198. We See a New Church

I recently spoke with some Bishops and members of the Interim Operations Team who are giving direction to the Call to Action.   Often I return from meetings with a low-grade depression, the discussions confirming the intransigence of the church and the hopelessness of reversing the downward trends that challenge our mission.  Not so with this meeting!

As I listened to some of our most creative leaders, I felt a more profound hope than I have in a long time.  There’s a growing consensus of vision and future that I find compelling.

We see a new church, a church that is clear about its mission and confident about its future, a church that is relevant, reaching out, inviting, alive, agile, and resilient.  We see a church that is hopeful, passionate, nimble, called of God, outward-focused, courageous.

Where do we see this new church?  It is not yet, and it is not everywhere; nevertheless, there are a thousand signs of its emerging.

We see signs of this new church in those congregations that are thriving, those pockets of excellence that have managed to buck the trends to reach younger generations, to extend the ministry of Christ into unexpected places.

During recent months I’ve preached in rural congregations led by local pastors and lay ministers that have doubled in attendance, started outreach ministries that change lives, and welcomed new people even from areas with declining population.  I’ve celebrated the merger of urban churches in creative ways we wouldn’t have thought possible five years ago, combining the excellent and passionate work of growing congregations with strategic facilities to reach neighborhoods afresh.  I’ve shouted with joy at the success of new congregational starts in African American and Hispanic neighborhoods.  I’ve been humbled by the courage and vision of several long-established congregations who have opened themselves to deep and risky transformation.  Many congregations are reappraising their mission, making hard choices, and realigning their resources toward more vigorous, fruitful, outward-focused ministry.  I’m moved by the number of pastors who voluntarily join continual learning communities, delving more deeply into the dynamics of congregations and the theology of mission, and learning skills to reach new people.

Are these changes affecting every congregation?  No.  And yet every conference has congregations that are thriving, pastors willing to teach others, and laypersons with the passion to learn, change, and initiate ministry.   We see a new church, with signs evident in church starts, unexpected mergers, experiments with second sites, transformed congregations, gifted young people entering ministry, creative initiatives, and risk-taking outreach.

And we see a new church shaping Annual Conferences, a serious refocusing after decades of restructuring committees and reshuffling staff.  Through much experimentation, several annual conferences truly realign their resources toward their mission.  They lead congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ because they know that congregations do not exist to serve conferences, but conferences exist to cultivate ministries in congregations and communities.  Many conferences take excellence, fruitfulness, and accountability seriously in bold new ways.  They radically streamline operations, reevaluate the role of superintendent ministry,  focus the appointment system on the mission field, and rethink standards for ministry with attention to fruitfulness.  I’m profoundly hopeful when I see some conferences redirect the flow of energy, attention, and resources toward increasing the number of fruitful congregations. We can learn from them.

And we see a new church emerging at the General Church.   Several general agencies are voluntarily and unilaterally reducing their size and streamlining their operations.  Ideas now abound about merging, consolidating, cooperating, removing redundancies, reducing costs, and most importantly, focusing on the mission of Christ particularly through congregations.  Conversations taking place now would not have been possible a few years ago.  Suggestions about a unified governance structure that focuses outwardly on the mission, forces future-oriented thinking, reconnects the local church to the general ministries, and increases accountability—these plans give me hope.

And there is a new and growing spirit in the Council of Bishops.  The unanimous adoption of the Call to Action with its sustained focus on congregational vitality, the willingness of the Council to confront some of the internal issues that have hampered it in the past, the openness to evaluation, and the development of learning communities within the Council—these give me hope as well.

The Call to Action invites United Methodists to ten years of sustained attention to congregational vitality, a focus on leadership development (rethinking systems for clergy recruitment, preparation, training, support, deployment, and accountability), realigning boards and agencies in a way that supports our mission in today’s contexts, and reworking the Council of Bishops.  All the recommendations are intended to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. These are significant undertakings, and I wrestle with my own cynicism about how we shall achieve them.   My impatience feeds a sense of exasperation with the pace of change.

And yet there are many signs of hope.   Picture in your mind a heat map, where clusters of fruitful ministry activity are lighted against a dark background with the most fruitful and vital ministries shining brightest.  The heat map of the United Methodist Church would allow us to see bright spots in unexpected places, concentrations of vital ministry and congregations that are thriving.  Some would be in urban areas, some in the suburbs, and some in the most isolated of rural counties.  Africa would be aglow with congregational vitality and mission partnerships, but also the map would draw our attention to an exceptional campus ministry in one area and to a courageous witness for the homeless in another. A flourishing traditional church would light up near a dynamic merger.  Some conferences and seminaries and foundations and agencies would glow brighter as they risk genuine innovation to realign with the mission. Lights here and there, bright spots appear in places we never expected.

The Interim Operations Team offers extraordinary recommendations.  Some of them stretch us uncomfortably, and some don’t go far enough.  The IOT report contains thousands of details for us to argue over if we choose to do so.  Or we can look at the big picture, the change in culture and process that redirects the flow toward vital congregations.

We see a new church, and there are signs of it here and there in congregations, conferences, agencies, and at the Council.  Something is happening in our church. The Spirit that blows where it will is creating openings for conversation and for a way forward with faithfulness.  The way things have been is not the way they will be.  And this gives me hope.

Yours in Christ,

Robert Schnase