As we approach General Conference 2012, several United Methodist bloggers are participating in a study of the books recommended for GC 2012 during Lent. The study is hosted by Rev. Jeremy Smith at HackingChristianity.net. We’ll read a different book each week. On Thursdays, HX will host discussion, and on Tuesdays, we’ll synchroblog our responses to the week’s book. For more information, check out this post.
One of the reasons I opted in for the first two books of the #GC12Book Study is my familiarity with the first two authors, Lovett Weems and Gil Rendle. I’ve read Rendle’s work and found it very helpful – particularly Holy Conversations. While I’ve not read much of Weems beyond a few short articles, people I respect refer often to his work, so I was eager to get his take on the situation facing the UMC. He self-consciously writes “out of the pragmatic tradition of our heritage” and focuses on “the practical manifestations of [biblical, theological, and historical] commitments” (preface). Weems deftly presents the challenges facing the UMC, and many of his suggestions for the General Conference, Annual Conference, and local church are very helpful. I may even seek to implement some of his ideas for the local church in my ministry context.
I found myself unable, however, to get beyond one difficulty: the book’s framing. Weems begins by comparing the institutional positions of the UMC and the New York Yankees in 1964, when both entered a period of decline. Since 1965, the UMC has lost membership every year (the Yankees, however, have won a few World Series since then). Weems’s research indicates that the denomination has been able to stave off the effects of decline because giving and assets have increased each year during the same span. Because of what he calls the coming “death tsunami,” though, the effects of decline are about to catch up with us. From here, Weems goes on to outline his suggestions in order “to survive the death tsunami and return to the growth of our witness at the same time” (near end of Ch. 1).
Weems makes clear that his desire is not the survival of the UMC for its own sake, but for the sake God’s mission in the world. Still, when the issue is framed this way (1. We’ve been in decline for a while, but we’ve weathered it thus far; 2. We can’t weather it any more; 3. Here’s how not to die), the goal becomes survival for its own sake rather easily. At the local church level, I’ve encountered many situations where churches wanted to grow and/or survive, but, aside from references to the UMC mission statement or a vague imperative to bear fruit, they could not articulate why they wanted to grow. They could not compellingly articulate a clear sense of mission, why people need Jesus, or how their particular church offers something relevant to the lives of people in their context. In such situations, church members assume that they know the answers, but they find themselves unable to articulate them when asked.
I’m afraid that beginning with statistics of decline and talk of a death tsunami only exacerbates the problem of seeking survival for its own sake. Unless we begin with a sense of the Gospel’s power to save, with a desire to love our neighbors that doesn’t derive from their being (only) a potential new member, and a sense that the Wesleyan tradition offers a distinctive and relevant way of following Jesus in the 21st century, I worry that we will end up working only to survive. And we end up promoting a vision that is not compelling to anyone who isn’t already significantly invested in our institution.
In the end, I think my complaint against Focus is that it doesn’t address the questions I needed it to address – the deeper questions of the purpose for which the UMC exists. And while it may be unfair to ask a book to be something it is not, at the same time, Focus enables us to continue to pursue notions of success defined by the business world without a sense of who God is calling us to be. And if we continue down that path, suggestions like Weems’s, no matter how effective or successful they are, will not lead us into God’s desires for the United Methodist Church.
I welcome your responses.