I mentioned that I happened to run into Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter a couple of nights ago. As is almost always the case, I thought of what I really wanted to say after I walked away. I wrote it down, and sent it to him as a letter. Can’t hurt right? It’s part of our global conversation of church restructuring, so I’ll share it here (minus the greeting and stuff).
Dear Rev. Hamilton,
Regardless of what plan for the UMC we (move on toward) perfect and adopt, I had one process conversation that I hoped to share. I read the whole report months ago and really loved the theology and push behind it; I just think there’s one more question that needs to be asked.
The Call to Action folks asked what makes a vital congregation. I want to take one more postmodern step back and ask, what makes a congregation? Put another way, what is the model of a local church?
I submit that the presumed model is something like: a relatively fixed congregation that meets in an old (usually) building once a week for worship, and a smaller, more fixed subset of that group that trickles in and out in between to handle the administration and ministry of the congregation.
This model of the church is dying. Definitely. I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing.
There are a few very prominent exceptions, places where what appears to be this model is still very successful, but I believe the Church-of-the-Resurrections and the Glide-Memorials of the world are actually not living this model. They are exceptions that prove the rule.
See, I think the strategists looked at vital and vibrant churches, presuming the current model, and asked, what do these congregations have in common? What do they do that we can measure and teach that makes them the same? From there they developed measures of vitality, some of which are really great, but some of which I feel are trying to make us better at being a church in the model that is broken and dying.
I’d suggest that what makes those magnificent churches vital is not what they do that’s the same, but what they do and have done that has deviated from the presumed model of local church. What makes them different? Because that’s where they are living into a new way of being a local church, and that’s what we need to learn.
I’m not an analyst or anything. I’m a local church pastor with just under eight years of ministry experience behind me. I can’t answer that question, although I suspect it has something to do with smaller, intimate groups of people in prayer and action together, connected to one another and to their context/community, gathering in worship to celebrate, equip, and uplift, and then living out their connection to God where they experience deep and true meaning in their lives in ways that are relevant for them, and engage and transform the world around them.
In any case, if we see what we need to equip congregations in a new evolving model of local church (for example, I am horribly under resourced for how to identify and nurture leadership ability in the laity with whom I serve—been making it up as I go along!), then I think we can better evaluate vital congregations, effective lay and clergy leaders, and the effectiveness of our global church to resource, inspire, and equip those churches and leaders.
It is important to me that this conversation
happen somewhere, because I believe in the UMC of today and tomorrow, I love it dearly, and I want us not to survive as an institution, but to die if we must and rise again to newer and more abundant life. I deeply appreciate your work on behalf of our worldwide church, and passionate, relevant ministry. I am honored to be in this Church—the whole big multi-denominational movement of people loving and serving Jesus—with you.
Grace and peace, and God’s resurrection promise,