UM Call To Action – Don’t Toss the Good Stuff

I have been thinking about the United Methodist Call to Action Report – again! There’s so much to affirm in it, though most of you know that I have problems with the structure that it proposes and plan to vote to change some parts of it. I don’t want to throw out the good stuff though. The CTA and the Towers-Watson and Apex Studies have given us some great information and we need to take advantage of it. Recent news reports say how US citizens have a 62% favorable view of our denomination, far outpacing other faith groups. We want that 62% and more to actually come through our doors and experience Jesus. So we need to pay attention to what these studies have said are important factors for increasing our vitality.

Their findings say that we need more small groups, better programs for children and youth, a mix of contemporary and traditional worship, longer pastorates, more effective exit strategies for underpeforming clergy, lay empowerment, more people and money in missions, and evangelism. The Council of Bishops has said about the CTA, “For the sake of a new world, we see a new church.”  There is no doubt in my mind that we have to do things differently to reach the world for Christ! We all know the popular adage: “Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is madness.”

But, we love rituals, especially church ones, don’t we? They give us a sense of order in our otherwise chaotic existence. When we can’t focus or concentrate, we can at least remember the words of the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. When all else fails, we are able to recall the rituals that have sustained us over the years. Their routine nature is precisely what gives them their staying power when adversity strikes.

But don’t most of us also abhor anything that is stale or routine? Even in interpersonal relationships we want to spice things up every now and then. Yet, what works better than what has already worked? As someone once said, quite appropriately, “Where water has once flowed it can more easily flow again.” How true! After a year of drought and parched earth, the rains don’t easily cut new channels. They flow down familiar paths. On the other hand Aesop did say, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but, I dare say, the familiar is exactly what we long for when the rains come tumbling down.

The world has changed, though. Sure there are tried and true things we need to keep doing, but we better be open to new strategies to reach a culture that increasingly thinks that the church is out of touch. For instance, worship has changed over the years. The liturgical reform movement of the 70’s has continued to this day. It has pushed innovation in worship. Though reluctant at times, we have experimented with new things like contemporary Christian music, screens and projectors in sanctuaries, Holy Communion by intinction, and “passing the peace” during worship services. Some new-old things have been accepted more easily than others. Children’s Sermons, Advent wreaths and candles, Chrismon Trees, and the use of the Paschal Candle have been so welcomed that people think they’re age-old traditions. “Longest Night” services on December 21 are fairly new to me but are an example of creative worship innovation. What a wonderful way to help people deal with holiday grief.

It’s good to try new things while honoring the old. Jesus had something to say about this when he spoke of new wine in old wineskins. Unfortunately, the common errors of the church are: 1) Confusing tradition with truth, 2) Confusing rhetoric with reality, 3) Confusing practice with presence. Like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, who had confused their practice with God’s presence, we also can get so busy that we miss what’s truly important – not what we do, but to Whom we belong. We end up lukewarmly selling out to hip worship fads that promote a consumeristic entertainment “Wow!” over the real deal. Therefore, our traditions must be infused with Divine Majesty. Empty ritual doesn’t cut it. For instance, George Barna, who does research on churches, says in his Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, “Seven out of 10 adults (71 percent) say they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service.” How sad!

No matter what we do in worship, whether timeless or entirely unheard of, it should highlight and celebrate the real presence of God. According to Ron Rolheiser in his book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering The Felt Presence of God, “God is always present, but we are not always present to God.” Indeed, for God’s epiphanies to become less rare we should open ourselves to God. Old ways, new ways – who cares just so it happens! For those who need it, worship should rattle their very beings with power, or for others’ needs, soothe their souls with the greatest wash of calm ever experienced. Whichever we need, worship is the very place where God’s epiphanies should most easily occur and be recognized.

