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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.
In sharp contrast, the UMC took a hard line with discipleship, deciding for the church what it wanted. This is an approach doomed to fail. Giving people what they don’t want, offering no system by which to achieve what they don’t seek, and staying consistently ambiguous about what they should want is a formula for frustration and failure. How many people enter our churches on a Sunday morning saying, “Here I am! Make me a disciple”? Discipleship is what the powers that be want the people to want. Yet, as a denomination we have yet to arrive at a consensus that answers the simple questions: What is a disciple? What is a disciple for? How do you make a disciple? How do you know when you’re got one? What do you do with a disciple once you have it? Seventy-one percent of United Methodists define discipleship as “believing that Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God.” This is not defensible biblically or theologically in The United Methodist Church, yet for 13 years it has remained virtually uncontested. “Easy discipleship” is NOT discipleship (see gospels).
2. Discipleship is the wrong answer to the wrong question. Institutional preservation (the core value of many key UM leaders) depends on attractiveness and “stickiness.” We want more people to come to us, and once they check us out we want them to stay. As numbers increase, money increases, churches multiply, attracting new people and new money.
This is a middle-class vision: We cannot afford more ministry to the poor and marginalized unless we generate more revenue and capital from the growth in middle-class communities. Once we generate more money, this thinking goes, then we can do more ministry -- except for the fact that as we pour more and more money into building and staff, there is less and less money for outreach, service, and justice ministries.
See, discipleship is antithetical to church growth. Discipleship demands sacrifice that most are unwilling to make. Discipline, obedience, service, sacrifice, giving up control, setting aside personal needs for a greater good, loss of comfort and security, engaging with strangers (and in some cases unpleasant strangers), and living in a constant state of change and chaos are what discipleship promises. Honest and authentic discipleship drives more people away than it attracts. Where high expectations, performance standards, commitment of time, energy and money, and accountability with consequences prevail, attractiveness to a consumer culture declines precipitously. The majority of people come to church to be served rather than to serve — and this reality casts a dark shadow over any vision of discipleship. On the day that we made our mission discipleship leading to transformation in the world, we ceased to serve the vast majority of our constituents.
3. Discipleship is a process, not a goal. Scripturally, discipleship is a phase in the ongoing development of the Christian. The 12 disciples named in scripture are referred to as disciples until Pentecost, then they are never referred to as disciples again. Their followers were called disciples. By Paul’s vision, disciples experience a transformation in the Spirit that shifts them into an incarnational reality — members of the body of Christ. No longer students, followers or apprentices, disciples become teachers, leaders, and spiritual masters.
We speak in the UMC as if discipleship is the culmination of a lifelong journey — one in which each person is expected to work out his/her own salvation with fear and trembling. There are two problems with this line of thought.
First, discipleship is not an individual experience or process — it is only achievable in community and collaboration. Certainly the individual makes the initial response, but without the teacher, the teaching, and the learning community, any response is an empty gesture. We made individual and personal salvation so much the be-all and end-all of 20th century consumer-driven religion that we ignore our communal, not individual, Judeo-Christian roots . The "me-and-my-buddy, do-you-know-Jesus-as-your-PERSONAL- Lord-and-Savior, I walk through the garden alone, blessed assurance, Jesus is MINE" mentality that we allowed to displace authentic Christian living is now biting us in so many uncomfortable places that we don’t know how to recover.
Second, discipleship is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We acknowledged this (finally) when we tacked on “for the transformation of the world,” but even then we stayed fuzzy on what transformation looks like. Without clarity about the ultimate goals and objectives of a transformed world, it is impossible to engage in any discussion of how to bring the transformation about. Without a defined destination, it is impossible to map out a course. We have used the language of “discipling systems,” without any protocols, constraints, direction or methodology to follow. Any system grounded on arbitrary standards is doomed to mediocrity at best, dismal failure at worst.
