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Illustration Courtesy of Dan R. Dick
Let’s be honest. The United Methodist Church has done a remarkably poor job living up to its stated mission ["making disciples of Jesus Christ" (1996) "for the transformation of the world" (2008)]. In the same way that the Igniting Ministry media campaign failed to live up to its slogan of "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" (more people find closed minds, hearts and doors in the UMC than experience a radical openness), our entire denomination is failing to deliver well-equipped, highly motivated, deeply committed disciples engaged in world-transforming activity.
The misguided attempts at restructuring our church have as much to do with missional ambiguity and ignorance as with intentional resistance or political sabotage. How do you adopt an “appropriate” structure when you don’t know what results you are trying to produce? The existing structure is not designed to produce authentic discipleship, and the various recommendations and “plans” weren’t designed for discipleship either.
The sad fact is, discipleship is that to which we pay lip service, not what we desire with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
A system is designed for the results it is getting. Those 18th and 19th century holdovers from historic United Methodism and its antecedents were designed for the pre-modern and proto-modern culture they served. Mere modifications and adjustments to centuries old conventions is foolish. (Think about what our current state of being would be if medicine and science thad adopted a similar mindset!) We are old wine in new skins — and we are shocked when there is leakage and bursting.
The United Methodist Church in North America in 2013 is not committed to discipleship. It is committed to institutional preservation, enamored by big buildings and valuable property, in love with celebrity pastors, and engaged in mostly passive, representative ministries (i.e., I will put five dollars in the plate to pay someone else to do ministry for me).
It isn't working
Don’t get me wrong, discipleship is a fabulous vision and goal — it simply isn’t working at the moment (and some would say it has never worked very well beyond a handful of the called and chosen). In a nutshell, our current mission is like giving calculus problems to pre-schoolers — way above the cognitive and rational skills of the audience.
We adopted the Great Commission as our mission because we were attempting to say who we thought we should be, not to base our vision in anything feasible or viable. I see four fundamental problems with the adoption of “discipleship” as a denominational mission:
1. Discipleship is hard. When applications designers launch new apps for phones and tablets, they are almost 99.9 percent sure that their end-users will be able to use and benefit from their efforts. They begin with the end-user in mind and create that which will be simple, intuitive, and comfortable.