God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils.
Ezekiel prophesied to the breath to bring life to the dry bones.
Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
In each of the three scriptural moments above, there is structure but no life. In Genesis 2, a man has been formed out of the dust of the earth, but has yet to live. In Ezekiel 37, the bones have been knit together with tissue and flesh, but they were not yet alive. In John 20, the group of disciples was together, but was not empowered to go and share the Gospel.
Structure but no life.
That kind of sounds like John Wesley’s motivation for what he did, doesn’t it? In his beloved church, he saw structure but no life. His desire was to breathe life into the Church of England, not to separate from it. By creating Methodist societies within the Church, Wesley hoped to revitalize the faith of the people while remaining a part of the structure that he so respected.
Working within that structure, he nevertheless pushed right up to the edge of it. In many minds, he transgressed the boundary. Eventually those who comprised the structure would not allow him to continue within it. The momentum of the Methodist movement carried it out of the Church of England and it flourished on its own.
Come to think of it, “structure but no life” is how many would describe the United Methodist Church of 2012, also. And in many ways, the “Call to Action” and the “Plan B” recommendations that will be considered by this year’s United Methodist General Conference are an attempt to breathe life into an old, top-heavy structure.
But the present recommendations differ from Wesley’s movement in two significant ways. First, Wesley worked from the ground up, and these recommendations are being made from the top down (a General Conference decision being the “top” and implementation in local churches the “down”). Secondly (and significantly), Wesley was responding to a powerful new spiritual movement taking place, and the present proposals are responding to a declining denomination.
Wesley created technical changes (societies, bands, classes) that resonated with the immense adaptive change that was taking place all around him (the “First Great Awakening”). Starting small, the movement expanded up and out, and ultimately “outgrew” the Church of England.
Wesley was brilliant. He discerned the historical moment and realized the church structure of his day was insufficient to contain it, and in his wisdom and immense capacity for detail, caught the leading edge of the wave, dramatically transforming the way people of his day did church.
I am not opposed to the Call to Action recommendations. Not at all. Let’s do it; make the changes and see how they fly.
What bugs me, though, is that we are making all these technical changes that are motivated by the decline of our denomination, and we are pretending that they are actually adaptive changes that are going to transform the culture in our congregations. They aren’t adaptive changes, in my opinion. They may be changes that are intended to bring about adaptive change, but the proposals as listed and discussed are technical changes.
The reason that this bugs me is that I think we are missing the actual adaptive changes that are already happening all around us. There is a significant spiritual movement taking place in the world, and we are already too late to catch the leading edge of it, as Wesley did so long ago. The best we can hope for at this point is to jump into it in the middle somewhere.
The technical changes the denomination needs to address are related to the tools we use to assess congregational vitality. For example, we are still trying to get our heads around the impact that new means of communication, social media, and other online interaction is having on the way people connect faith and life.
A person can watch their congregation’s worship service live online from just about any place in the world. Instant, hand-held access to more information than a person could ever hope to process has forever transformed how we learn, including how we learn about God. Facebook alone has fundamentally altered the way people feel about how well we know one another. Awareness of injustice is instantaneously Tweeted to millions whose resources can be mobilized to respond in just days, if not hours.
How do we assess congregational fruitfulness in a world that looks so different than it did 20 years ago? (Even 10, even 5 …)
This is the pressing technical question for our denomination, as I see it. But I believe the United Methodist Church needs to undergo some deep adaptive changes, as well.
The adaptive changes that need to be made in the United Methodist Church, in my opinion, are theological. Stated simply (and borrowing a term), we must immediately purge the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that pervades the church and allow the mystery of the triune God to empower us to realize the reign of God on earth by fully patterning our lives after the life of Christ, however that may look. I could go on and on about this, but that is going to have to be content for another post.
This is a long one. If you are still reading by this point, an extra gold star for you! I want to make clear that I am not opposed to change, I do not fear change, this is not an anti-change thing. I say let’s give the “Call to Action” recommendations a go, and see what happens.
All I’m saying is I want answers to questions like, “Our congregation’s Facebook group has 211 ‘likes’ and last week it had 209. Is that fruitful?”