Editorial: A prayer for a problem unseen

By Rob Renfroe

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.” So wrote G. K. Chesterton in 1935.

For some reason it reminded me of The United Methodist Church and General Conference.

We have a problem. Everyone knows it and to their credit many of our Bishops admit it and appear determined to do something about it. Since 1968, the population of the United States has increased by over 50 percent, from 201 million to nearly 313 million. During the same time period The UM Church in The United States has lost 3,000,000 members and today we have 6,000 less churches. As a matter of fact, every year since the merger in ’68, we have reported a decline in membership. We haven’t had a winning season in over 40 years.

But is our numerical decline “the problem?” As Chesterton reminds us it’s important that we “see the problem” right because unless we do, we won’t have any chance of seeing the solution.

Evidently many of our leaders, clergy and lay, have come to believe that “the problem” behind the problem has something to do with how the church is structured. That’s the buzz this time around. Four years ago it was the restructure proposed via The Worldwide Nature of the Church report. And now it’s a new structural plan that will consolidate most of our boards and create a “set-aside” bishop.

As you can imagine, everyone has their concerns. The boards are worried that they will lose much of their autonomy (and their budgets). Others are hesitant because they suspect that with a smaller board of directors there will not be proportional ethnic and gender representation. Others fear that having a bishop as the denomination’s “CEO” will put too much power in the hands of the Episcopacy.

Pardon me, if I repeat Mr. Chesterton. “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”

Do our leaders actually believe that if we just get the structure right, “these dry bones will live again”? Have they really concluded that the problem is structural, so the solution must be structural?

I’m in favor of some of the proposed changes, but they aren’t the solution. Most of our boards and agencies are completely irrelevant to the life of our local churches — except when their statements are so radical that they create problems for us pastors in our local churches. Most of us do not use their resources, we don’t look to them for leadership, and, with a few notable exceptions, we don’t trust what they produce.

General Conference can create new, more efficient structures. But the truth is, the right folks will produce good results even in a structure that is less than ideal. But the wrong folks in the best structure won’t produce the right results.

As long as we have persons leading our boards and agencies who are not orthodox in their theology; who are disconnected from the local church and who actually point to the local church as “the problem” which the General Board of Church and Society has done; and who do not have a passion for winning the lost to Christ but believe that all religions are pretty much the same — put those folks in the best of structures and they will simply be more effective in producing what is unhelpful to the local church and detrimental to the health of the general church.

The “problem” is not declining numbers or inefficient structures. The problem is the world is lost and we don’t much care.

No one was more intent on structures and organization than Wesley. But that’s not what made the early Methodists such a powerful movement in transforming their world — it was their passion for Christ and their passion for those who were lost. And it began with Wesley himself who would tell his preachers, “You have nothing to do but to save souls; therefore spend and be spent in this work.”

The world is lost and we don’t much care. That’s why we hear our leaders talk so much about “saving the United Methodist Church” and so little about saving the world that Jesus died for.

The world is lost and we don’t much care. That’s why we allow seminary presidents and professors to teach that Jesus is just one of many ways to God, we permit our literature for the local church to teach that faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation, and we say nothing when a General Secretary states that Jesus may not have believed he was the Messiah.

The world is lost and we don’t much care. And that’s why none of the proposed structural changes will ultimately matter much. The same structure with the same people won’t lead us to a new day, because ultimately it’s people that make the difference, not a bureaucratic organizational chart.

A new structure won’t cause us to pray more, witness more, serve more, or sacrifice more. Merely having a set-aside bishop won’t inspire us to spend and be spent in the work of the Gospel.

We need leaders who believe the world is lost, who believe that Jesus is the answer, and whose example and whose words challenge us the way Wesley’s did his preachers — and the way they did their congregations.

I don’t expect us to come up with “the solution” at General Conference. But my prayer is, “Lord, at least give us eyes to see the problem.”

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.