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What Would a Successful UMC Look Like?

Ex-UMC, now megachurch pastor Craig Groeschel offers six suggestions for the United Methodist Church, packaged in six brief blog posts. I think that there is much worth considering in his suggestions, though I don’t think they are generally all that new.

There’s something that bothers me in the whole discussion, however. In practically every debate about reviving the Methodist church with which I’m acquainted, it seems that we assume that we know what the church should be, what “success” would look like, and then we discuss from there. There are two problems with this approach. First, we may be wrong about what success would look like. Second, we may be discussing without agreeing on the success we seek.

It is assumed that the pastor of a megachurch obviously has something of value to tell the rest of us because he is so obviously successful. Now I have nothing whatsoever negative to say about Pastor Groeschel’s church. That’s not my point. My point, rather, is to question whether we can identify what needs to change without understanding precisely what we are trying to accomplish.

On this, I think that Groeschel’s 6th point is actually one we should discuss first, because the message we offer is, I believe, somewhat more important than the structures through which we offer it. But I will nonetheless address that issue last as well, since that is the order in which the suggestions were presented. As I write I will try to lay out the basis on which my own critique is made, wrapping up with the 6th point.

Groeschel’s first point is well-taken. Why is it well-taken? Because an emphasis on branding one’s denomination is much less important than the power of the gospel in one’s churches. We would hardly need to explain on Television just how welcoming we are if we were, in fact, welcoming people all over the place. United Methodist Churches are ubiquitous. Our problem is not a lack of name recognition. Our problem is more based on what happens after people come into church. No matter what you advertise on TV, if the witness of your church interior is negative, the campaign will tend to fail. Spending $20,000,000 on the denomination’s image doesn’t seem right to me.

At the same time, I wonder about the millions spent on some of our larger church structures. If I were to look for a New Testament church, a church following Jesus, I think I’d tend to look more in the direction of the home church or even a very small church that doesn’t spend money on a separate building. There are many ways to spend money poorly!

Groeschel’s second point is a critique of the itinerant system. Here I think we need to think very carefully about what the real problem is and just how to remedy it. I don’t believe that organizational structures are the main problem in our church’s ministry. That may seem astounding to some people, especially those who have heard me criticize those same structures. But that isn’t the root.

I have seen many different structures that have cases in which they work, and others in which they fail. There are elder-led congregations that have dried up and know nothing but tradition (usually defined as something like a generation) and simply drift along as an ark for the comfortable. I have seen United Methodist congregations where the laity had the kind of leadership one would expect in a congregation led by elders chosen by the Holy Spirit. I have seen other United Methodist congregations that, despite all the rules provided authority to lay leadership, were led by a dictator-pastor.

Churches that choose their own pastor often simply perpetuate the errors already existing in the church and have no means of correcting course. There is limited accountability quite often. It’s very hard to keep such a church from drifting off under the right circumstances.

Having itinerant pastors corrects for this sort of inbreeding, but at the same time introduces its own set of problems. I watched one church go from more than 20 prayer groups meeting during the course of any particular week down to single digits because the pastor changed. Both the outgoing and incoming pastors were men of prayer, but their leadership style was different. One would turn up at multiple prayer groups, some as early as 5 AM, while the other thought prayer groups could function without him. I’m not calling either man wrong, but in the change, the church members didn’t know how to keep things going themselves, and that was a tragedy.

I would also say that in my few years in the United Methodist Church (I first joined a United Methodist congregation in 1994), there have been many cases when it’s hard to believe that the bishop and cabinet had a firm grasp of the needs of all the local congregations. But that must be taken not with a grain of salt, but with a whole saltshaker. How much of a grasp did I have of the needs of those congregations? Which leads back to a congregation choosing a pastor for itself. How effective is the search procedure? How good of a fit results? How many pastors miss their calling because they never heard of the church where they could serve? I have known cases where I thought the bishop was crazy when I heard of an appointment, but the result was good.

I say all of that because I don’t think the process is the most important thing. I believe the most important thing for church organization is our theology of the church and of church leadership. We need pastors and laypeople who understand what servant-leadership is. (While I may disagree with some points of church structure, I heartily recommend The Jesus Paradigm by Dr. David Alan Black, which my company publishes. After all, I’ve just said that those structural differences are less important than the theology of leadership.)

If we have the right view of leadership, no matter how a pastor gets in place, and no matter where he or she is recruited from, that leadership will emphasize equipping the saints for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12), not taking over the organization.

And while we’re at it, let’s ditch the incredibly stupid concept of the pastor’s job. If we wrote down the real job description, what the congregation actually expects the pastor to accomplish, and then tried to recruit someone to fill that position, only fools would apply. Our expectations set up pastors to fail. One equation that I believe is wrong is that pastor equals preacher. My wife and I were discussing last week two ordained ministers we know who really don’t need to be preaching. They are good at teaching in a small group setting. They have good ideas. They are able to equip. Their problem is that their speaking in a sermon setting is, to put it kindly, soporific.

