Vital Is As Vital Does

worn outHow are we defining “vital” in the UMC?  Is vitality mere existence?  Is a congregation with a lot of warm, passive bodies vital?  Are people huddled inside their doors happily waiting to be friendly to unsuspecting visitors vital?  Is a congregation that hosts a dozen small groups that do movie/football/bowling nights vital?  Does a lively praise band make us vital?  Do we become vital when we attract 5% more people?  10%?  20%?  Is there are clear crossover point between vitality and non-vitality?  Does age make a difference?  Economics?  Can we have a vital, financially poor church?  Is it possible for a small congregation of 70-80-year-olds to be vital?  Is vitality measured by the number of people who come to us or the number of people we equip to serve others?  Can a church that eliminates inactive members and is 50% smaller today than it was five years ago be vital?  Is a church of less-than-100 members vital?  Does a church need a full-time, paid ordained pastor to be vital?  What about a church that offers only one kind of worship?  Do churches without youth and children qualify as vital?

The more deeply I look at our denomination’s stories of vitality, the more depressed I get.  Oh, certainly there are some wonderful things to celebrate, but our fixation with numbers is completely out of hand.  To be quite honest, the stories I know of truly vital, vibrant Christian spiritual community are almost all non-institutional church related.  When I studied spiritual seekers in US culture from 2004 through 2009, I found that the most highly motivated, deeply spiritual and discipleship-minded Christians had left mainstream church to form small group community, and the results were true vitality.  Hearkening to first century scriptural description, these were mobile, flexible groups who worshipped, learned, served, prayed, broke bread, and grew together.  They didn’t plug their religion into their lives, they organized their living around their sense of call and vocation.  Money was never a problem — each gave liberally and invested in the work of the whole.  Time and volunteerism was never a concern — the group operated at a prime capacity, doing all that they could with what they had (excellent stewardship).  These small communities organized and defined themselves around gifts, skills, assets and a clearly focused mission.  The smallest was six people, the largest 70, none meeting our current secular criteria of “successful.”  Yet, their impact was not measured in double, triple or quadruple digits, but in the tens and hundreds of thousands.  One Texas group — all former church-goers — feeds and clothes over 25,000 per year.  As Madeline K., one of the directors of their efforts told me, “My old church could never have done this, even with the 700+ members we had, because of all the red tape and hoops to jump through.  I tried for almost twenty years to run a feeding program in the church.  I finally got fed up, found some friends that shared my commitment, and we just started out on our own.  And anyone who complains that we are missing the fellowship that only church can provide just isn’t paying attention.  We pray and sing and talk God more than I ever did at church.  We gave up Paul’s church for Jesus’ church, is all.”  In Baltimore, 30 doctors, nurses, healthcare providers and community residents provide clinic care to the city poor.  They hold prayer meetings, Bible studies, offer faith-based counseling, and engage in global health-related mission work.  These thirty disciples have raised over $35 million for their ministries.  They were rejected by every mainline and independent church for miles around due to liability concerns — so they set out on their own.  I know of at least fifty house churches in no less than thirty states that are engaged in life-giving, life-transforming mission and ministry — freed from what they refer to as the “shackles” of organized religion.  Pound for pound and person for person, these small independent Christian contractors put even our largest, most powerful churches to shame.  They don’t spend their money on buildings, but on lives.  They don’t bog everything down in committees and structures, but affirm and expand everything through healthy relationships.  In a word, they define “vital” in a way that our United Methodist leadership can’t even imagine.

The bottom line in each of these cases is that the people took authority granted them by God rather than an institution.  And they are not members of “the lunatic fringe,” but are those prepared by the mainstream for something more, something bigger, something better.  Of particular note is that they outgrew the current institution, so committed to low expectations, complacency, passive attendance, and conditional engagement (many of the “vitality” factors being promoted within our denomination).  People actually convicted of radical discipleship find The United Methodist Church an uncomfortable place to be.  Scott T. sums it up when he says, “I got a hint at what being a Christian meant at [XYZ] United Methodist Church; but I learned what it meant to BE a Christian only by leaving the church.”  What an indictment, and were it a representation of an insignificant segment, it might be dismissable.  But this is one of the fastest growing segments of Christian believers in the US — deeply engaged Christians, living their faith in the world, practicing spiritual disciplines and intentionally distancing themselves from the institutional church they view as no longer relevant or helpful.  Any institution more concerned with its own preservation and survival than its potential impact on the world has little or no interest for a growing number of Christian disciples.

When I shared this information in the mid-2000s, I was told by my higher-ups not to spread this around — it made us look bad.  Bishops and conference leaders vehemently argued with these findings, defensively circling the ecclesial wagons to maintain that WE were doing it right and anyone who disagreed with us was WRONG.  Almost a decade later, the evidence is mounting, and what was merely a trend then is now becoming a fixture of current reality.  But what are the leaders of our denomination doing?  Trying to figure out how to get less engaged, less committed, less motivated people to want to join the institutional church.  What an interesting strategy!

