“The Future of The United Methodist Church”

I picked up a copy of The Future of the United Methodist Church: 7 Vision Pathways at annual conference and read it a couple of weeks ago. The book is edited by Bishops Scott jones and Bruce Ough with contributions from eight other bishops.

In a previous post, I listed 4 Talking Points about United Methodists, which the book expands on. The “four areas of focus” come from the “seven pathways” (for simplification, apparently), as follows.

Focus Area 1: People: Creating New Places for New People by Starting Congregations and Renewing Existing Ones
Path 1: Planting New Congregations
Path 2: Transforming Existing Congregations

Focus Area 2: Leaders: Developing Principled Christian Leaders for the Church and the World
Path 3: Teaching the United Methodist Way
Path 4: Strengthening Clergy and Lay Leadership

Focus Area 3: Poverty: Engaging in Ministry with the Poor
Path 5: Children and Poverty
Path 6: Expanding Racial/Ethnic Ministries

Focus Area 4: Health: Stamping out Killer Diseases by Improving Health Globally
Path 7: Eliminating Poverty by Stamping out Disease

This framework is an attempt to help the UMC live out its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Bishop Gregory Palmer writes …

No matter how well stated the mission of any movement or organization, it must also have a way to be embodied (ix).

The beginning of the book talks about the state of the church. Bishop Palmer laments …

… our United Methodist internal struggles are diminishing our capacity to offer hope for the world (xvii).

The editors note that the UMC has tremendous assets, specifically …

… there are United Methodist congregations in more than 95 percent of the counties in the United States … But too many of them are declining (2).

A key point in turning around the declining denomination is clarifying and recommitting to our God-given mission. Bishop G. Lindsay Davis uplifts the value of reaching unchurched people, a task he says we have been “neglecting,” writing …

Clearly reaching out to more than 195 million unchurched people in the United Stated must be a priority again for us. In fact, many of us believe it is the number one priority (4).

Bishop David provides a lot of good content on church planting and the kind of leaders needed to plant them. Bishop Robert Schnase, author of Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (which we’ve written several posts about), writes the chapter on transforming existing congregations. While transforming churches is no easy task, and “There are no easy answers, quick fixes, or simple formulas” (31), Bishop Schnase reminds leaders, “Transforming existing congregations is possible” (19).

Bishop Schnase discusses the role of the church …

As we grow in grace and develop our interior life (what Wesley calls ‘inner holiness’), we discern the call of God prompting us to make a positive difference in the lives of others through service, mission, and generosity. … By God’s grace, we are a changed people seeking to change the lives of others and thereby transform the world. (20)

Bishop Schnase contends that leaders who transform congregations …

… know that the principal mission field is ‘out there’ and not ‘in here’ (24).

Bishop Schnase offers several points of description about churches that experience transformation. One point is that each church …

… has experienced a radical change of attitude, a new clarity of mission, and a taste for excellence; and they follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit toward the fulfillment of that mission wherever it leads (24).

Bishop Schnase also discusses the role of the conference in renewing existing churches. He observes …

… conferences that promote transformation foster a culture of learning. The greatest difference between declining congregations and those that are growing in fruitfulness is their attitude toward learning. Thriving churches develop a culture of learning. (26)

Focus Area 2 deals more specifically with leadership. Bishop Scott Jones writes about the role of teaching “the United Methodist Way” (see Living the United Methodist Way).

The editors write …

At our best, United Methodist Christians seek to evangelize, nurture, equip, and send forth disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world (33).

I want to spend more time processing what Bishop Jones writes about the United Methodist Way. He concludes the chapter, stating …

United Methodist Christians believe genuine human happiness comes from growing in holiness—toward being the men and women God intends us to be (46).

One of my favorite chapters is written by Bishop Hee-Soo Jung (who also shares a bit of his story from Korea). I’ve highlighted much of this chapter!

Bishop Jung writes about strengthening leadership in the UMC building on the foundation of the call to discipleship. Bishop Jung writes …

To be leaders in the church today, we must first identify our call to be Christian disciples. Disciples make other disciples. … The credibility of our leadership grows from our modeling as we claim our call to discipleship first. (48)

Bishop Jung specifically sounds a call for visionary leaders. He describes visionary leadership as …

attentiveness to God’s leadership. Leaders are asked first of all to be open to where God is leading. … The church, after all, has a mission—to share the good news of Christ with the world. Leaders are asked to discern what it means for their particular context to share the good news. (50)

Addressing the current condition of the UMC, Bishop Jung laments …

We have forgotten that the church is a vehicle from which to offer Christ’s love; it is a tool in our mission, not the end product of our work (52).

Building on the foundation of call to visionary leadership, Bishop Jung talks about the role of pastors in congregations. Page 53 in my book is almost completely yellow but I’ll whittle it down to this …

Though it may sound oversimplified, the primary role of the parish pastor … is leadership of a congregation. Every other task that a pastor might perform is secondary. Leadership is the core of who a pastor is called to be. (53)

Bishop Jung states that pastors have three major tasks

  1. “to lead the congregation in perceiving the particular mission and ministry to which it is being called by God” (53).
  2. “to develop leadership in that congregation that is able to assist the congregation in responding to its call” (53).
  3. “to work with lay leadership to assist and equip every member in perceiving and carrying out his or her own particular ministries” (53).

I love these points. It’s about leading people in our God-given mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

The problem, however, Bishop Jung notes …

Many congregations have expectations of pastors that are in conflict with the call to pastoral leadership. … [T]he congregation expects a chaplain. Congregations who want a chaplain want to be left where they are—untouched by the demands from God—with members ‘ministered to’ by a professional staff. … Congregations who seek a chaplain do not want to be led anywhere … congregations do not need chaplains; they need leaders.” (53)

Great words!

It’s going to take transformational leaders to turn around our declining denomination. The process of transforming an institution back into a movement will be no easy task. In fact, there will be many scars. But it’s necessary, if we’re going to be faithful to who God calls us to be!

Well, there’s a lot to process, and a lot I haven’t even touched on. But I’ll finish with a quote from Bishop Minerva Carcaño …

Unfortunately, we are living in days in which too many of us United Methodists have lost our way, substituting a comfortable, self-focused, and false understanding of discipleship for kingdom-building discipleship (84).

May God help us to be who God intends us to be. May God empower us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

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