What follows is a document written by my good friends, Aaron Bouwens, Alan Howe, Bill Mudge, and I. The purpose of this document is to describe the crisis within the United Methodist Church in New York State and to begin a conversation about how we can become, once again, the church that Jesus Christ started. It is a bit long, thank you for taking time to read it.
A Call to Radical Christianity
Aaron Bouwens, Alan Howe, Bill Mudge, B.J. Norrix
Preamble: In an effort to begin a conversation about the renewal and revitalization of the Wesleyan spirit in New York State we provide the following document. It is our belief that the time of passive observance is over and, although the institution may be struggling and may not survive, there is uniqueness to the teachings of John Wesley that must survive. It is time to honestly assess where we are, how we got here, and what we need to do to move forward as the spiritual descendents of John Wesley.
The movement that John Wesley began, The United Methodist Church, in Central New York State is dying. We have lost 40 percent of our members and worshippers since the 1968 merger. We have failed to adapt our methods as the world around us has changed. We have become accommodated to the values of the society in which we live. We continue to function as a large institutional church in a world that neither sees the value of a large institution nor responds to our message. We have lost generations of people and are reaching a point where it may no longer be possible for us to move in a new direction or to effectively speak to younger people. We are enmeshed in an individualistic understanding of ministry that fails to create authentic Christian community.
Our hearts have turned cold and are in need of being “strangely warmed” once again. John Wesley wrote, later in his life that his greater fear was not that the Methodist movement would cease to exist but that it would continue to exist but only as a dead letter; bereft of the spirit, purpose or fire from which it was born. He wrote:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist
either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as
a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this
undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out (“Thoughts”, 258)
We have become that dead letter. Instead of substantive change and redirection we rearrange titles and continue to perpetuate the institutional styles and models and understandings that have led us through forty years of decline. We no longer hear the cry of the needy nor do we have the will to change the way we do things. We need leadership. We need change. We need to reclaim our heritage.
We have been in decline for so long (40 years) and have had no positive inertia for so long that we may not have the energy or the ability to turn it around. We have old buildings, old members and graying clergy. We are in need of a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to fire the passion and energy for substantive change.
We call our clergy out of our churches. And because they come out of our church culture they go into ministry and perpetuate the system they are familiar with. Because we do not place a premium on leadership we call out of our congregations’ kind, well meaning and caring individuals who cannot lead transformational change. Because we have failed to create authentic Christian community these same pastors perpetuate the individualistic self focused ministry in which they received nurture.
For the first 150 years of Methodism there was fire about what we believed and there were occasional schisms over these vital issues. George Whitfield and John Wesley parted ways, and the movement refocused and continued to grow. Throughout the 19th century the main Methodist movement was faced with periodic schism. Richard Allen and the AME/AME, Zion churches in the teens; Orange Scott, Luther Lee and the Wesleyans in the 40’s, Benjamin Titus Roberts and the Free Methodists in the 60’s the Holiness churches in the 70’s and the 80’s the Church of the Nazarene at the turn of the 20th century. Each of these movements challenged the status quo of the mainstream Methodist movement and, in beginning something new, forced the mainstream to refocus, reconsider and be reenergized. It has been over 100 years since we have faced schism. Our movement has become an anachronism, we are marginalized by society, ignored by current generations, and have lost our fire, our passion, our relevance and, perhaps, our faith.
What follows is evidence of our demise. This evidence is followed by a section on what we believe are some of the root causes of this demise. The root cause section is followed by some theological premises that could get us back on track -- what we need to believe to move forward. We conclude with some suggestions for change, renewal, and a fresh new start.
Problem: the United Methodist Church in Upstate NY is in a death spiral.
Evidence: an over 40percent decrease in Average Worship Attendance and Membership since 1968.
Evidence: 47.2 percent (187 of 396) of our churches had one or fewer baptisms in 2006 (this was 44.8percent in 2004).
