Friday, February 3, 2012

Does dreaming for the future mean disposing of our history?

The General Board of Discipleship has put out a fascinating video in which its leaders dream of what the United Methodist Church could look like in eighty years (hat tip John Meunier). A couple of things strike me in this video.

First, and let me get this out of the way, there are no young adults invited to dream about the future of the church. As someone who has another forty years of ministry ahead of me--assuming there is still a church in forty years, of course--I would be interested to see a version of this video full of young adults in ministry. I would imagine that there would be great agreement on the points about the needs of discipleship and small groups. The model of doing church that has emerged from the latter half of the twentieth century is simply not working anymore. Inviting people to come to the church for an hour (or, for those truly committed, two or three) a week is not church so much as it is performance. I am not exactly sure how we got here, but I suspect we've taken the idea of mass and Protestantized it. Mass, of course, happens each day, but in our thoroughly Protestant identities, we decided once a week was enough to transform a life. It is not. The next decades will be devoted, I am quite sure, to figuring out what "enough" looks like.

Second, I am struck by the fact that just about everything said in the GBOD video is about structure rather than theology. To hear most folks talk about the future of the church, they talk about doctrine and theology. Are we going to change this doctrinal understanding, or are we going to get back to our theological roots? These are the questions I most often hear. But what the GBOD folks are saying is something different--and fundamentally Wesleyan. So the question is not, "are we going to get back to our theological roots?" The question is, "are we going to get back to our structural roots?" There are questions of theology bound up in structure, of course, and this is where Wesleyan theology truly comes into play. Questions such as "How is it with your soul?" only work in situations of intentional discipleship, and situations of intententional discipleship come most fruitfully from Wesleyan networks. This is not to say that there is not Wesleyan theology. It is just to say that we have somehow lost the importance of structure, believing that it is subordinate to theology, as if you can separate the two. But what Wesley clearly believed--and you can see this in his classes and conferences--was that theology and structure are intimately intertwined. Structure defines, after all, how it is that we live out our faith. And isn't lived faith the bedrock of Methodism?

(As an aside, I think that this argument about structure and theology is the big knock against the Call to Action report. The consulting firms who have evaluated our structures have ignored our theology. Just as it is wrong for those who bemoan the state of United Methodist theology to forget our historic network, it is wrong for those who bemoan our historic network to ignore the theological implications of structural change.)

Finally, I am struck by the focus of upcoming structural changes upon the unit of the local church, as if the local church were the basic unit of United Methodism. It is not. But should these reforms pass--and I suspect they will--it will become the basic unit. Taylor Burton-Edwards notes in the video that the local church is, at a very fundamental level, not designed to do the kinds of things we are asking of it. In fact, he says, though congregations "do the kinds of things congregations can do," it was "other forms of Christian community" that worked "much more intently" on discipleship. I want to quote every word he said in the video; make sure you watch it.

Methodism, as understood by John Wesley, has at its root the concept of "network." You would think that in this day of information sharing and incredible technological advances that are connecting us in ways of which we've never dreamed, that the UMC would be embracing this kind of network. It is uniquely shaped for our times.

Instead, we have a growing focus on the local church as basic structure. If we were talking about a "network of local churches as the basic structure," I would not feel so uneasy. But then again, we already have a network of local churches as the basic structure. It is called the annual conference.

I have recently written about some fears being alleviated by just this notion of local churches working in network with one another. But this morning, I read something that gives me deep pause. So should you feel as if I am misinterpreting the aims of the call to action report with regard to the focus on the local church at the expense of our historic network, allow me to quote this morning's blog post from Mary Brooke Casad, the head of the Connectional Table:

On the long flight to Manila, I sat by a Filipino couple who were returning
home. They are Seventh Day Adventists. As I shared about my work with the UMC,
they nodded their heads and said that the challenges we are seeking to address
are the same for their denomination. They asked why my husband did not come with
me, and when I shared that he was a pastor and was busy in ministry at his
church, they smiled. "The local church! That's what it's all about!"

It is indeed what it's all about as we focus on "redirecting the flow of attention,
energy and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an
increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of
Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Perhaps I am overreacting. I have been known to overreact. But if we are making statements, in the United Methodist Church of all places, that "it is all about the local church," then perhaps it is already too late. I fear we are on the precipice of losing our structure: the most fundamental thing Wesley gave to us, and the best tool we have for making disciples in this uncharted new century.