Same Language, Different Meanings

We all want to be a vital, growing, spiritually focused, Biblically based church, right?  The consensus is strong.  Yes, this is exactly what we want — we just disagree on the definition of practically every term we share in common.  Vitality is the current buzzword in the church.  I take pride in the fact that my book Vital Signs came out six years ago and was ahead of the current wave.  But how I defined vitality and the way many in my denomination are defining it are very different.  I offered a combination of qualitative and quantitative metrics, while most of what is described today focuses on the numbers.  Sean McRoberts offered a list of quantitative metrics based on trends (which I think is a step in the right direction) in a comment here yesterday.  But the problem isn’t essentially the metrics.  The problem is agreement on the outcomes we want to measure.  Growth in size is measurable in numbers.  Growth in development and maturity is primarily measured qualitatively, as is growth in impact and relevancy.  If we want to be big, then we track the numbers.  If we want to be good, we track progress and quality.

Spiritually centered and Biblically based are wonderfully charged terms that have very little to do with objective standards or agreement on practice.  Spiritual practices are not valid or invalid, and one set is not appropriate to all.  Fasting, meditation, and chant have all been important Christian practices at one time or another, yet most Americans feel free to ignore them.  Even something as basic and seminal as prayer is defined dozens of different ways.  Styles, forms, even the “right” amount are all open for debate.  And debate we do.

The statement “all means ALL” universally receives overwhelming support and widespread applause in Methodist circles — until we start defining who “all” is.  We enter into surreal discussions of who isn’t a part of “all.”  When we draw a line to divide some from others, all becomes a meaningless construct.  If “all” means “some,” it doesn’t mean all…

Who is a Christian?  What makes one a disciple?  What invalidates a baptism?  When do we lose access to the grace of God?  Who is not a child of God?  Who is not made in God’s image?  What part of all that is did God not create?  These are core conversations that we debate and vote on!  Again, I say, the adoption of Roberts’ Rules of Order may have been the single worst decision we ever made in The United Methodist Church.  What right have we to vote on God’s love?  (Petition #317161, “God is Love,” Yes – 54, No – 26, Abstain – 4, it passes, with the amendment “except in special cases.”)

Don’t get me wrong, we need guidelines and standards, just as the Hebrew people needed Law.  But we need grace as well.  We need the flexibility to allow God to live and breathe among us, for the Spirit to still inspire and teach and renew.  Ours is a God of transformation — but we mustn’t just demand that God transform people to look, act, and speak like us.  Maybe the time has come to allow God to transform us, to teach us, and to make of us something new.

The true challenge we face at the moment is not how do we get those on one side to love those on the other side — that takes a level of maturity that you cannot demand people have.  People need to grow in their relationships and wisdom and tolerance and acceptance.  No, the real challenge is for all those in the middle to accept and respect and embrace everyone at the far ends of the spectrum, and to remind them that they are brothers and sisters and that God loves them.  When some are caught in the heat of emotion and lose touch with the God nature within them, it falls upon the whole Christian community to love them all the more.

I listened to the language deteriorate over the past two days between individuals and groups that disagree.  What began as a patient differing eroded to derogatory generalizations:

  • “Can you believe anyone would hold such a ridiculous belief?” (said in earshot of the woman who DOES hold such a belief)
  • “They have an agenda!” (about three delegates who consistently vote the same way)
  • “All they want to do is ruin the worship experience for everyone else.” (in response to Mark Miller’s comments about bullying of gays and lesbians)
  • “I can’t believe people are so blind and stupid.” (a response of a member of the Interim Operations Team upon the rejection of the restructuring plan)

So far, this is as bad as I have heard — so, not terrible, but just a short hop from personalizing the comments and moving from annoyance to assault.  Yet, we will all gather together under one roof to sing songs of unity and fellowship and healing and love.  Trust is low, as is the commitment to be better.  As one young adult leaned over and shared with me in response to an impassioned plea to focus on young people, “They don’t really want ME, they want me to be them.”  We use all the right words and say all the right things, but when our meanings collide, is it any wonder more people don’t want to join us?

9 replies

  1. Thank you, thank you for a great article. Most of us pastors “out here” in UM-land agree that this restructuring plan think it is mis-guided at best. I hope your words are widely read and heard. Thank you.

  2. When the vital church process was introduced to us at the district level last fall, there were many people who were instantly resistent to it. “It’s a numbers gathering excercise,” they complained. “You can’t measure feeling”, they continued. I am second career with a business background in sales. Sometimes I feel that is to my detriment as I didn’t have the “true, full life calling” of many of my colleagues. But there are things I learned in attaining my business undergrad degree that the church seems to ignore. Qualitative statistics comes first to mind. It sounds like your book is on target. The general understanding is that the Vital Church project seems to be all about the numbers. Here’s a few qualitative business concepts that are learned and applied if you want to be successful in business today. Goodwill-a business needs to be a good community partner so they are seen as genuine. Benevolent-willing to give back to the places where they do business. Nurturing-developing and caring for their employee base. That’s what I learned from the business world, now I work for an organization that wants “just the numbers, please.” Kinda wierd.

  3. Can you please recommend any resource/ book that will help us understand how to shift from quantitative to qualitative measurements in the church?

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