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:
- Asking the question
- Answering the question
- 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.” It 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.
And 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?