Denominational Direction: Does the Call to Action lead the way?

Denominational Direction: Does the Call to Action lead the way?

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.
—The editor

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?

Vitality revisited
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).

Denominational Direction: Does the Call to Action lead the way?

British Methodists transcribe Bible by hand

By Kathleen LaCamera

In an age when a hand-written letter is an increasingly scarce commodity, British Methodists have pledged to transcribe all 66 books of the Bible by hand during the first five months of this year.

The “Written by Hand, Taken to Heart” national initiative is part of the denomination’s recognition of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. One of the world’s best-selling books of all time, this translation was first published in 1611, at the request of England’s King James I.

Each of England’s Methodist districts—roughly equivalent to U.S. annual conferences—will transcribe 25 Old Testament chapters, five Psalms and eight New Testament chapters. The completed transcribed Bible will be presented at the 2011 British Methodist Conference in June.

Jenny Ellis, the church’s Connectional Spirituality and Discipleship Officer, said most of the work is occurring out in the community in “scriptoriums” set up in shopping centers, schools, nursing homes, universities, and other public spaces.

“We want this to be a public expression of the church valuing scripture,” said Ellis. “And we want to be as creative as possible.” In addition to the opportunity to contribute handwritten verses, participants may also be invited to create illustrations to go alongside them.

The hope is that people of all ages who are unfamiliar with the Bible, as well as those who know it well, will come into these mobile scriptoriums and encounter the Bible’s stories, poetry, and teachings in a new way.

On January 9, the UK’s national publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC, devoted more than seven hours of national airtime throughout the day to readings from the Scripture. Sections from throughout the Bible were introduced by scholars and commentators, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and read by top British actors.

Christine Morgan, Methodist lay preacher and head of radio for the BBC’s Religion & Ethics department, reports the feedback from audiences—both religious and not—has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We even had one atheist get in touch to say that he enjoyed the programming so much he was now prepared to become an agnostic,” Morgan reported.

The Rev. Rob Cotton, a Methodist minister and the British Bible Society’s senior campaign manager, noted that the Bible is deeply relevant to people’s ordinary lives. “The Bible talks about human emotion, loss, jealousy, love,” said Cotton. “It’s not just something we learn theology from, important as that is; it actually affects the way we do life.”

He believes taking part in the handwritten Bible can be almost a meditative exercise that helps people experience the scriptures in a deeper way. To illustrate, Cotton recounted the true story of a man who walked in off the street to one of the Bible Society’s scriptoriums and ended up transcribing by hand the story of the Prodigal Son.

Cotton described how the man wrote little comments in the margins and left a contact address. When the Bible Society tried to follow up, people at the address said “there was some mistake and that the person couldn’t have possibly been their relative because he had left the family and had recently died.”

In fact there was no mistake. The family was sent the pages the man had transcribed with his personal notes. Cotton says they found comfort in the realization that before his death he had found a measure of peace in the story of the Prodigal Son.

“Here is a book that speaks about the very stuff of life,” said Cotton. ”Whatever we (Christians) do every day, we should do through the lens of scripture. That’s who we are.”

Kathleen LaCamera is a freelance journalist who also works as a hospital and mental health chaplain in Britain’s national health service. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.

Denominational Direction: Does the Call to Action lead the way?

The Good, The Bad, and The Unfortunate

By Rob Renfroe

Two years of study and $500,000 later, the verdict is in. The United Methodist Church is in trouble. That’s the conclusion of the Call to Action report that has begun to dominate discussions about the future of the people called Methodist in the United States.

Of course, the committee’s findings are no surprise. Since 1968, we have lost three million members and during that same period the number of churches in the United States has fallen from 41,901 to 33,583.

The Good. Believe it or not, the Call to Action report is good news. The numbers it reports are not; but the fact that our leaders are taking the bad news seriously—that is a welcomed change.

Previously, many of our institutional leaders were either in denial about how sick the UM Church had become or actually championed the loss of members as indicative that United Methodists were being particularly faithful to the Gospel. The idea that healthy organizations grow in strength and in numbers did not seem to register—nor did the idea that just maybe the Gospel of Jesus Christ winsomely presented still has the power to attract and convert those who are lost, hurting, and in need of God.

