When there’s no vision, the people get out of control, but whoever obeys instruction is happy. – Proverbs 29:18 CEB
Maybe you heard the news that two very large congregations in the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church have taken votes and announced their intentions to investigate withdrawal from the UMC. I think that these two churches maybe the first, but they won’t be the last. Gossip and speculation have been offered that these two congregations are leaving because of financial reasons, debt, and/or apportionments. While I am very frustrated over the reasons that one of the churches has offered, I don’t think they are leaving because of financial reasons.
I grew up in a time when General Motors made the same car under 3 or 4 different brand names. Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saturn…all General Motors. At one time GM was involved in everything from airplanes to appliances. The criticism of General Motors was always the same. They had no identity. They tried to be all things to all people. Then on Monday, June 8, 2009, one the oldest and most trusted companies in America filed Bankruptcy. After failed attempt after failed attempt, General Motors was bankrupt. Everyone came to the same conclusion. They couldn’t compete against leaner Japanese imports which had developed a core identity around their brands. General Motors was adrift in multiple visions.
You see most experts in fundraising and stewardship will tell you people don’t give money to a church anymore. They give money to a vision and a mission. To be successful in raising money in the nonprofit world means that you better have a compelling vision and mission. When I approach someone to ask them for a donation I never ask for the amount first. I explain the mission and vision first. We need lights for our playground because it gets dark early and our kids want to play on the playground after dark. Do I ask for money for lights or do I talk about how many children we have coming to our church to play on our playground after school?
This goes way beyond finances or apportionments. This goes way beyond human sexuality. The real reason that these two very large congregations are exploring leaving is that we no longer share the same values, mission, and vision. It is not just these two churches either. It is all of us. We all have bought into conflicting visions about what the church is and what the church should do. ALL OF US. So yes our stewardship will suffer. Our mission will suffer. Our churches will be weakened. Our identity will be diminished.
One of the themes this blog has explored time and time again is that the fundamental problem with the United Methodist Church has to do with our dysfunctional values, doctrine, mission, and vision. Sure we ALL talk about our mission to be, “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I can guarantee if you asked 100 Methodists what that means, you would probably receive 100 different answers. In some cases you would have to define the terms: mission, church, disciples, Jesus, transformation, world. What do each of these things mean? Are we about transformation, salvation, restoration, formation, inclusion, and diversity? What do all these terms mean? Who is Jesus and what does Jesus have to do with anything? What is the churches function in the world?
We have come to vastly different conclusions about what these things mean.
This is not saying one conclusion is better or more superior than another conclusion. It just means that they are different. I have friends across the spectrum and I love them dearly, but I know that our ideas about the mission of the church may not be the same. This doesn’t make them wrong or me wrong. It is what it is. I believe the mission of the church is this. They believe the mission of the church is that. No amount of me arguing with them or them arguing with me is going to convince me or them to change their ideas about what the church mission and vision should be.
The United Methodist Church is faltering because we don’t understand who we are. We don’t fully grasp who we are supposed to be. We are adrift in a sea of identities.
Think about a church struggling to find its identity. Are we a chapel? Are we a missional church? Are we an evangelistic church? Are we contemporary? Are we traditional? Are we affirming? Are we welcoming? Are we inclusive? Are we exclusive? Are we both? In my opinion until a church answers very critical questions about itself it will never be as potent as it can be. What is our core identity?
I believe that the UMC will continue to fracture and crumble until we come up with a concrete reality about who we are. I believe that we are at a crossroads. From the Bishop’s Commission on the Way Forward to the Wesleyan Covenant Association, we are at a critical juncture in the history of the United Methodist Church. The time before us is a time of discernment and exploring who God calls us to be as United Methodists. If we are an evangelical church than we should be the best evangelical church we can be. If we are a mainline church than we should be the best mainline church we can be. If we are a progressive church than we should be the best progressive church we can be.
So what should we do? Discernment and Prayer. My hope is that we take these next few years as a period of discernment. Let the Holy Spirit move and speak. Ask the spirit to move! We have been given the gift of space and time. Use it to determine our real vision and mission. We need to be absolutely sure of who we are and who we are called to be as the people called Methodists. Only then can we all fully embrace the mission of the church.
Yes people might leave, pastors might leave, churches might leave, districts might leave, Annual Conferences might leave, and even whole Jurisdictions might leave. BUT in the end we will be a much stronger denomination because we have claimed our identity. We will know who we are and everyone will be better because of it.
So what do you think?