Thursday, May 26, 2011

Called to Action—Responding to the Real Crisis

This weekend, clergy and laity from all around the Baltimore–Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church are converging on the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore for our Annual Conference meeting. I will be one of those delegates. We will gather to worship, fellowship, and discern God’s direction for our Conference for the coming year. We’ll also vote for the delegates that will represent us at next year’s General Conference in Tampa, FL. This year one of the big themes on the agenda will be the Call to Action, a new denomination-wide effort to help revitalize our denomination.

Most of us will surely agree with the findings of the study that led to this Call to Action. We know that our churches face “a creeping crisis”… It’s hard to argue with what we see lived out every day in our local churches. We can try and pretty up the statistics but the fact is that our denomination (like other mainline denominations in the West) is declining. Many—though certainly not all—of our local congregations are shrinking and greying. We aren’t attracting enough youth and young adults into our midst to sustain ourselves.

But we also acknowledge that as we get older and smaller we are sorely tempted to conserve what we have rather than follow Christ’s example and reach out to the community and world around us. (In some ways, that’s just human nature and it’s hard to fight against.) We lack energy and vitality and we don’t want to take as many risks as we did when we were younger or there were more of us. Thus, we don’t always readily embrace new initiatives—like the Call to Action.

We tend to be skeptical of programs we perceive as being imposed upon us from “above”. We don’t implicitly trust that “The Conference” has our best interests at heart. These programs have an impact on real people in our churches, but sometimes it seems like “The Conference” can remain at a comfortable distance from that reality. When it comes to implementing these kinds of programs what works well in one church may not work well in another. But it is easier for the Conference to track “success” or “failure” of the Program when everyone is “scored” the same way.

The problem with that approach is that Christian spiritual formation (a.k.a., discipleship) was never intended to be a one-size-fits-all-Program but rather an organic movement of the Holy Spirit unique to every time and place.

So given all that, the skeptical reaction that some may have to the Call to Action is understandable. This is certainly not the first effort we’ve seen toward the noble-sounding goal of “revitalizing” the denomination and making us more “relevant”. In fact, to seasoned veterans of Annual Conference, this may just seem like the latest, greatest plan to recreate Acts 2 in our modern context and see the Spirit move powerfully in our churches like it did back then. Those who have been around have seen these initiatives come and go. The fanfare, energy, and enthusiasm at the beginning are usually hard to sustain in the face of the realities of our local churches.

The inertia of how we’ve always done things is one of the most difficult forces in the universe to overcome, and at times, it makes implementing anything more than incremental change and “band aid fixes” in our churches a near impossibility.

Another reason that these initiatives have struggled is that we’ve been seeking the wrong objective. I don’t think our quest should be for “relevancy” so much as it should be “making disciples for the transformation of the world”. (And I hope and pray “making disciples” is what ultimately motivates the Call to Action.)

In my mind, the biggest crisis facing not only United Methodists, but the Church Universal is not relevancy but rather discipleship.

Consider the Gospel of Matthew’s take on Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his Ascension—known as the Great Commission.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always even to the end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20

We are called to reach out to all nations[1], and once we invite them into our midst, we encourage them to be baptized. Here, they make public what has already happened to them on the inside, commit to following the radical and counter-cultural Jesus Way, and seek the support of a community of believers.

You’ll notice the Great Commission doesn’t end with baptism. Sadly, though, it seems that in many cases our churches have forgotten the rest of Jesus’ command with perilous consequences for both church and society. If we do manage to add a few new members, they aren’t provided with enough opportunities to grow spiritually. They either stagnate or leave our church looking for a place that better “meets their needs”. The result is that we don’t grow our numbers, but more importantly, we don’t produce enough mature believers who in turn can train others to take their place and carry on the work of the Church in future generations.

Dallas Willard calls this phenomenon the Great Omission from the Great Commission and argues that the crisis of relevancy is really just a symptom of the deeper crisis of discipleship[2].

Baptism is meant to be the beginning of our life following Jesus—or at least it is our “coming out” party when we go public with our intentions. From there we have be taught to obey, which implies that it doesn’t just “come naturally”. We have to learn to live the Jesus Way in a world that is decidedly not living that way, and that’s nearly impossible to do alone. Left to our own devices we will surely drift toward the ways of the world around us. We human beings have a remarkable capacity to rationalize our self-centered existence, especially when we isolate ourselves from contact with others. When we enter into a community, we’re challenged to live with more awareness of the “others” in our lives.

This is why, in my humble opinion, the being part of a local church is so vital to our lives. We need our faith community to help sustain us. We’re dead meat if we try and live the Jesus Way on our own! Our churches should serve as places where we gather together for mutual support and encouragement in living the Jesus Way, and where we can practice living this way together—we might think of them as spiritual training academies. As we progress, we reach a point where doing what Jesus did—e.g., loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us—starts to come more naturally to us. With practice responding as Jesus did to circumstances in our lives becomes easier—the “impossible” starts to become possible.

I hope that The Call to Action will help to make this vision of discipleship and Church more tangible and real in our world. As we begin to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to obey, the relevancy we seek will surely come.

[1] To me, the modern interpretation of nations would mean crossing all “boundaries” to invite people of all ages, races, sexes, sexual preferences, political leanings, etc.

[2] The Discipleship Adventure that our Annual Conference has embarked on for the past seven years has been an attempt to respond to this deeper crisis.

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