An Existential Loop

My long time spiritual guide and mentor, Carl Andry, Jr., used to tell us that the purpose of the church could be discerned through the three-fold approach to a single question: Why are we here?  For Dr. Andry, a congregation could only justify its existence by:

  1. Asking the question
  2. Answering the question
  3. Acting on the question

He always concluded this conversation with a cackle (I’ve never known a Christian with a more evil, self-satisfied laugh…) and a caution — “heaven help us all if you get number two wrong.”

The United Methodist Church clarified #1 in 1996 and tackled #2 by stating that the mission of the church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.”  A decade later, in the face of overwhelming evidence that this answer was insufficient, we added “for the transformation of the world.”  It is essentially left to each annual conference and  local church, however, to work out #3 — how we will act on #2.  The problem is, we haven’t taken the time to make sure that number two is widely understood and that we all mean the same (or at least a similar) thing.  To date, there has been no systemic exploration of the simple string of questions:

  • what is a disciple?
  • what is a disciple for?
  • how is a disciple ‘made’?
  • who makes a disciple?
  • how do you know when you’re finished?
  • what do you do with a disciple once you’ve got one?
  • what is transformation?
  • what does a transformed world look like?
  • who decides what kind of transformation we need?
  • who transforms?
  • how do you measure progress?
  • is transformation the end, or is there something more?

Without serious investigation into these questions (and others), it is impossible to know exactly what to do — #3 remains shrouded in mist.  But that doesn’t stop us.  We blunder ahead regardless.  Apparently, for a significant segment of United Methodism, the real answer to #2 is “make more of what we already have.”  sorcerers-apprenticeIt brings to mind the horrifying scene from Fantasia, in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” where Mickey Mouse conjures up an endless tide of mindless brooms to clean up.  We in the church want to self-replicate in order to ‘clean up’ for God.  We want “new” members, so we build “new” churches (faith communities), to attract “new” members, which will require us to build “new” churches — what philosophers refer to as “an existential loop,” where our existence is the reason for our existence.  Heaven help us all if we get #2 wrong!

I received two emails this week from leaders of one annual conference (whose identity I shall protect) concerned that their new congregational development efforts are not aimed at launching healthy, sustainable, vital churches (see my book Vital Signs to understand why these people wanted to talk to me…), but at launching more of what they already have — average churches struggling to make a real difference that have very little going for them except that they will be “new.”  I received an email last month from a participant in a new church leadership workshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the young pastor said she left, “sick to her stomach because of the screwed up values and backward vision” she encountered there.  She also noted that, “we’re so focused on our own survival that we could care less what Jesus wants.”  Her concluding comment bears some reflection.  “I think it would be better for us to do nothing, than to do this all wrong.”

I remember a call I got a few year’s ago from a United Methodist pastor asking me to come consult with his church.  I asked what they were trying to do, and he replied, “We want to be the biggest United Methodist Church in North America!”  I pressed him to tell me why the congregation wanted this, and he told me, “Then we would be a witness to all the world about the greatness of Jesus Christ.”  Many seem to share his sentiment.  However, if we cannot be a witness to Christ’s greatness in our present condition, we certainly won’t do it any better just because we’re bigger.

toomanytoys1And that’s the crux of the matter.  We’re like the child that has a thousand toys, but only wants another one.  We don’t spend nearly as much time figuring out how to play with what we’ve got.  We only want more.  As a denomination, we’re doing a poor job teaching, equipping, developing, and sending the people we already have.  We do a mediocre job with the 8,000,000 we have, but we’re convinced that we’ll do a dynamite job with the next million, if we can only get them in our doors.  No time for last year’s model — we want something new to play with.

As a denomination–at every level–we need to step back for some serious reevaluation.  Why are we here?  Why does the world need us?  Why does God need us?  What difference do we make?  What difference should we make?  How is the world better for our presence in it?  What are the values that are truly guiding our current behavior as the church?  What will we do better with ‘more’ that we’re not already doing with what we’ve got?  Why is it important for us to reach out and receive people, to relate them to God, to nurture and strengthen them in their faith, and to send them out into the world — transformed people as catalytic agents of change in the world?