Evidence: 56.3 percent (223 of 396) of our churches received one or fewer new members on Profession of Faith in 2006 (this was 55.8 percent in 2004). We are not making new Christians.
This evidence could suggest that half of our congregations are dead already. They are not making new people (no baptisms) and they are not making new Christians (no new members by profession of faith). This combination means that there is no new life in either the biological or spiritual sense in nearly 50 percent of our congregations.
Evidence: We are getting older. The average age of our members is estimated to be in the 60’s.
Evidence: In order for the institution to survive, we are making a larger Annual Conference that will encompass a larger geographic region. The merger decision was an economic and institutional necessity that will take the leaders and their energy from several Annual Conferences and tie them up in forming a new institution over the next two to ten years – meanwhile our churches continue to die. We do not debate the institutional reason for the larger Annual Conference but we do point out that the cost of doing so is further decline. Although missional understandings have been applied to the rationale for the new Annual Conference the primary purpose of the merger is economic survival.
Evidence: no successful church plants in 20 years and many of those who are attempting new ministries are not encouraged or are discouraged from doing so.
Evidence: we continue to close churches, seven more at Conference 2007.
Evidence: the institutional church is focused on survival and the primary focus of this survival is money. Money is the lifeblood of every institution. Or, to put it another way, Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” That is, we love what we value. We value what we count. In 25 years of pastoral ministry in these Annual Conferences we have been questioned many times about finances, payment of apportionments and related matters. We have not once – not a single time – been questioned about how many new Disciples are being formed, why our average worship attendance declined, why the Sunday School has not continued to grow, or why there were fewer new members received on profession of faith in any given year. The institution values the financial resources that keep it afloat rather than the behaviors and results that could eventually produce the appropriate financial resources. Stewardship is a consequence of discipleship. Evidence of our fixation on money can be noted the following:
-- Annual Conference financial leadership sits on the Personnel team. (Are personnel decisions made based on finances?)
-- Annual Conference financial leadership has provided a list of every pastor and his/her congregation’s record of paying apportionments to the cabinet. Does this mean that appointments will be based on the financial well being of the Annual Conference rather than the mission of the church?
-- In the past 15 years, while the Annual Conference budget has remained relatively stable, the Annual Conference Finance team has systematically moved items that were formally apportioned (insurance, retiree health premiums, etc) into a new category titled “Direct Bill”. There were good reasons for doing this. However, the consequence of this decision is that although the overall budget figures have not changed the actual direct burden on local congregations has increased. This plan has especially burdened the small congregations.
These decisions are exacerbated by two other recent developments. 1). Most congregations (300+ according to the Conference Finance Team’s presentation at 2007 Annual Conference) have been stagnant in their budgets and growth and therefore their apportioned “fair share” has also remained stagnant. Meanwhile the 60 + congregations that can show some kind of a growth curve have had their “fair share” increased by upwards of ten percent a year every year over this time period. 2) The decision at Annual Conference 2007 to redistribute the burden of the “fair share” now allows increases of twenty percent for these same 60+ churches. In order to survive the leaders of the Annual Conference have decided to penalize all congregations that are growing. These last two decisions have and will negatively impact the larger (or seeking to be larger) congregations.
WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF THE DEMISE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH IN UPSTATE NEW YORK?
1. Clergy were trained in a therapeutic model of ministry. This model is clinically and not biblically based. While there is benefit from the clinical model (self awareness and understanding are laudable goals), the clinical model does not train for leadership nor does it train pastors to be agents of change in their communities and appointments. We were trained to be chaplains not leaders. But what is needed is leadership. Leaders are change agents; they are creators of culture; they are vision driven and results focused.
One consequence of this training is that care giving and care taking are more highly valued than the transformation of lives. Our pastors are expected to behave and function like chaplains rather than pastoral leaders. Keeping people comfortable and “happy” is valued over radical discipleship.