Other pastors are great preachers but wouldn’t get a job managing a hot dog stand. Yet others are good at visitation, ministering to the sick, counseling, or encouraging. Now you can justly question whether all of these people should be titled as pastors, but I think the main problem is that we expect one man to carry too many gifts. Why should the congregation expect the pastor to preach 48 weeks out of the year, as I recall one congregation’s covenant with their pastor? The jobs can be divided up between the lay people with a few better trained people given specialized jobs equipping the others.

The third point is the ordination process. I’d relate this back to my comments on point #2. If we were preparing pastors for a reasonable job description, then we might be able to prepare them more reasonably.

The problem I have here is that I think many of our existing pastors are under, rather than over prepared in their scriptural understanding. I think some of this results from the quantity of different topics we expect a minister to cover in seminary so as to be preacher, teacher, counselor, business manager, conciliator, prayer warrior, comforter, and social mainstay of the community.

In order to solve this, however, I think we need to change the superficial level of study at the local church level. More and more in the world at large, education is coming to where people are as we realize that there is so much to learn and one can’t always dedicate years and years just to learning it. The seminary will need to break free of its walls and start to do more education of people in the churches. It is my personal belief that a young person should be able to prepare for ministry almost entirely in the local church, though I would strongly recommend that part of that preparation happen at churches other than his or her home church, and would suggest some time spend in an academic environment, though much less than we do now.

Again we have to ask ourselves just what the purpose of a pastor is. I would suggest that the primary role of the pastor is to equip the saints for the work of serving, and that this service, as a whole, provides the witness of the church congregation in the community.

Point 4 is about apportionments, a favorite United Methodist target. Can one discuss reforming the church without taking on apportionments? I have even said before that if I ever left the United Methodist Church, you can be certain that the way apportionments are spent would be part of the reason.

Yet here I think we need to refer back to the first point. The main issue is not a sort of profit-loss statement for larger churches. Why become larger when you’re going to be hit with higher apportionments? Is that not appropriate? Is that not, in fact, a mission? I know that there are many smaller churches that are smaller because they are stuck in the mud and doing nothing, and that doesn’t seem like a mission field, but that is only one small part of what the apportionments do. Further, many of these small churches are sparks of light in their communities around the nations. In my view, they often show us precisely what a successful United Methodist Church should look like.

I would suggest that rather than the idea of apportionments as such (and the system could stand reform, I suspect), the real problem is what happens to the money. Is it being used for missions or to promote structures? That, to me, is the real question, and it goes back to my most basic question: What does success look like?

Part 5 I actually like pretty much as is. I think the multi-site church is a good compromise between destroying the small community church and the staffing and expense problems of totally separate congregations. Certain facilities and certain staff positions could be shared, and many activities could be coordinated. Of course, much of this could be done if local churches in a region simply decided to talk to one another and work together. Nonetheless, officially encouraging such activity or creating some sort of structure to make it easier to organize would be helpful. Then more money could be spent on the work of the gospel.

Finally, we get to a key point, Groeschel’s #6. I must make a personal note here. If the United Methodist Church split as Groeschel suggests, I wouldn’t like either portion. That makes it hard for me to comment on the split without personal bias.

At the same time, I think this point goes to the core of the problem. What is it that we are proclaiming in our churches? Whether or not we are preaching a genuine gospel message is, I believe, much more important than any number of structural changes we might make. By “proclaiming a genuine gospel message” I do not mean to separate the explicitly spoken message from the activities that go with it. Proclaiming good news to the poor and outcasts is important.

In the United Methodist Church as a whole I don’t think we know where we are going with the message. We try to be all things to all people, and end up being not much to not many. I suspect that both liberals and evangelicals in the denomination would have a solution–their set of beliefs and emphases. But the problem I see on both sides is the tendency to go from defining nothing, the effect of our current conflicts, to defining everything.

I do not distinguish here between what evangelicals desire to do and what liberals prefer. I don’t have statistics on how welcoming each group is of the other, but I do know of enough cases of both evangelicals made unwelcome by liberals and liberals made unwelcome by evangelicals that I know I would find either group’s exclusive possession of the lines of authority unacceptable.

An organization needs to have some sense of distinctives in order to function as an organization. In this case, I would hope that those distinctives would be the defining elements of the gospel, both in doctrine and in practice. Note that I am not discussing who will be saved or lost, but rather who will be part of a particular organization.

I think we have gone to the point in the United Methodist Church where we no longer have enough essentials to be coherent. While we think this makes us open and accepting, it actually makes us incoherent, confused, and confusing. There are, perhaps, some folks who should belong to a different organization.

I discussed this previously in my post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion. Let me reproduce the illustration I used in that post:

Church member attitudes toward doctrine and diversity
Click the image for a larger view

I think Pastor Groeschel has pointed us in some important directions, but unless we can clarify our message and what makes us a church, a congregation of saints following Jesus, I don’t think the structural changes will help. It’s a cliche, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind. What we need to do is identify and plug the whole. Unlike the Titanic, I believe we still have the opportunity to do so.

What would it look like? It would look like disciples of Jesus joining together to accomplish his mission. I have a long way to go in describing that, but I think it would involve less money spent on ourselves and more on others. It would involve fewer facilities and more people going out. It would involve more people equipped for and involved in ministry and fewer stars.

(HT: John Meunier)

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