A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Radical Change? How about Just a Little Change?

Dan  Dick has written an excellent post referring to General Conference as a "Dollar General (Conference)." He writes,
Each of our conferences committed "goal cards" that redefined "Christian discipleship" as attending church, being in a small group, or giving money to the church. (Some did commit to mission projects/work, but not too many). So, what we have now communicated to the world is that discipleship is not about sacrifice, or supreme commitment, or risk, or even death (forget all that icky cross stuff…), but about going to church when we feel like it. We have taken the Biblical teachings attributed to Jesus, and made them simple and easy and cheap. And ALL of our bishops stepped up to witness to this new, disciple-lite definition.
Now, I have been engaged in this discussion for quite some time, and I realize I am in the minority. I have been told in no uncertain terms by the agency that I formerly worked for that if we make "discipleship" less intimidating, it will attract more young people. I have heard that expecting people to adopt spiritual disciplines and to align one's life with the teachings of Jesus is unrealistic and might drive people from the church. I had it explained to me that since we cannot expect people to rise to the level of authentic discipleship, we need to lower the standards and description of discipleship to make it more attainable to average United Methodists. My position that discipleship is a lifestyle and relationship to which we should challenge and nurture church attendees has been refuted by church leaders at all levels. But, I haven't changed my mind.
One of the reasons I have supported CTA is because the UMC must change. No, the CTA isn't the best thing since sliced bread nor would it have fixed our problems which are much deeper (a commenter on this blog the other day referred to it as a soul issue). But if the GC could have passed CTA and demonstrated a willingness to restructure and sacrifice some of its own personal sacred cows on the altar of a larger vision, it could have been the first step in our willingness to institute radical change that would have come from a General Conference that is increasingly becoming irrelevant in the life of each local United Methodist Church with social agencies operating as if it's still 1957.

Let's be honest: CTA was not radical change for disciples of Jesus Christ who have embraced discipleship as substantively about sacrifice, supreme commitment and risk.

The fact that CTA was set aside demonstrates that we are adverse to even a little change that would threaten our status quo, bourgeois, preference-driven, country club status. If we cannot even consider a little change, how can we even begin to move toward the kind of demanding discipleship that Dan rightly emphasizes? And, yes, I understand that many have said the CTA is somehow beside the point. That is no doubt true in part. The point I want to make is that we United Methodists have become so risk adverse that we make better insurance adjusters than disciples of Jesus Christ. That fact is we can't institute any kind of significant change whether it's good change or bad change. We are stuck in a deep rut-- and the only difference between a rut and a grave is its length, its depth, and how long we're in there.

Yesterday I watched the discussion over whether or not bishops in the United States should be elected for life. The petition offered to change that failed. Now, frankly I don't think whether or not our bishops have lifetime tenure makes a difference for anything in the ministry of the UMC, but I found it very interesting that one of the concerns raised was that if bishops did not have tenure, it would threaten their ability to be prophetic.
That has been the most revealing discussion of the state of the UMC in Tampa thus far. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all the prophets proclaimed the word of the Lord without such job security. One wonders how they did it. They did it because they never considered job security to be one of necessities of being prophetic. Indeed, the prophetic office carried with it many risks.
How interesting it is that a group of people who follow a man whose prophetic witness resulted in his crucifixion believe that job security is a prerequisite for a prophetic voice. But I don't recall Jesus ever saying that a prophet is not without tenure, except in his own town.
The result of all of this is not the pursuit of the excellence of discipleship, but the mediocrity of winning converts. The goal is not to produce disciples who will be an alternative witness to the world, but to manufacture church members who will simply mirror the civilized values of the surrounding culture.

I'm with you Dan, on the desire to see radical change; but I have to confess I would have been happy with at least a small step in the right direction.

Maybe my expectations of my own UMC, which I love, have also become too low.


Derek Kubilus said...

Allan, I understand your sentiment here, and trust me, I too am frustrated witht he church, but the problem with the CTA and the entire Vital Congregations movement is that it just another example of the "bourgeois, preference-driven, country club status" you rightly lament. Among those who oppose the CTA, including Dan Dick, as I understand him, are those who oppose it because the only indicators given of whether or not congregations are "vital" have to do with attendance and giving figures. The problem is that the CTA does nothing to encourage radical discipleship...it encourages church growth, and I think we both know that you don't have to be a disciple to have a growning church.

Bruce said...

I may be missing the major elements of this conversation. I think the best thing to do is set up the local church to create disciples and forget what most of the General Church does. They are kind of out there and cost the local church resourses to exist. OK, I accept the cost, now leave me alone so that I can attempt the creation, development, growth of disciples of Jesus Christ. I am not saying this is the best response to all that is before us, but it is one I can live with.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments.

Yes, indeed a growing church is not in and of itself an indicator of a radically discipled congregation, but the hosts of declining congregations in the UMC are not an indicators either. Indeed, as most agree, it is an indicator of exactly the opposite, so some appeal to numbers is not out of bounds.

I surely disagree with those who think numbers alone tell us everything we need to know, but neither are numbers insignificant. Even Luke feels the need to mention that 5000 converts were added on the first Christian Pentecost.

So, it's not mainly and only about numbers, but neither are numbers irrelevant. I am in complete agreement with you and Dan and others who continue to make the point that it is about radical discipleship, but I am not completely sure that CTA is incompatible with that.

All I want to say is that if GC cannot pass something that at least recognizes we need to do something differently, how in the world are we going to become the radical disciples Jesus called us to be?

And as far as the bourgeois, preference-driven country club context we are all immersed in-- 5000 member churches and 50 member churches are just as buried in that muck. And I fear that will not change until the UMC has experienced the full measure of its exile... and that has not yet happened.

John Partridge said...

So the Bishops simultaneously insist that job security is necessary for them to function, but not for the rank and file clergy.

That seems interesting, no?

Allan R. Bevere said...


I don't think the bishops had anything to say on the matter. They are not allowed to vote at GC nor speak on the floor.