A SPEECH TO THE
UM NETWORK OF CONGREGATIONAL DEVELOPERS
February 24, 2005
You and I are living in an interesting time. It is a difficult time, but it is not a boring time. It is a time of fundamental change in the relationship between the church and the culture. In such a time as this, our most important responsibility is to re-orient the life of the church so that the church will be able to fulfill the mission given to it by Jesus Christ through the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
We have become conscious of a fundamental change in the relationship between the church and the culture that has been happening over a long period of time. Especially during the last forty years we have become aware of two major changes in our culture.
For one thing, we are aware that Western civilization is post-Christian. The concept that the Christian church is the religion of the culture which became established under Emperor Constantine in the Roman Empire in the 4th century is no longer a concept that can be sustained in the nations of Europe, North America or Australia and other places under the influence of Western civilization. The cultural establishment of the church existed long after any political establishment of the church had been eroded. This is especially evident in The United States of America. Here there has been no political establishment of the church, but there has been a cultural establishment of the church. For a long time there existed what was called
the "Protestant empire" in America. That empire is gone as a result of the increasing pluralism of American society, the evolution of a more secular identity of government according to Jeffersonian tendencies, and the emergence of a powerful mass media dominated by people who lend cultural support to the ideal of a fully pluralistic society.
Christians in America have different responses to the emergence of a post-Christian society. Some want to fight a rear-guard action trying to reclaim the cultural establishment of the church. Others, including myself, believe that the church should invest its energies in becoming an alternative, distinctive community within a pluralistic society. We believe the crucial question is no longer, "How can we be Christians and Americans?", but "How can we be Christians in America?" Neither group of Christians has given up on the possibility of the emergence over time of a new Christian culture, but those of us who think that our primary objectives should be the development of the church as an alternative, distinctive community within a pluralistic society believe the emergence of a new Christian culture would be a by-product of the vigorous influence of Christians in society and that such a culture would exist only as the result of cultural influence rather than as a political arrangement.
If the object is to become an alternative, distinctive community in society, then the implications for congregational development are enormous. Then we have to ask ourselves how to build congregations that possess an identity and practices that enable them to be witnesses to Jesus Christ and that resist accommodation to the surrounding culture while still being relevant to the culture.
For another thing, we are aware that we are now living in a post-modern society. The term "post-modern" is highly ambiguous. I think that whatever else it means, it is an attempt to acknowledge that the world-view of the intellectual movement begun in the 18th century called The Enlightenment no longer has absolute sway over the minds of the masses. The Enlightenment nurtured the notions that the norms of the past should not be binding upon us in the present, that human reason can be the only foundation for assessing what is real or true, and that a human person is an autonomous individual. The modern world is a world shaped by the Enlightenment, and its intellectual foundations are crumbling because people perceive there are dimensions of reality that cannot be contained within the narrow framework of its presuppositions. There is every indication today that the Enlightenment is losing its grip on the Western mind because it is impossible for an ideology to convince people indefinitely that what they sense is real is not real.
The phenomenon of the search for spirituality in our culture is one indication of how the bounds of the Enlightenment are being transcended. The rationalism of the Enlightenment is a reduction of reality, and it stifles the human spirit. People’s thirst for spirituality represents the refusal to succumb to such strictures. The poet Mary Oliver spoke for many when she wrote in her essay "Winter Hours," "Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention, and that is the recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state" (Winter Hours, Houghton Mifflin Company, Pp.101-102).
The Christian response to the emergence of the post-modern world seems confusing. On the one hand, it is perceived by some as a threat; and on the other hand, it is welcomed. I think the different responses occur because of a distinction between post-modernism and post-modernity. Post-modernism refers to a variety of philosophies, some of which espouse nihilism and relativism that are a threat to the Christian perspective. But post-modernity refers to the characteristics of the present milieu, which simply represent the kind of culture that exists and which offer opportunities as well as challenges to the church.
Because we live in a post-modern world, then again the implications for congregational development are enormous. The question is how we can create new congregations and renew existing congregations that can be effective in their mission in a post-modern world. I would suggest that congregations that take seriously mystery, revelation, tradition, community, and experience are the kinds of congregations that will thrive in this new milieu.
So then, in light of the changes that are occurring in Western culture, what can we say about the state of The United Methodist Church today? What I say is said out of love for our Church, but also out of a sense of responsibility for its future.
What I say is that we are a modern church in a post-modern world. In order "to serve the present age" we need to overcome some of the habits we acquired when we adjusted to the modern age. I think our habits are both intellectual and institutional.
During the modern era we acquired certain intellectual habits that do not suit our mission in a post-modern world. Some of the intellectual habits that inhibit our mission as a church include a hermeneutics of suspicion toward Scripture and the Christian tradition, a polemical or negligent attitude toward doctrine, an antinomian interpretation of grace, and negligence toward the tasks of evangelism and Christian initiation.
