Been There, Done That

yawning lionI wonder how many United Methodists are simply tired and bored with the same old, same old?  There is a growing dual attitude about our churches that is important to note: some feel that we are irrelevant while others feel that we are little more than boring.  Not everyone.  I wouldn’t be so bold as to say the majority are disillusioned, but a growing minority certainly are.  Those leaving our denomination are extremely critical that we don’t make a difference in the world.  Those outside our denomination are even more emphatic.  For a large portion of those familiar with The United Methodist Church, there is a powerful sense that we don’t matter very much.

This is sad.  Our potential is great.  Look at Our Theological Task and our Social Principles.  Look at our mission.  Look at the priorities our bishops have lifted before us.  We should matter.  How disappointing that so many think we don’t.

There are pockets of hope throughout our denomination.  Lives are being changed, souls are being saved, and thousands of people are finding new hope.  Yet, these are exceptions rather than the rule.  Long time members are leaving in disgust that they cannot find support to care for the broken and lost in the world.  A Nashville woman, attending our largest UMC, shared with me not long ago that she has to leave the church because “it talks a good game, but could care less about following Jesus.  She pointed to her Sunday school teacher as one who “talks about what it means to be Christian,” but doesn’t do anything but talk.  This church keeps expanding the building and “puts out pretty statues,” but can’t be troubled to serve those in need.

“Safe church,” is the label given by another lifelong Methodist, saying that we are only willing to do that which doesn’t cost us anything.  “As long as we can wear our nice clothes to church on Sunday,” he continues, “we’re perfectly happy.  Get our hands dirty?  No way.”

0014_ignorance_apathy“If I hear another sermon on the Prodigal Son, I will scream,” says another lifelong United Methodist.  “This isn’t all about us.  This is about God, God’s Will, and being the love of Christ for others.  I love the people in my church, but I cannot believe how superficial we are.  The majority of people come here for no other reason than to feel better!”

“Make me care,” says a young man after leaving a large Nashville church.  “make me want to be better.  I don’t give a crap about  ‘Touching hearts and transforming lives for the glory of God and the good of the world.’  (our vision!)  That’s bull s***.  99% of the congregation could care less about this.  Almost everyone in this congregation is here for what’s in it for them.  There are so many people spouting the “vision,” but who really cares?  Not many.”

“We’re safe here,” a young UM woman says, “there is nothing that ever threatens our comfort.  We can talk about love and compassion, but we pay other people to do it for us.  No real sacrifice at all.”

“I would love to believe that this church is helping me become more like Jesus.  But I know, if I really want to be Christ-like, it will be because I leave the church, not because I stay.”

What’s unfortunate is that many others are finding fidelity within the church.  There are a few United Methodist churches that really do align their practice with their values.  The big church in Nashville isn’t the only story.  There are dozens of United Methodist churches that are helping people realize the fulfillment of their sense of call and purpose.

“I am a disciple.  My church won’t let me be anything less.  I never knew how important it was to pray, to understand the Bible, and to get out into the world to care for others, until I came to this church.  Many people leave this church because they are unwilling to live their faith.  It’s sad, but it is the fact of life.”

“Unless I am giving and doing for others, I’m not really a Christian.  I am part of a community, not only of believers, but of active witnesses to the love of God in Jesus Christ.  My life and my faith are becoming one thing.  I have never known a faith like this before.”

“I grew up thinking being Christian meant going to church,” said a forty-something woman.  “Here I realize that being Christian means being ‘like Christ.’  There is no such thing as ‘attending’ church, because it isn’t a place.  We ARE the church, and if we’re not, then we might as well just stay home.”

What is the “tipping point” where people move from passive Christian consumers to active Christian disciples?  We have lots of people who attend church and are complacent to let others “do” ministry for us.  But there are vital churches where everyone is excited to be a part of something bigger, something more important.

A growing number of United Methodists are no longer satisfied being passive.  They want something more.  They want challenge.  They want direction.  They want a community of faith that is making a difference in the world.  How can we feed those who want to change the world, when so much of our time and efforts go to keeping the more complacent happy.  This, I feel, is the real challenge facing The United Methodist Church today.

5 replies

  1. There are good number of folks in my congregation that want to move beyond the church defined as “members” to the church defined by “disciples,” . . . . engaged in a mission and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The problem is a lock of courage, vision and practically speaking . . . the knowledge of how to get started. When we do start moving out in faith, the critics howl. Some threaten . . . (Usually the older members but not always!) with their checkbooks and their feet. At that point, the church rubber bands back to the same comfortable shape again. Now let me offer this confession. I have been guilty of not being bold enough . . . feeling like I was floating on a patch of ice that was gradually melting. . . but feeling little support for shaking things up by challenging the leadership to redirect our mission for Christ in light of the current cultural context. There are plenty of resources out there offering help. Leonard Sweet’s book, So Beautiful, among a number of his works help. Youth Ministry 3.0 by Mark Oestreicher, and the recent works of Brian McLaren come to mind. There are many others. What we appear to need is a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to grant us the courage, the vision and the wisdom necessary. I remain hopeful that the light of God will break through for the United Methodist Church following this dark night of the soul. Thanks be to God!

    • It doesn’t hurt at all when the system supports you as well. What I most often hear from pastors who do take chances is that they “get in trouble” with the Annual Conference. I do think there is a strong wind of change blowing — more and more serious people getting louder and as demanding as the old guard trying to keep things from changing. If we’re not careful, the movers and shakers are going to leave, and all that we’ll be left with are those seeking a chaplain to care for their needs. Keep finding inspiration where you can, and sin boldly/bravely. Courage, like love, is where you find it. Seek courage, and guess what? You’ll find it.

      • To be a pastor in the a postmodern, post-Christian context means you are already “in trouble” from the start of your ministry. There’s a “whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on” and its the foundation of the church of cultural comfort or ABC Church (Attendance, Buildings, Cash (from Len Sweet, in his book, So Beautiful) crumbling. I have blamed the Annual Conference power brokers for not supporting me from time to time through the years and in some cases this was in fact true but I now believe that most of whining was simply a way of denying my own lack of courage to follow the vision God was giving me. Some of it represented an inability to discover how to move forward to a place I have never been before with church leaders who had been been there either. (Maybe I should have watched more episodes of Star Trek) Sometimes we would rather die in the desert of hopelessness than risk the battles you must fight to secure the Promised Land. Of course, this is the place where your faith in God must push you through your fear to faithful action.

  2. I only wish I had people in my congregation that wanted to really be disciples. I am a pastor who has a real heart for incarnational ministry, for missional living as a community of faith, and all my congregations desire is someone to hold their hand, make them feel better. It is so frustrating. The post a couple days ago about not wanting the homeless in the congregation made me so angry I couldn’t think. That is the problem with most of out UM churches today, the leadership is afraid to live the faith.

    • Find the remnant. The ones who do want change. Every Church has a few. Personally disciple them and empower them to start making the changes from within. Poor your energy and attention into those who want to be disciples and pray fervently for those who don’t, that Jesus breaks their hearts and changes their minds (’cause nobody can do that, but God). By the power of the Holy Spirit, it works.

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