Too Bland for Our Own Good

Too Bland for Our Own Good

By Robin Russell

Jon Stewart got a big laugh recently on “The Daily Show” when he said the United Methodist Church “is like the University of Phoenix of religions”—inferring that being a United Methodist is as easy as getting an online diploma.

In other words, you don’t have to show up in person. You don’t have to work very hard at it. And as long as you pay your dues, you stay in good standing.

Please, no e-mails telling me that your church is not like that. I know there are many thriving and healthy United Methodist congregations.
But considering how the joke resonated with Mr. Stewart’s television audience, we all just might have to admit that the United Methodist Church has a bit of an image problem.

Notwithstanding the hip, new “Rethink Church” ad campaign (which doesn’t always translate down to the local congregation experience), the perception of United Methodism seems to be a rather lukewarm version of Christianity.

You know what I mean. The place where you and your spouse from another denomination can find “neutral” ground. The place where no one tells you what to believe. The place where the Christian journey is self-paced, and where questions are better than answers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, as Seinfeld would say.

But if you are seriously seeking Christian faith development and an engaged, authentic community, some of our United Methodist churches would undoubtedly fall short (as would any number of churches in any denomination—but this is about us).

Check out the findings from an exit poll of people who attended a seeker study from 2003-2006 at United Methodist churches, and walked away disappointed. Among their comments:

• “You don’t know your own story. You don’t know who you are and what you believe.”
• “You believe some of the lamest, weirdest stuff and ignore the simple, kind, and helpful stuff.”
• “Methodists are all over the map. I spent almost a year finding out that they don’t have a clue what they really believe.”
• “It feels like a time warp—like 1984, but from the other side.”

Respondents felt the church was lacking in prayer, reading the Bible and spiritual conversation, says Dan Dick, director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Conference, who posted these comments on his blog, “United Methodeviations.”

“People are disappointed that we don’t seem to know why we do the things we do; why we believe the things we believe; why we say the things we say,” Dr. Dick said. “People feel we are out of touch, behind the times, and disconnected. People discover that church doesn’t offer them value in their spiritual journey.

“Jon Stewart is not the only person who thinks you can believe and do anything and be a Methodist.”

Straying from roots. So what does it mean to be a Methodist? How many people sitting in the pew could easily answer that question? I am amazed at how many readers of The United Methodist Reporter write in each week to thank our “Wesleyan Wisdom” columnist Donald Haynes for explaining the basics of United Methodism (and in a shameless plug, see for information on his book, On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals).

This sense of spiritual mushiness is a far cry from John Wesley’s approach when he launched the Methodist revival movement in the mid-18th century. There was no mistaking Wesley’s take on the importance of the spiritual disciplines—fasting, prayer, Bible study, Communion, worship and small-group accountability—and reaching out to those outside the faith.

Can the average United Methodist explain Wesley’s grace theology?

I find it interesting that John Wesley, the father of small-group ministry, is a hero of the faith even to many outside the Wesleyan traditions. Whatever they’re called today—lifegroups, cell groups, home churches—these gatherings for study, fellowship and accountability are a hallmark of most growing nondenominational churches.

But glance at a typical United Methodist church bulletin and you’ll see more announcements for Zumba classes and senior citizen outings than for Bible studies or accountability groups.

So what’s a spiritually minded person to do?

Perkins School of Theology professor William Abraham describes the current malaise as “doctrinal amnesia.” The General Board of Discipleship’s Taylor Burton-Edwards takes it a bit further in a comment on Dr. Dick’s blog: “I’m wondering if it has not advanced to doctrinal and practical dementia.”

Membership vows. Persons who take membership vows promise to “uphold this congregation of the United Methodist Church by [their] prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.” All too often, however, there are few expectations beyond serving on a committee, showing up on Sunday and making a financial pledge—and certainly no follow-through or consequences.

Yet churches that ask something of their members tend to have a more engaged and active laity who feel empowered for the work of the ministry. Young people, in particular, are eager to invest their lives in something bigger than themselves.

To be sure, it’s not always easy to describe the theological nuances of the Christian faith journey as Wesley understood it. You can’t quite fit it into a neat and tidy gospel tract or a pithy slogan.