The hermeneutics of suspicion toward Scripture and the Christian tradition may fit when the agenda of the church is to counter fundamentalist theology and to practice an apologetics whose aim is to relate to "the cultured despisers of religion" (Schleiermacher). However, it does not fit when the agenda of the church is to proclaim the Word of God in the words of the Bible to masses of people who know nothing about the Bible and who are looking for a tradition to give them roots in a rapidly changing society.
The polemical or negligent attitude toward doctrine may have seemed tolerable when the church assumed that it was the religion of the culture, but it no longer fits the agenda of building the church as an alternative, distinctive community within a pluralistic society. The Anglican theologian Alister E. McGrath reminds us that one of the functions of doctrine is "social demarcation." That is, the doctrine of the church establishes parameters of belief that gives the church an identity in the midst of other communities in a pluralistic society. As McGrath said, "a new social situation [of a society that is non-Christian and secularist] demands a new – and more positive – attitude to doctrine…," and "doctrine is likely to become of increased, rather than diminished, theological importance in---the new millennium" (The Genesis of Doctrine, Eerdmans, p.51).
The antinomian interpretation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ represents an accommodation to the moral relativism and permissiveness of the culture. It is odd how many United Methodists will exude about the "Wesleyan" understanding of grace, and then proceed to articulate an antinomian perspective that is precisely the opposite of Wesley’s integration of law and gospel or grace and holiness of life. In a world in which people are looking for a healthy way to live their lives, the antinomian interpretation of grace prevents the church from fulfilling its mission of forming the character of people.
The neglect of the tasks of evangelism and Christian initiation is a habit acquired during the cultural establishment of the church. In the old era, there may have been an effort to increase members of the church, but there was not necessarily a full commitment to reach out to those who are not Christians and then to initiate them in the Christian life. However, in a pluralistic and secular society, the task of the church is to intentionally reach out to those who are not Christians and to provide a means of initiating them into the Christian church as a way of de-toxifying them of the poisons of the surrounding culture.
If The United Methodist Church is going to fulfill its mission in the post-Christian and post-modern world it needs to develop new intellectual habits of a positive proclamation of what Christians believe and how Christians behave and passionately inviting and forming people of all races and classes to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
In addition to the intellectual habits our Church acquired during the modern era, there are also institutional habits. The institutional form of our Church was developed under the influence of the rational, bureaucratic mindset of the 20th century. However, cultural patterns have shifted, and new perceptions are creating demands for changes in the institutional life of the Church. We need to beware of morphological fundamentalism which would be a determination to cling to the
institutional status quo regardless of the perception of members of the Church that present forms may not seem compelling in their justification.
Institutional reform is exceedingly difficult. In his study of Western culture, the historian Jacques Barzun wrote, "Institutional self-reform is rare; the conscience is willing, but the culture is tough" (From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, Harper Collins, p.6).
I would submit that The United Methodist Church needs to begin to take risks to change and to be courageous in experimenting with new institutional forms in order to become more relevant to the culture and more effective in our mission. If we start moving, we will make mistakes; but then we can learn from our mistakes and eventually develop a more dynamic life. You cannot steer a car unless it is moving, and we cannot guide the Church into new directions unless we begin moving.
I do have hope that we are entering an era of greater institutional reform. The new class of bishops elected in 2004 and the creation of a new Connectional Table provide opportunities for developing a new positive vision of mission that will entail different ways of being the Church. We ought not ever again have a General Conference when there is no positive proposal for advancing the mission of the church.
While I believe that there is a need for reform of the general church, I think annual conferences can be arenas for experimentation. In The United States, often it is the states rather than the federal government that experiment; by analogy, in the Church, the annual conferences can show the way forward for the rest of the Church.
In this era of change, both the bishops and the congregational developers have roles to play. Among the expectations of bishops is that bishops read "the signs of the times" and guard the apostolic faith and equip the Church for its disciple-making ministry. As teachers and leaders, we who are bishops have the responsibility to show the way forward in this time of historic cultural change. Congregational developers should lead by helping to create congregations equipped to serve the post-Christian and the post-modern world (such as the congregations in the Emergent Church movement practicing ancient/future worship and evangelism), to make sure that in relating to the culture it is the mission rather than the market that shapes the ministry of congregations, and participating in experiments of new institutional reforms in annual conferences.
I want to share with you in general some of the agenda of the Florida Conference.
In Florida we seek to become one Church of diverse people in different locations who participate in God’s mission of transforming the world. We have three primary objectives for congregations.
First, we want to reproduce our healthy congregations. Up until now we expected healthy congregations to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Now we expect healthy congregations not only to make new disciples who become members of those congregations, but also to start new communities of faith. These new communities of faith might be "satellites" of the one congregation or they might become new congregations. The point is that we believe that one mark of a healthy congregation is that it will reproduce itself by creating new communities of faith out of its vital life and mission.
