After more than four decades of United Methodism’s membership decline, the 2008 General Conference created a committee of 20 church leaders to study the denomination and its churches, and to propose interventions at each level of the Church’s life. In late 2010, the committee published a “Call to Action” that is now widely discussed among United Methodists. The report addresses concerns ranging from the low “vitality” of local churches to the overall structure of the denomination.
Based on the findings of a research team, the Call to Action report identifies five “drivers” behind the “vitality” of the most “vital” local churches:
1. Traditional and contemporary services
2. More small groups
3. More programs for children and youth
4. Pastors who lead planning and preach inspiringly
5. Elevate more attendees into leadership roles.
The Call proposes making pastors and bishops more “accountable” for producing vital congregations, and it proposes a restructure of the denomination’s boards and agencies.
Because of his extensive expertise, we asked Dr. George G. Hunter III, author of The Apostolic Congregation: Church Growth Reconceived for a New Generation and Distinguished Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Asbury Theological Seminary, to interact with the report of the Call to Action. Hunter recently delivered the Denman Lectures, “The Recovery of a Contagious Wesleyan Movement,” at the 2011 Congress on Evangelism.
We asked for responses to Dr. Hunter’s analysis from distinguished thinkers and leaders representing various perspectives within United Methodism—the Rev. Drs. Steve Wende, Kent Millard, Joy Moore, and Terry Teykl.
As a separate analysis, we also asked the well-known church vitality expert Lyle Schaller to wrestle with the Call to Action. His thoughts are found on page 18.
A serious conversation
By George G. Hunter III
Thank God for the “Call to Action!” It has catalyzed the first serious conversation about the denomination’s future in many years. I thank Good News magazine for encouraging the conversation.
My reflection on the report of the Call to Action proceeds from my convictions that United Methodism should be appropriately rooted in John Wesley’s theological vision and, as in early Methodism, our churches should be local missional movements more than conventional parishes. A Methodist missional life is expressed as a lay movement, that reaches, loves, and forms people through small groups, in local movements that enter their communities to make new disciples and work for God’s will to be done on earth.
Compared to the missional Christianity reflected in the New Testament, classical Methodism shared the bias of John Wesley, and Soren Kierkegaard, that the approach of Europe’s institutional national churches was not normal Christianity. Instead, it is domesticated Christianity, with much of the heart and more of the vertebrate removed, and the versions historically imported from Europe—America’s “mainline” churches—are almost as innocuous. For this reason, our denomination’s 20th century move to become much less Methodist and much more mainline, and much less of a movement and much more of an institution, has proven to be a tragic mistake.
The Call’s Confessions
While I will address the Call’s proposed interventions for our denomination, I’d like to begin with the Call’s Two Great (unspoken) Confessions.
First, the committee’s denominational leaders have quietly departed from their 20th century predecessors’ frequent insistence that the local churches exist for “the connection.” Now, apparently, the connection exists for the churches, after all.
Second, the document admits, de facto, that United Methodist leaders who contended in the 1970s and 1980s that membership decline was not really a problem were dead wrong. Those leaders welcomed decline. Fewer members, they said, would make us a better church. Quantity and quality, they assured us, are inversely related; so, with less quantity, we’d have more quality, more vitality, greater faithfulness and effectiveness.
Now, 40 years later, we face the brute fact that the loss of quantity has not produced greater quality and vitality. So, we have learned something in the last 40 years: Hear ye, Hear ye! Declining churches are less “vital” churches!
At several levels, the Call to Action, at last, transcends decades of entrenched denial, and it proposes a “revitalized” denomination.
The committee’s proposal to revamp the denomination’s boards and agencies is an idea past due. However, one proposal may not deliver what is hoped for. The Call to Action recommends merging our boards and agencies into fewer, and smaller, units. The problem is that we have already tried that—in 1972. As one example, the boards of education, evangelism, lay life and work, and other units like worship and stewardship and men’s work were merged into a conglomerate board of discipleship with much smaller staffs for those concerns. Since then, the denomination has been declining in quantity and quality. We have no reason to believe that consolidating into smaller boards yet again would produce a very different outcome.
Another proposal in the Call is useful, but could be expanded. The Call recommends that we form smaller “competency-based” boards. I served on the staff of the old Methodist Board of Evangelism from 1965 to 1972 and returned five years later to lead the program Section on Evangelism within the Board of Discipleship. The Board of Evangelism, whatever its shortcomings, had experts in evangelism; the Board of Discipleship, whatever its virtues, deployed board members to program sections without regard to subject-expertise.
