Methodist to the Core April 29, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian discipleship, Mission of the Church, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: Christian discipleship, Church membership, Mission & Purpose, The United Methodist Church
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the General Board of Discipleship championed an effort to get The United Methodist Church to focus on ¶122 of the Book of Discipline — “The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission”or, the core process of our church. (This has also been called “Our Primary Task.”) Known variously as Quest for Quality, Quest, and FaithQuest, these efforts helped the denomination better understand the then mission of the church “making disciples of Jesus Christ.” In the era of the expanded mission statement (…for the transformation of the world) it is well to return to ¶122 and see how well we’re doing. Here’s the passage in its entirety:
¶ 122. The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission—We make disciples as we:
—proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ;
—lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ;
—nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing;
—send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and
—continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ.
Before we examine the five elements of the process, two observations are critically important. First, these are not five distinct, loosely related functions, but aspects of one SINGLE process. If you are only doing one or two aspects well, the processis still failing (or suboptimized). Think about baking a cake. If you describe the process as ‘gathering ingredients, mixing ingredients, pouring them into cake pans, baking them in a heated oven, cooling the cake, then frosting the cake,’ it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to say, “well, we gather the ingredients well, bake them fine, and we’re great at frosting, but we really don’t mix them, put them in pans, or let them cool. Similarly, if we say, “well, we do a great job reaching new people, and nurturing them, but we’re not very strong at getting people baptized, making a commitment to God, or sending them back out into the world to live as servants of Christ,” it really doesn’t make much sense. All aspects of the whole core process of discipleship must operate together. It isn’t enough to do one or two parts well and ignore the rest.
Second, the mission defines our reason for being for the entire congregation — not just clarifies what leaders do for followers. If some avowed members are working on their discipleship and others are not, then the mission is compromised and the core process is failing. This is not to say that every church member should be a fully functional disciple, but that everyone is maturing in their spirituality toward discipleship. We need to take into account that some people have limited capacity. We take into consideration such factors as age, education, cognitive capacity, years on the spiritual journey, etc. But – and this is critically important to our contemporary United Methodist Church – it is unacceptable for any full member of a congregation to be a passive spectator, a coddled customer, a Christian consumer, or a pew potato. These relationships are not aligned in any way, shape, or form with the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The leaders and members of every congregation need to challenge anyone who comes to church merely to be served. United Methodists, by definition, are engaging in all five aspects of the core process (¶122), or they are not really Methodists! This is hard for many church leaders and members to grasp. To actually hold people accountable to anykind of standard strikes them as somehow unchristian, or at the very least, not nice. However, there is no Christianity without accountability; if the accountability is lacking, so is Christ.
So, in a narrative form, The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission, simply says that to make disciples of Jesus Christ we must seek, reach out to, welcome and gather people into the body of Christ and share the gospel with them; we invite people to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and their profession of faith in Jesus Christ; we hold each other accountable to our commitment to live a Christian life and we share together in worship, the sacraments, and formation groups that help us practice the means of grace, such as prayer, scripture study, acts of mercy and service, fasting, and Wesley’s Christian conferencing; we journey back into the world — both individually and together — to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and we continuously engage in this cycle of seeking, welcoming, gathering, connecting, nurturing, equipping, supporting, and returning to the world as growing members of the body of Christ. (Whew!)
The question of how well we’re doing is not easily answered. There are pockets — rare and not-too-numerous — where the core process is working well. We see glimpses of it from time to time. We find examples of it in an occasional local church. We see attempts to improve it at the annual conference level. But to be honest, denominationally our core process is more of an ideal than an actuality. We want this process to describe the way we live out our mission, but there are an awful lot of United Methodists that aren’t even clear what our mission is, and could not possibly explain it in language anywhere close to what we’re using here.
One of the major problems is that we tend to break the process steps down into discreet functions. We call reaching new people “evangelism” and “outreach.” Introducing and connecting people to God we do through “worship” and “membership.” We nurture people’s faith in “Christian education” and “small groups ministries.” Sending people out as servants of Christ is “missions” and “visitation.” We focus on the functions we’re good at, and by focusing on the parts, we lose sight of the whole. The system suffers as we excel at some things, fail at others, and ignore the rest. This was the fundamental flaw with the Igniting Ministries project — it focused most of its efforts on reaching new people and making them feel welcome, without concern for how effectively people were nurtured, equipped, supported, or sent forth. When I worked with the early genesis of Igniting Ministries, I ‘ingratiated’ myself to the other leaders by raising a concern about inviting new people into a dysfunctional system. (My exact words were, “If your problem is that the bottom of a bucket is rusting through, the solution is not to put more in the bucket. Make sure the bucket has integrity, then put more in.)
Churches that only focus on worship and education are no healthier than those fixated on welcome. Unless we are reaching new people and bringing them into fellowship, and eventually equipping them to live differently in the world, we are nothing but an elite club, serving our own needs and fulfilling our own desires.
Even churches committed to service and mission work can easily be incomplete. In these settings, people may be too busy helping others to pray, study scripture, build community, seek God’s will, share their faith with others, or nurture other people’s faith. The key is not to get good at parts, but to integrate all functions into a seamless, ongoing process — a perpetual-motion machine of spiritual formation, growth, and practice.
Any church can begin anywhere to improve all five aspects of the core process. However, the most critical prework most congregations need to do is clearly explain and study the implications of being a church defined by “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” We have so many people attending our churches who do not understand this, desire this, agree with this, or accept this. Our fundamental identity and purpose must be explored and understood or no amount of good intentions to “do better” will bear any fruit.
My book, Vital Signs, is all about congregations that take our mission seriously, and the struggles and triumphs they experienced as they moved from “representational ministry” (where a small segment of dedicated disciples serve the needs of passive spectators and church consumers) to “participative ministry” where 80, 90, or close to 100% of church participants actively engage in all aspects of the core process.
There is no simple path to authentic discipleship and no short-cuts to a world transformed. We need a church full of people willing to make the hard commitment to become disciples of Jesus Christ. For United Methodists, this isn’t optional. Our General Conference made it very clear — the mission of all United Methodists is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” There’s no such thing as a superficial Methodist. If you’re Methodist, you’re Methodist to the core (process).