But offering a path toward spiritual formation shouldn’t be beyond our capabilities. We’re supposed to be about making disciples, after all.
And isn’t that what people are looking for in a church—a place where they can learn how to become a Christ-follower?

“They want to know how to pray,” writes Dr. Dick. “They want to know how to read and interpret the Bible. They want to be able to talk about Christian beliefs and practices. They want companions on the journey.

“People are seeking depth . . . and they reject those places where people don’t know their own story—the story of the church, the faith and God.”
Can the United Methodist Church rediscover and share its distinctive story? Or will Comedy Central have the last laugh?

Robin Russell is the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter. Reprinted with permission of The United Methodist Reporter (

Too Bland for Our Own Good

Vital Women’s Ministry—Vital Church

By Liza Kittle

As we begin 2011, I bring important news regarding the future ministry of Renew. Beginning January 1, Renew will become its own separate 501c3 non-profit organization.  Renew will continue to collaborate closely with the ministry of Good News, as we have for almost 20 years. As the Good News office completes its transition to the new location in Texas, Renew will be making some transitions as well.

From our office in Augusta, Georgia, Renew will continue to be closely associated with Good News on your behalf—advocating for reform and renewal in the United Methodist Church regarding women’s issues. We will continue to uplift issues and provide information concerning the Women’s Division through Renew’s monthly column in the magazine and through special reports. Renew will also be a member of the Renewal and Reform Coalition, a partnership of renewal groups that will represent evangelical perspectives at the 2012 General Conference.

With the recently released Call to Action Report adopted by the Council of Bishops and being implemented by the Connectional Table, Renew believes the timing is ripe for change regarding the acceptance of a variety of women’s ministry options in the denomination. Renew will work towards this goal on behalf of the women in the UM Church. With a new mandate on “building vital congregations” and empowering pastors and laity to actively be involved in this process, surely building vital women’s ministry programs would be a priority. Strong women’s ministries are essential to vital congregations.

Renew will still be an avenue of support and encouragement for the women of the church in beginning or restructuring their women’s ministry. We are able to recommend resources, connect you with other network members, and suggest speakers for women’s events and meetings. Renew plans to increase our focus on leadership development and partnering with women’s ministry leaders in the UM Church to highlight and share information on fruitful women’s programs.

Renew will continue to develop the use of internet technologies such as the Renew website ( ), monthly e-newsletters, and our new Renew Network Facebook page. These vital tools are already having a tremendous impact on growing the network, connecting with other women in ministry, and dessiminating information of interest to our members.

While we applaud church leadership for looking honestly at the critical problems facing the United Methodist Church and for recognizing that the church’s current economic state is “unsustainable”, there is much work to be done by renewal groups, clergy, and laity.

Most importantly, we must address the theological drift taking place among our young people, within our seminaries and in our pulpits. Basic truths of the Christian faith are being attacked, maligned, and re-interpreted—striking at the very root of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. According to a recent George Barna report analyzing patterns during the past year, the Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate. The report states, “What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans—especially young adults.

We must address the continued partisan political advocacy of our boards and agencies, pastors and bishops. Recently, a United Methodist pastor Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith was released from a San Antonio jail after staging a hunger strike to support passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to apply for legal status after attending college. The General Board of Church and Society and the Women’s Division push political legislation through General Conference that allows them to advocate in the name of United Methodism on a plethora of issues. There is much diversity of thought within the denomination and these partisan actions have created dissension and contributed to membership loss.

Renew and Good News will continue to inform the church on important issues and advocate on your behalf regarding theological integrity and balanced social witness. Renew will especially concentrate on those issues that affect the women of the UM Church and women’s ministry.
With our change in relationship with Good News, Renew can only be effective as we receive support from our members and partners. In these economic times, we must be financially responsible with our resources. The growth and fruitfulness of Renew will be based on the Lord’s provision through you.

Please stand with Renew as we advocate, encourage, and support the spread of women’s ministry in the United Methodist Church. Please stand with us as we influence the church regarding theological and social issues especially pertinent to women. Vital women’s ministries will help build vital congregations which will in turn build a vital United Methodist Church.