2. Leadership is absent or not focused on solving the problem. Those who are in positions of leadership work with jobs that are structured in such a way as to require them to work with the neediest and weakest ten percent of the Annual Conference or is so over laden with administrative chores it is difficult to provide leadership where it is best needed. This lack of focus prevents them from beginning new ventures, supporting emerging ventures and adding value to congregations that are breaking the mold and moving forward.
3. Ossification. The structure, values and processes have turned to bone. In movements there is fluidity and flexibility in creating means to envisioned ends. In an ossified institution these processes are rigid, inflexible and often legalistic.
4. The divorce of evangelical fervor from social action and social involvement from evangelical fervor continues in the American Church. One hundred years ago it was the evangelicals who were at the forefront of social change. These spiritually transformed individuals and groups worked to write child labor laws, combat slavery, battle the evils of alcohol, etc. Over the past 25 years, Evangelical Christians have too often found themselves identified with a particular American political position rather than living out their faith in the public realm. In this sense, Christianity has become a sub culture of the United States rather than the counter culture Jesus intended.
5. Watered down gospel that accommodates rather than transforms. On the other side of our denomination from the disengaged evangelicals is a group that is focused on social action divorced from the Wesleyan principals (dare we say biblical principals) at our roots. In the interest of tolerance and acceptance we have side stepped clear biblical principals. In the interest of inclusivity we have accommodated to the post Christian culture around us and no longer have a distinctive voice.
6. Aging clergy. The problem is not that we are getting older. The problem is we are no longer attracting younger people to ministry. The problem is not second career pastors, many of whom are profoundly effective pastoral leaders. The problem is too many of our leaders are not effective at reaching younger generations. 1.7 percent of our elders are under 35 years old. Our process toward credentialing can take as long as ten years. This excludes our youth from being productive in building and planting churches and effectively reaching out to their own age group. As our clergy get greyer and our congregations get older we run the risk of becoming an anachronism, our churches become places of spiritual nostalgia rather than transformational power. In Wesley’s time passionate “brands plucked from the burning” preachers would have been deployed to preach the gospel and be credentialed along the way.
7. Aging churches. There are no new congregations being formed. The youngest of our congregations was founded over 20 years ago. Most of our buildings are over 100 years old and the overwhelming percentage of our congregations have been in existence for over 100 years. The natural life cycle of any movement or organization would suggest that the larger percentage of these congregations would be in decline. Because of the death of Christendom understandings in our society these aging faith communities have been marginalized and are largely considered irrelevant to life in these United States.
8. Christendom models in a post-Christendom world
a. Top down leadership. Hierarchy and top down thinking is the hall mark of institutionalism and Christendom.
b. Bureaucracy. The longer an institution is around the more staffing and structure is added. This structure becomes self perpetuating and periodically needs to be renewed, removed or discontinued. One of the hallmarks of a bureaucratically bound organization is the inability to discontinue ineffective approaches, staff or even ministries. Missional organizations and movements are ruthless in their ability to adjust and make changes to positively reach their objectives.
c. Institutionalism may be a form of colonialism. The central organization becomes the primary reason for existence. In our situation the Annual Conference and the General Church becomes the primary benefactor of the resources of local churches. The local church’s primary function becomes to fund and support the work of the general church. This is upside down thinking. Only the local church can effectively make disciples for Jesus Christ. The Annual Conference and, minimally the General Church agencies, should exist solely for the benefit of helping local churches be about their work. The Annual Conference can effectively do this by providing effective pastoral leaders to build congregations. The General Church agencies can do this by connecting us regionally and globally and by providing resources. Most of what we do on a national level is unnecessary and/or unproductive.
d. Political process. Sometimes we call this discernment but where there is no clear vision we are left to the tyranny of the majority and the maneuvering of politically savvy special interest groups. This is true regardless of where the group is on the theological or political spectrum. The special interest political groups form on the right (Good News, Confessing Movement, etc.) and on the Left (Methodist for Social Action). The majority, historically and biblically, always wants to go back to Egypt. Christian leadership should move into the unknown and leave the familiar behind to accomplish the vision. Political process leaves us stuck debating when we should be taking action.