We have an amazing opportunity to partner with people who might teach us a new kind of church (or, more accurately, remind us of the value of a very old kind of church).  Essentially, there is one key difference between these emerging communities and our traditional churches: performance.  The fringe communities of faith have a very simple metric for vitality — active involvement and engagement.  Disciples can only be proven by their fruit.  If you believe, you can be a very passive Christian.  If you attend, you can be a somewhat less passive Christian.  Regular participation in personal acts of devotion — prayer, Bible study, reflection, fasting — can move one to a nominal level of engagement — one that can be enhanced by fellowship, group involvement, and supporting the work of others.  But discipleship — and by extension, vitality — requires sacrifice, commitment, outreach and connection with those outside the community of faith.  There is no such thing as passive, low-commitment discipleship.  Attending worship once in a while does not make one a disciple.  Anyone who makes worship attendance, small group participation, tossing money in a plate, and paying other people to do ministry FOR us is promoting a nasty form of ignorance, one that undermines the basic tenets of our faith.  They are defining vitality by the lowest common denominators, further alienating those who seek radical discipleship from the institutional church.

It is time to raise our standards — at least to the level of those outside the church who are living as disciples committed to transforming the world for the better.  We’re being shown how it is done.  All we have to do is come down off our lofty perch and admit that redefining “vitality” in terms of our own poor performance will never get us where God wants us to be.

23 replies

  1. Dan,

    As one who left the UMC after 40 years of service to pursue a form of Christian Community that allowed me to be more faithful and fruitful in the Kingdom of God. I can testify to the truth of what you have said above. I do not miss committee meetings, church council meetings, charge conferences, budgets, buildings or the bureaucracy one little bit. In the Institutional Church, I spent most of my time and energy trying to foster renewal and revitalization when what was really needed was reformation and restoration. In my small, organic, Apostolic Community of Faith, we are free to focus on being vital Disciples that makes Disciples who can make Disciples. . ,

  2. Dan, thanks for coming out on this one! As a pastor and a former conference staff person, I have had similar experiences in my annual conference, and have found myself both triflingly employed, and considering taking leave of the institution…for the very reason that those about whom you have shared have left. There is so very much important ministry, which for the normal excuse of age or financial limitation simply cannot be carried out in the institutional church. I love my denomination. It prepared me for the vital ministry to which I have been called. It did not, however, prepare me for the UMC I know today.
    While it helps to hear others speak of my frustrations as theirs, how is it that we combine our resources to overcome these frustrations in an effort to reclaim the vitality we know is possible?

    • Without trying to sound too simplistic, I believe the starting point is to speak truth to power and open conversations that challenge the status quo. I believe our inability to see better alternatives is preventing us from raising concerns. Our church is swept up in a “better to do something rather than nothing” attitude, and we have talked many of these issues into the ground. But our previous/current conversations are about problems instead of possibilities, scarcity instead of sufficiency, and lack instead of assets. If we change the conversation, we change the energy. The spiral of negative energy that defines us currently (think: death tsunami/we’ll be gone in thirty years, etc.) is not the only reality. We can choose something more. I keep saying we need to begin with our fundamental denominational message “We’re declining, we’re decaying, we’re dying, the ship is sinking… Come Join Us!!” Is it any wonder people aren’t flocking into our doors? To shift our conversation away from institutional preservation to spiritual transformation could unlease energy and spirit that we talk about, but never really tap into. I keep on crying in the wilderness, hoping against hope that enough people will engage seriously in a deeper level of conversation that the seeds of change might take root. Keep talking, keep challenging, keep focused on what can be, and don’t worry so much about what isn’t.

      • Dan,
        I have been doing precisely what you are suggesting here, and at multiple levels – even sharing with colleagues in other conferences as the opportunity arises. Power can’t stand the truth, and they still have the power. As a Licensed Local Pastor, all that is needed is to not provide an appointment, and I am institutionally silenced. By the way, this is my current status. And please don’t read me wrong. I am not attempting to maintain the institution, nor am I trying to “save” it. I care about the people who are called to serve the people whom God loves – disciples – and those whom God loves, disciples to be.
        Vitality is missing, and we don’t have a recollection of what it looked like. And for far too many, we really don’t know what it needs to look like in this brave new world (alright, perhaps it isn’t so brave!).
        I think you and I are pretty much on the same page. I am in no way looking for an argument with you or anyone else. I want tools to overcome the roadblocks that keep getting thrown up in front of anyone with a creative approach. The conversation is great, but I have had enough “time off.”