Leadership, Elections, & The UMC

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The mid-term elections are over except where they’re still counting or recounting, and what does it mean that the Republican Party was so successful? What does it mean that the UMC is still losing members and we have a Call to Action Report that hopes to turn the tide the other way? I’m still reading Sergio Zyman’s book Renovate Before You Innovate and it has interesting segues between the US election results and the UMC. He advocates that assertiveness in your market niche is extremely important. He says, “Customer loyalty is one of the most perishable commodities in the world.” Just ask Democrats. We just saw Blue States flipping Red, and I know a lot of people who either used to be United Methodist or are now “nothing” – irreligious but spiritual.
Zyman states that reminding people about why you’re so great is important, but you better build on your strengths so well that you garner people’s preference. His descriptor that fits some politicians and the UMC: “You’re an also-ran in a stagnant category.” He uses the rental car business as an example, but listen for the ramifications for the church and politics. “The top-tier players have essentially turned car renting into a commodity business, leaving customers without any real way to tell them apart.” Sounds like Main Line denominations, huh? Or the politics of the same-old-same-old? For instance, have you ever heard the story of the person explaining the difference between Capitalism and Communism. He said “In Capitalism, humans exploit other humans. In Communism, it’s the other way around.” You just trade one set of fat cats for another, UNLESS there is real renovation, building on strengths and leading. It’s called the Church, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and the traditions of the faith expressed in relevant reasonable ways so that people experience new life: Sounds like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to me – renovation at work!
Zyman continues his thoughts on stagnant businesses by saying, “Whenever this kind of stagnation happens, the market leader has the most to gain, mostly because when everything else is equal, people go for the bigger brand – it makes them feel they’re getting a deal.” Sounds like part of the reason why non-denominational mega-churches are outpacing us. Maybe it’s because they’re seen as hip, relevant, and they preach the time-tested Gospel. When we try to “Rethink Church,” it sounds like we’re more into heresy than offering certainty in uncertain times. “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” said about the same – we stand for nothing and all things. What???
Zyman says, “In politics, it’s a very similar situation: Sameness doesn’t change votes, which is why leaders win about 90 percent of the time. Faced with no significant difference, voters pick the devil they know over the devil they don’t know.” You have to differentiate! You have to give people a reason to do business with you more often so that when they compare you or your congregation/denomination to theirs or none at all, you will prove to them that “Anything they can do, we can do better.” That will take some work, marketing/evangelism, discerning essential core values, and expressing them in ways that people will get, and proving that you can deliver. I’m all for the t-shirt test for church mission statements: If it doesn’t fit on a t -shirt, it doesn’t cut it or qualify. For instance, how about “MD4C” for the UMC – Making Disciples For Christ. Beats the heck out of “Rethink Church” that makes me ponder my doubts more than my faith.
The UMC and the two primary political parties have no one else to blame but themselves for the sad state of their market-shares. Why do you think a Tea Party Movement actually had traction? They marketed well and tapped into people’s emotions against stagnancy. Now I haven’t met a Tea Partier yet that can adequately explain “Constitutional Government,” but they don’t have to if somehow it means “new and improved,” which means homage to the past but relevancy for the present. So the question hits me, “Who is new and improved?” – the UMC, the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party? Interesting thoughts, and I know I don’t have all the answers, but, you better believe this, I am going to do all that I can to present a Relevant Gospel in a Wesleyan Way to our world. There’s no better deal anywhere! We better get with it, and fast!

United Methodist Renovation Vs. Innovation

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As a potter the process of making a beautiful and/or functional vessel hasn’t changed much over the centuries. The tools of the craft may change but their purpose is still the same. The basics of throwing clay are the tried and true: wedging, centering, opening up, pulls, shaping, collaring, design, and finishing. I could go on and on, and though very little has really changed I still peek at the new-fangled products and glazes that promise innovation.
Ah, that’s the word on my mind this morning: Innovation. As I think about Christianity and the United Methodist Church in particular, I am very tempted to say it’s time to innovate, but I may be way off-base. New-fangled may be disastrous rather than helpful. It may be better to renovate rather than innovate. Innovation suggests a fresh start. It suggests that we chunk all the old ways that we’ve been doing things, but like pottery-making, there isn’t really that much that’s really better. Innovation leads to a fatalistic surrender that throws the baby out with the bath water. I think Jesus suggested ways to get old and new to work together as in the shrunk and unshrunk pieces of cloth. So what’s the deal? Is it better to innovate or renovate?
Innovation requires a tearing down of old structures, like “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Demo Day means tear that whole house down. Renovation exposes the “good bones” of the existing structure and makes improvements while preserving the integrity of the house. As I ponder the United Methodist Church and its structure, or even my personal life, I’m wondering whether renovation might be the better course of action than innovation. Renovation does what Jesus suggested about the marriage of the unshrunk cloth and the shrunk cloth. It honors and uses the best of both to make things better. Sure innovation is a quick fix, and probably less costly. We have all heard that it’s easier to tear down and build again rather than renovate, but I think we too often succumb to the temptation to take the easier path that promises lower costs. Don’t you think about the bridge you’re crossing being built by the lowest bidder?
Just some thoughts as we await the United Methodist “Call to Action” Committee’s recommendations about how we’re organized as a denomination. What will it be: innovation or renovation? As for me, I’m leaning toward doing renovation carefully removing that which is ineffective and wasteful, preserving our “strong bones” of Connectionalism, Wesleyan Process Theology, and the localism of strong Annual Conferences. Where I would like to do some creative renovation is in improving the effectiveness of Bishops who will actually see their Annual Conference leadership as the most important vantage point to make Disciples for Jesus Christ, clergy effectiveness valued over status, and agencies of the church that are trimmed down or merged into workable entities that will empower local churches more than prop up out-of-touch bureaucrats. I know this sounds easy and too simple, too much like innovation; but what I hope to suggest is really renovation using surgical precision rather than a wrecking ball.