9. Modern institutions in a post modern world. The structure of our denomination was born in an era and an understanding that no longer exists. The days of large umbrella institutions are over. Perpetuating ineffective structures is not productive. Post modern thinking streamlines the organization to accomplish the goals. The institutional structure of the United Methodist Church should be down sized or dismantled.
10. Focus on Members over Missionaries. The institution seeks to boost membership. Membership is an irrelevant and antiquated way to measure the size and health of Christian churches. Participation numbers: Worship Attendance, Sunday School Attendance (children), and percent of congregation serving in mission are far more effective measurements of the health of a congregation. When the church focuses on making a few members it may get an occasional disciple and even someone who understands that the call of Christ to all followers is to be on mission. The focus on membership or the minimal expectations we place on our members contributes to our demise. We don’t measure what really matters. If the goal is to “make disciples for Jesus Christ” then the first step in that goal is making new Christians. We should value and track “new conversions” over and above membership statistics.
11. Traditional (the dead faith of the living – the way things have always been) over Tradition (the living faith of the dead – the essential Christianity passed down through the centuries.) We are held hostage by the traditional thinking of our great grandparents. The Christian Tradition is a Jesus Christ focused, world shaking, risk taking, transformational way of living. Traditional Christian (or “the United Methodist Way” if you prefer) is a way of perpetuating the understandings and practices that have led to the long slow decline we are experiencing.
12. We have lost authentic Christian community. A mark of Methodism has always been a radical commitment to living out our faith in community. John Wesley called the people called Methodist to engage in several levels of community. He organized them into classes, bands, and societies. In the current state of the United Methodist Church community is only sought if accompanied by political or institutional gain (we call them caucuses). There has been a stepping away from our heritage to the detriment of the mission. Community is intended to grow disciples and facilitate reaching out in mission and ministry. Currently, the reach is not for the sake of Jesus Christ.
THEOLOGICAL PREMISES TO GET US BACK ON TRACK
1. Premise: It is God’s church. The Church of Jesus Christ will never fail to exist on earth and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. However, this church is a spiritual body not an institution. Institutions come and go and God’s spirit moves to and with those who are willing to be used by God. If we are not willing to be aligned with what God is doing in the world God will find someone else to work his purposes through.
2. Premise: there is no Annual Conference without vital healthy congregations. What may have been true in Wesley’s time and may have been espoused in the Christendom era of Methodism is no longer true. An annual conference has no reason for being other than to encourage the making of Disciples through local churches. The Annual Conference does this through recruiting, training, deploying and supervising effective pastoral leaders. The Local Church (however configured or under whatever umbrella) is the basic unit of the Christian Church. When there are no churches there will be no annual conference.
3. Premise: Passionate, committed Disciples of Jesus Christ change the world. If we are not growing, making and sending Disciples of Jesus Christ we cannot be what we are called to be. It does not matter what we SAY we are trying to do. What matters is what we are actually doing. Jesus said the doers of his word would lay a firm foundation but that those who were only hearers could not last (Luke 6:46-49). James said to be “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:19).” We need to be makers of disciples not just people who say it is our mission.
4. Premise: the Church has only one purpose: Go and make Disciples. Everything else rises out of this primary calling. Anything that does not support the making, training and deploying of disciples should be discontinued.
5. Premise: Disciples are committed growing followers of Jesus Christ who know their spiritual gifts and are using them in mission and ministry within the context of authentic Christian community.
6. Premise: It is time to reclaim the root of our movement and reclaim Wesley’s understanding that transformed people transform the world.
7. Premise: Church is not therapy. The goal of therapy is to understand the past and become better adjusted to one’s current reality. The goal of the Church is transformation. Life changing, spirit empowered, Jesus focused transformation of individual lives, who in turn continue the process of transformation.
8. Premise: Social action without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is busy work.
9. Premise: Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ without engaging the world in mission and ministry is NOT Christianity.
