Simplicity Itself

Following the endless conversations about “what comes next?” in The United Methodist Church, it becomes more and more apparent that most of the suggestions, reports and recommendations made thus far are all designed for just one purpose: to avoid the hard work that actually must happen.  In my humble opinion — one I have espoused now since 1986 — there are three things we MUST do to create a viable future:

  1. become Christian — actually embrace our spiritual disciplines, rituals and practices as the baseline standard for what it means to be United Methodist.  You don’t care to pray?  You’re too busy for weekly worship?  You don’t give generously of time and money?  All great… but you don’t get to be a Methodist.
  2. get out of our buildings — the ministry is in the world, not sitting on our butts in a sanctuary.  Church suppers and craft fairs and bazaars are great fun — and we should enjoy the fellowship they bring — but they are not our ministry.  More of our churches are known by the “witness” of their dinners, buildings, entertainment, and websites than by any work of compassion, mercy, justice, or spirituality.
  3. institute a learning culture with accountability — here’s a clever concept: let’s make “discipleship” our standard for inclusion rather than “membership!”  The key to discipleship is a lifelong commitment to learning and improvement.  As long as people are on the path of development — of their inward growth in relationship to God, Christ, and others, as well as their outward service to neighbor, community and world — the are “active” members of the community.  The only real change we would make to membership would be the acknowledgement that there is NO SUCH THING as an inactive member.

So, to summarize: growing, giving, loving, learning, out in the world = in; complacent, comfortable, consumeristic, coddled, contented = out.  Results?  Fewer folks, smaller and fewer buildings, higher standards for leadership, true accountability, and much stronger witness and impact.  We might not have the same access to resources, but then again we would quit mortgaging our future so that money for missions no longer is drained away in unGodly interest payments.  Our leaders would stop thinking big buildings are actually indicators of good leadership.  We would be embarrassed by our waste instead of so grossly proud.  Smaller, better churches dedicated to serving God.  Not a bad vision for the future.  Good enough for Jesus, good enough for us.

Our current reports and recommendations are beautiful illustrations of worldly, materialistic, acquisitive values founded upon image, ego, and popularity.  We loved the report that showed how nice people think we are, but we have yet to find any report that points to our importance or effectiveness.  Being liked is so much more important than being good.  Actual inclusion in a community of faith should be dependent on our willingness to serve God, not on our demands to be served.  Can multitudes attend our services?  Sure, but they won’t be “members” (or friends, associates, affiliates, pals, facebook friends, etc.); they will be the people the church serves, not the church.  This is kind of biblical — check out the gospels and Paul…

The key to our future is simplicity itself: we must shun the cultural values of more, bigger, brighter, shinier, easier and insipid and embrace once more a commitment to quality, integrity, accountability, learning and improvement.  Bigger isn’t better; better is better.  Let’s trade a Call to Action for a Call to Integrity — might be a good move.

17 replies

  1. Dan. I hear you, and agree with many of your points, but I am curious to how you propose to live this out either in your ministry in the Wisconsin Annual Conference or in any proposals coming forward to the General Conference. Obviously, it is easy to point out problems, but it becomes much tougher to offer solutions. What are your solutions?

  2. Thanks Dan for your important perspective! As the team leader for the Toward Vitality Research Project, I am discovering and interviewing UM churches who exemplify the three criteria you mention. They come in all shapes and sizes all over the country. This project is designed to discover how churches change – or find the courage to change.

    It seems to me that when a pastor is willing to lead through change, partners with lay people who will join the pastor to lead, then discover what God desires for them as disciples in their community, they are able to move into a new way of being church, much like what you describe. God’s vision, clergy and lay leaders become the three stranded cord that cannot be broken.

  3. Let’s trade a Call to Action for a Call to Integrity — might be a good move.

    We do need a Call to Integrity… doubt this is a fine statement and it needs to be heeded. Thanks so much!

  4. Not to disagree with your points, Dan, but I personally feel that the answer to the situation is even more simple, and begins with a full and complete implementation of the following provision that was inserted into the 2008 Book of Discipline:

    ¶ 126. The Ministry of the Laity — Every layperson is called to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); every layperson is called to be missional.

    So … how many laity in any church have received specific training necessary that they (as individual laypersons as called for in the Discipline, not through church programs or events) are able to make disciples and teach them to observe all that Jesus commanded them?

    The latter requires that “every layperson” be trained not only to become a “disciple maker” (is this training happening in your church, your district or your conference?)

    … and then teach them to observe the missional commands of Jesus, including the Great Commission … i.e. for “every layperson” to become a “disciple maker maker” (is this training happening in your church, your district or your conference?)

    The “how” of such a training program was the subject of my 2008 DMin project at Fuller Seminary, and is available online for free download at It’s one way to start this conversation.

    Missional without disciple making won’t make the cut … but “every layperson” who “learns to obey all the commands of Jesus” will become missional on the way to becoming a disciple maker.

