Illustration Courtesy of Dan Dick
The Letter C
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,
Oh, Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood.
-- Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell & Sol Marcus
I received an email from a woman in Texas — I do seem to irritate people from Texas more than from any other state (right, Don Underwood?) — who hit me with a bit of an ultimatum:
"Why do you stay Methodist when it is obvious you think the leaders are ignorant and incapable? You are wasting a slot at General Conference. Are you planning to disrupt the good work there as well? It seems that you work hard to hurt the church you say you love. If you love the United Methodist Church, the best thing you could do for it is leave. We would all be better off. I am glad this woman acknowledges that I love my church. I certainly do. This is the only reason I am critical of the short-sighted and irrational decisions that are being made. My criticism that we sold our soul to secular consultants to tell us who we are and what we ought to be doing is indeed severe, but no less true. I worked for an agency where the leadership had no clue what to do, so they paid exorbitant amounts of money to outsiders to tell them, and it did them no good whatsoever. I will never agree that this egregious waste of World Service dollars was wise. But I say these things because I love the church, and I want us to be better. The selfish and ego-centric nature of the Call to Action, Ministry Study, restructuring and the global church? All exactly the same thing. However, for those who have not paid attention to my whole message, I have not simply criticized the insipid and nonsensical, but have offered my perspective on what might be done instead."
From the Gospel According to Bob, 28:16-20:
Then Jesus sayeth unto them, “Go, invite people to come sitteth for an hour in church once every six weeks or so, telling them that very little will be expected of them, that they will heareth good music and that there will be coffee and snacks.” But, Peter aggrieved and dyspeptic said, “But, what if there is soccer??” And Jesus replied, “Well, that is a problem.” (KJV)
Jesus said, “Bring people to church.” Peter replied, “They may not come.” Jesus said, “Whatever.” (The Message)
We are creating a church of ridiculously low expectations. I had yet another meeting with congregational leaders who refused to entertain the idea of holding people accountable to their membership vows and the mission of disciple-making because said people will “leave the church and take their money with them.” Is this a practical concern? Certainly. Should it hold us hostage to violating our values, principles and undermining our integrity? No way. Will people leave the church if we raise expectations? You bet they will! And, yes, they will take their money with them. But this is our shame, not theirs. We built the big buildings, and we carry the huge debt load that means we don’t have money for ministry and mission. Having 1,000 mediocre members has been so much more important to us than having a handful of authentic disciples for so long that any move back toward integrity is fraught with peril. We like our stuff and comfort too well. We are so proud of what we own that we could care less about who we are. Too harsh? Sorry, but it is a growing painful truth. We want pain-free, low-cost, no sacrifice church. Problem is, what we are left with isn’t worth much.
We are attempting to be church in a reductionist culture. What do we lose when we turn vision into advertising, metaphor into marketing, mission into sound bites, and spirituality into bumper-sticker sloganeering? We lose our soul. We aren’t nearly as concerned with our identity as we are with our image. We confuse being popular with being effective. We think that if enough people like us, then we must be doing a good job. We want a vision that comforts and attracts, not one that challenges or demands. We want to turn our faith into something cool, fun, easy, and undemanding, but at great cost. Christianity has moments of immense joy, deep satisfaction, incredible blessing and reward, but easy it is not, cool it is not, fun it is often NOT, and the demands are constant. Our faith is serious, important stuff. Our attempts to make it less than it is are shameful.
People often say I criticize without offering alternatives. Usually, I do offer alternatives, but they are unpalatable and therefore not seen as options. So, I want to be very clear what I am suggesting, knowing that it is counter-cultural to our current denominational paradigm.
We focus on quality over quantity — we actually take our mission seriously and make discipleship the standard for membership in The United Methodist Church. We hold people accountable to spiritual practices, both individually and collectively.
We get smaller, but better. We do more with less. We sell off some of our huge buildings and tenant smaller facilities more strategically located for mission and ministry. Our structures and properties are going to crush us if we don’t get smart about them soon.
We launch more smaller congregations and don’t try to make them bigger, just more effective. A community containing 30 highly engaged fellowships of a dozen people will accomplish a lot more than an institutional church of 500 — I guarantee it. For reference, see the gospels.
We trust well-equipped laity to be leaders and quit preferencing clergy. Certainly clergy are trained in specialized areas and have valuable expertise, but where the rubber hits the road, laity make things happen.
Fix our connectional identity — we are NOT in competition with one another, and we need to get over ourselves. We do all our thinking and planning congregationally, to great waste and ineffectiveness. Together, we have the potential to be greater than the sum of our parts. This is true ecumenically as well as intradenominationally.
Do less in our buildings and more out in our communities — we need to stop “going to church,” and start taking church into the world. The building we go to on Sunday isn’t “the church,” the building we go to on Sunday morning is where we learn to BE the church in the world.
Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray.
Like our faith enough, and love our God enough to say good things about them to other people.
Discern God’s will and purpose through scripture and let go of our personal, petty, insignificant agendas to get what we want. This isn’t OUR church. We are the body of Christ — God is in charge, Christ commands, the Spirit inspires and directs. It ISN’T about us.
Remember that being a pastor is a privilege and an honor not a right or an entitlement. Humble servanthood is still the only acceptable role for an ordained person. We are lucky to be where we are, not deserving. Humility needs to show up more often.
If our guiding values are survival, security, comfort, size and control, none of these suggestions will appear reasonable or feasible. If our guiding values are serving God, neighbor, stranger, and those who do not know Christ, any and all will be acceptable. For me, the bottom line is how serious we will get about being the body of Christ and not just tinkering with the current reality to make things look and feel better. The time has come to decide what kind of church we really want to be — a church that pursues a Great Commission or a commission that is merely mediocre.
The Rev. Dan R. Dick is a nationally known speaker, writer and church researcher who currently serves as director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Annual Conference.