A book on strategies to revitalize The United Methodist Church is nothing more than an interesting academic exercise, unless something happens as a result. People must take specific actions if our church is to reverse the downward spiral of the past two decades and increase the effectiveness of its witness and ministry. We are optimistic that our church already has the structure and the people to revitalize United Methodism. This concluding chapter will present some next steps: what should be done and by whom. These steps do not encompass everything that must be done, but they are a beginning. We believe that they are the most important steps to be taken.
Radical changes in the structure of the denomination are not necessary. Superficial tinkering with the ecclesiastical machinery would only divert time and energy from more important tasks. Instead, radical changes in the way we operate as a denomination are absolutely essential. Our problem is not that we need new forms of organization, but that we are not using our present structure in ways that will create a vital and growing church. Our system is being misused for the benefit of certain groups, rather than to further the purpose of the entire church. All United Methodists - the laity, the clergy, and the denominational leaders - bear responsibility for helping make the changes necessary for the revitalization of the church. There are some tasks that fall to all United Methodists; others are the primary responsibility of the laity, the clergy, or certain denominational leaders. Below is a proposed agenda for the revitalization of United Methodism.
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For All United Methodist People
Affirming the Wesleyan heritage is the responsibility of every United Methodist. A vital church must know who it is, what it believes, and why it operates as it does. We are not advocating a form of denominational triumphalism, but a knowledge and an appreciation of our distinctive identity. The United Methodist Church is not a bland, unexciting shade of gray; we really do have something special,to offer people - a unique experience and expression of the Christian faith. Every local church must give attention to this matter.
Local churches need more courses in historic United Methodism and the Wesleyan spirit. This is important for all church members, because it cannot be assumed that even people who have grown up in our church have an adequate knowledge of their heritage. It is critical for persons who are received by transfer from other denominations to learn about United Methodism. We must respect our heritage enough to insist that new members submit to instruction. The person who recently commented, "I like being a Methodist because you can believe anything you want to," typifies the problem. A wide range of programs, from Sunday school classes to special events, can be designed to help people understand and appreciate their church. An increasing number of materials is already available; more will be needed, particularly those that utilize new video possibilities.
Discovering the real purpose of the church is also a matter to which all United Methodists must give attention. Our church is fragmented. We have become involved in so many programs, have formed so many alliances with a variety of religious and secular groups, and have championed so many contradictory causes that we no longer know what is our unique task. To recover the real purpose of the church will not be easy because many of the activities in which we have been involved are socially useful, if not necessarily Christian, and all have their champions within our bureaucracy.
Each congregation needs to ask itself the questions: "Who are we?" and "What are we trying to accomplish?" To begin to answer these questions requires a determination of the criteria by which a particular activity is judged to have an appropriate claim on the church's limited resources. Each local church should prepare a statement of mission, utilizing the statements on the mission of the church in the Discipline, by which its program could be measured. The budget could then be studied to see if expenditures are in line with the congregation's purpose.
The development of a statement of local mission or purpose will require much soul searching. It will force people to take account of their understanding of the faith, their heritage, and the situation in which their church exists today. The completion of this task would enable the members to better understand their faith and the way that faith is lived out through the local Christian community. It would give focus to the congregation's work and enable the people to concentrate their efforts on activities and goals that are consistent with their understanding of their purpose.
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For the Laity
Methodism has, from its earliest days, been a church in which the clergy have been dominant. The last half century has seen the inclusion of increasing numbers of laypersons in official voting positions until they now constitute one half of the members of many church bodies, including the General Conference, the Jurisdictional Conferences, and the Annual Conferences. Nevertheless many lay officials follow the leadership of the clergy, who continue to be the dominant force in the denomination.
United Methodist laypersons, even after two hundred years, tend to be too passive. The laity expect - as they have a right to expect - competent and dedicated leadership from the clergy. In those cases in which such leadership is not forthcoming, they tolerate the individual, hoping for a change in the near future. Because they are loyal church members and do not want to cause trouble, many laypeople are reluctant to challenge the clergy or the system. Furthermore, there is the widespread belief that a congregation that is uncooperative, that gives its minister a hard time, or that doesn't pay its apportionments will be "punished" by the clerical guild by being given a less competent pastor. Some district superintendents encourage this belief, and there are enough examples to give it credibility.
Lay members can and must do several things if the church is to experience revitalization. They must be more assertive, even if their assertiveness results in conflict. They must be less accepting of poor performance of the clergy. If a minister is preaching poorly, reusing old sermons, or neglecting the sacraments, the laypeople should let him or her know that the congregation expects and deserves more competent leadership. This would be better than complaining to one another and attending church less frequently.
