The World Is Their Parish: Can The United Methodist Church Survive?

In a post this week, Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources of the General Board of Discipleship -- a national organization of the United Methodist Church charged with helping local churches by "equipping world changing disciples" -- asked what "missional Methodists" should do in the face of our church's newest digital report card toy -- dashboards.

To see an example of this nifty gadget click here.

Notice you can find out weekly information about churches that have the biggest gain or loss in membership and attendance, baptisms and professions of faith (you can even click on a link to those naughty churches that have not turned in their weekly numbers yet ... tisk, tisk).

In the end, Burton-Edwards, although he criticizes this form of documenting "maintenance discipleship", advises pastors to fill out the forms and then go beyond them ... (I mean he does work for the church after all and some conferences actually take the data into consideration when assigning pastors to particular churches) So, my pastor friends out there, if they ask for your Saturdays -- four days a month -- to fill out paperwork, give them at least five days. Turn in monthly reports, in addition to your weekly ones! Detail the spiritual growth and document the amazing evidence of discipleship ... go beyond ... go beyond.

I'm sure that there is something good that comes from all that reporting, but in general, as I shared in a previous post on The State of Formation, I am pretty unimpressed with how the church I love, the United Methodist Church, is going beyond its majority-white, status-quo supporting self to minister to ... the world.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was quoted as saying: "The world is my parish." He did not say "the people that show up to this particular building on a Sunday are my parish." The United Methodist Church has become a cushy institution, banking on performance measures kept by fancy gadget dials to help save it from the fate towards which all mainline denominations seem to be heading -- slow death.

And yet, I believe there is hope for the United Methodist Church.

One such locus of hope centers in on the phenomenon of "church plants". Although I do not believe this move toward church planting is the 'silver bullet' that will save our denomination, I do know of at least three church plant congregations that take seriously Wesley's charge to make the world their parish:

For lack of space, I will detail the one I know best -- Mosaic in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Mosaic's pastor, Rev. Rachel McIver Morey, was my roommate in seminary. She was the one who always finished every single page of reading before class and proofread all of my last-minute writing assignments (the ones she had already finished the day before). She read a chapter of the Bible every morning (i.e. she had read it in its entirety over 5 times). She made plans and kept them; she was efficient and would have probably made whatever conference leadership extremely happy with her dashboard-dial-reporting skills.

But then at least two things happened ... first she was called to plant a multicultural church (where none had existed before) and second she became a mother.

It is this second thing, motherhood that has prepared her for the first ... church planting, and especially church planting a multicultural church. There is something about rocking a colicky baby for hours on end that gives a person a new outlook on life. Not only is not being in control of a situation 100 percent tangible (I literally watched Rachel rock her son for an hour while he writhed with stomach pain she could not fix), but the only thing left to do is be present in the midst of it. The peace that exuded from her being as she rocked her screaming baby was nothing like the anxiety-ridden seminary intern who had to make sure every aspect of the church service went off without a hitch.

Rachel and her husband, Jerad, have discovered that multicultural church planting is a colicky baby whose occasional smiles are all the reward they will see at first. It is is not a well behaved child that adheres exactly to all the developmental milestones all the books say should be there. God's peace came to Rachel in the rocking chair, and it is what gives Rachel and the Mosaic team the strength to do the street level ministry with real people that they are called to do.

Unlike a normal church appointment, Rachel and other church planters must build up their congregations from scratch. They build up networks of interested people (this means a lot of coffee dates, covered lunches, community activities, etc), raise funds (preach in the pulpits of churches who take up offerings, reach out to potential donors, etc.) and launch four preview services. Whether or not Rachel continues in this project, in part, depends on the amount of people that attend these preview services. Here is a description of their most recent preview service:

On Saturday, March 12th, Mosaic gathered at Odyssey Academy in Brooklyn Park to make sandwiches for Simpson shelter -- which, with all hands on deck, ended up taking twenty minutes even with a break to go buy more bread! -- and collect canned goods for our local food shelf. At five o'clock, we chimed the gong and began worship. Our worship was a new format using table conversation and fellowship alongside music from Paraguay, the U.S., and Indonesia. We closed with a celebration of communion and each had a bologna sandwich in communion and community with the Simpson Shelter guests who would be eating them for lunch the next day.

Not your typical Sunday Service ... Praise God. It's not that I hate liturgy (in fact I worship in an Episcopal church at the moment, which is much more formal than most United Methodist congregations), but I love that Mosaic takes the liturgy out into the world.

In the book of 1st Samuel chapter 16 begins, "The Lord said to Samuel, 'How long will you grieve over Saul?' I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." In this text, the prophet Samuel has been ordered by God to go anoint a new king, while the old king, whom Samuel had also anointed, is still around. Samuel goes to do what he is told, has all of the sons of Jesse pass before him, but not one is the king God has chosen. Samuel asks "Are all your sons here?" And Jesse replies ... "There remains the yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." This youngest son, David, would eventually become the most revered and loved king of Israel.

The United Methodist Church needs to look out among these young pastors -- the ones who are out tending the sheep. They, not the ones best at keeping score on dashboard dials, make the world their parish and change the world through discipleship. They could be a part of a new era of Methodism ... so my Methodist brothers and sisters, how long will you grieve over the loss of your past glory? God has rejected it and moved on ... and we should too.