Several other executives of program sections reported that their board members did not know enough about their section’s specialty to appraise, much less advise, the section’s work. So the call for competency-based boards makes great sense.
But this hopeful proposal raises a necessary question: Would it make sense to also select competency-based board staffs, and denominational executives, and bishops? If competency became priority at every level, the Church would be better positioned for a desirable future.
What triggers vitality?
The Call’s proposals for “vitalizing” local churches especially deserve reflection:
1. Programs vs. ministries. The Call reports that vital churches have more programs for children and youth than less vital churches do. That is undoubtedly true, but it invites some tweaking. Ministries with children and youth are even more important than “programs,” and the most effective churches engage in ministries with children and youth—and their parents.
2. Small groups. The Call reports that more vital churches have more small groups than do less vital churches. This represents a significant step toward reclaiming classical Methodism, but it stops short of involving all members in small groups, and it falls short of the reality that early Methodist societies were de facto churches of small groups. The report neglects to specify what should happen in a church’s small groups; we are not likely to improve on early Methodism’s agenda of (a) helping one another to live as Christians, and (b) engaging in ministry with each other, and with seekers.
3. Lay leadership. The report calls churches to elevate more attendees into leadership roles. The Call is not at all clear that, by this, they mean deploying lay people in ministries. If they do not, their point is only a small step toward a restored Methodism. The early Methodist societies in England, and the early Methodist churches in the United States, were indeed substantially lay led, but this piece is much less important than the point that most of the ministry that mattered was done by laity. In any case, in most churches across this land, the line of attendees who are eager to serve on committees or to get involved in church governance is a short line. Actually, many of the most effective churches are getting lay people out of governance, almost entirely, and into an astonishing range of ministries—in and beyond the church.
4. Worship. The report calls for a mix of traditional and contemporary services in United Methodist churches. That recommendation would have represented progress in the 1970s! Today, the future of worshipping congregations is much more extravagant—including multiple congregations, in multiple styles, sometimes in multiple languages, sometimes at multiple sites.
The committee also calls for more “topical” preaching rather than “lectionary-based preaching.” In several decades of studying churches, I have found negligible warrant for that recommendation—unless we are only talking about beginning a sermon with the question, need, or issue that the text speaks to. Most of our people expect, from their preachers, the meaningful interpretation of the Scriptures. Most of our visitors want to understand the biblical faith. As a postscript, the most effective churches do not put all of their dozen eggs in the preaching basket. Much of the Message is, increasingly, communicated in worship through music, drama, media, and the arts—and, beyond the worship hour, through the people’s reading and conversations.
5. The pastorate. The Call’s final set of recommendations focuses on the pastor. It calls, at last, for longer pastorates. We have known, at least since the early 1970s, that church growth correlates with longer pastorates. The Call also expects the pastor to provide inspirational preaching and leadership in planning. But one recommendation—that the pastor “mentor” lay leaders—will, in many churches, be met with puzzled expressions. Why? In many churches, there are laypeople who, as leaders, have already achieved more than the pastor will ever achieve. Indeed, it would be presumptuous of many pastors to “mentor” their church’s most accomplished leaders. If, however, it is even more important to deploy lay people in ministries than in governance, that is where the pastor’s coaching and mentoring are indispensable.
The Call’s most predominant overall theme is Accountability. That is certainly a prominent theme in Methodism’s DNA, but the Call’s theme is less consistent than it could be. For instance, it proposes that underachieving pastors can be “terminated” and underachieving bishops can be “sanctioned.” But why can’t underachieving pastors be sanctioned as a first intervention; and why can’t underachieving bishops be terminated?
Furthermore, the call to accountability is more limited in its scope than it could be. Pastors, bishops, and agencies are on the radar screen. The whole system—schools, colleges, universities, seminaries, hospitals, etc.—should contribute to effective local Christianity.
Objectively studied, what we call the United Methodist Church is neither very “Methodist” nor very “united.” If you doubt that, consider this question: What else keeps the denomination technically together besides the Three ‘P’s: Polity, Property, and Pensions? What primarily kept the early Methodist movement together, even more, was their shared mission and message, and their mutual support and networking. The mere addition of greater accountability is unlikely to provide enough glue for any meaningful unity, nor enough energy to turn the ship around.
The Great Omissions
The Call to Action acknowledges that it is an incomplete plan for the denomination’s renewal. As I studied the document, I became aware of some “great omissions.” Let me point out a few.