10. Premise: Individualistic forms of Christianity that focus solely on the spiritual well being of the individual are not healthy biblical models. Jesus Christ invited his followers into faithful, committed, authentic, accountable community.
11. Premise: At the heart of the church is a community of people, however, not just any community. It is to be a community of people who are following the Leader Jesus Christ before any other leader, human or institutional. This community is comprised of people gathering together for the common work of the mission of God.
1. Repent, Renew, and Restart: We must first acknowledge our problem, our participation in the problem, change our ways (repent) and seek the face and grace of God as we move into a new understanding of ministry in the 21st century.
2. Jesus Christ is either Lord of All or not Lord at All. Jesus is the object, focus, and reason for our faith. If Jesus is merely teacher and example His is one voice among many. If Jesus is the Lord then everything depends on following Him. If Jesus is not Lord then we should find something else to follow.
3. The Bible is the authoritative word of God; when my Reason, Tradition or Experience contradicts the Bible my Reason, Tradition or Experience must be reexamined.
4. The transformation of people far from God into passionate followers of Jesus Christ must become the goal of every leader and every congregation.
5. Abandon the therapeutic, clinical model of ministry and embrace a biblical model of ministry that encourages life change, transformation and spiritual renewal.
6. Focus all resources and personnel in rebuilding our congregations and starting new congregations in unique places. Methodists of Wesley’s time went where the people were and used whatever methods were available to reach them. We have churches where people USED to live. We need to start congregations where people are actually living while maintaining our radical commitment to mission.
7. Money for Mission over machinery/ emphasize people over bricks. The institutional machinery needs to be significantly downsized or dismantled.
8. Transformed lives transform the world (it must be both and). Every Church must seek to lead people into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, organize itself into authentic Christian community and engage the world in service, mission and ministry.
9. Prayer, fervent ardent prayer. We have only one thing to give to the world. It is a relationship with our Creator through his Son Jesus Christ. We must, at all costs, maintain that relationship.
10. Reclaim the Gospel’s uniqueness. What Jesus claims and what Christianity claims is unique in the world. This is not religion but relationship. This is not what I have to do to become acceptable to God it is what Jesus has already done to make us acceptable.
11. It is time for a movement that empowers the emergence of radical Christian community. To do this we need to reclaim prayer, bible study, worship, accountable relationships and engagement in ministry as the hallmark of a Methodist. The Method of Methodism was a means of spiritual growth that was personal, small group and community based.
12. A people called “Methodist” are in need of a heart transplant (Ezekiel 11:19).
NEXT STEPS: SO WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
Here are some suggestions:
If you believe it is time for change you can:
1. Begin to make necessary changes right where you are. This is a time that calls for pastoral leadership. Begin new worship experiences for those outside your walls. Establish seeker groups for the young and disenfranchised in your community. Join with others to establish new ministries in places where they church has closed, never been, or has become ineffective.
2. Enter into dialogue with the authors of this document to explore ways to reverse the downward trend together. Let’s pray, reason, and discuss together how to reclaim the Wesleyan spirit in our area.
3. Think about institutional decisions and whether they are extending the mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ or are they simply perpetuating the institution. If the former support it, if it is the latter let’s begin to shut it down.
4. We believe it is time for great risk. If we believe that the institution can no longer accomplish what it was originally designed to do than we need to find ways to continue the mission regardless of the intent or design of the institution. What is the heart of Jesus Christ for New York State?
5. It may be time to restore an “ecclesia en ecclesia” so that the mission of bringing people living far from God into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ and “teaching them to obey all I have commended you (Matthew 28:20)” may continue. Wesley set up Class Meetings, Bands and Societies to bring renewal to England because the Anglican Church had ceased to transform lives for Jesus Christ. What do we need to do to be about this work today?
6. Come to an information and discussion gathering to be held at Christ Community United Methodist Church at 7:00 p.m. on January 23, 2008.