Sins of Nomission

A large number of United Methodist congregations are struggling — with money, with members, with commitment, with leadership, with a host of problems large and small.  Many of these churches aren’t doing anything wrong to cause these problems — in fact, they aren’t doing anything much at all.  And that’s the source of the trouble.  For years I have been curious to understand the large number of United Methodist congregations that do essentially nothing beyond the walls of their buildings.  This is not, I repeat NOT, in any way to ignore the incredible mission work The United Methodist Church does at all levels.  Missional outreach and Christian service is in the denomination’s DNA — it helps define us as “United Methodist.”  But that’s the point.  About one-in-five (20%) of our churches do nothing or next to nothing for those outside the church.  Another 20-30% limit their missional focus to whatever good is done through apportionments, and a significant number of our congregations support mission work passively — giving money so that other people might do it.  The important correlation here, however, is that our healthiest congregations are those that have active, widespread, committed engagement from a large number of people in a large number of good works.

The outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual graces is not merely a nice poetic turn — it is the tangible evidence that we are truly engaged in the will of God and the work of Christ.  Yet, for years I have received resistance to the idea.  When I wrote the Bible study, FaithQuest, in 1996 — based on Luke, Acts, Ephesians, and teachings of John Wesley and The United Methodist theological task and Social Principles — I received a number of angry emails challenging my reading of scripture.  The thesis of FaithQuest is that we are formed in the faith, equipped to be disciples of Jesus Christ, through the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit we become the body of Christ, and we continue to serve and function as Christ for the whole world,  This is the sweep from Jesus’ invitation to follow me, through the Pentecost miracle, to the formation of the “church” as a mission/vision focused institution to Wesley’s vision of the world as our parish.  To this day I don’t believe I imposed much of an interpretation on the biblical and theological materials (beyond selecting those books that best illustrate the universal servant/service nature of the church), yet many were angry.  One woman pastor from Michigan wrote:

How dare you imply that it is not enough that we take care of one another in the church.  Our world is a hostile and dangerous place.  There is a reason we call our places of worship “sanctuaries.”  It is all we can do to cope with the sin and corruption of our modern age.  We welcome people to come in out of the darkness and trouble for comfort and security.  It is unfair of you to place a burden of guilt on us because we don’t share your liberal agenda.

It always breaks my heart when I hear people link the notions of kindness, caring, healing, helping and generosity to a political agenda.  I cannot help but feel this woman’s pain.  Life is indeed difficult and the world can be a scary faith.  We truly do need a faith that protects and defends, but that alone is an incomplete faith.  We’re not the only ones hurting, and we do not have the luxury of merely receiving the blessings of Christ and holding onto them for ourselves.  What we have received, we are expected to share with others — whether we believe they are deserving or not.

On the practical side, churches that do for others tend to be healthier churches.  Giving is higher in missionally focused congregations.  Levels of participation and engagement tend to be higher.  Morale and spirit tend to be higher.  Just the other night I visited a small rural church where no fewer than five people proudly shared stories of the mission work being done by their congregation — and not just a few members of the congregation, but by the majority of the congregational members.  A few years ago I visited one of the poorest congregations (financially) I have ever seen.  They had funds for virtually nothing — including paying a full-time pastor or paying their apportionments in full — but just about every member of that church served in some mission-focused capacity in the community.  The spirit and energy in that congregation was infectious — a congregation with constant money worries where every person was smiling and singing and proudly sharing stories of the power of Christ to touch and change lives.  It was refreshing.

I have often likened congregational life to breathing, and ask the question, “which is most important?  Breathing out or breathing in?” (Answer: depends on which you did last…)  Sustainable health depends on balance — inhaling (inward practices that develop us in our faith and abilities to serve) and exhaling (applying what we learn in service to others).  Inwardly we build faith, while outwardly we express that faith as a witness to others of the grace and goodness of our God.  Evangelism isn’t just about the words we say to get others to come to us; true evangelism is the integral message of our entire lives — what we say and do (faith without works is dead…).

A number of years ago I met with a church that was considering closing its doors.  A once-thriving congregation of over 400 had dwindled to less than 50 and the building was literally falling down around their ears.  They could no longer afford a full-time pastor and they were struggling just to pay bills month to month.  In all their discussions and planning, not once did church leaders talk about the mission of the church or the work they could do.  They had no vision of the present, let alone the future.  Yet, they were located in the heart of a community struggling with many of the same issues they were.  High unemployment, low-income, struggling families, a higher-than-usual percentage of older adults, and a large, poor Native American population within just a few miles.  Through the process of planning, the leaders decided that they would work to close the church… but in three years.  During those three years, they would select one main ministry to focus on in the community.  They would offer help and assistance to the Native Americans.  They would open the church fellowship hall to mothers with young children.  They would work to help the elderly and the homebound in the community.  This plan was put into place in 1995… and the church still functions today, still very small, but strong and stable and making a difference in the lives of hundreds of people.

