This weekend we hosted a ReThink Church training event in the Wisconsin Annual Conference. The turn-out and response was great, and it was an excellent reminder at how all-over-the-map we are as The United Methodist Church. Lots of information was shared, resources were lifted up, and the words “invitation,” “welcome/welcoming,” and “hospitality,” were used profusely. Yet, the real value for most people were the stories shared — what “other” churches are doing to “rethink” their current reality and do some new things. It was evident that people greatly appreciated what they heard.
Two things came to mind while I listened to the presentations: 1) it is almost a direct parallel of the Vision 2000 program from about 15 years ago, but with much newer technology and a lot more video. Vision 2000 training focused on invitational evangelism, taught churches to be more welcoming, shared stories of churches doing it well, and targeted young adults. Attending ReThink Church felt a lot like watching a remake of a classic movie that maintained the integrity of the original but with a bigger budget and much better production values. 2) the training is a live, interactive version of the old Idea Mart/”It Worked For Us” articles in the Interpreter magazine of the late 90s. People absolutely love hearing inspirational, creative, accessible stories about things they can adopt in their own congregation. And this is where the training excelled — offering a thousand and one tips on things any church can do.
The challenge for the rest of the church is to figure out what to do if/when the invitation works. ReThink church is about breadth, not depth. It is all about reach — how to connect with the millions of people who have no relationship with The United Methodist Church or with God/Jesus Christ. I still have problems with the fact that the relationships are presented in this order. The main message is still “all about us,” talking about The UMC much more than about God or Jesus. A few people who left early emailed me with the following observation:
This could have been an infomercial for any organization. Ken (Sloane) is a very engaging motivational speaker, but the absence of faith language in what we are inviting people to and the focus on getting people to church is more of the same ol’, same ol’.
It’s unfortunate that these people left when they did, because the session on Impact Community later on addressed this. Although still lacking focus on God or Jesus, it does focus on motivating and mobilizing congregations in groups to accomplish together what they cannot do alone. It is a missional/connectional empowerment resource that our church desperately needs. For me, Impact Community is the greatest value ReThink Church has to offer our denomination.
Of all the ReThink events and programs I have attended, this was the best at reminding people that this is just one tool to help churches be more welcoming. While it still professes to be a “movement” rather than a marketing campaign, four very healthy shifts have occurred. First, it doesn’t claim it can deliver more than is possible. From the early days of Igniting Ministry, when the slogan was Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors — The People of The United Methodist Church as a declarative of what we are, came the first evolution (since we couldn’t deliver on the openness claim) that Open Hearts, Minds, and Doors are the goal of The People of The United Methodist Church. The most recent stage of evolution is to look at “open” as a verb instead of an adjective, meaning we are a church dedicated to opening the hearts, minds and doors of The People of The United Methodist Church.
Second, there is a refreshing honesty that this is all about welcome and invitation. The resources are designed to put the most positive spin on The UMC to help local churches make themselves more appealing and attractive. Retaining people is not the purpose of ReThink Church — relating people to God and Jesus Christ, strengthening and supporting people in a growing relationship with God, Christ, and Christian community, and living an integrated life of faith in the world — aren’t on the table. This is the key challenge to the rest of our resourcing boards and agencies — we had better get our act together to help churches engage people once we get them in the doors.
Third, we are talking about “change,” not “transformation.” If you are a proponent of “form follows function,” this is all about function — the things we do and the way we do them. It isn’t much about identity or purpose. The resources don’t challenge us to ask “who are we and why are we here,’ but “what are we doing and what could we do new or better?” The handouts contain dozens of helpful things to do. These are powerful assets for congregations stuck in the status quo. These are ‘course corrections’ helpful to any church willing to try some new things. And they are safe. There is nothing here that once tried can’t be abandoned, once done can’t be undone. For many churches that deal with resistance to substantive change, this is a healthy, baby-steps approach to incremental change.
Fourth, there is a clear niche for ReThink Church in our denomination. I most appreciate the repeated emphasis that “rethinking” is not a passive act, and that there must be outward and visible evidence — thinking must result in acting. It is important to remember that we ARE United Methodists — we love to rethink, reflect, revise, revisit, and regurgitate. But if we rethink but we don’t redeem, reform, reenvision, and respond, all we do is re-diculous. It is exciting to see that the Jamesian “faith without works is dead” challenge permeates the training.
Tomorrow I am going to continue my reflections on this workshop in Open Doors 101 – Part 2.