In preparation for General Conference, the current Circuit Rider magazine (Feb/Mar/Apr ’08) has a series of articles about the global nature of the church. I enjoyed reading the diverse perspectives, but was particularly struck by a single sentence in the article by Lyle Schaller. Schaller has a way of wording things sometimes that causes one to stop and rethink an issue. His choice of words sent me reeling a hundred different directions away from his original point and stimulated me to thinking anew about some things.
Schaller restates the declining stats from the US church over the last several decades and contrasts these to the growing numbers of African United Methodist congregations and members during the same period. Then he asks us to consider whether we should place these two contrasting experiences and trends under one organizational umbrella. In doing this he describes the difference between “conferences that have been withdrawing from the parish ministry for four decades and conferences that have been expanding their role in parish ministry.”
Wow. What do you think about the description of US United Methodism as “withdrawing from the parish ministry for four decades?” The choice of words is jarring, but perhaps insightful. Imagine that in the early 1960’s, the General Conference, bishops, DS’s, pastors and laity voted that is was time to “withdraw from parish ministry” and to put our resources and focus elsewhere. What would we have done? We would have stopped starting new congregations, begun to close thousands of churches, moved resources and personnel away from congregations and into conference offices, agencies, and boards. We would have neglected training, reduced evangelism efforts, stopped buying property. We would have doneÖwellÖ.exactly what we did do!
We never actually made the decision to withdraw from parish ministry. To do so explicitly would be ludicrous, like American Airlines deciding to withdraw from using planes and from training pilots. But by a few decisions each year, we shifted focus just a few degrees here and there, and we ended up with an organization that gives little attention to the starting, strengthening, cultivating, retooling, reinvigorating, repairing, renewing, and expanding congregations.
I think that one of the reasons that Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations has been so well-received by pastors and laity in all sizes and contexts of congregations is that the book lifts high the absolute central importance of vibrant, strong, fruitful congregations in fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ. In its own modest way, the book says, “Let’s expand our role in parish ministries again.” All our other ministries – social witness, agency work, medical and educational work, ministry with the poor and the outcast and the imprisoned – all will be weak and will eventually decline if our congregations continue to weaken and decline and close.
We cannot continue “to withdraw from parish ministry” as Schaller describes it, and fulfill our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We’ve got to invest in congregations, engage congregations, learn from strong and vital congregations, experiment and risk with congregations, network among congregations, and start congregations in all kinds of contexts and settings if we are to fulfill our purpose given us in Christ.
Yours in Christ,