1. You would never know, from the Call to Action, that revitalization could have anything to do with theology, or that there could possibly be anything sub-Christian, dysfunctional, heretical, or eccentric about anyone’s theology. But there is a very strong connection between theology and vitality. Some churches are so theologically compromised that they are incapable of reproduction; they cannot even keep a bare majority of their own children into adult membership.
2. You would never know, from the Call to Action, that revitalization could have anything to do with the serious Spiritual Formation of the people. Revitalization without prayer?
3. You would never know, from the Call to Action, that revitalization could have anything to do with obeying and joining the Holy Spirit in Evangelism. Revitalization without new disciples?
4. While the committee is clear about the reforms they’d propose for boards and agencies, the Call does not address the institutions of the episcopacy, or the district superintendency, or the inherited system for deploying the clergy. In Send Me? The Itineracy In Crisis, Don Messer sounded the alarm 20 years ago. Its insights were ignored, but never refuted. Many Methodist churches, worldwide, no longer appoint pastors, and they regard American Methodism’s devotion to the system as “quaint.” Some World Methodism leaders even wonder if we are “polity fundamentalists.”
5. The committee ignores the elephant in the room: the issue of whether our hierarchical organization is still appropriate. One of the most dominant trends of our time is away from authoritarian hierarchical organizations toward much greater local autonomy and control. An increasing number of the people who leave us no longer wanted to be involved in a large top-down structure; they leave for churches that are more autonomous. For similar reasons, we lose an increasing number of our entrepreneurial pastors to churches with greater local autonomy. Should the committee address the most fundamental issue about our structure?
The Call to Action reflects the quiet, but enormous, shift in focus that United Methodism experienced in the 20th century. Once, we knew that the world was our parish; now, our parishes are our world! We are now concerned that so many of our parishes lack sufficient “vitality.”
First, “vitality” is a desirable, but not sufficient, goal for the Body of Christ. The quest for vitality reflects what is already a domesticated version of Christianity. Christianity with the power to reach communities, and rescue the perishing, and advance justice, and produce people who devote their lives to the will of God, has more going for it than a good pastoral leader, small groups, good programs, and two worship styles.
The second problem with the goal of “vitality” is that you may not find it by seeking it. You experience it as a by-product of experiencing grace, and following Jesus Christ, and as new disciples enter the church’s ranks as transformed people.
Churches experience vitality as they become involved in the Christian Movement far beyond their community—as they support missionaries and as teams of church members join the missionaries in, say, a three-week mission trip to a village in Peru where they put a roof on a chapel during the day and join in community with the indigenous believers in the evenings. When they return to their local congregations, their newfound spiritual power is contagious.
Success and failure
While we were told what the “drivers” were for high vitality congregations, we were not told about the causes of “low vitality” in too many of our churches.
Let me presume to offer a diagnosis of these factors. Modern day United Methodists cannot recall who they are. They are no longer rooted in Scripture or in any recognizable version of Methodism’s theological vision. The religion that now inhabits the minds of our attendees is as likely to be Deism, or Pantheism, or middle class moralism, or civil religion, or even Astrology or “Luck,” as any recognizable form of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”
Most of our people who dutifully attend church are like a football team that sits on the bench while supporting, and cheering for, the coach—or they wish for a better coach! Most of our people are not in ministry within and beyond the church. Most of our churches do not regard Christianity’s mission as their main business. Most of our visitors do not hear our churches speak their language or engage their emotional struggles. Many visitors, who know they are not like “good church people,” read signals that we may not really want them.
The consequence of all of this, and more, is what John Wesley once feared. What is now called Methodism, in many places, has retained “the form of religion,” but “without the power.”
Unfortunately, the Call to Action proposal assumes that establishment, institutional, mainline, more-or-less Eurocentric Christianity is normal Christianity. Again, the Call seems to be unaware that Methodism once expressed serious, contagious, missional Christianity, locally and globally.
The main problem that I have with the committee’s Call is that, if it succeeds, the denomination might reduce the hemorrhaging, membership and attendance and finances might stabilize, and the denomination’s executives might feel less heat. Unfortunately, however, if the Call, in its present form, is implemented at every level, the most optimistic possible outcome would still find United Methodism thin on vision, passion, and courage. We still would not represent a version of the faith that could change the world.
George G. Hunter III is Distinguished Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He was the founding dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism. Dr. Hunter has authored a dozen books, including The Apostolic Congregation: Church Growth Reconceived for a New Generation (2009).