Back when I was a young infantry lieutenant, we used to have a class every so often with one of the guys from the NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) branch, who would come to the unit to teach us what we were supposed to do if a nuclear device went off near our foxholes. These guys were usually humorless, and they dutifully explained that once the initial blast wave went by, we were to poke our heads up out of the hole, use a plastic "whiz wheel" calculator to "measure the mushroom cloud," calculate the wind direction, and then, if our radios weren't already steaming hunks of fused metal, call higher headquarters to report all this information and higher math.
Every briefing, some young butter bar would ask the obvious question: "Sir, will any of this stuff really matter if a nuke really goes off in front of us."
"Of course, lieutenant," the grim, bespectacled officer would say. "And even if it doesn't, it will at least give you something to do while your world comes to an end."
At the risk of straining the metaphor to its breaking point, as I sat today watching the worldwide webcast of the United Methodist Leadership Summit, I kind of got the same feeling as I used to get in those grim military briefings. Here's a bunch of things you can do and calculations you can make while your denomination comes to an end.
I don't mean to be overly cynical, but what I heard today was essentially another repackaged version of the same briefings we've been getting for years: bishops and general secretaries from some bureaucratic agency in Nashville gather us all up to tell us that things are in decline, that we need to change, that we have to do things differently, yadda, yadda, yadda. The solution du jour is now that we are going to focus more on "metrics" such as worship attendance to determine "effectiveness" in ministry. We're supposed to have continuing "holy conferencing" conversations with each other about how best we can "move forward" and "be relevant" in the 21st century (they showed us videos of a pastor picking up cereal off the floor and another with a bunch of cats as ostensibly good examples of what "relevant" preaching means today. Yes, that sound you heard was George Whitfield rolling over in his grave).
None of this is particularly wrong, it's just that the solutions that are being proposed by the Call to Action Steering Committee (and other "clusters" of tasks forces and committees--interesting word choice for an old infantryman--let the reader understand) are really exercises in missing the point. We heard over and over again today about the UMC's mission to "make disciples for the transformation of the world"--but nobody seemed to be able to define just what a "disciple" was. And, by the way, a disciple of who? It wasn't until two hours and forty-five minutes into the thing that Bishop Goodpaster finally asked the question, "And where does Jesus fit into all this?"
Herein lies the basic problem. We're trying to fit Jesus into our structure, rather than altering our structure to fit Jesus and his kingdom.
Our biggest issues are theological ones, and no amount of rearranging of these procedural and structural deck chairs will save this denominational Titanic without a real and unified sense of what we believe. Any organization that has a large number of its leaders who don't believe in the organization's stated core values, beliefs, and practices is doomed to failure. Any church that does not have at its center a faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, faith in transforming power of his kingdom, faith in the power of the cross to defeat evil, faith in Christ's defeat of death in his bodily resurrection from the dead, and faith in the new creation to come, is a church that does not dispense any real good news--just some occasional bits of good advice.
Jon Stewart of The Daily Show recently said this about the UMC: "Being a Methodist is easy. It's like the University of Phoenix of religions: you just send them 50 bucks and click "I agree" and you are saved." Sadly, his parody is dead on. The church that once had a rigorous "method" for disciple-making, a transformative theology of grace, an emphasis on "Scriptural Christianity," and preaching and worship that catalyzed a movement that affected whole societies, is now a cultural punch line.
John Wesley structured everything in the early Methodist movement around Jesus and his call to make disciples. Wesley didn't have to wonder what a "disciple" was. He defined them in sermons like "The Character of a Methodist" and made sure that disciples were formed through the rigorous process of the classes and bands. Preachers were admonished with Wesley's famous directive: "You have nothing to do but save souls; therefore, spend and be spent in this work." Our spiritual ancestors were laser focused on one thing: growing into the image of Christ. This was "the one thing needful" for Wesley.
I have challenged our congregation with a vision to make our local church into a disciple-making community in the Wesleyan tradition. With 500 churches in our county, and a lot of people who don't know Christ, we're embarking on a particular way of being Christian by truly being Methodists. We're structuring our Christian education around an intentional program of discipleship training in the Wesleyan model, we're beginning to work on established class meeting groups for accountable discipleship, we're immersing ourselves in the Scriptures, and immersing ourselves in the local community and its needs. In short, I see our church's future as being grounded in the best of our historic Methodist core values.
I wonder what would happen if our denomination were willing, really willing, to ask the deeper questions about its identity, compared to its heritage? What would happen if we saw our denominational future as being fully grounded, uncompromisingly, in our classic core values? I applaud the work of some of our bishops like Reuben Job, who has called us to look back at our core values like the General Rules. I appreciate the fact that our own bishop, Elaine Stanovsky, has a missional approach to appointment-making. Our system needs an internal reformation before it can really be a movement again. It can happen, but not without some serious discussion about who we believe we are, and whose we believe we are.
What I would like to have heard today, instead of a scripted, wooden, bureaucratic dog and pony show, was a frank discussion about what it's going to take to make us a movement once again. Having the general boards and agencies police themselves, when their jobs depend on keeping things the way they are, isn't change. Continuing to bang away at metrics and making up task forces isn't the way to change. The only way to change is through the transforming power of Christ. You want to make disciples? You have to be one first.
This is a bit of a ramble, but that's the kind of confused state one gets into once the blast wave has rolled over and the cloud begins to form. Forget the whiz wheel. It's time to march in the opposite direction!