Blessings for a Spirit and hope-filled New Year.

Liza Kittle is the President of the Renew Network (, P.O. Box 16055, Augusta, GA 30919; telephone: 706-364-0166.

Gratitude for Renew

By Rob Renfroe

I want to express the deep sense of gratitude that the members of the Good News Board and I feel for the contribution of Renew to the reform and the renewal of the United Methodist Church.  Renew has been a genuine gift to the women of the church who have looked for balanced, biblical resources to support their spiritual growth and their ministry in the world.  In addition, Renew has served as a vigilant and effective force in exposing the radical political agenda behind much of the work of the Women’s Division.

Other organizations that were once under the wing of Good News have “left the nest,” so to speak, when the time was right and always with even greater effectiveness.  I feel sure that will be the case with Renew under the leadership of Liza Kittle and I know that those of you who have supported Renew in the past will continue to do so.

Mrs. Kittle will continue to attend our board meetings and keep us apprised of the issues and events impacting women within the UM Church and how we can support Renew’s efforts for reform.  I grow more grateful every day for the efforts of the many orthodox renewal groups within our denomination, each one playing its vital role in the renewal of the church, as Renew will certainly continue to do.

—Rob Renfroe, Good News President and Publisher

Too Bland for Our Own Good

What to Teach

By Duffy Robbins

As I confessed in the last issue of Good News, somewhere around the 10 year point in my own youth ministry experience, I began to realize that I was teaching on some of the same topics over and over again, and there was really no plan guiding me. Looking over the messages I had delivered over the previous three years, I discovered that we spent almost six times as much time in the New Testament as we did in the Old Testament; that we spent more time studying general topics than we spent studying specific biblical texts; and that our teaching curriculum was more a reflection of my training and biases than it was a reflection of the whole counsel of God.

I took my concerns to our volunteers and we began with the basic premise that we might have a student in our ministry for three years. On the basis of that assumption, and with input from our pastor and some members of our Youth Advisory Team, we developed a curriculum plan of topics and texts that we wanted our teenagers to be exposed to prior to graduation.  For students who were in our youth group from grades 7-12, we decided there was no harm in their repeating the cycle a second time as long as we used different lesson plans.

We intentionally covered some topics (sex and dating) more than once in a three year period, using different curricula, and perhaps, coming at it from a different angle. We kept in mind that good communication and solid biblical education requires some repetition.

We broke all the topics/texts into three broad categories that represented a healthy balance: The three categories were Bible, Life, and Body.

1. Bible – these were topics that were anchored in and suggested by the biblical texts;

2. Life – these were essentially lifestyle issues, a topical way of addressing how to apply what we had heard and studied in the Word;

3. Body–these were some of the core issues that related to “being the Body of Christ,” and living out Kingdom values as a Christian community both locally and globally.

Obviously, we understood that the whole counsel of God is not so easily separated into these neat, tidy and simplistic three categories. But this approach helped us think strategically about what we wanted our teenagers to know and live out. Once we identified the topics and texts, we could plan for them and around them—this became an important foundation as we tried to build a healthy youth ministry.

That process produced the following curriculum plan.

For our 7th and 10th graders, we studied The Gospels, Who is Jesus?, What is a Christian?, the book of Genesis, the life of David, the life of Paul, and How to Study the Bible. These grades also discussed peer pressure, dealing with temptation, friendships, self-image, as well as What is the Church?, Body Life, and our Call to Service.

The 8th and 11th graders studied the Letters of John, Romans, Who is God?, a study of Jeremiah, a study of Exodus, a study of James, and prayer. They also discussed Making Wise Choices, Stewardship and Money, Drugs and Alcohol, Family, Worship, Caring for Others, and Church Membership.

Finally, our 9th and 12th graders studied the Book of Acts, The Holy Spirit, a study of Nehemiah, a study of Jonah, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the parables of Jesus. They also tackled issues such as Knowing God’s Will, Sex and Dating, Lifestyle Evangelism, the Christian View of Marriage, Spiritual Gifts, Mission, and Counseling Friends.

