty’s Pizza Hog. However, Dib has infiltrated Zim’s base and gotten captured. Gaz goes to rescue him only so they can go to Bloaty’s for dinner but is tempted to allow Zim to perform “just one experiment” — to see how Dib looks with all his organs on the outside! However, she imagines her father’s response, “No, no, no! We can’t go anywhere with him looking like that! Family Night is cancelled until all his organs are back inside!”
As we experiment with the polity of The UMC in the Call to Action, MFSA alternative, and response of the Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction, I’m aware of our discomfort of perhaps harming something we know and love in order to turn it inside out. And I’m also aware that there are those who’d rather just keep appearances and say, “No, no, no! We can do anything with it looking like that! General Conference is cancelled until all the organs are back on the inside!”
About 50 years ago, Johannes Hoekendijk wrote The Church Inside Out as a response the mid-1960′s revival in calls for more evangelism to keep churches relevant in the changing social context. That we’re still having these conversations seems to affirm my opinion that this book is one of the most overlooked books about ecclesiology in the past 100 years.
Hoekendijk’s concern with the calls for evangelism are summed up in this quote,
To put it bluntly: the call to evangelism is often little else than a call to restore “Christendom,” the Corpus Christianum, as a solid, well-integrated cultural complex, directed and dominated by the church. And the sense of urgency is often nothing but a nervous feeling of insecurity, with the established church endangered; a flurried activity to save the remnants of a time now irrevocably past. (15)
Bam. Hoekendijk slices through 50 years of mainline denominational limping along and “40 years of United Methodist decline” to poke us in the eye with such an astute observation.
His concerns with evangelism restoring a sort of Christendom is that,
Christendom becomes a protective shell of the church. … a shock breaker. Influences from the outside are filtered; condemnations hurled at the church are intercepted; in this well-protected area the church can have its own style of life, speak its own language, determine its own time. (18-19)
And as a result, the church is incomprehensible to those outside of it. This is what prompts the Call to Action and its increasing number of alternatives. The aim of these conversations must be to turn The United Methodist Church inside out and break our habit of talking to ourselves in our own Metho-speak and become comprehensible to those on the outside instead of reprehensible.
Will the Call to Action do that? My concerns with what the Call to Action presents are:
1. The argument it presents moves from statistical evidence of decline right to solutions for vital congregations based on studies of what ‘growing UMCs’ are doing.
But, when I see statistics that cite the percentage of people who have left the UMC, I want to know why. When I hear that young adults are not interested in the UMC, I want to know why. I don’t think we have enough qualitative research on the ‘why’ of our decline to truly respond. There’s a study by the Public Religion Research Institute on the Millennial generation that is jaw dropping and eye opening.
Some things from that link that hop out at me:
• About one-fifth of the young people we interviewed explicitly talked about feeling the need to be a “closeted” Christian around their friends because of all the negative associations their peers have about Christianity.
• The young people we interviewed most frequently mentioned being anti-gay and judgmental as key attributes that turned off younger adults about contemporary churches.
• Millennials lamented that many churches wanted them to fit into preexisting programs and structures, rather than creating programs that were responsive to their needs, styles, interests, and busy lifestyles.
• Millennials were more interested in participating in a community than joining an institution.
2. Meaningful metrics. There’s good case to be made for measuring effectiveness. Metrics are not the devil. But do the proposed vital congregations dashboard widgets measure what we really want to measure?
If our mission statement is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, I can think of a number of frequent attenders, good givers, etc. for whom church ends at noon on Sunday and, having done their duty as a ‘good person,’ they’re really not interested until net Sunday. If you look at what I put in bold from the PRRI the Call to Action dashboard seems severely out of whack with what Millennials are looking for.
That said, we should probably be measuring something in some way to create a form of feedback to know if what we’re doing is effective or not. Otherwise, we’re doing what concerns me in point #1–lamenting decline without any understanding of why we’re in decline.
However we need to have more theological discussion on defining our mission statement in diverse ways in diverse contexts that allows for a diverse set of metrics to be established that are sensitive to local needs. I don’t think having “one dashboard to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them” is going to give us the information we’re going to need in order to turn the church inside out.