      • Dale, I don’t hear anything you say as arguing. I do understand that the institution does not want to hear alternatives that do not fit with their worldview. I no longer work at the denominational level because a few people with power got fed up with my questions and challenges. I was not seen as an asset to protect, but as an irritant to eliminate. When I began blogging, I was told by close friends how angry my former employers were that they hadn’t shut me up. Some even went to my bishop to have me sanctioned, silenced, and some even suggested that I surrender my orders because I wasn’t being a good Methodist. One malcontent pastor from Texas wrote to my former General Secretary and the head of the Council of Bishops seeking my removal. I have been verbally attacked and gossiped about by General Secretaries, Bishops, professors — you name it. It is costly to challenge the status quo, but in every age and place a remnant can’t keep their mouths shut. That’s where I stand. I may be right, I may be wrong, but I am rarely silent. I keep hanging in there because I know that there is a segment — albeit a minority — who are interested in quality over quantity, servanthood over “success,” and integrity over popularity. This is who I seek and who I am proud to work with. These folks even exist in the institutional church. My vision is that one day they will be the models and examples rather than the exceptions and the aberrations.

        I lament that it is so risky and dangerous for many of our gifted number to speak up. While The United Methodist Church is big and robust, it is also fragile and insecure. In a truly vital organization, leaders are not threatened by questions and challenges. It is in working through differences and conflict that growth, strength, and renewal occurs. It is only when fear, anxiety, lack of faith, and worldy standards of success reign that alternative perspectives are viewed as negative.

      • Again, thank you for clarifying your status. I had not heard of your challenges. The Franciscans were once thought of as a bunch of radical outsiders. Yet todays leaders within that order, Richard Rohr foremost in my mind, have found ways to benefit from that piece of their history, while reaching far beyond the limitations of denominational boundaries. Perhaps we are on the cusp of such a new UM order? I am familiar with your writings, and I am delighted to know more about the disciple.

      • Thank you for being a voice that cries out in the wilderness. Personally, it gives hope and strength to me. I am a Certified Candidate for Elder in the UMC, 2nd career path, 2nd half of life (spiritually, almost physically). Your insights and words are encouraging and provoking. I wrestle between incarnational and institutional often in the sense of my calling and the state/condition of where things are at this time. I want to be a part of this “choosing something more” and helping lead others in this direction… yet it isn’t always clear to me ‘how’. The walls are tall and thick. Your voice is heard by others who are also crying out in the wilderness and seeking direction on how to be who/what they are called to be and do. Thank you.
        debra

  3. My heart is pounding. I don’t know whether to celebrate or cry. Thank you so much for articulating and factually supporting what so many Christians “on the fringes” have been feeling, observing — and absorbing, sometimes punitively — for a long time: “People actually convicted of radical discipleship find The United Methodist Church an uncomfortable place to be.”

  4. The dictionary claims “vital” began being used in the 14th century. Before that (12th century) the equivalent was “quick” as in quickening – to reach the stage of gestation at which fetal motion is felt. We might be asking what we are birthing? This implies something more than a clone or a current feeling of an impending stillbirth.

    Image The United Methodist Church as Mary when an announcement comes to her. We might also first begin with “Huh? [sort of where we are]. A question then arises – when might we be ready to say, “Let it be with us.”

  5. The Jesus we follow never really intended to build a church. Much less cathedrals, corporate-like systems and seemingly infallible hierarchies. Jesus went to those who needed God the most and responded in life changing and relevant ways. Your piece affirmed what I feel about church. We should serve God by transforming the world and we can only do that by going where people cry out for life.

  6. Dan, as you know, I started United Methodist Insight with the help of the Cook Foundation and my congregation, St. Stephen UMC, to offer a platform to folks like you to confront United Methodist powers with the truths you express here. I’ll be reprinting both your and Christy Thomas’ columns on UM Insight for the weekend. Those who read you and deeply appreciate your courageous service will find more like-minded people at um-insight.net.

    Our family continues to be blessed by the fact that St. Stephen UMC has always been a congregation “outside the norm.” We have a core group of around 80 active disciples who are in church and Sunday school each week. One class currently is studying Robin Meyer’s “The Underground Church.” Each one of those folks is active in mission and ministry, and this spring we have been undergirded more than ever by profound sessions on spiritual disciplines.

    I fear that this tradition may die this year as our current pastor is retiring, and we have a new bishop making appointments. Our pastoral intern told us recently that he has never known a church to give $2,000 to a mission in Guatemala over fixing cracks in the walls, which is what we did in January. (BTW, he is not being ordained in the UMC; he will go to a Disciples congregation about two hours east of Dallas).

    One of our charter members once told me, “We started this church to change the world.” They’ve been taking on risky missions for 50 years, and the UMC has just let them alone. Sometimes, insignificance can be a blessing.

    • Thanks, Cynthia, Yours is one of those courageous voices helping our church to know that there are multiple views to every issue. I deeply appreciate the forum you provide and I hope our church values it enough to protect and support it. Your story is one of hope that even within a flawed institution we may remember who we are and why God wishes us to be here!

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