Methodist to the Core

book-of-discipline1During 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.

235-offerthemchristSecond, 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!)

tsunamibelmontumcnashville2The 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).

10 replies

  1. I think mayby you are making the process too complex. We need to make leading someone from prevenient to justifying grace our top priority. Wesley would argue from there it is role of the varying classes etc to develop from believer to disciple. So maybe from a simple perspective our process for reaching new people through disciple should just be

    “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;”

    This opens up how we spread the Gospel. A Wednesday night supper with a brief sharing of faith becomes a service. Scouts being lead by a UMC leader who focuses formation activities at each meeting. Sacrements can occur at any of the aforementioned activities. For example, Scoutmasters can choose to offer Baptism and Confirmation as part of the normal scout year and use Pack meetings to gather the community to celebrate baptism. A women’s group could celebrate communion as part of their meetings. At any of these meetings a basket can be passed to support the church and we can always pray and use song to worship God. Maybe the institution has made this so hard that it can’t see the simple dirt path.

    • “yes, but,” Eric. The denomination made discipleship the standard, and the Book of Discipline delineates the process. We don’t have to be limited in our delivery systems, but the ultimate concern of equipping people to transform the world isn’t really up for discussion anymore (though a powerful segment of the church choose to ignore it). I said nothing about limiting the spread of the gospel to the traditional institution. A few minutes with almost any of my other blogs blows that concept out of the water. Institutional preservation is either a) dead, or b) will be the death of us — it is NOT the path into the future. So, yes, all you say is true, but the institutional UMC must, at the very least, be about discipleship in all aspects and forms — and the majority of our congregations simply are not…

  2. Dan,

    I’m not so sure we need to rewrite the rules. We just need to follow what is already there. The Discipline – as you point out – and the vows of baptism and membership contain ample room for accountability.

    Here is my honest problem and weakness. The church I serve fits Jay’s description pretty well. I am a part-time appointment with virtually no contact with or support from other clergy or my conference superiors. What contact I have had has tended to support the notion that small churches should just die off or they are not worth troubling about. It is not worth the effort – I’ve been told by other clergy – to cause that kind of grief.

    I am not a terribly brave person. I am not very good at conflict. These Christians at the church I serve are comfortable and fear more than anything a family squabble that will drive people away or cause the church to collapse like the one a few miles away did a couple years ago.

    Where do we pastors find the boldness to do what should be done?

    • You know? There is a great divide between the abstract concept of a healthy community and the lived reality of trying to create one. In my experience — and where my passion and efforts have gone in the past few years — the program and activities of a church often prevent us from being healthy, instead of being good indicators about our health. Underlying what we do as a church is the essence of who we are — our guiding values, the way we talk to and act with one another, and our fundamental understanding of what it means to be a church. Because most of our churches have history — have been around awhile — we seldom question the way things are. The momentum/inertia of our current path is “normal,” and highly resistant to change. We don’t take time to reexamine the basics. I have become a crusader for behavioral covenants in churches — where the active participants work together to identify and commit to a) the behaviors they will support and defend, b) the behaviors they find unacceptable and that they will refuse to allow, and c) the principles of the Christian faith they want to lay as the foundation for everything they do. This takes an enormous amount of pressure off the pastor to be the watchdog, and empowers everyone to share in responsibility and accountability for mutually agreed upon standards of belief and practice. It still takes time, but it shifts the essential focus from what we do to who we want to be. The more effectively we foster healthy, respectful, and gracious relationships, the easier it is to craft a rich, productive, supportive environment for growth and development. It requires that we find creative ways to help congregational members put the “WE” of the community of faith ahead of the individual “MEs” clamoring for entitlement and power. We have allowed bad behaviors and toxic attitudes to fester for a long time, and it takes a long time to clear all the poisons out of the congregational system. It is perhaps the hardest work we do in pastoral ministry, but it also perhaps the most needed and valuable.