3. I’m worried we’re trading Methodist bureaucrats for Methodist technocrats. While the alternative plans are concerned about the impact of the Call to Action restructuring on diversity, I think both the MFSA and Bishops of the Western Jurisdiction still get it wrong. They’re concerned with the diversity in the remaining bureaucracy.
Whatever plan we end up with, I think we’ll end up with a small enough bureaucracy that it won’t matter too much on the local level. The monstrous bureaucracy we already have is already fairly irrelevant to many local congregations. I’m concerned with the impact of the proposed technocracy on diversity at the local level.
Deaf congregations are never going to have the members because of the centuries of broken trust and oppression of Deaf people by Christianity. Similar statements can be said about American Indian churches and those working with the LGBT community.
Congregations that are Chinese or Spanish speaking will never achieve recorded memberships and professions of faith because they serve high numbers of undocumented immigrants. The very idea of having your name on an official public record is terrifying to those under constant threat of deportation.
Urban congregations of predominantly African American working poor or congregations of predominantly white rural poor will never meet the giving benchmarks or the depth of lay involvement because they’re working three jobs with no benefits and still barely making ends meet.
Yet we all know churches like this who are making amazing disciples of Jesus Christ and radical God inspired transformation of the world. Again, I think we’re being asked to measure the wrong stuff.
Now, for a couple of areas where my friend Jeremy and I might find disagreement.
1. Jeremy has been fairly clear that the notion of metrics and measuring is a non-starter and issues a manifesto to resist metrics. As I mentioned above, I don’t think metrics are the devil, I just think what the Call to Action asks us to measure is completely the wrong thing. Instead of letting institutional concerns about membership, giving, participation, etc. guide our metrical assessment of the mission of, “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” why don’t we allow theology to guide what we want to measure. Jeremy is correct that the Wesleyan concept that ‘grace abounds’ is an impossible task of measuring the infinite, but might we find ways within specific local contexts to measure the residue of this grace on our lives in the community “out there” as well as “inside?”
2. Jeremy is also worried about a creeping congregationalism within The UMC. Personally, I think the UMC could use more congregationalism in its polity. If creeping congregationalism is taking the form of withholding apportionments, then I share that concern. But that’s not what congregationalism means to me.
Somewhere along the way, we seemed to theologically juxtapose congregationalism and connectionalism as polar opposites. In my opinion, this is a false dichotomy. Congregationalism, in my definition, is allowing congregations the autonomy to do their ministry without imposing a conformity upon them. In some ways, The UMC will forever need to be connectional in some nature, but connectionalism is not conformity. Perhaps one of the unique features of the early Methodist movement in America is that it was both congregational in allowing a high degree of laity led direction in its congregations while retaining a common identity and connection through its clergy.
If Mr. Peabody had Sherman fire up the WABAC machine and we went back to the earlier periods of Methodism, we’d all go Bullwinkle and say, “Rocky, I’m so confused!” I think we’d find the Methodist connection to look congregationalist beyond our wildest imagination. The clergy were riding horses while the laity were doing ministry. Congregations met quarterly to share what they were doing in ministry. Accountability didn’t mean simply following rote rules in what officers a church needed to elect, but being able to report to the quarterly conference that your ministry was fruitful and living up to the general rules of the Methodist movement.
This implies that by and large, congregations were left to do their ministry with the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. And this was ok! There was no need for church A to tell church B, “No, no, no! You’re doing it all wrong!” I think we need to do a practical theological excavation of the practices and polity of early Methodism. However, we need to be more sophisticated with this practical theological enterprise that simply proof texting it into the 21st century. Information works differently now and individualism in our society is much more pronounced.
But let’s see what we might make of the idea of not worrying so much about what other Methodists are doing as long as its making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The corporate age made our historical congregational edge go away as organizing and uniformity were the watchwords. The information age made it possible to know what was going on elsewhere in an instant. But in the hyper information age, we’re seeing more and more ‘filtering’ of information. People may have a flood of Twitter and Facebook posts in front of them, but they filter what interests and attracts them and leave the rest alone.
Maybe there’s something to that that would allow the disparate factions of the UMC to look one another in the eye, continue to disagree about various theological issues, then say, “I trust you. I’ve got your back because we’re all United Methodists making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in our contexts.” Then turn around let each other do the ministry we need with the people “out there.”