I started thinking about this piece before Christmas.
If we as individuals, churches and a denomination are going to answer the Bishop’s call to action, then we must know some things about ourselves and the United Methodist Church. And whatever answers we receive we have to understand that it each one of us who must answer the call. Individual churches can only answer the call if the people who make up the church do so.
I keep thinking about those who essentially tell me that we must focus on making sure that we have a building in order to do the work of the church. Doesn’t that mean that if we lose the building the faith of the people will be lost as well? How many churches have seen their sanctuaries and educational buildings destroyed by tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters yet vowed to meet elsewhere until they could rebuild. The work of the church is through the people, not the building. It will be the people of the church who respond, not the building.
I will admit that I have mixed and mostly negative feelings about the Call to Action. Everything that has been written and said about it suggests that it favors the bigger churches and that it is a top-down model. My experience in science education tells me that the innovative practices come from those in the field, not the top level management (a bottom-up model, if you will) – see “To Search for Excellence”. And if decisions are going to be made based on the numbers that pastors submit every week, I think that we are missing the point about what the church is and what the church is supposed to be doing.
The church needs to focus on people, not numbers. I know or have come to understand that individual pastors are required to submit weekly reports on their churches. I suspect that such numbers focus on weekly attendance, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. I hope that we aren’t asking for the number of souls that have been saved since that number is truly one that can only be reported on the bottom line. I would suspect that pastors are supposed to report the efforts of their local ministries. It may very well show which churches are viable and vital but I am not altogether certain that it will.
Knowing how many people are supported by the church’s food closet or the feeding ministries of the church only tells you something about the conditions of the area where the church is located. I am more interested in how many members of the church worked at the food closet or served the breakfast and dinners each week. How many individuals supported the specific local ministries through their donations, gifts, tithes, or prayers?
While on a trip a number of years ago I engaged in a conversation about church membership and church duties with someone. She was interested in measuring the number of individuals who had multiple jobs within a given church. I pointed out that she needed to factor church size into the equation. Let us suppose we are comparing a church with 1000 members and a church with 100 members. If ten people are doing all the work in the 100 member church, that is 10% of the membership. If ten people are doing the work in the 1000 member church, then you are looking at 1% of the membership doing the work. Which church is more alive?
I will argue that it is the 100 member church. Yes, it looks great when you have 1000 members in a church but if only 10 people are doing the work, then what are the other 990 doing? And when you could those who participate, make sure that it is more than one time. I don’t mind it when 20 people come to help serve a Christmas breakfast but what are they doing on the other days that the church serves breakfast to the community?
What do you do about the others in the church who don’t even know that there is a feeding ministry or would rather that it not be in the church at all? What does this say about the vitality of a church?
To answer the call to action, we also need to remember from where we as United Methodists came. Consider the following items:
- The first Sunday School was Methodist. John Wesley started Sunday schools because he knew that an understanding of the Bible required literate pupils and the only time many people were going to be able to do that was on Sunday.
- The first Credit Union was Methodist. When the Methodist Revival began in the 18th century, it was possible for In a day and time when individuals could be thrown into jail for failing to pay their bills and not be released until the bills have been paid (otherwise known as debtors’ prisons, an institution that seems to be making a comeback in some states – see the following story). Wesley created the first credit union in order to give the lower classes a way to borrow the needed funds and be able to pay them back at a reasonable interest rate; something that the banks of that time were unwilling to do (sounds vaguely modern, doesn’t it).
- The first health care clinic was Methodist. Again, the poor and lower classes of England during the Methodist Revival were unable to get adequate healthcare. Wesley began a healthcare clinic in London to offer low-cost healthcare; he even wrote a book of home remedies though his qualifications as a physician were limited at best.
Historians have long suggested that these efforts kept England from undergoing the violent revolution that swept through France at the same time.
I have said before but I sometimes wonder what John Wesley might think if he were to wander about this country today. What would he say about “those people called Methodists?” (Here is what Garrison Keillor said about Methodists – “Garrison Keillor on “Those People Called Methodists”)
It may be that the Bishop’s Call to Action is about reviving the denomination. But it cannot be simply by talking about it or listing numbers in some weekly report. It is about reaching out to the people in the same manner that our ancestors did almost three hundred years ago. It requires looking at where the church is and what the church can do in terms of where it is at.
When I began thinking about this piece, I thought of a Buffalo Springfield piece, “For What It’s Worth.” Now, many people think this is an anti-war song from Viet Nam era; others think this song is about the Kent State shootings in 1970 which is pretty good since the song itself was written and recorded in 1966. In actually, it is about social unrest in Los Angeles during the fall of 1966. The key in including this song in this piece today are the words about looking around and see what is happening. No matter where a church may be, if the people are to answer the call they must first look around and see what is happening.
For some churches, this is an easy thing to do. The problems of society are right outside their doors. The only thing the members of these churches have to do is step outside.
For other churches, it is not that easy. They are in areas of declining population and see their own membership dropping each year. Their struggle is to be able to keep the doors open for those who are members, let alone those in the community. It would be very easy to say to small churches in areas of declining population that they should prepare to close their doors. I think that is wrong because sometimes the church is what keeps hope alive in a community.
It does not matter whether one is talking about a church in an inner-city community or somewhere on the plains of the rural Midwest; how do we bring hope to the people we serve and who are the community in which we live?
I don’t want to see the United Methodist Church die; the predictions in the Call to Action suggest that we have 25 years left before the funeral. I have thought long and hard about where I would go if the denomination were to do or I was forced to seek another place to go. At a time when I needed a place of hope and promise I found it in the United Methodist Church; I cannot leave so I will, as I hope I have already done, answer to call. What will you do?
Check out Pete Townsend’s “Somebody Saved Me”.