But after 40 years of continual decline since the merger that formed the United Methodist Church (there has never been a single year during that period when the UM Church has reported an increase in membership) the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table called for a study to address our problems. And the promise was that there will be action to follow.

All of that is good news.

Also good is the report’s emphasis that vitality will not be created by UM boards and agencies, but by local churches doing effective work. In other words, our boards exist to serve the needs of our local congregations, not vice versa. (Sadly, the report does not contain a serious discussion of reducing apportionments so that our churches are able to hire staff and fund ministries that would allow them to do more of the work required to be truly effective in making disciples and reaching the lost.)

Another positive point was the report’s honest admission that the people in the pew find it difficult to trust the denomination’s hierarchy. No institution can be effective if persons on the ground and in the trenches do not have full faith in their leaders.

Again, this finding is not surprising. When, for example, 36 bishops call for the church to change its biblical and gracious statement on homosexual practice as they did recently; when the Board of Church and Society lobbies for a healthcare bill that at the time included federal funding for abortion and along with the United Methodist Women has partnered with the RCRC, which works to make all abortions legal, including partial birth abortions and abortions for the purpose of gender selection; when an official UM seminary (Claremont) proudly announces that its students, preparing to pastor UM congregations, will have the opportunity to train under Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, and Buddhist priests—and when we know that our apportionments will be used to fund all of these endeavors and the salaries of those who promote them—it’s no wonder that there is a very real disconnect between the people in the local church who pay the bills and those who misuse their trust.

One last positive to mention is the report’s call for our bishops to take more authority in holding accountable our churches, pastors, and boards and agencies for effective ministry. Every organization needs structures in place that will not allow poor performance to go unchecked.
But here’s the question: Are the people who have been our leaders during the past four decades of decline the right people to turn this ship around?

I am privileged to know several of our bishops and I can honestly say that some of them are superb leaders. I would gladly trust them with the future of the UM Church. However, their number is small. We did not arrive at this point of crisis because we had many great leaders who were hamstrung by our structures. We are where we are because we have had poor leadership in the past by the majority of our leaders.

Leadership makes the difference in every organization. Long-term success can be traced back to effective leadership every time. And long-term failure is the result of poor leadership. We can only hope and pray that our most effective bishops will step forward and influence the other members of the Council and that our Jurisdictional Conferences will no longer elect bishops who represent anything other than a passion for the Gospel and an ability to lead the church.

The Bad. Hired to survey our leaders and our churches to determine what makes vital congregations and to recommend a way forward were two well-respected secular firms (Towers Watson and Apex) who work with major corporations. We can be thankful that companies with great credibility and objectivity were chosen as consultants.

Unfortunately, after reading their reports it is obvious that they were either not aware of or not tasked with delving into the deeper issues that in no small way are responsible for United Methodism’s sad decline. The official steering team report does not contain the word “theology;” neither does the Towers Watson report. Apex mentions “theology” but never as a significant concern that divides the denomination. The proverbial elephant in the living room is treated as no more important than a tiny mouse who lives out back in the corner of the barn.

Had leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition been interviewed during the study, I believe there may have been a different report. Every month I receive heartbreaking letters from faithful United Methodists asking me why their bishop would send them another preacher who doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world, or who has stated that he or she doesn’t believe in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, or who has declared that homosexuality is one of God’s good gifts just as is heterosexuality. These letters almost invariably announce that others have left that congregation. And often the writer states that he or she feels it is now time to do the same.

Yes, there is a problem, as the reports make clear, that our pastors are not as effective in preaching and leading as we wish they were. But most United Methodists would support and work with any pastor who would “preach Jesus” and love people.