6 replies

  1. Anecdotally a few years ago for charge conference the DS had each church respond to the question: what would this community miss if you were gone? Sadly many churches said things like the ‘chicken and noodle supper’ or the church I was serving at the time thought the community apparently needed more junk declaring our rummage sale/bazaar would be missed. I do not blame the people of the church for supposing this a right answer because our chasing after members daring not challenge them or confront them seems a more likely culprit–at least it explains our spiritual infancy. Because of this immaturity I have and a number of my colleagues have been chastised and lost members for preaching too much about Jesus.
    I have recently been reading Paul Borden’s “Direct Hit” and finding that while I can lament the attitudes of the church forever and do nothing about, the first truth I have discovered is that I think I am a good communicator of vision…turns out I am pretty lousy at it. I think I am pretty lousy at it because I don’t think I’ve done enough work with #2. Truth is I don’t disagree with making disciples but the language leaves us too much thinking that making disciples is no different than making that delicious chicken and noodles–hence there is a tendency to flit from one program to the next seeking that next great disciple making recipe. A little time in the kitchen and viola a new disciple who will be a member of our church and give their resources for making more noodles…er…disciples.
    My take on the whole thing is that the concentration needs to be on discipleship; building people into maturity so that they may declare that we do what we do because the grace we have received compels us to do no other and all of it is focused on Jesus.

  2. We need to work both broader and deeper. More and more people are being born everyday and more and more people are in need of Jesus. We need to work to reach as many as we can.

    We also need to work to make our visitors into members and our members into disciples and our disciples into apostles.

    Nurture, witness and outreach all need to be a part of the church. Neglecting any of them means that we aren’t doing all we should be doing.

  3. But what is a disciple? In the tradition of Jesus’ time a disciple would be a teen who would follow their master about keeping close observation of what he did and what he said, asking why, when, and how along the way as he ministered in the communties they encountered.

    By this very basic definition we as a denomination are failing horribly. What does a pastor do in their current job description that in ANY WAY would encourage teens let alone adults to follow, emulate, and repeat in their own personal ministry or to even decide to follow Christ? What are the senior disciples(assuming that we have any) doing that would make someone who doesn’t know Christ want to change their life and follow Christ through this disciples example and mentoring?

    Maybe the UMC needs to have a simple goal of simply getting our current membership formed into disciples. Getting our own folks to simply

    If this basic definition is unattainable, how then do we effectively create disciples within a denominational context? We need leadership from the Council of Bishops.

  4. Eric,

    Spot on.

    Congregations do not do this. Congregations have not done this, by and large, since about the sixth century in the West. Monasteries have. Other extra-congregational movements have. But the only serious formation process the congregation has put forward in any sustainable way for the past 1400 years has been preparation for ordained ministry. No wonder we still call that “THE ministry”?

    Why do you think the Wesley brothers created a process of groups OUTSIDE the life of existing congregations (which also insisting that all Methodists have a lively connection to an existing congregation for Sunday morning worship– or else not be admitted or continued as Methodists!) when they got interested in actually making disciples and then deploying them, accountably, to be part of God’s transformation of the world around them, not just more churchgoer in England?

    • One of my favorite phrases that came to my attention during the Jesus movement days of the sixties and seventies was “easy believism” — the idea that Christianity had divorced beliefs from behaviors and the need to belong to a community of faith and that all one had to do was think the right things and everything was hunky-dory. I wonder whatever happened to all those critics of the mainstream of 40-50 years ago? The whole concept that faith should cost or demand anything is so foreign to the modern day church mind. One of the most troubling findings in my research of the past five years is that 71% of United Methodists (clergy included) define “discipleship” as “believing that Jesus is the Son of God.” There is no responsibility on our part — except to believe.

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