It Ain’t Just About Local Congregations

The Call to Action Interim Operations Team of The United Methodist Church has issued its final report and has, I think, disbanded.  I have recently read the account of their report in The United Methodist Reporter and I have seriously mixed feelings.

The report, says the article, “calls on the denomination to..’.refocus a higher share of resources and attention on congregations to promote and cultivate the drivers of vitality.'”  This means revitalizing existing congregations as well as starting new ones.

Local congregations, obviously, are the primary source of funding for all our general church programs.  They are the major touch points for bearing witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Please hear me: I love the local church and hope all of them – large or small – thrive.

But this call also represents a fatal loss of vision for heirs of John Wesley.  The report also specifies the need for increasing the number of young clergy leaders, not to mention young people in general.  And many, many, many of the young people we need to reach are nowhere near a local congregation, not even of the really creative and “cutting edge” kind.  How will pouring more resources into local congregations help if they have no vision for reaching young people – including their own youth who go off to college and promptly drop whatever religious “commitments” they seemed to have?

With the near obsessive focus on vital congregations we find an almost total blindness to how to reach and develop relationships with young people, the increase we have seen in the number of younger General Conference delegates notwithstanding.

You may have seen one of the numerous recent reports about the latest Pew research detailing the rapid and worrisome increase in the number of people having “no religious preference” (the “nones).  That number is highest among young people, especially those of the traditional college age cohort.  (College students actually go to church at a higher rate than young people of the same age not in college, but the trend among students is also toward more “nones.”)

In other words, there is a huge gap between where the IOT report says the resources need to go and the people we say we are trying to reach!

Yes, Bishop Schnase and others episcopal leaders have thankfully started paying attention to this issue, but the jury is still out on whether, for example, moving all college ministries to churches near campuses, will bear the fruit he says it will.  I admit, I have my doubts.

At the risk of self-promotion, let me offer you an example from my own experience.  During a recent ten year period, Southwestern College in Kansas saw 50 (yes fifty) traditional college-age graduates (i.e. not counting people in the professional studies program who did the same – that’s another story) either go to seminary or directly into ministry, many of them in youth ministry.  By comparison to lots of other UM schools, Southwestern is tiny.  But it has done more than its fair share of discipling young people and helping them gain a vision of themselves as servants of Jesus Christ.

Obviously, a college does not qualify as a local congregation, but it is part of The United Methodist Church.  Some may want to argue about that claim.  I’m ready to argue.

The basic unit of The United Methodist Church is the annual conference, not the local congregation, and there’s good reason, good theological and missional and cultural reason.  And we dare not forget.  The mission of the church is not just about vital local congregations.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Good points Rev. Rankin.

  2. michael l mckee says:

    Steve,

    In traditions class i think you and Hal taught us something John Wesley said. Namely, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” – John Wesley

    “…having the form of religion without the power.”

    Sadly, i think Wesley’s fear has come to pass. A religious form ‘without power,’ and that’s where we are because we did not ‘hold fast’ to the transformative ‘discipline’ [method] of Wesleyan spirituality [accountable small groups].

    Sadly, revitalization is not looking very promising as congregations cling very tightly to their dead forms.

    i’m thinking a ‘restart’ movement needs to be developed to go alongside the ‘new start’ movement.

    …just trying to follow Jesus,
    michael

    • Thank you, Michael. It’s good to hear from you. Would you be interested in helping with a “restart” movement? Got some ideas? Seriously, I’d like to hear more.

      • michael l mckee says:

        Steve,

        Well, we might say i’m sort of ‘doing research’ as i’m presently engaged with serving Christ as a pastor through three small congregations.

        i think i’m to the point of having a decent grasp on what the essential DNA of a ‘restart’ might need to look like. Namely, the shift (on the foundation/paradigm level) from clergy-centered to Christ-centered; from personality-driven to mission-driven; and from consumer-based to discipleship-based as the organizing DNA pattern.

        As a church [global to local] i think transformation needs to be our core enterprise.

        My vision for a ‘vital’ local church is that they have a crystal clear sense of mission within and throughout the entire congregation [i.e., our aim of disciples making disciples] with a focus on participation through commitment and accountability.

        i’m not sure what ‘forms’ that DNA pattern will want/need to take, i’m wide open on that.

        The trouble with any of this is in finding local churches who are willing to suffer the pain of a restart. As a resurrection people one would like to think all this might come more naturally to us. [shrugs]

        grays and peas,
        michael

  3. Tom Lambrecht says:

    Hi, Steve.

    Excellent perspective. Perhaps I am wrong, but I would include campus ministries as a form of local congregation. I think that is especially true where there is a resident chaplain. Campus ministries can also be an outreach ministry of a local congregation or an annual conference. But I think campus ministries work best when they form a faith community of the students, engaging them in discipleship and mission as a community. It is usually not possible to link college students into nearby local churches in the way that they truly belong to that local church community. Their first identity is to the campus faith community. I would call that faith community a congregation, which needs the resources of the denomination in the same way that other local churches do. Thank you for the great work you are doing in that setting!

    In Christ,
    Tom

    • Thank you, Tom, for the encouraging comments.

      It is an intriguing idea, that a campus ministry unit, or, additionally, in our case, a chaplain’s office with a Sunday worship service, might actually be considered as on par with a local church. In most of the usual ways, we are, but we don’t meet all the criteria for being a regular congregation. I confess, I don’t really know how to overcome this challenge. I’ve sat in so many meetings at annual conferences and elsewhere in which the standard framework is the local church. The rest of us in the room – appointed to ministries “beyond the local church” – always feel the implications of that assumption. But I don’t want to do the, “Hey, us too!” routine and complain about being left out.

      I’m really open to ideas about how to make some progress.

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