I had a great time at Annual Conference last weekend.
The change we were talking about was more substantive than in years past. It was a change of heart, a change of atmosphere, a change of ethos – not just a change of programming or a change of mission statement or a change of structure.
The shift we talked about was more about turning the ship and less about rearranging the deck chairs (to use a weary cliché). It is in many ways a more complex, more fundamental, and much more difficult change.
There was less panic and more hope. To be sure, the “change or die” attitude was still there, and even breached the surface a few times. This attitude is not only not helpful, it is actually counterproductive to Christ’s purposes. But it was minimized this year, and for that I am grateful.
The catch-phrase was “Somewhere Out There” (cue Feivel) which ended up feeling just about as corny as I thought it would feel, but gave a new focal point to evangelism that was very refreshing. There still are those whose only concern is filling up pews, but the overriding message was not one of numbers, but of people. The theme affirmed for me that sharing grace with just one other person is effective ministry, whatever the result.
(As a side note, I cannot describe how much it grinds my gears when someone says, “Of course it isn’t about numbers, it’s about people” and then proceeds to talk only about numbers and never mentions people.)
The gist I took away from that “outwardly focused” theme was that, if a congregation is doing what congregations do, and doing it faithfully, people will respond to that and want to become a part of it. This is what I’ve been saying all along. Focus on growth is not healthy; focus on being church in a healthy way will result in growth, like a healthy tree bears fruit.
Bishop Schnase’s teaching hour on Monday morning was remarkable. He was at his best. There were a few moments when … yes, I believe so … the Bishop was … I’m pretty sure I saw it … a bit … well … fired up. You kind of have to know Bishop Schnase in order to appreciate how cool it was to hear him and see him allow himself that moment of fervor. It was great!
He talked about ministries of mercy and justice. He talked about Methodism and celebrated a Methodist identity. He talked deeply about why we do this thing we call church, and I loved it. He talked about sharing grace with people and then not knowing how the story ended, in other words, not knowing if the person “gave themselves to Christ” or even started going to a church or anything. Sometimes planting seeds is all you can do, and that’s okay.
I’m going to order the video of his presentation and show it to the congregational leaders. He was sharing personally, not just ecclesially. That hour, more than any other thing I’ve seen in a long time, gives depth and nuance to a new brand of evangelicalism that I hope the church embraces. I want Methodists to claim an evangelical identity again, without having to worry about the political baggage that goes along with it. The way Bishop Schnase talked about it Monday shows a way that we can do that.
So I left Annual Conference energized and excited. There are still people who are rearranging deck chairs and calling it change, but I was convinced this weekend that the transformation that I am hoping for in the United Methodist Church may not be as far (somewhere) out there as I once thought.