The CTA report along with the Towers Watson and Apex studies make no mention that denominations that become so theologically liberal that they constantly debate the clear teachings of Scripture, or even deny what the Bible teaches altogether in a misguided attempt to remain relevant to the culture, always hemorrhage members—and the members they lose are those who have long done the work of and given sacrificially to our local churches. (Prime examples of this phenomenon are the Episcopal Church USA, the Presbyterian Church USA, and most recently the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)

It is hard to understand that a diagnosis of what ails the UM Church was not set in the context of the epidemic that is devastating most mainline churches. This oversight can only be explained by a decision not to report what might be controversial and upsetting to those who believe theology doesn’t matter or as the lack of awareness by two well-meaning firms who simply did not have the necessary background to do a thorough job.

The Unfortunate. Finally, the report focuses on structural change. That is understandable and somewhat commendable. Methodists have always valued helpful structures and accountability. In our heyday, we had a knack for “organizing to beat the devil” as one church historian put it.

Today, something like 60 million persons worldwide are part of the Wesleyan family and trace their spiritual roots to John Wesley. Only 60,000 persons are the organized heirs of George Whitefield, even though he was a more powerful and fruitful evangelist living at the same time as Wesley. A primary reason for the difference was John Wesley’s organizational genius and his insistence that believers, new and old, be in what today we would call accountability groups.

Structures matter. If anyone believes that, we Wesleyans do. But when the Lord took Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones and asked him “can these bones live,” the answer was not “yes, if we restructure them correctly.” The Lord said they would live again only when he put breath into them.

Amazingly, actually it’s shocking, missing in the CTA report and supporting documents is any mention of the work of the Spirit in the renewal of the church. One can’t expect Tower Watson or Apex to think in these terms, but the final report most certainly should have acknowledged that the renewal of the church and reaching the lost is spiritual work—even, according to Scripture, a spiritual battle. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, NKJV).

The Call to Action Report will become the focal point of a long and important conversation concerning the future of the UM Church. And those of us who are orthodox Christians can be most grateful for the acknowledgement that there is a problem and for the willingness of our bishops and other leaders to address it.

What we must do is point the church back to the centrality of Jesus as the only-begotten Son of God and the Savior of the World, and boldly declare the truth that God will not bless the UM Church because we have the right structures or better accountability, but only because we preach and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ as contained in the Scriptures—for it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16), and pray that God’s Spirit will make the most of this moment.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.

Denominational Direction: Does the Call to Action lead the way?

Effective Actions: Response to Dr. Hunter

By M. Kent Millard

I was one of the 20 people asked by the Council of Bishops to serve on the Call to Action Steering Team. I found it to be an extremely inspiring and encouraging experience.

Dr. George Hunter is absolutely right that the Call to Action report insists that the United Methodist connection exists for the local church and not vice versa. The local congregation is the central arena where God makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Therefore, all the other levels of the church should be evaluated on how well they enable and empower local congregations to fulfill this vision.

Consequently, the Call to Action group focused most of our attention on how to increase the number of highly vital United Methodist congregations in the United States. We used professional research organizations to comb through the statistical data we have on over 32,000 United Methodist congregations to determine the indicators of vitality in a congregation.

Based on the actual data we have, we determined that the pointers to vitality are growth in worship attendance, growth in membership, and growth in giving over a five-year period.

Based on these criteria we discovered that 5,500 or 17 percent of the United Methodist congregations in the United States are high in vitality as judged by growth in worship attendance, membership, and giving. We also discovered that about 26,700 or 83 percent of the United Methodist congregations in the United States have moderate or low vitality by these growth criteria.

Then we did further analysis of the 5,500 vital congregations to determine what factors enabled them to grow in vitality.

The Towers Watson researchers assessed 127 different variables about local congregations, which might account for their vitality. It was out of this extensive research that these four key drivers of vitality were discovered to be active in the vast majority of the 5,500 vital congregations:

1. Effective pastoral leadership including inspirational preaching and partnering well with laity in the leading of local congregations.
2. Large numbers of small groups of a wide variety especially multiple small groups for children and youth.
3. A mix of both traditional and contemporary worship experiences.
4. Effective and spiritually engaged lay leaders.

Through this widespread research method, we discovered that highly vital congregations were found in all parts of the United States, in all sizes of congregations, and with different theological perspectives.