    This, of course, is a total and complete paradigm shift … as it focuses on operating not as an institution through programs and events but for the church to become a means to training missional disciple makers … which could be said to “equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph 4:11)

    We don’t need to first “change the institution” in order to missionally make disciples … if we begin to train people to do this, then the institution will change automatically. ” Or as Jesus says: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” Mat 13:33

    • Thank you David. I hear ordained elders complain that they can’t do it all – but then I don’t see them training the laity to help or bring in someone to train the laity. There is an assumption that the laity don’t want to do the work – I disagree – at least give them the opportunity to turn it down! I think you will be amazed by those who actually do take you up on the training and the mission out of the church.

      • Absolutely. Over my 32 years under appointment I’ve seen what in my opinion is many laity leaving churches in search of that “higher demand” faith, thinking they will find that opportunity to love, learn, serve and evangelize in the megachurch or organic church. My personal feeling is that they don’t find it there and get stuck … and others are predicting a massive future exodus from these churches.

        And so the challenge for me is to figure out how to provide these opportunities for community, education, service and evangelism in the churches of origin.

    • I’m not sure we are far apart. My contention is that very few lay people actually want to assume the life of Christian discipleship so we allow those who want an easy, comfortable, non-costly Christianity to dictate the course to our leadership who lack the understanding and conviction to raise the bar and make discipleship the gold standard. The system is designed for the results it is getting. If the results are mediocre, it is because we allow them to be. We don’t lack the ability to do it. We lack the courage.

      • Lay ministry is vital and training is useful. However, it seems to me that you need to be a disciple to make disciples. The density of disciples in our modern Mehtodist churches is so low, that members can’t pick it up by osmosis. It seems to me that we need to start by making disciples within the church before we look outside the church. Very few people want to assume the life of Christian discipleship in part becasue they so rarely see it lived out. If our church leaders do not model discipleship, how can we expect the laity to be interested or to realize that it is obligatory. When our members become disciples, we won’t be able to keep them in the church any more than the Anglican church was able to keep Wesley in the church. When we reach a “critical mass” of discsiples living out their faith in the world, we won’t have to “rethink church” to get people outsied the church to come — we would have to nail the doors shut to keep them out.
        However, we are a long way from that now. In my present UMC, only one of our Church Council members is in small groups or adult Sunday school classes. We need desparately to change the culture and training is not enough. The laity need examples and they also need more apprenticeship training and solid examples and less “book learning” and revitalization program du jour.

      • We aren’t far apart. My thought is to work with those who are motivated and help them become disciples who make disciples who make disciples (2 Tim 2:2) until a little bit of leaven leavens the whole lump. The primary advantage of this approach is that there is no need to wait for General Conference to approve it, fund it or organize it (and potentially get it wrong).

        This is why I work directly with lay speaker training in my district … it’s one place to find them … about ten per district emerging every year into the Basic class. In our conference of ten districts that would be a 100 potential, new dynamic lay leaders each and every year.

    • AMEN Brother David and Brother Dan

      Let’s embrace this axiom: “KISS” – (K eep I t S imple Stupid)
      (with apologies as I intend no disrespect)
      Be sure we’re following our/the WESLEYAN UNDERSTANDING of who we are, how we walk-the-walk ….. basics, basics, basics.

  5. Amen! and Thank you for your courage to speak what many of us are thinking. I’ve tried to say things like this and move in different directions but can’t seem to get any traction in the local church or with the establishment. Your thoughts and ideas help me, my ministry, and some days keep me going when it seems that no one is listening.

  6. Amen! Amen! Amen! The following is from “Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming our Culturized Christianity” by S. Michael Cravens:
    “Currently, we toss ‘Christian hand-grenades’, occasionally entering the culture to present our on-sided arguments for the truth of Christianity and then retreating to our churches as soon as we are done. Being missional means we act more like a rescue force that is determinied to stay until all are rescued than like a commando unti that occasionally enters hostile territory to harass the enemy! Being missional means we endeavor to develop real and meaningful relationships with those who God, in His providence, has brought into our lives–to first demonstrate the love of christ, and then be ready to answer to explain the hope that is within us …when we speak–for goodness sake!–we speak in normal language and not ‘Christianese’…The missional church presses into the world..and pushes back the darkness with the love of Christ. The missional Christian works at really getting to know and love his neighbor, not because he has to but because he loves people as Chrst commanded..And yes, this includes those neighbors who share very different political views and lifestyles. In other words, we really seek to interact and develop real relationships with the lost. It means we invite sinners into our iives.”

    Cravens lives what he speaks. His description of his own missional experience of participating in a debate on homosexuality at UC-Berkley, of all places. His own hesitancy in going. During the trip to California how he was called to go with humility and love and not with the goal ‘to win the debate’. It was a hostile audience, but because of his ability to approach them with humility and love, to quote him afterwards: “I spent the next hour and a half with this entire group [50-60] of young people, none of whom was Christian as far as I could tell, in the most productive and respectful dialogue I have ever experienced. These students had serious questions that I sensed they had been holding in reserve for years. It was as if they wanted to ask questions about Christianity but had never met a Christian, or at least one they were inclined to speak with.”

    This book has finally begun the process of giving me “real rational words to speak my faith”! Along with a why to back them up! I’m going to share this book with my children.

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