Second, we want to transform existing congregations from being congregations that maintain their present members to congregations that are in mission to the people in their communities. In order to experience this transformation congregations need a theology of mission, a spiritual renewal, and a willingness to go through an intentional process of change under the guidance of a trained coach and a trained pastor.
Third, we want every congregation to participate in the global mission of the Church. If we were successful beyond our wildest dreams in reproducing and transforming congregations, but they became congregations that cared only about their local communities, we would have merely created congregations with a small vision. God’s mission is the transformation of the world, a world of people for whom Christ died, a world of poverty, injustice and violence. We think we need to build congregations that are committed to God’s mission in the world, and at least that includes their participation in exciting ways in the global mission of the Church. Anything less would be to operate with a reductionist understanding of the Church’s mission.
Moreover, in the Florida Conference we understand the need to rebuild the connection in Christ of all of our congregations and ministries.
John Wesley said that there is no such thing as "a solitary Christian." In the Wesleyan tradition we have also assumed that there is no such thing as a solitary congregation; rather we assume that all congregations should be connected together as one Church.
I believe that our ecclesiology that assumes a connection among congregations is a powerful resource for congregational development. I have a hunch that in the 21st century that the future belongs to those organizations that exist in a holistic system of interrelated parts rather than to those organizations that attempt to exist as self-contained wholes. The vision of the late 20th century was to create self-sustaining mega churches. They will continue, but Christian communions that aim to create new systems in which all congregations are related and integrated rather than merely create outstanding congregational islands like mega churches will enjoy greater success. More importantly, the concept that all congregations should be connected is consistent with our worship of the Triune God. God is not solitary, but God is one relationship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Being created in God’s image means to live in relationship. It is a Trinitarian theology that ultimately leads to an ecclesiology that assumes that all congregations are connected to one another as one Church.
In Florida, we want to experience connection in a new way. We believe what is written in The Book of Discipline: "Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships."
We think that during the 20th century our congregations experienced the connection as more of an institution rather than as "a vital web of interactive relationships." We think congregations experience the connection vertically as a relationship through the office of the district superintendent to the rest of the Church. What we want to do is to enable congregations to experience the connection also horizontally as a relationship among other congregations for the sake of mission.
We think that if we rebuild the connection horizontally, then our congregations will come to understand better the whole of the global connection of which they are a part.
Last year the Florida Annual Conference approved a proposal from the cabinet called "Connecting For Transformation."
Briefly, let me mention the plan for restructure of our districts, and then let me point out the missional heart of the plan.
We knew we would need to reduce the number of districts as a matter of fiscal prudence. But the cabinet and I perceived that it would be a mistake to merely propose a reduction of districts. Rather the necessity to reduce districts was an opportunity to re-orient the life of the Florida Conference, to re-create the connection as "a vital web of interactive relationships," and to form a new culture of congregations helping one another to be effective in mission. We knew that the only way to seize the opportunity to re-orient the life of the conference would be to make large changes and to put ourselves in a situation where we would have to function differently.
So then rather than reduce districts, we studied our state and considered it as having several regions. We asked, What if we had a district for each region? Of course, the districts would have to be larger, but they could not be too large. In the end, we proposed having 9 districts rather than 14 districts.
To function as 9 large districts with about 80 charges, we would have to do many things differently. Cluster charge conferences would have to be the norm. Elders would need to help Superintendents in ordering the life of the Church. District organization would have to be simplified. And District Superintendents would need to reclaim their role to be what Dean Russ Ritchey of the Candler School of Theology calls "the chief missional, evangelistic and strategic office of United Methodism" ("Outline District Superintendency: A Reconsideration").
The missional heart of our plan is the principle that every congregation and ministry and clergyperson will be in a relationship with other congregations, ministries, and clergy. We shall fulfill this principle by creating clusters of congregations and clergy. Most will be formed on the basis of geography; others will be formed on the basis of an affinity in mission; some will be formed as a teaching/learning relationship. In the clusters, leaders of congregations, both lay and clergy, will come together to ask, "What is God calling us to be and to do?" They will pray together; they will encourage and equip one another to be more effective in their respective ministries; they will share resources; and they will cooperate to fulfill the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ in their area.
We believe that the formation of clusters creates a new matrix for mission. It can become a means of grace through which the Spirit of God works to awaken and to move congregations forward in mission.
I think that the formation of clusters and the creation of a horizontal connection among the congregations can create synergy and release energy into the life of the congregations and their clergy. The pre-Christian philosopher Heraclitus had a Christian insight when he said, "A wonderful harmony is created when we join together the seemingly unconnected" (Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It) by Roger Von Oech, The Free Press, p.59).