Returning to Our Creative Tradition

January 20th, 2012
This article is featured in the Call to Action (Feb/Mar/Apr 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

What an exciting time for our church’s future. We are seeing signs of emerging vitality and strength in many congregations. Some are small, some are large. All are evidence that we are learning about how to do church in a changing culture.

Church now is not just about strengthening the congregation. More importantly, it is how the strong congregations change the community and the world. I see a new church emerging, and it gives me hope and joy.

The recommendations and legislation coming to General Conference from the Call to Action report are an important opportunity for the whole church to take part in this renewal. It is easy for the church to see the recommendations as a huge and difficult change. However, to do that is to ignore the very root of who we are as Methodists. We are innovators. It is in our DNA.

Wesley was a reformer, who in trying to change the Anglican Church, began preaching in fields and mines. Francis Asbury took Wesley’s methods and his creativity and changed the approach so that it would make sense in the cultural context of the American frontier. He inspired and deployed circuit riders who followed the westward movement of the frontier. What is more, those early churches were primarily formed by lay people who organized and ran small worshiping communities until a circuit rider could make the rounds to preach and teach. Our tradition of innovation was created as we formed.

Our long history of success as a church is based in two simple ideas. First, all we are doing is for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. Second, the transforming powerful love of Jesus shows up best when we are in mission serving the community. Every hospital and school built by Methodists were innovations of the time to respond to a community and culture that cried out for better education or health care for the poor. The church responded by building institutions that provided the care and knowledge and talent that would create a new better way of loving our neighbor. In every sense we saved lives.

We are still doing this today. Because our world and our culture are changing so fast, we have to change the ways we make disciples of Jesus and how we reach out to serve the community in many different ways.

I have the most hope for our church when I see it through the eyes of the young clergy in our Conference. They have a different picture of the church and the world. They are not satisfied to serve a church that only maintains. They want to serve a church that changes the world.

The story of Reverend Tommy Williams and Westbury United Methodist Church illustrates the changes we are making at the congregational level. It is a story repeated again and again with our young pastors. Reverend Williams was appointed to Westbury UMC, a congregation in decline for almost 20 years. Within a year, worship attendance had increased by more than 10% with the growth primarily in young families. Pastor Williams had to make hard decisions, shrink some ministries and stop old ways of work. However, he knew that shrinking would allow him to grow. Both the church and community were hungry for outward focused leadership that changes lives. Today the staff and congregation increasingly reflect the diversity of the neighborhood the church serves. Westbury UMC is on its way to becoming a new church.

Our greater church is ready to embark on the next step in our journey of innovation. The recommendations from the Call to Action going to the 2012 General Conference allow the annual conferences to innovate and focus time, attention and resources on building vital congregations. The purpose of this work is not to build membership. It is to grow disciples.

We know that disciples are made at the local congregation. We know from our tradition that we are innovators. We know that Annual Conferences play an important role in church vitality through the recruitment, training and deployment of clergy and in starting new churches. We know that focusing on our community will bring more people to Jesus Christ. We know how to do these things. Now is the time to be courageous and embrace the change that will create new opportunities for growth.

I see a new church—a church steeped in our tradition of innovation and creativity. A church changing the community in which we live and serve. A place expanding with vitality, hope and excitement.

I see a new church filled with new disciples. It is within reach. Let’s build it together.

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