On Monday, April 24, 988 delegates will descend on Tampa, Florida for the 2012 General Conference. I will be one of them. And one of the primary issues we will face is how to bring vitality to our churches.
To address this issue, we will have to face the reality that, in the United States, our denomination is in decline. We are closing more churches than we are starting. And increasingly, voices of faith are becoming less relevant. We have responded to these realities by wringing our hands and placing blame. We have claimed that the reason for our decline is a culture that is becoming more secular. Or, we have blamed families and youth for not putting church first.
To blame the culture or families for our decline is to deny responsibility and occupy positions of helplessness. It also is to deny the power of the Holy Spirit to empower us to enact change. When we do this, we sound like Jonah, who resisted preaching to the people of Nineveh because they were so sinful. He tried to run away from God’s call. But God literally had him vomited up on the beach of Nineveh to get him into the mission field. It was a mission field that was ripe for the harvest.
Our mission field also is ripe for the harvest. It is ripe and ready for us to get busy making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I am convinced that keeping that mission central will bring vitality to our churches. But we must be careful of our motives. We don’t make disciples to maintain our denomination. Indeed, an excessive focus on maintenance of the institution has been part of our problem. We have made the church, as an institution, into an idol. The point has become the maintenance of the church and not the mission of Jesus Christ.
We must remember that we are called to vital ministry because God wants to use us to build God’s Kingdom. The end is the Kingdom of God, not the church building, operating budget, favored church committee, or any of our institutional structures.
Building God’s Kingdom requires that we keep our focus on mission, not maintenance. It also requires that we honor our historic bond between social and personal holiness. We must resist the urge to divide these priorities along ideological lines. We must live out a holistic Gospel that calls us to evangelism and to the practice of spiritual disciplines for the deepening of our faith. This holistic gospel also calls us into the mission field as the hands, feet and heart of Christ. And it calls us to declare with the prophet Amos, Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5: 24)
Practicing a holistic gospel is especially important if we are to attract young people. That became clear to me in 2003 when I was part of a panel discussion about the Iraq War. Our audience was mostly young people under 30. Many of them had a deep spiritual hunger and a desire to make a difference. But many were estranged from the church because they felt that the church had been silent on social issues.
I would wager that there were young people just like them who, in 2011, became part of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. These are young people who are hungry for a just world and for a spiritual connection. If the church can be faithful in holding together personal and social holiness, perhaps these young people can find in the church the Christ who will feed their hunger.
If they are to find that Christ in The United Methodist Church, we must welcome them in a spirit of inclusivity. We cannot afford to exclude people based on gender, race, ethnicity, ability, immigration status or sexual orientation. Young people growing up in a more diverse and global world will not stand for it. They will walk away from a church that excludes, seeing it as an antiquated structure that is no longer relevant to their lives. And they will hold us to account for not being faithful to our call to love our neighbor as ourselves.
As we prepare for General Conference, let us prayerfully hold ourselves to account. And let us address the issues related to the vitality of our churches with courage, with love, and with faith that God’s grace is more than sufficient to our task.