The Local Church & the Challenge of Renewal

For my church folks – this is another post dealing with the issues facing the church in general. I think everyone should be in this conversation, but so you know, this is not a short reflection. It’s really more Mike’s Manifesto than Mike’s Musing. Read it at my own risk!

The United Methodist Church (UMC) continues to seek ways to regain a sense of vitality in our local churches. I believe, at our core, we long to have a church that is impacting lives and communities with the love and grace of God. I believe our heart’s desire is to see more people engaged in the new life Jesus has for everyone who accepts that gift (what I like to call “life at its very best”). To that end, the UMC had a webcast conversation on April 6th. There were many people gathered at various locations watching and many, like me, who logged on at home. The webcast presenters included men and women, young and old, bishops, pastors, and laity (the lack of significant racial and global diversity has been a point of contention). If you want to see more you can go click here and watch the webcast. Or go to these blogs to see some analysis: “Hacking Christianity” and “Missional Orientation” – these are two that give some insight into what was good and what was lacking. If you are on Twitter, search hastag: #umclead to see tweets sent during and just after the webcast.

I hold to a similar opinion as many others – there was far too much emphasis on numbers and statistics and accountability, and little on spiritual health, greater allegiance to the gospel, or even a mention of Jesus. It is the institution striving to make the institution stronger, but seemingly at the cost of truly building the Kingdom. One difficulty of this process is that it is once again top-down driven (the church higher-ups telling the local churches the best things to do). I believe the more significant renewal will only come from the bottom up. Change can best happen through a grassroots effort where churches decide to take on the vision of serving God’s purpose, even more so than the challenge of growing the church.

Having said all that, grassroots efforts are not easily ignited (but once they are, the resulting fire is virtually unstoppable). One of the key figures in this renewal effort is the local church pastor (and others like campus ministers). The top-down effort sees the local church pastor as needing more accountability and better tools for measuring their local church ministry. The grassroots people (mostly pastors) see the local church pastors as needing more training and support for implementing local vision initiatives.

I agree that local church pastors are the key to renewal in the UMC. They (we) are called to expend our energy equipping the local followers of Jesus to live into, and live out of, the vision God has for His Kingdom – the Kingdom we pray will come. The problem is that this great effort is hindered by various obstacles facing the local church pastors. Below you will find several hurdles that come to my mind very quickly. The answer, as always, is Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit he gives to us – power we must rely upon if we are to overcome these challenges.

Obstacles local church pastors face in the work of church renewal

Salary/ family needs & concerns
I do not believe, as some do, that preachers these days are looking for a comfortable salary or pursuing bigger appointments for the sake of a salary. I do believe we all want to take care of our families and provide a stable life and future for our children. I saw this Facebook post on a UMC preacher’s discussion page:

“[I] taught several course of study classes [to preachers not yet ordained but serving local churches, both part time and full time]. The people I have in my classes can probably turn around churches that seminary-trained clergy are too good to touch, simply because they love Jesus and they don’t know they’re not supposed to be able to do it. Of course, they can’t . . . but God can.”

The comment that seminary-trained, fully ordained clergy feel they are “too good” is unfair. However, it could easily be that they are so burdened with seminary debts and the needs of family that serving smaller struggling churches would be a hardship for them. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, it just means it can be hard to make that choice.

The reality is that many of us who serve local churches are nervous, even fearful of not giving our families a life similar to the ones enjoyed by those in our churches. It’s hard to ask your children to do with little when their friends, cousins, and others have more. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, just means it’s hard. And yet, I would say that the financial stability of our family is not an unreasonable priority. And that leads to the next obstacle.

Church stability / finances
One of the underlying issues in the challenge of renewing the United Methodist Church is the desire to strengthen the financial resources of the church as a whole. As local church pastors we are asked to make certain our churches are paying their fair share of the overall financial needs of the global church. Again, not unreasonable, but difficult to do while at the same time trying to implement real change in a declining church environment. If you take a church that has nominal Christians who are more inwardly focused and you preach the need to be outwardly focused, you face not only opposition by voice but opposition by feet – people begin leaving the church. That will impact finances, which impacts the stability of the local church, possibly impacts the pastor and family, and certainly impacts the payout to the global church.

