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. That’s all fine Michael. That’s missional work and it is great, no doubt about it. But where’s the justice? Where’s the change that empowers people to escape poverty? Wesleyan Methodism, as Dan points out requires all three pillars. Scripture tells us that we are to be agents of justice for the widow and orphan, not just a Wednesday noon soup kitchen.

    • Jeff,
      I am a bit puzzled. What has the GBCS proposed to empower people to escape poverty? I have seen nothing from them except more of the same “war on poverty” that we lost 30 years ago. Do they propose affirmative action? Look how well that has turned out. If we want to be agents of justice, it seems to me that we can tutor adults in literacy and life skills, we can work with our schools to try to help overcome the way that the educational system shortchanges the poor, we can work to strengthen the family whose decay has been a major cause of poverty. However, so far all I have seen from GBCS is a desire to expand the “soup kitchen” and outsource it to the government. Where is the empowerment in that?

      To quote from C.S. Lewis in a similar context, “[The GBCS mode of thought proceeds from the assumption] that the great permanent miniseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and then it proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to provide a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists,Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the salve trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.” [from “Why I am Not a Pacifist”] Our Lord tells us that the poor will always be with us. It seems to me more prudent to follow his direction to help them than to spend time effort lobbying the government to enact some scheme to end poverty. I will grant you that lobbying the government is easier and may therefore be more popular with a church unwilling to do the hard things.

  2. Actually, John’s not that far off, despite the perhaps unnecessarily inflammatory language. The GBCS *is* consistently far more to the left, politically, than is the average UM member or congregation, to the point that bishops and local clergy frequently have to distance themselves from the board’s pronouncements or activities. The GBCS does seem to favor government programs and solutions to the Christian call to mission over programs and solutions enacted by the UM Church, in general, and local UM churches, in particular, despite the fact that the government bureaucrats running those programs usually have no interest in achieving Christian aims for those programs – indeed, they are frequently actively hostile to any religious involvement in government social programs.

    I’ve yet to find the passage in the Gospels where Jesus advocated lobbying the Roman government to implement relief programs for the poor, the sick, the widows and orphans, etc., funded using confiscatory taxes enforced by the Roman army. Maybe I’m not looking in the right verses. What I do find is Christ challenging *us* to love our neighbor, in the example of the Good Samaritan, in response to God’s love and grace for us.

    Among the fastest growning UM churches are the ones that are doing the most hands-on missional work. The harvest is ready, but the workers are few. What are you waiting for?

  3. There is nothing quite like an annonymous name, dripping sarcasm, distorted “facts”, and the use of negative monikers to put forth an honest debate on where we need to be as a church. Nice job “John”.

    • Jeff,
      I am willing to discuss the facts that I presented. Let’s begin with about 1 million babies aborted each year. Where is the justice for these children? And a black child conceived in New York City is more likely to be aborted than born. Margret Sanger would be proud of the way that the abortion mills are getting rid of the undesirables. So long as the United Methodist Church supports the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice all your fine words about social justice are just a tragic farce. So you can call names if you like and claim that I am not advancing the dialog, but it seems to me that we need to discuss whether or not social justice really is just income redistribution or whether we as a church are actually willing to get out there and do our part to help, the poor, hungry, sick, and imprisoned or whether we just want to outsource the commission Christ gave us to big government,

  4. Dan,
    I am one of the ignorant and unenlightened rednecks who cry out about the way United Methodists engage social issues. Do we really need to be an echo chamber for the secular humanist liberals who control the media, the college campuses, and all “enlightened” discussion. The reason that many of us ignorant and unenlightened believe that the United Methodist Church endorses abortion for birth control is because our church is one of the two major supporters of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice — a “faith-based” front for the Planned Parenthood abortion mills. I have never heard of the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) endorsing the nuanced position on abortion in the Social Principles. They never heard of an unnecessary abortion..
    Of course, GBCS also slipped the Obamacare plank past the last General Conference on the consent calendar and got it approved without substantive debate. Why would anyone think that there could be any kind of issue with the same inefficient, ineffective, and arrogant government that runs DMV taking over one sixth of the US economy that is vital to the health of us all? And then, when Nancy Pelosi effusively praised the United Methodist Church for providing the support that was the impetus to pass Obamacare, our bishop sent out a denial of church responsibility based upon the policy that “only General Conference can speak for the United Methodist Church.” What kind of a wimpy organization pays for a lobbyist and then says the lobbyist doesn’t speak for it when the lobbyist takes a position that is unpopular in the pews.
    Of course, the GBCS is not as bad it used to be. Until the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, they could be counted on the follow the Communist party line. Now they are just good secular Marxist socialists. I suspect that the only reason that they tolerate being part of an (ugh) church, is that it provides the money to lobby for good liberal causes. Nothing like that cash to get you invited to the A-list cocktail parties in Washington, DC and give you reason to congratulate ourselves on how enlightened you are, unlike us Bible reading unenlightened ignoramuses in the pews who contribute our tithes to pay for all this.
    In the meantime, our social justice initiatives often do as much harm as good. Look at how well our efforts to pass prohibition turned out — organized crime, reduced respect for the law, and the income tax. Our look at the war on poverty. After spending Billions there are about as many poor now as there were when it started in the sixties. Of course if we had spent twice the money, then we could be trillions more in debt.
    When the United Methodist Church wants to actually engage social justice issues from a Christian, as opposed to Marxist perspective, I will applaud. Until we want to think Biblically, there are plenty of secular humanists out there pushing Marxism. They hardly need out help. I suspect that they are grateful for our moral authority affirming that the U.S. is to blame for all the problems and sin in the world, except for the terrible Mideast injustices caused by Israel’s selfish refusal to just roll over and die like good Jews and our sinful desire to support the only democracy in the region. However, this stance just might turn off the people who want to actually feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and visit the sick as opposed to those who believe social justice is lobbying for bigger government programs to make the “rich” pay for doing missional ministry so they don’t have to. Just few thoughts from one of the ignorant, unenlightened that so that you United Methodist social justice advocates can continue to feel superior.

  5. I’m not so sure that we are leaderless. Our leaders (Bishops, General Secretaries, Board Directors) seem quite adept at casting the Wesleyan vision. Unfortunately, they seem to struggle miserably when it comes to walking into the future they are painting. They crumble in the face of the “unenlightened” and “ignorant” critics who question the faith and effectiveness of pastors who challenge the people in the pews to practice the kind of spiritual discipline that leads to mature faith.

    • I agree, Ashley. As a pastor who has tried time and again to lead reluctant–indeed, recalcitrant–congregations through changes toward being a missional church, it’s frustrating to be told by our leaders in the public forum “Be a change agent!”, but to be told privately and quietly, “We need the apportionments; don’t rock the boat.”

Leave a Reply to Jeff Reed Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s