We all need reminders that the church isn’t ours, it’s God’s — and it exists to fulfill God’s will and purpose, not our own.  But when the church really takes off?  That is when God’s will and our will coincide — where what we do is a clean match for what God wants done.  We talk a lot about sin as an individual act, but throughout the history of the Hebrew people and the earliest Christian history, culture was not so much defined by individuals as communities.  “Sins” weren’t what individuals did; “sin” was the “missing the mark” (the literal definition of sin) of the whole community.  When we are not engaged beyond our own needs, wants and desires, we are missing the mark.  But when our life together bears fruit that feeds and satisfies a starving and struggling world, then we are right on target.

15 replies

  1. Another excellent post Dan. Thanks very much. Your reflections here bring to mind a quote from Wayne Schwab’s book When the Members are the Missionaries, in which he writes “The church doesn’t have a mission. The Mission has a church.” He reminds us that the church exists for God’s mission in the world. When a denomination or a congregation forgets this, or never learns it, decline and death are inevitable.

    Keep up the excellent work.

  2. The important correlation here, however, is that our healthiest congregations are those that have active, widespread, committed engagement from a large number of people in a large number of good works.

    How many in your example of the church of 50 people were truly active and committed? Serving a small church, I struggle with questions about how many is enough critical mass to get something moving forward.

    • We have three basic UM “types” — congregations where the only missions done are those “required” through apportionments or special offerings, representational congregations — where a small percentage of the participants “do” missions for the whole congregation, and congregations defined by missional involvement. In the Vital Signs study, I found 31% in the first category, 52% in the second, and 16% in the third. In the third category, 60+% of the membership were actively involved in some form of “hands-on” service. In those churches, it took some time to develop such a highly engaged membership (7-13 years).

      • Did those churches have the same pastoral leadership during that period of developing engaged membership?

      • Not a simple answer, but, yes, continuity in leadership was important. However, it is interesting, in the majority of congregations where missional involvement is most widepread, the vision for it came from laity not clergy. And where the missional commitment is central to the identity of the congregation, pastoral change is less disruptive (but this is true in any congregation that has a very strong sense of “THIS is who we are”…) and laity leadership is more central — so continuity is easier. The other unique factor is that missionally engaged congregations are extremely relational — and that means that individuals are personally invited to participate in ministries and mission. General appeals are rare — when there is an opportunity to serve and give, the appeals are personal, face-to-face, and tend to emerge from pre-existing relationships. Where people care deeply about each other, they step up to work together when needs arise.

  3. Dan,
    Thanks for your post. I have heard comments for years similar to that of the Michigan pastor. We have thousands of inward-looking, self-righteous, unfriendly congregations. I suspect any visitors they receive never return. And, of course, we have many wonderful churches!

    • Is this Mr. Winkler from GBCS?

      I don’t know of any denomination that doesn’t have some churches with problems, but saying that there are “thousands of inward-looking, self-righteous, unfriendly congregations” is just a smear against people who help pay your salary.

      There are those who would say that GBCS is “inward-looking” because its perspective to too often limited to those who already agree with it, “self-righteous” because there is a constant message that only they know what is best, and “unfriendly” because of an inability to reason together without questioning the motives of even those who disagree about methods while agreeing with many goals.

      Just a thought!

  4. John, I can’t answer for Dan, but I can give you my experience. Our congregation averages about 40 in attendance. We reach out to the community and partner with about 10 other churches to operate a food pantry that is currently serving nearly 1500 people (~500 families) per month. It isn’t your stereotypical church food pantry: a closet with canned goods to give to folks who stop by on an as-needed basis. It is a highly co-ordinated warehouse operation issuing food twice a month – 10-15 tons of food per month. On average, 17 members of the congregation are actively volunteering with this ministry in some capacity. All of this started with the desire of 2 people to help the hungry in our rural community 10 years ago. Our average monthly assistance has nearly doubled in just the past 18 months.

    Our dilemma though, is that we have been unable to pay our apportionments for the past 2 years (after traditionally paying 100% as far back as any can remember), attendance has been flat and we’ve had one profession of faith in that time and so, we are being deemed ineffective. I may lose my appointment as a licensed local pastor and may not even be appointed at all in the coming year.

    When the question is asked “If your church were to close its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice?” I would have to answer yes. Our entire congregation regrets that we cannot pay the apportionment, yet given the circumstances, we wouldn’t do anything differently.

    • I do not understand why anyone would deem your congregation ineffective. It sounds like it has some weaknesses – like all of us do – but ineffective?

  5. The problem is with the institutional United Methodist Church itself. There is a “one size fits all” model which local churches must follow no matter whether they have 50 members, 500 members or 5000 members. While we may pay lip service to alternative structures, they have really never been implemented to see if they are viable. In fact, alternate structures for local churches are actively opposed at all levels.

    For example, much has been written about “cooperative ministry“. Yet when implemented it often becomes a de facto merger creating a larger local church with all of the problems of the former churches. There could be models which preserve the identity, worship styles and fellowship opportunities of the smaller churches, but enable several churches to join together in mission, ministry and discipleship. There could also be models which preserve the local congregation but allow underutilized facilities to be resourced and used by a district or conference for ministries beyond the local church. This would be a joint venture between the local church and the district or conference, not the closing of one facility and reopening it under a new banner as is often done today.

    I could say much about the apportionment system, but there is much anecdotal evidence that apportionments may actually undermine the mission and ministry of smaller local churches.

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