If you choose to develop a potential curriculum like this, you might want to get input from a wide range of sources: the students, the parents, the leadership who oversees your ministry, the co-workers (paid or volunteer), the peers in youth ministry and others who have walked with God for many years. But, when you gather multiple opinions, don’t feel the pressure to cover every topic that is suggested. It is wise to let people know their ideas are heard and appreciated. And, of course, if you ignore the felt needs of the students and only teach them what you think they should know about Bible, doctrine and theology, you’ll find yourself teaching to an empty room (and, actually, that makes prep and planning a lot easier).

The advantage of this kind of long-range approach to topic planning is that it helps us to avoid three common mistakes in speaking: 1. Teaching on our pet topics over and over again, 2. Teaching on some topic just because we have a cool new media resource, and 3. Trying to determine your lesson week-to-week.

A plan like this (even if it’s held “loosely”) helps us make sure our teaching is guided by long-term objectives and not just short-term whims, current trends or a regurgitation of the last devotion you read.

Too Bland for Our Own Good

Malaria: The Great Invitation

By Curt Harding, United Methodist Communications

Each and every day, God sends out invitations, invitations to make a difference in someone’s life. These invitations are delivered in many different ways, but often times we miss them. We’re too busy, too distracted. What if the invitation were more obvious? What if you were reading one now? You Are Cordially invited to save lives today.  Could you ignore it?

Methodists United
Malaria claims the life of a child every 45 seconds.  Look around your child’s school, your youth group, the playground. Imagine one in five children disappearing. Imagine what a difference their life could have made.  The people of The United Methodist Church are answering the call. The Imagine No Malaria campaign has an ambitious goal of eliminating death and suffering from malaria—a preventable and curable disease.

…everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
—John 13:35

What You Can Do
Progress is being made, but we must not stop. What’s needed is money; money for mosquito bed nets, money for treatment, money for education. Together we can do this.

Have a FUNraiser! In advance of World Malaria Day, April 25, 2011 Imagine No Malaria is encouraging United Methodists to host a malaria house party—an easy and fun way to truly change the world. No matter what the occasion…birthday, Super Bowl, Fourth of July, your guests will come knowing that they’re making a donation—making a difference.

Consider this your invitation. The bite of malaria doesn’t have to kill.  But it’s up to you.

Imagine saving millions of lives. Imagine No Malaria.

Imagine No Malaria House Party
For party planning ideas, invitations, party tips, and much more, visit:

Too Bland for Our Own Good

“Advisory group on steriods” tackles reform

By Rich Peck

United Methodist leaders have created a team to put the finishing touches on a plan aimed at increasing the number of vital congregations in the church.

The new Interim Operations Team will be an “advisory group on steroids,” said Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House and co-chairperson of the Call to Action Steering Team, which includes clergy and laity.

The Call to Action Steering Team had proposed creating the new team during the Nov. 15-17 meeting of the denomination’s Connectional Table—a 60-member international panel of jurisdictional, agency and caucus leaders.

Alexander added that the group will be “certainly unencumbered and freed up to provide strong leadership and hard/frank and disrupting recommendations, but never to presume decision-making authority that is currently lodged elsewhere.”

Meeting at First United Methodist Church in Franklin, the Connectional Table agreed to create a seven-member Interim Operations Team to map responses to key issues, needs and challenges identified by two exhaustive studies.

Ohio East Area Bishop John Hopkins, Connectional Table chairperson, said most of the recommendations from the Call to Action group could be enacted prior to General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, which meets again in 2012.

However, some recommendations will require legislation to be approved by General Conference. The Interim Operations Team will be responsible for drafting any legislation required.

Changing culture. In an opening worship service, Hopkins said changing the current church culture would not be easy. “We frequently worship the form and not the spirit behind the form,” he said. The bishop spoke about the desire to keep our old wine skins and how difficult––but necessary––it is to shift to new wineskins.

The bishop noted that younger generations separate “religion” that focuses on a relationship with the church from “spirituality” that focuses on a relationship with God through Christ. “It’s better to know Jesus than to know about him,” he said.

Connectional Table members asked two bishops and two laypeople from the Connectional Table to select the seven team members. The Call to Action group originally called for a five-member committee; the Connectional Table expanded the team to seven members.

