When we are led by anxiety, rather than by faith and love, we end up acting out of unsound doctrine and organizing the life of the church in unfaithful ways. I am afraid that this is what is going on in a denomination that I no longer belong to, but is still very near to my heart. My recent defection from the United Methodist Church had nothing to do with any of the proposals being debated at the General Conference in Tampa, at least not concretely (story for another day). But even though I don’t have an immediate stake in it anymore, I’ve been checking in on the news leading up to and coming out of gc2012, and I don’t like a lot of what I’m seeing.
For those who don’t follow these things, the Conference is debating whether to implement a package of proposals that rather drastically restructure the denomination’s boards and agencies, concentrate more power in the hands of the bishops, and perhaps most controversially, eliminate guaranteed appointment (Methodist clergy are appointed by a bishop rather than hired by a congregation. Under the present system, every minister in good standing must receive an appointment. The new proposal would give bishops the authority not to appoint whomever they deem ineffective). In general, it moves the church to a more results-based approach, and implements various “church metrics” to do something like an ecclesial version of No Child Left Behind. Churches that aren’t performing are to be closed.
The advocates of this plan are right that something has to be done. Due to demographic and financial trends, the denomination cannot support its current structure. But as is too often the case, these demographic and financial anxieties have led to some subtle theological shifts that are largely unnoticed, and are downright unsound and unscriptural. Consider this statement from Bishop Willimon:
We have hundreds of congregations, thousands, without any discernable mission other than the care and comfort of their members.
At first, any right-thinking, missionally-oriented Christian is scandalized. These churches are inward focused! They’re only serving themselves! They’re a resource drain! Obviously, these under-performing assets should be liquidated and the capital reinvested elsewhere. Tack on the phrase “make disciples,” and you have an easy sell. Drop the deadweight!
Except that these churches aren’t deadweight.
The life of the church is being talked about as though it were some sort of achievement or reward. But it is no such thing. It is a free gift. Those deadweight congregations “without any discernable [sic] mission other than the care and comfort of their members” are as much a part of the church as the most missional, change-oriented, post-whatever bishops, and both are part of it by the same unmerited grace.
I have been part of small congregations with static or declining membership. I was even the pastor of one for a year in college. Some of these churches are truly dysfunctional, and one could make the case that closing them would be a mercy killing. But most of them are just doing their best to love the Lord, and those whom the Lord loves. They’re a bunch of wretched sinners like the rest of us, so the results are mixed. Some of them will turn themselves around, some won’t. Some are too far away from population centers to grow again, and will probably close once enough of their members die or move away. They will grieve what is lost, and trust in God to keep doing a new thing, just like God always has. In the meantime, they worship and try to serve like they always have.
These churches are not a distraction from the Gospel. Their lives, and the lives of all assemblies of Christians, are the Gospel. “By this they will all know that you are my disciples: whenever you have love for one another” (John 13:35). They are a bunch of mortal congregations made up of mortal Christians like the rest of us. They try to love another and care for one another in Jesus name while life lasts, just like we all do. They love in the face death, with the hope of resurrection on the last day. May such grace be given to us all. So frankly, when you say they are deadweight or under-performing assets, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
This does not and should not settle the question of the distribution of church resources, the structure of church boards, or guaranteed appointment. But if the theology is wrong, the rest will be wrong too. Whatever the United Methodist Church, or any church, decides to do with its resources needs to come from a place of faith, hope, and love. Not to mention unceasing prayer. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18a).
In faith, let us seek how best to love. Let us not be led by anxiety to violate the greatest of the commandments.