By JJ Mannschreck —
As a millennial clergy in The United Methodist Church, I have joined several Facebook groups designed for ministers. Some of the groups are for a specific area or region. There’s even one for each side of the theological spectrum (a progressive clergy group and one for traditionalist clergy). These groups can be a wonderful way to connect and share celebrations and burdens, ask questions, and collaborate with resources.
One day I got a notification that a fellow clergy had posted in one of these groups. I clicked on the post and saw that it was an advertisement inviting people to attend his church’s Sunday morning services.
Obviously posting an invitation to Sunday worship in a clergy group is a silly thing to do. After all, 100 percent of those people have somewhere to be on a Sunday morning. I chuckled at the time and rolled my eyes. But the posts kept coming. Every week, clergy were advertising their Sunday services to one another. After the third or fourth time, I reached out to the clergy. I tried to kindly explain that he was sending these messages in vain because he was aiming at the wrong target audience. You don’t need to reach people who are already in church. Our mission of evangelism is to reach the unchurched and tell them about Jesus.
He reassured me that it was not an accident and that these were the most likely people to respond to his post. I found it absolutely baffling. This is the digital equivalent to posting service times on the wall inside the church instead of posting them on the sign outside! It completely forgets our actual calling as pastors. Our job is to create disciples of Jesus Christ, not shuffle them from one building to another. But then I realized that this illustrates a larger problem in the UM Church.
Going back decades now, United Methodism long abandoned the practice of evangelism. We have simply forgotten what it looks and feels like to tell someone – who does not know – about Jesus Christ. I have had people tell me that evangelism feels mean. It’s quite rude to imply that someone’s beliefs could be wrong, and that Jesus is the only way to heaven. I hear things like, “Well, church works for me. But I know it just wouldn’t connect for my friends.”
In the contemporary church, our growth model comes almost exclusively by attracting members from other churches. On a practical level, our entire outreach strategy is to simply be nicer than the other churches in town. If you think the Catholic Church is being mean because of their communion standards, come on over to the Methodists. We have an open table. If the Baptists are talking too much about hell, come on over to the Methodists. We barely mention it.
There is a formula to our outreach and it goes like this: If those mean old [insert denomination] are making you feel bad because of [insert theological position], well you just come on over the Methodists. We don’t have any standards!
The pool from which we draw new people consists of those who have already been discipled by a different church, and we have made a name for ourselves by gathering those rejected by other denominations. We gather the leftovers of other churches, because we do not know how to plant the seeds ourselves.
Actually, I am proud of the way United Methodism has created a space of kindness and healing for those who have been hurt by the church. This is a good thing, and we should continue those efforts. There is so much brokenness in the church, in every denomination. If the UM Church can be a part of the healing process for even one person, that is worth working towards.
My concern for the future, however, is that we have forgotten how to do anything else! The mission of the church is to create disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and of course, that phrasing is just a Methodist twist on Jesus’ instructions in the Great Commission. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Unfortunately, when I look around at the church today, I would say we do not believe it is a Great Commission. In fact, it feels like a Forgotten Commission. Teaching people who don’t know Jesus about him is an essential piece of our mission. We will have to relearn that skill if we want our church to thrive.
Too many of us, both progressive and traditionalist, are eager to get to the other side of this current disagreement so we can get back to being the nicest church in town. The process of drawing people from other churches is not a sustainable system. Fifty years ago it worked because even if someone didn’t go to church – they probably grew up in the church. We didn’t need to teach them the basics, because they’d at least gotten that much from their childhood. The migration from one unhealthy church to another was cause for eye rolling and head shaking, but leadership mostly shrugged it off. Over the years it has become the only method of growth for too many of us.
It’s a very different world out there now. There are entire generations who have grown up outside the church, and they have never heard the gospel – not even the kid version. We need to be able to answer the question: Why should I follow Jesus instead of these other religions? Why should I have any religion in my life at all? Our churches will not grow unless we relearn how to share the love of Jesus with those who have never heard of him.
The Global Methodist Church’s first big initiative will be planting new churches and reclaiming our Wesleyan roots of evangelism. At the same time, the UM Council of Bishops appears to be jockeying to hold on to as many congregations and buildings as possible. One group is planning for a new future, and the other is spending all of its energy in the present trying to hold on to the resources of the past. And that’s the difference.
JJ Mannschreck is Lead Pastor of Flushing United Methodist Church, in Flushing, Michigan. Photo: Jon Tyson, Unsplash.