In just about every story of  successful local church renewal and revitalization I have come across there has been an exodus of people who were not ready for the changes being implemented.  These are the ones who liked their church “as is” and didn’t want all these new things and new ideas. More than losing membership we are most likely going to lose money. And that’s a challenge at all levels. There are bills to be paid and ministry to be resourced. Secondarily, the “top” of the church is measuring effectiveness by our overall giving. To implement real renewal with this challenge in front of us is hard

Reputation /conference standing
The first two challenges factor into this last one, but this one falls mostly on the shoulders of the pastors. We must be willing to get a bad reputation and to lose a bit of our standing in the Annual Conference. Sometimes our desire to affirm the “top-down” processes for the sake of staying in favor becomes an impediment to our work of renewal. It’s not an issue that needs great explanation – the Bishops and District Superintendents should be respected, but not feared (what they intend for evil – if they do – God can use for good). If we’re more concerned about how our appointments will be handled than we are about seeing the Kingdom of God become a reality in and through our churches, renewal will never take place.

We must begin speaking up for what we believe needs to change and stop worrying about how we are perceived by higher ups. We must also be willing to do more than just throw out criticism, we must begin to do what God wants us to do where we are – even if it means losing the favor of others. The Twitter-verse conversation during the CTA webcast spoke to “grassroots” not “top-down” work – are we ready to really take that on in a real way? If we disagree with the metrics and “dashboard” measurements, are we willing to do what needs to be done regardless of how we look on paper? It appears we want to implement real change, but at the same time cannot bring ourselves to not meet the expectations imposed upon us. If that’s not an issue of fear regarding our reputation and standing then tell me what it is. I’ll say it one more time – it’s not easy, but it is necessary.

This list is not exhaustive and the explanations could be fleshed out a good bit more, but I think it is a good beginning to looking at and naming the challenges we face. Those reading this may either disagree or have a whole other list. But the fact remains, if a grassroots effort is ever going to happen we will either need to find ways to address these issues or find the boldness to move forward in spite of them. We cannot wait for the institutional leaders to “get it”.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

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9 responses to “The Local Church & the Challenge of Renewal

  1. Thanks Mike; renewal / revival happens in one person at a time and is usually anchored in a local community of believers. A community of believers that through the power of the Spirit becomes an incendiary fellowship, to use Trueblood’s phrase.

    I believe the financial / stewardship barriers you mention are really symptoms of a chronic absence of life-changing discipleship. Serious barriers to be sure; but not really about money.

    • John, I agree it is about more than money. And you are right – we have a “chronic absence of life-changing discipleship.” What I hear among my colleagues is a desire to see more discipleship and less institutionalism. My hope is to see the conversation move from one of hand-wringing and head shaking to one of supporting and encouraging and living into REAL change that only begins at a local level. I think naming the barriers is a way to take measure of our heart, as local church pastors, in regard to leading and encouraging change and not just institutional survival.

    • Amen to that, John!

      A further obstacle I see could be described as conflicting and unrealistic expectations of the pastor’s role, help by pastor, local church members, and conference leadership. Am I a spiritual leader, a feel-good hand-holder, a paper pusher, a teacher, an administrator, a chaplain, a therapist, a prophet….? The answer is of course yes. But not all at once, and not in equal measure. Being true to the things to which I feel called (prophet, spiritual leader, teacher), means risking letting down others’ expectations of me in other areas sometimes.

      Thanks for some great framing on this conversation, Mike.

      Peace, Becca

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for sharing your take on these things. As one of those your congregation supports through the General Church apportionment, thanks for the faithfulness you display to supporting our partnership in ministry as well.