People serving on the committee to nominate the Interim Operations Team are: Western North Carolina Area Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops; Bishop Hopkins; Judy Benson, Oklahoma Conference; and David Beckley, Mississippi Conference.

Hopkins expects the team to be operational by January 2011. The group will operate with a $750,000 budget, and it will employ a project director. The Connectional Table initially requested $450,000 for the Interim Operations Team, but the General Council on Finance and Administration approved additional funding to support the project over a two-year period. The team will conclude its work by December 2012.
The Call to Action plan was approved two weeks earlier by the Council of Bishops at their meeting in Panama City, Panama. The bishops agreed with the call for their council to assume responsibility and accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, benevolence giving and lowering the average age of local church participants.

Answering criticism. Alexander acknowledged that the Call to Action report has come under criticism for focusing solely on U.S. churches.
Alexander noted that insufficient time and money limited the study and recommendations to U.S. churches. “We simply didn’t have the capacity to address issues of language, context and different histories of collecting and reporting certain kinds of data,” he said. He encouraged the church to allocate people and dollars to provide similar studies in other countries.

“We have heard and considered thoughtful criticisms about the studies,” Alexander said. “I want to say on behalf of the steering team that we have been careful, self-critical and exacting in the work related to both projects and after much review and critique, we are emphatically confident that the research offers crucial, accurate and useful clues.”

Need to reduce confusion. The Connectional Table also heard a report from its “Planting the Seeds –– Reaping the Harvest Committee.” That report calls for local churches to establish goals for membership, attendance, profession of faith and people engaged in mission activities.
Pittsburgh Area Bishop Tom Bickerton expressed the fear that church leaders are confusing people with a “multiplicity of messages” such as the “Four Areas of Focus,” “Five Practices of Faithful Living,” “Seven Vision Pathways” and recommendations from seven study committees.
“There is a great reason to be passionate about every one of these,” said Bickerton, but he feared multiple messages are confusing United Methodist members.

The Connectional Table asked United Methodist Communications to develop a less fractured way of communicating these concerns. Minnesota Area Bishop Sally Dyck, president of the communications agency, expressed confidence that the staff could help the church get a handle on all of these important concerns.

Other business.

• The Connectional Table asked the General Conference Rules Committee to place all legislation dealing with agency structures into a single legislative committee.

• Connectional Table members learned that the World Service Contingency Fund made a $30,000 grant to resolve legal issues surrounding the land on which the Mulungushi Seminary is built in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a $25,000 grant to the General Commission on United Methodist Men to launch Disciple Bible studies in male prisons in five states.

• The 10-member Apportionment Structure Study Group reported to a joint session of Connectional Table and the General Council on Finance and Administration that it is considering a proposal that would eliminate the denomination’s seven general funds to create a single United Methodist fund. Under the provisional plan, local churches would be asked to subtract designated funds received in a weekly offering, and allocate 3 percent of the remaining receipts for the general church. But the plan received a cool reception from annual conference treasurers.
“Giving may go down as many people want to designate funds,” responded Christine Dodson, president of the National Association of Conference Treasurers. She said a single fund would decrease transparency and an income-based plan could result in “creative reporting.”

Rich Peck is a retired clergy member of New York Annual Conference and a freelance writer in Franklin, Tennessee. This article was released by United Methodist News Service.

Apportionment amounts to be proposed

If the General Council on Finance and Administration’s projections hold, the 2013-16 quadrennium will mark the first time the actual dollars available for general church ministries will be decreased.

The General Council on Finance and Administration is responsible for recommending to General Conference the total amount of money local churches can be expected to give to the general church each quadrennium.

The council’s Economic Advisory Committee reported in a joint session of the council and the Connectional Table that it is currently proposing a base budget of $610.7 million for the 2013-16 quadrennium. The committee also calculates a high amount of $644.3 million and a low of $576.6 million. Factors that go into the final projection include: church membership, inflation, per-capita disposable income, giving elasticity, net spending and the gross-domestic product.

Although the percentage of local church receipts for the general church has gone down each year, the dollar amounts historically have still gone up because of inflation. That may not be the case this time. Even the most optimistic projection calls for a quadrennial decrease of 0.2 percent.
— Rich Peck