A mission is not a plan. Clarifying the mission of The United Methodist Church as disciple-making for world transformation was nothing less than a paradigm shift for the denomination. The vision for innovation and adoption of a new paradigm works within some general parameters (see Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline; Everett Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations; Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point).
Cultural movements follow an “S-curve” that require a few essential components:
- A strong case is made for how the change is qualitatively superior to that which it replaces;
- Adequate time and energy is given spreading the most pertinent and relevant information;
- Key influencers/opinion leaders are among the very earliest adopters;
- Clear and tangible early results foster wider buy-in and adoption that tips the paradigm/innovation/change from the fringe to the center;
- A process of normalization establishes a new normal (from which the process cycles again and again).
Taking each concept in order, The United Methodist Church failed to deliver on any key aspect of the process let alone in combination.
No qualitative analysis. There was no formal plan or process by which clergy and laity church leaders, local congregations, districts, conferences, agencies or the general church could come together to do a qualitative analysis of the impact on the church of making our mission “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It was handed to the church by the 1996 General Conference, assuming that everyone would “get it,” agree with it, and implement a plan to do it. Betamax, New Coke, and Apple Newton (look it up) are really good examples of what happens when you decide something is better for other people instead of working out what is better together.
No time given for information. In 1996, The United Methodist Church went from having a number of vague mission definitions in different parts of our Book of Discipline to the singular “making disciples of Jesus Christ,” in the course of one General Conference. The immediate responses to this change/clarification were: “we’re already doing that,” “who says so?,” “we disagree,” “one size does not fit all,” and a host of other equally dismissive retorts. There was little encouragement to explore what the macro-mission might mean at the micro level. Not only did we not understand the implications of the “new” mission, but few understood how we arrived at it either.
Few key leaders as early adopters. We had many people in “formal” positions lift up our mission, but relatively few prime movers-and-shakers step up to cast a vision for a radically different kind of church. Without opinion-shapers and key-influencers, it was simply a matter of ignoring the words and proceeding with business as usual. There was no movement toward a tipping point because many of the celebrity leaders in our denomination yawned and shrugged their shoulders and did exactly what they had been doing before. Some adopted the language, but relatively few changed their behaviors.
With the apathy of key leaders, the innovation failed to spread. No one described how the benefits of the disciple-making mission outweighed the costs of staying stuck in the status quo. The majority of leading voices identified our key needs as more people, more money, and better leaders. No one connected the dots as to how a focus on discipleship would result in more or better anything.
Normalization failed. We now are living in the reality where we have normalized our vision of making disciples for the transformation of the world as reaching new people to shore up the old institution by giving time, energy and money to help us preserve the churches built during a tarnished golden age. For people seeking a deep and transformative spirituality, The United Methodist Church has lost all credibility. Just as people discovered that many of our churches lacked open hearts, minds and doors, so too tens of thousands have come to realize that we have no interest or intention of designing a system for either disciple-making or world-transforming. Since it is clear that we are not ready to fulfill our mission, we are left with one choice: change our mission.
I am not suggesting we give up on the hard, yet rewarding work of discipling. I am merely suggesting that we quit claiming that it is our highest value and goal.
Something along the lines of “to preach, to teach, and to heal in the name of Jesus the Christ,” seems more appropriate to me. It is still general enough to be widely inclusive, and it allows each local church and annual conference flexibility is casting a vision for how these things will be done. It defines us in our relationship to God in Christ, and it offers us marching orders in three specific areas. It is doable, yet never finished. It promotes continuous improvement — no matter how well and how widely we reach, there is always room for improvement. It endorses both quality and quantity. And for those deeply committed and called to authentic discipleship, it still works well.
I hope this will generate some discussion. I am not so interested in people agreeing or disagreeing as I am challenging some deep reflection on who we think we are, what we think we are doing here, and how we will live with authenticity into the future. We cannot long sustain an articulated mission that is grossly out of line with our lived reality. The world is watching. What we say and what we do must align with who we are and Whose we are.