    I think you have named the challenge very well– congregations tend not to be very outwardly focused, almost de facto, and perhaps focused on what you and John describe as “life changing discipleship” even less.

    For me the answer isn’t “grassroots up” only. It is also institutional. And partly for the reasons you cite. John and Charles Wesley gave up trying to make congregations full of semi-interested attenders change their ways as congregational systems. What he started was outside of congregations though it also required its participants to remain connected with congregations. The Methodist societies, bands, and especially class meetings were designed not to be congregations, but to be fully about the business of “life-changing discipleship” ALONGSIDE what congregations were doing that also, though more or less incidentally, supported that purpose.

    So my sense is where we need the grassroots work to focus may be less on congregations– at least initially– and much more on developing these groups of folks ALONGSIDE congregations who are deeply interested in and committed to full-on discipleship to Jesus.

    I do think you’re right that pastors may be an important starting place for this grassroots effort, though not the only one. I think many of us in the pastorate experienced in our call much more of a commitment to personal discipleship to Jesus (holiness of heart and life, as Wesley put it) and helping others find that for their own lives than the institutional demands of congregational leadership actually enable us to experience in our work in the pastoral office. We find we have many other things we have to do that inevitably divert us from the work of discipling others in the way of Jesus. It is all good work, and even necessary for our congregations to do what they’re designed to do, but it is not what some of us may have thought we were signing up for.

    It is primarily institutional work. And the institution called the congregation has not had discipling for all its participants at its center since the late 4th century. That function– formerly called the catechumenate, a three year intensive process of learning the way of Jesus– got re-located or outsourced, if you will, to preparation for ordained ministry or life in a monastic community. If you wanted life-changing discipling to be part of your own life, the local congregation was no longer the community you could or should count on to deliver that.

    Congregational structures from that time forward have focused on the public worship of God, teaching some basic Christian doctrine (enough for folks to get by on), some sort of way of caring for each other, and being a reliable institutional player and partner in the local community. All four of those things are good, and they are vital support systems for life-changing discipleship. But they did not generate it well or often. (Think “Toonces the Driving Cat”). And they still don’t. They’re simply not up to that task.

    That’s why the Wesleys– both of them scholars of church history– gave up on trying to change congregations. It was like kicking one’s feet on thee goads, or banging one’s head on a brick wall. 1300 plus years of congregational life not focused or centered on discipling all its participants was not going to change overnight. That’s why the Wesleys focused instead on working with people of whatever congregations or denominations who were serious about “fleeing from the wrath to come” and “being saved from their sins.”

    As I do presentations on missional Methodism around the UMC, I usually begin in the same way. I ask people to remember a time in their life when their discipleship to Jesus deepened dramatically. I give them time to share these stories around tables. Then I ask “For how many of you did the story you just shared happen outside a congregation.” The smallest percentage of hands that have gone up– this was in a group of nearly all clergy– was 2/3. Then I ask “For how many of you did this happen in a congregation.” The last time I did this, in a room of lay speakers, only 2 hands out of 45 participants went up.

    There are plenty of people who are hungry for life-changing discipleship. The vast majority of them, and particularly the laity, find this outside the life of a congregation. That’s not saying congregations are missing the boat completely. It’s really only saying that folks have figured out that congregations per se aren’t the primary venue for discipling people well in the way of Jesus, and many other kinds of groups– Emmaus, Twelve-Step, Habitat, Bible Study Fellowship, Order of Saint Luke chapters, campus ministries, mission projects outside the local congregation– tend to do this far better.

    So perhaps the institutional challenge now isn’t about trying to turn our congregations into “core discipling units”– something they’re not well equipped or expecting to do or be– but rather to be satisfied doing the four things congregations can do well and then referring folks to other groups– some of which we may also create– where life-changing discipling in the way of Jesus is far more likely to happen because that’s what those groups are designed to do best.