Passivity on the part of the laity is bad for all. It is bad for the pastor because it permits a less than satisfactory performance to continue. It is bad for the lay members because they are not adequately served. It is bad for the congregation because it results in bad situations being allowed to continue and decreases the church's overall effectiveness.
An effective denomination depends on vital local churches. The denominational outreach and benevolent programs represent an extension of the ministry of the local churches and are possible only because of the financial support United Methodists provide. The energy and the commitment that are gathered in local churches are the foundation for everything else done by the denomination. First priority must be given to strengthening the local church and to making it more effective. A good rule to follow is: Any clergy appointment system, method of organization, or church program that debilitates the life of the local church is bad for the whole church.
The laity will have to assume responsibility for making the local church the major priority. The clergy are members of the annual conference and perceive their career as dependent on their loyalty to the larger organization, rather than to their performance in the local church. What we are asking for is a drastic departure from the role laity have played in the church. A more assertive laity will not be received enthusiastically by many of the clergy and church bureaucrats. While there has been an attempt to involve more laity, it has been in ways that ensure that they would not threaten the institutional status quo. What is needed is a more assertive laity, who will exert real influence on the course of the church.
The laity must be more assertive and insist that their local church respond effectively to the needs of the members and of the community. It is the laity who must insist that the local church receive first priority. Given the nature of United Methodism, it is unlikely that the laity will have any significant effect on the denominational organization or on the boards and agencies. However, a more assertive laity could ensure that the church structure would not become an undue burden or a handicap to the local congregation. The faithful congregation will be here, serving Christ and his kingdom, long after the national bureaucracy has crumbled.
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For the Clergy
Although the clergy cannot, by themselves, bring about a revitalized church, their role is critical. Some needed actions can be taken only by the ordained ministry. Foremost is the need to focus on ways to improve the Sunday morning worship service, particularly the preaching. Laypersons consistently stress the importance of preaching, so it is incredible that the clergy do not give this task top priority. United Methodist pastors have long been aware that mediocre preaching will not jeopardize their careers; after all, neither the bishop nor the district superintendents have more than cursory information on an elder's preaching ability.
Good preaching requires that the preacher believe deeply in his or her message. A life-changing message produces effective messengers. The preacher puts his or her faith on the line whenever a sermon is preached. Good preaching requires not only long and careful preparation, but also the risk of presenting one's faith publicly. Preaching is more difficult than attending committee meetings in the conference headquarters or counseling with individuals - little wonder then that some of our pastors have become distracted from the task of preaching. Nevertheless a pastor does nothing that is more important. It is not an exaggeration to say that the first step toward a revitalized church must begin on Sunday morning.
Changes in the way the denomination does things must be made by the clergy with support from the laity. Some of the needed changes will, at least in the short-term, threaten the clergy. Abolishing the minimum salary, after several decades of annually trying to increase it, is an example. Demanding courageous leaders who will take the church in new directions, instead of managers who maintain the institutional status quo, is another. Being willing to trust the laity may be perceived as a challenge to the pastor's position in the local church. Nevertheless we remain convinced that those men and women who have been called by God into the ordained ministry of The United Methodist Church take both their calling and their ordination vows seriously, that they know the essence of their vocation lies in their ability to serve the people of God, rather than in having the people serve the clergy. Most continue to place the needs of the church above personal preferences, even when this requires substantial personal sacrifice and risk.
A unique responsibility of the clergy is to see that high standards for preparation, effectiveness and conduct for United Methodist ministers are maintained. It is the clergy who must determine whether the candidates for ordination are committed to the faith and have the necessary gifts and graces necessary for the ordained ministry. They have the responsibility to see that their peers maintain high standards, including dismissing those who, for whatever reason, fail to be effective.
Finally, the clergy, as well as the laity must realize that the local church is the most important part of the denomination. Here the gospel is preached. Here people either become Christians or fail to do so. If the local congregations are vital and effective, the whole church prospers. If the local churches are ineffective at winning people to Christ, the elaborate connectional structure is like a house built on sand.
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A Final Word
In the final analysis, the church is of God, who calls it to the task of witness and ministry. The heirs of John Wesley have been used of God for over two centuries. The Wesleyan heritage continues to provide an effective basis for our ministry as The United Methodist Church moves into its third century.
While God calls us, we must respond to that call. The decisions United Methodist clergy and laity must make in the period ahead will determine the future course, perhaps even the continued existence, of United Methodism. We are convinced that God is still calling The United Methodist Church to witness and to serve, to "spread scriptural holiness throughout the land." The response is up to us.
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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press
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