The Missionally Challenged Church

Okay, so we don’t really mean it when we say our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That’s too hard — too demanding. We don’t want anything that might make us break a sweat. We want easy church — nothing that will actually change anything. We want church-lite, at best. But what will this look like? A church where people just show up? Oh, no, that’s unrealistic. We’re much too busy for that. Once every six weeks to a worship service should suffice. A church where people pray for one another? No, I was told recently that if you expect people to pray, they will leave the church. A church where a handful of dedicated supporters carry it for the 80% who could care less? Now you’re talking! That’s the kind of church the vast majority of United Methodists are looking for. So, let’s all lower our standards, count butts in the pews, talk denomination and dashboards, and focus on our buildings and budgets, and the world can pretty much go and take care of itself. Tongue in cheek? Folks, I have been talking to those outside our denomination and this is exactly what they think of us…

We are between a rock and a hard place.  Our church is suffering because it is essentially leaderless.  No one is calling us to the three pillars of Methodism that define us: evangelism (real evangelism, not invite-people-to-church-ism), missional service, and social justice.  We don’t talk about our faith outside the church and invite people into relationship with God and Jesus Christ.  We spend much more time, energy and money on ourselves rather than those in need, and we have a growing number of ignorant and unenlightened who cry out that United Methodists should not be involved in social issues — labeling such spiritual engagement “socialism” or “communism.”  Okay, so these people haven’t read the Bible and they don’t know our heritage, history or theology.  That can be forgiven — but these voices should NOT be defining us.  Those who understand least seem to shout loudest — and we let them get away with it.  Not only that, we elevate some of these people to our highest offices!  Yikes.

Who ever said church was supposed to be easy, fun, or simple?  Pastors who coddle and shield people from the hard realities of discipleship are not doing us any favors.  I attended a “fast-growing” church recently where no mention of sacrifice, suffering, study, or sin was ever mentioned.  Not one word of caring for neighbor was spoken.  The whole message was how much God loves ME, and how blessed and fortunate I am.  The songs were about ME and my buddy Jesus.  I didn’t even have to deal with an offering.  I was not challenged even once.  My just showing up in church meant that everything was just hunky-dory between me and God.  Oh, there was a little focus on how evil the world was and how we shouldn’t be like those “other” people, but that was just to help set up the contrast of how great it is to be a Christian — cost-free!

All our watering-down, simpering, maudlin, no obligation heresy is not serving us well.  We get what we look for.  The dawning awareness that we lack credibility and that we are viewed as irrelevant surprises us.  But why?  We work so hard to be both.  I am frequently told that if we expect much of anything from our members they will leave the church and take their money with them, and we simply cannot allow this to happen.  Prayer, study of scripture, hands-on service, sharing core values and beliefs with those outside the church — if we push people to engage in these activities, they will leave?  Then what’s the point?  What are we if the central tenets and practices of our faith are off-limits?  We must take responsibility for the fact that United Methodism has allowed the Christian faith to become weak, mushy, lazy, insipid, and undemanding.  If we want to change the church, let’s not worry about how to get more weak, mushy, lazy, insipid, and apathetic members in our pews and let’s reclaim the power of our identity through which the Holy Spirit can change the world.

20 replies

  1. There are many ways to do evangelism, missional service, and social justice. John Wesley stole from every part of the wider Christian tradition. I’m wondering if his choice of having an Arminian impetus for these three pillars is what made our early movement so transformative in the midst of the economic disjuncture of his day and where that fits into our setting within today’s economic uncertainties. Thoughts?

    • I would argue that we actually have two pillars: 1. Intentional methods (hence, the name) of discipling people into the fullness of the life of Christ & 2. Arminianism. Excepting a few pockets of resistance we’ve completely abandoned the first, and we’ve diluted the second to “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” No wonder our evangelism, missional service, social justice, and just about everything else about us look so anemic. We can all ourselves to action, adopt drivers for vitality, and chart it all on our dashboards until we are blue in the face, but if we don’t recover these two things, it’s all vanity.

  2. As I’ve said before – I’d rather 100 disciples who are not members than 500 members who are not disciples!

    • I’d rather 10 disciples than 5,000 members. But that doesn’t look so good on paper (or a dashboard), doesn’t pay the apportionments, won’t fund a pastor’s salary, etc., etc., which is after all what really matters. Let’s be honest and say what we really mean. Forget all the garbage about “numbers matter, because each number is a person/soul.” Numbers matter because numbers impact the bottom line, and that is truly what we as a denomination care moat about. (Having more members and more money also enhances our inflated sense of self-worth, which is a nice plus as well.)

  3. If your assessment is accurate there are only a few choices: institutional death, institutional reformation, or a parting of ways between those that want to be embrace those three pillars and those who embrace “church lite.” Which do you suggest?

  4. Thank you, Dan, for allowing me the opportunity to nod my head and say “YES!” Now, help me find myself and others who are so on fire with the Holy Spirit that folks – even the folks whose butts have grown old in the pews – will come from miles around to watch us burn – and even catch fire too. Hear O Israel….

  5. I don’t doubt your assessment at all. I think the handful of supporters are shrinking and may be only about 10% now. It sure is hard to keep going when those around you are jumping ship.
    The church is finally catching up to the rest of society in the race to the bottom. Education, politics, social concerns are all heading into the sink hole of low expectations. The bottom line of greed has infected all of our society.

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