    It’s about seeing the church not as a congregation, but as a network of formats of Christian community, each doing its own kinds of work well, and linking folks to other formats of Christian community that can do other things better.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards
    Director of Worship Resources
    The General Board of Discipleship

    • Taylor – thanks for a very thoughtful and well delivered response. The four things you note as the focus of congregational structures are spot on. That is who we are. The idea that this is who we should be as churches is an interesting one – I’ll have to digest it a bit more. As one who felt called into the ministry because I was compelled to help others know Jesus Christ in a real and life-changing way, this idea makes me wonder. Also, if what you say is correct, then the work of renewal would not be about the UMC but about the Kingdom – and that I can agree with. It is not to say the UMC would not be renewed and transformed, but whether or not it happens becomes secondary.

      Thanks again for the response. I will be re-reading it and chewing on it some more.

      Grace and peace to you.

  3. Mike,

    I don’t propose that congregations have to remain what they are. Certainly they changed dramatically from what they had been before 375 when they became THE public format of the Christian faith which was now THE public religion of the Roman Empire. I have no doubt that it would be possible for a similarly seismic change to occur again– perhaps an outlawing of Christian worship assemblies, or something of that sort, that would actively remove Christianity from the public places it still occupies, even if less prominently (politically) than it once had in the West.

    What I am proposing is that minus such a seismic if not cataclysmic shift, the sort of “organizational physics” of the matter is that congregations, as organizations, aren’t set up for discipling all full participants in any serious way, and there’s more than enough “institutional inertia” around that reality to make efforts to add that into the mix directly ineffective and unsustainable for the long term.

    Alan Roxburgh documents how one congregation has been working at changing its DNA from within toward discipling people well in his book “Missional Mapmaking” (a book I highly recommend, by the way). What he also notes there is this kind of process takes at least 12 years to get to any level of significant organizational change. Our system isn’t set up to support very many 12 year pastorates, much less longer ones.

    So what I think really can work for us, and on a quicker time scale, is the sort of “symbiotic” relationship between something like Methodist societies (including class meetings and other kinds of groups) and congregations. I think this can work because for 50 years or so it did work in England and what would become the USA.

    I don’t propose this be organized identically to what the Wesleys did, but I do think the basic premises of what they laid out worked and could work again– in part because they are working now in Africa, especially.

    For Wesley, connexion meant what I describe as “church as network.” It didn’t mean bureaucracies. It didn’t mean apportionments. It meant recognizing who could do what work best and creating partnerships so each could do that both freely and accountably without any seeking to control the others.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor

  4. Taylor/Mike –

    I hesitate to comment but feel compelled to do so. The idea that a 12 year transitional period for internal congregational renewal seems to me to be a rather peculiar number assigned by a particular form of missional ministry born of the (assumed) prayer and efforts of Alan Roxburgh, with whom I am not familiar and therefore do not presume to know anything about what he is doing or documenting. The ideas sound wonderful, but to change the DNA of the local church over a 12 year period sounds like something akin to survival of the fittest, not the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the growth of the Kingdom in the local church.

    To be sure, there are many who walk away from churches when the call comes for life-changing discipleship, but we assume too much when we think a local church cannot survive and even thrive following the departure of some. People in our congregations long to know God, which is precisely why they participate in outside ministries. It is not that the local church cannot offer life-changing discipleship, but rather, that it has not done so in many decades. If it were necessary to return to pre-Constantinian persecution for the church to revive, then such a revival would not have occurred through the Wesley’s. Yes, they came alongside congregations, but they did so primarily because the Church of England was ill-prepared to meet the sudden industrialization influx of rural people to the city where parishes were fixed and unchangeable. The institution was slow to respond to the rapidly changing needs of parishes at the time, creating the need to which John and Charles Wesley responded faithfully. Had the Church of England adapted rapidly, providing more priests and greater fluidity in parish boundaries, the Wesleys’ work might well have been done within the local congregations themselves rather than externally to them, and today we would all be Anglicans. The sluggishness of the institution in response to the changing demographic is the root of the split from Anglicanism. I don’t think we can confuse the conditions which gave rise to Methodism with the need for external discipling opportunities. While some of these are excellent resources for the local church, not all are.
    The institution is not without merit because certainly we can do more with more together, but we make a mistake when we write off the local church to self-service and survival because transformation is costly for local pastors – seminary trained or otherwise – and most especially costly for a top-heavy and sluggish in response to the reality on the ground. To suggest that the church is not equipped to be the “core discipling unit” – and should not even try to be – denies the fundamental human longing for God alone. Many of these people are in the pews wishing they could believe there is more to Christianity than we are willing to offer them.

