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.