Call to Action Study (part 1)

March 2nd, 2012

I am leading my congregation through the Council of Bishop’s study guide on the Call to Action.

We started last week with sections 1-3 and an overview of how the United Methodist Church is actually set up.

It was important for me to bring this big picture and important discussion to my rural county seat congregation.  It was important to hear what they are thinking, hoping for, and what they, in fact, simply don’t care about. None of what we decide at General Conference will make any difference if the folks who make up our church have no idea what is going on and no ownership of the process.

So to start with, here are some of their responses to the questions the study guide raises:

  1. What do you experience in the world and the church that calls for urgent action?  Declining membership, need to have young people and kids in the church, political unrest – especially in the Middle East, and to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world.
  2. What is the role of the congregation in helping United Methodists practice personal piety and the means of grace? attending local worship, bible study, to pass on the word about opportunities to grow, a reminisence about the song “I Surrender All”; the conference? education opportunities, district leadership events, retreats, resources and support (financial and persons), connection points to ministries we do together; the denomination? we hear about the controversial things that GC discusses and how they take a stand on issues of justice, they give us rules and guidelines for how to live, resources and support, Upper Room
  3. What church leader do you know today who has been a turnaround leader and what did they do? They talked about how in our local church people ARE stepping up to lead.  They were a bit dismayed by the piece in the study guide that said “the next anticipated significant decline is in the field of mission giving and mission engagement.”  This is an area where they have seen HUGE growth as a congregation because we are taking risks and stepping up. They credit me with this because I have brought some energy and have been willing to take risks, but it also has to do with laity taking up the reins on those projects.  They also mentioned that we are not afraid to show the community we are in it for the long haul and to dedicate ourselves to projects. Someone asked what would happen if we worshipped outside in the park for a whole month during the summer and built relationships with folks who were unchurched – great question and one we are going to look into!  The conversation drifted to how to engage younger folks.  Someone asked if there was a way to encourage youth to give back – musically, in worship, etc. so that they could get to know them better. While I think there are, I also lead into the next question…
  4. What should we sacrifice to embrace God’s unfolding mission for the church? I asked what they could sacrifice to in turn reach out to the youth? joining them for dinner on Wednesdays? going to their events outside of church? We talked about sacrificing our comfort with worshipping inside the church in order to meet people out in the community.

Overall, they are grateful for the opportunity to think about these things and really looking forward to continuing on to the second half next week.

One of the frustrations that I had with the first part of the study guide is the focus on “turning around” the sinking ship.  While sections 1 and 2 call for deeper discipleship and re-claiming our mission as the United Methodist Church, section 3 shifted the focus to what they see the biggest problem is: decline in people and money.  Down-ward sloping numbers… that is what the Call to Action is all about.  It is not framed in terms of the true missional need in our communities – ie: the number of people around us who don’t know Christ.  It is not framed in terms of the great opportunities for ministry around us.  No, the urgent call is in direct response to decline.

I actually think it is kind of trivializing to compare our reductions in people and dollars with the “stiff winds of oppression” that Esther and Mordecai were confronted with facing the genocide of their people.  The “stiff winds” of indifference and fatigue and a lost sense of purpose are NOT the same as massacre.

Yes, we need some forward-thinking leadership.

Yes, we need adaptability.

Yes, we need courage.

And yes, we need to make sacrifices and take risks in the process.

I know that the declining numbers are not the problem in themselves, but merely symptoms of larger “spiritual and systemic issues.”  But I wish that this study guide and in fact, the Call to Action in general, would talk more about those larger spirtual and systemic issues and less about the numbers.   (if any of you can point me to a resource that does address what CTA thinks those larger spiritual/systemic issues are… please tell me!)

Instead, we are left with the impression that the problem is that people aren’t coming to church and that people aren’t coming to worship and that people aren’t giving enough.  And at least my congregation doesn’t know what it is going to take to change that.  They can’t necessarily give more.  They keep asking their neighbors and friends to come and they won’t.  They are working on building relationships and reaching outside of the walls of our church and my prayer is that as they do that… as they are the hands and feet of Christ in this world… that people will come to know Jesus through them and will find a place within our church family.

Preparing for our Lenten study on Romans 12 (our vision scripture) I came across Chip Ingram’s work on the text.  In this segment, he answers the question: if God doesn’t measure faith by activities, why do people and churches?

I think it’s a good question.  We are called to make disciples.  And I suppose that if we are making something, we want to see numerical growth. But I understand discipleship as a process.  A process that requires inward growth, deep growth, lifelong growth.  If I can take the 50 people who regularly attend my church each week and spend my whole life working with them and at the end of that time those fifty people have learned to follow Jesus more closely, to surrender their lives to him, to serve others through him, and have planted seeds in the lives of others, have I done my job? I tend to think so… but I’m not sure that CtA would agree I have been very effective.

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