    While I by no means disagree with the advantages of a connectional “network,” the facts remain much as Mike described them, placing pastors in a position of fear between transforming churches and communities by the power of the Spirit of Christ and meeting the demands of the connectional network. I am all for institutional change, but the changes most needed in the institution are not additional extra-congregational venues for discipling. That is essentially leaving the UMC behind as Methodism once left the Church of England behind. Rather, as Mike suggested, the focus of institution needs to swing from survival of the institution to the growth of the Kingdom of God on earth.

    As an institution, we do not know what we believe and thus run from one new ministry idea or form to another. At an institutional level, we do not agree with one another on what the Gospel is, much less on how it ought to be spread. To try to salvage the declining western church by depending upon change and flexibility in the institution is futile. Our bishops, boards, and agencies often seem woefully out of touch with the people in the pews. The church is nothing more and nothing less than the gathering of the faithful with the Holy Spirit. Everything the institution is and does ought to be in service to those community units that constitute “the church.”

    From what I read, I appreciate your fervor and commitment, yet I cannot go so far as to agree that the church cannot become the “core discipling unit” when that is its primary reason for existence, second only to the worship of the Holy Trinity. What Mike noted was the need to relieve the pressure from the institution on pastors so that pastors might withstand the difficult transition needed for renewal and revitalization in the local church. More institution, however well-intended, cannot possibly be the correct answer. I am not suggesting the dismantling of the institution. Quite the contrary. Transformation in the institution so that it becomes responsive and facilitates and supports change in the local church is greatly needed.

    We can’t just say that, because a complacent people abandon a church in transition to service to the Kingdom rather than the UMC, the church should not become the “core discipling unit.” That’s like saying none of the other people there desire Christ, nor want a vital church that glorifies Christ, makes disciples, and responds to the Spirit.

    I could go on, but I’m sure I’ve already said too much… I’m bad about that. While some external ministries serve the local church in great ways, we cannot just abandon the local church to the doldrums because internal change is difficult. A church that demands little of the people draws people who want little demanded of them. When they leave and take their pledge with them, the pastor is in a bit of pickle at that point. Yet, what remains is a people hungry to be discipled in their church home and to live a vibrant, obedient, and faithful Christian life.

    In Christ –
    Elizabeth Moreau

    • Elizabeth,
      As always, I appreciate your response. My take on Taylor’s response was not a willingness to abandon but the possibility of renewal from ministry partners who come alongside congregations that are mired in the stuckness that has become Methodism. I don’t go quite as far in my view of the local church, but Taylor has valid arguments. At the same time, I know your passion for renewal and resuscitation of those within the church and I support it and encourage it and believe in it. I see it as both/and rather than either/or.

      As to what I was trying to say, I’m not sure I was clear. The issue for me is not getting the institution to relax and relieve pressure on the local church pastors, it was a call to local pastors to acknowledge the obstacles we face and which we often allow to hinder our work of making disciples and partnering with God to usher in the Kingdom. The institution will continue to seek to preserve itself while we shake our heads and proclaim how they got it wrong. We will shake our heads and criticize even as we give the institution everything they ask of us. My belief is we need to stop shaking our heads and start working for renewal from the best place it can happen – the local church (and I’ll be okay to get help from para-organizations).

      Blessings,
      Mike

  5. Pingback: The Local Church & the Challenge of Renewal | Mike's Monday … – Church Ministry News

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