  3. Thank you. I understand more by your efforts.I will return to your post many times and recommend it to others. After watching a Youtube post by a bishop about a General Conference vote, I posted this: Taking a break from our flu risk response here in Matamoros. I am tired and this may not make sense. This is my petition. Please all of you who lead us take into consideration each idea or proposal as to how it affects each member of a local church in attending to the the processes as to how we go about our mission (listed in Section 122 of Book of Discipline?). If your idea or proposal is not or cannot be demonstrated to be in alignment with these processes, please work some more on the idea or proposal. There are many good ideas and proposals. Please link them to us that follow through consideration of these processes. Peace,larry

    • If the key to a successful business (or church) is location, location, location, the success of a denominational organization is alignment, alignment, alignment. It isn’t enough that we provide a plethora of excellent programs — if they are not aligned toward the critical needs and objectives of the organization then they lack the power to create sustained change. We do many great things of limited lasting value in the UMC. It is not a criticism of the programs — they truly are great. But they are disconnected, fragmented, and sometimes even at cross-purposes with other excellent work. We lack a systems-view and deep critical thinking. We too often don’t look at long term, unintended consequences of some of our best efforts. One of the most shocking things I learned from some professor friends from Vanderbilt University is that much of the current gang and tribe violence, war, unrest, malnutrition, disease (including AIDS), and starvation traces directly back to the successful relief efforts of Christian and humanitarian organizations in the 1970s to provide clean water and low cost innoculations. As infant mortality was reduced — something anyone would agree is a good thing — the long term impact was overpopulation, depletion of already scarce resources, greater competition for food, water, and land, and a boom of homeless street youth (who formerly would have died in early childhood). Short-term solutions with long-term implications no one considered. It raises all kinds of questions about our current efforts to eliminate Malaria. Sustainability experts around the globe agree that the disease, starvation, malnutrition, tribal war, gang violence, and rise of domestic violence are all symptoms of widespread poverty and governmental corruption. Treating symptoms is easier than root causes, but if you are too effective with the symptoms, you can actually make the root causes worse. Lack of alignment and critical thinking. It is why your questions about, and commitment to, paragraph 122 are so timely and insightful. They provide us an excellent touchstone to develop an accountable system of denomination-wide alignment.

      • I am an advocate of putting into operation Paragraph 122. If Paragraph 122 is changed by our leadership, I trust our leadership enough that I will be an advocate of putting into operation the revised paragraph. That is it. If I do not learn more about this paragraph and follow, it may be that I am causing harm to the UMC. For what I am doing now in Matamoros, I will with the help of those wiser than I am look to see if we are aligned at Juntos Servimos with Paragraph 122. If we are, I will communicate this. If we are not, I will communicate this with what we are doing to align. Again, I am grateful for your work. Peace,larry

  4. Yes, and the fact is that many of us in ministry are having to spend amazing amounts of time to do what I call “remedial” discipleship, for we are appointed to and pastor congregations that have never been held to accountability and have no clue about what it means to be a disciple. While I wish and dream of the day when all parts of the process are active, the fact is that I have folks who are 1950’s and 60’s Methodists, when participation was seen as the total requirement of church membership, and folks who are 1960’s and 70’s Methodists who grew up in a church more focused on psychological and sociological well being then the call to take up our crosses to follow Christ. Getting that wide diversity of experience, combined with others who seem to get it (usually through an experience of something like Disciple or Emmaus) means that these changes are extremely slow, and require a great deal of patience. Yes, we may be dead before the change can occur, but we may need death for resurrection to occur.

    • Again, brilliant. We don’t want to hear it, but a generation of bad behavior, low expectations, and no accountability cannot be transformed overnight. However, the foundation for the next generation has to be laid before the current generation passes away. The crisis decision for pastoral and core motivated laity leadership is: do we serve the past at the expense of the future, or do we create a future demanding enormous potential cost from the present? I believe that, denominationally, we are beginning to lose some of the best and brightest around whom we can build a better future in favor of keeping some less passionate and less motivated long-time members comfortable and happy. The long-term ramifications of such a choice may not be seen for awhile, but an organization cannot long survive if its best human assets abandon ship. Slow and steady wins the race. We have got to intentionally, strategically, and courageously rewrite the rules, raise our expectations, demand more from our members, and strategically design more appropriate systems for disciple-making and world-changing. And there are many passionate leaders with a heart for just such work.

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