This should be seen as good news for every congregation because every United Methodist pastor and church of every size in every part of the United States can become more vital by being more conscientious in improving their preaching, partnering well with effective lay leaders, starting more small groups especially for children and youth, and providing a variety of types of worship experiences.

Dr. Hunter maintains that there is always a strong connection between theology and vitality. However, the actual research among vital United Methodist congregations reveals that there are vital congregations that have different theological perspectives. The surprising thing to all of us is that God is at work among people with a different theology than our own!

For the past 40 years, the United Methodist Church has been mired in unending theological debates over many different issues. Perhaps by moving from theological debate to effective actions in local congregations, God might create more vital United Methodist congregations and use all of us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world regardless of whether or not we all agree with each other theologically.

Jesus reminds us to move from words to actions when he says: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

M. Kent Millard is the lead pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been a delegate or alternate delegate to six General Conferences of the United Methodist Church, is a member of the Large Church Initiative Committee, and serves on the United Methodist Church’s Global Health Initiative.

Denominational Direction: Does the Call to Action lead the way?

Prayer and Presence: Response to Dr. Hunter

By Terry Teykl

As I read Dr. George Hunter’s response to the Call to Action, I was once again impressed with the brilliance of this man. Years earlier, he was my preaching instructor at Perkins School of Theology. He was sharp then and even sharper now. Thank God his talents are at the disposal of Jesus—and that he serves in the United Methodist Church. Whatever he thinks about he covers all bases. My response takes up on two observations with regard to The Great Omissions in the Call to Action.

Hunter is correct in saying that vitality in any church is hard to achieve without prayer. In fact, from what I can find, prayer is not prominent in the Call to Action. And for me this a serious oversight from a biblical and Wesleyan standpoint.

Second, the importance of the Holy Spirit in evangelism is of upmost importance. The Holy Spirit is vitality to the Christian faith. The lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s role is, again, a critical omission.

For me to separate prayer and the Holy Spirit is not possible. One brings the other. The water and the faucet are uniquely related. As I have written and taught on prayer in the local church for 25 years, I know these to be the sources of church renewal and effectiveness. I have seen in hundreds of churches of all sizes the result of praying the price and experiencing God’s arrival. Revival is a matter of arrival, the arrival of God in a greater measure.

Services that are soaked in prayer—whether traditional or contemporary—are alive with God’s presence. And it is his presence that changes lives, heals brokenness, and brings people to the saving knowledge of Jesus. If anything the worship in a church needs to be “user friendly” to welcoming “The Presence.” In worship, we should be more concerned about pleasing him, and not them. Meeting early to pray, anointing the chairs, and praying behind the scenes are all components of vital worship.

Small groups that do not pray as their purpose are just depending on the resources that people can bring to the table. Prayer visibly announces that God is our source and the life of the group is in him. The first small group in the Upper Room bears witness to the power, vitality, and long- lasting effect on the church. The early Methodist Classes were replicas of the Upper Room in Acts 1 and 2.

Programs without a presence-based agenda run the danger of becoming “new carts” offering “strange fire” to afford short-term results that bear the pressure of becoming bigger and better to keep human interest.

Vitality in the pulpit is determined by a prayer force for the pastor’s preaching. I have found so much vitality in the South American church and the pastors there tell me, “It is what happens behind me that determines what happens in front of me in response to my preaching.” In sermon preparation, they spend 50 percent praying and the other 50 percent studying.

In addition, attendees who pray make great leaders who will pray about everything in the church. Research any vital leader and you will find a prayer closet where he or she is clothed and equipped on a regular basis.

The bottom line is that if there are “drivers,” there must be “One Driver” and that is the Holy Spirit. And prayer for us must not be the spare tire but the steering wheel for God’s touch. Without prayer we can say as Paul Morell always said, “We are just shifting the chairs on a sinking Titanic.”

Terry Teykl is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently under special appointment to Renewal Ministries in Houston, Texas. He is the author of numerous books including Pray the Price, Blueprint for the House of Prayer, Making Room to Pray, and The Presence Based Church.