by Chris Ritter
In 1997, Church Consultant Thomas Bandy released Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches. Unhealthy obsessions in the local church, masquerading as authentic mission, were called out. The declining church system, addicted to control, was compared to the thriving church system that releases a compelling shared vision to empowered teams. Kicking Habits provided a vocabulary to talk about what many of us, on a gut level, knew was wrong with the church. Since its publication there have been hundreds of books proposing various fixes and reboots for the local church. Bad habits are never in short supply.
Now is a time to reboot Methodism on the level of the denomination. This overdue project is only tangentially related to the foundational spiritual renewal that we know we need. If a major Holy Spirit revival broke out among Methodists today, I expect there would be deep repentance, a new fervency in prayer, folks called into mission, new leaders, and a fresh wave of evangelism to bring many new believers into the Kingdom. Nobody realistically believes a new denomination brand will (or even can) do these things.
It is not at all clear that a denomination, as we have come to think of the word, is needed or desirable. Gone are the days when denominations stood as the primary organizing unit within American Christianity. The most effective congregations, it seems, are either non-denominational or hide their affiliation twelve-clicks-deep in their website. The saints who viewed denominational brands as a guarantee of quality have mostly now transferred their membership to the Church Triumphant. Few in the wider culture know the differences between Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. And they don’t care to know. Why should they?
It is also not the case that we have gallons and gallons of new wine just waiting to find the right denominational wineskin. Our local churches, no matter the theological stripe, are failing to reach new people at a rate matching those who are exiting. Traditionalist churches may be shrinking at a slower rate than progressive churches, but they are (with a few notable exceptions) in marked decline. The new global, traditional Methodist Church is going to gather up large numbers of local congregations with (1) a serious need for change and (2) engrained resistance to it. Many of these congregations missed their best window to re-invent themselves several decades ago and are now chin-deep in the undertow of decline. Under the Protocol, these churches will also be moving through the internally divisive process of voting themselves out of the UMC. Some people will leave and joining a traditional-leaning denomination will have no magical effect upon local realities. A Church Revitalization Task Force for the new denomination already exists, but we should be realistic about the long and arduous work ahead.
I am 100% on board with the project of building a new Methodist connection. The idea of an independent congregation was drummed out me in my early 20’s when I attended a non-denominational congregation for two years. There was so much vitality in that church. But I also saw a cult of personality built around the founding pastor, genuine lack of accountability, financial secrecy, and deepening theological aberrations. My wife and I left the church just before the pastor (and, with him, the church) imploded. I was so very happy to be a regular old Methodist again with structure, discipline, and established norms. The local church needs gracious boundaries, accountability, and the occasional referee. The New Testament stands as a witness that local churches are best paired with apostolic guidance. Otherwise… things get weird.
I have very good friends choosing an independent route out of United Methodism. Their local churches are healthy and they want to leave under their own terms… not those defined by a denominational split over gay marriage. They have built effective ministries against the headwinds of an increasingly dysfunctional denomination and will see it as a great bonus just to get out. They welcome accountability and believe they can achieve this in association with other pastors. These friends are doing what is best for their local church in the short run. But what is best for the long-term work of the Kingdom?
There are interesting models out there to consider. The Acts 29 Network is overtly Calvinistic in their theology and have had their share of controversies. But they stand as an association organized around multiplication: “A diverse, global family of church-planting churches.” There is something about that which resonates with the spirit of 19th Century Methodism when we were, for a while, building two new churches a day. At our best, we were guided by the vision of “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Our organization should flow directly from a compelling, audacious, outwardly-focused mission.
But the current project, as I see it, is to first create something we all will recognize… minus the things that blatantly need to be fixed. There seems to be relative agreement that the following habits need to be kicked:
- Maintaining the most expensive clergy deployment system on the planet aimed at giving jobs to tenured leaders regardless of their effectiveness.
- Keeping congregations in the fold by holding their property ransom.
- Imposing a top-heavy administrative system upon local churches that see little benefit for their participation.
- Driving decisions based on clergy entitlement.
- Electing bishops for life with only the barest theological or administrative accountability.
- Viewing local churches as funding units for the pet projects of the denomination.
- Filtering mission through denominational bureaus instead of enabling direct relationships.
- Funding unaccountable denominational seminaries without regard for what they produce.
Add to the above list some new positive areas of focus:
- Church planting.
- A strong mission partnership model.
- Better catechesis.
- Renewal in the areas of prayer, worship, and the sacraments.
- Focus on young adults and communities of color.
If we subtract the negatives and add the positives, we will certainly end up with a denomination that we can feel better about. This new church will be a better fit for many local churches. But let’s not mistake this for revival. At best, we will build a ship with sails better able to capture whatever winds of the Holy Spirit may blow our way.
I would also offer that most United Methodists currently have their eyes on the wrong ball. Instead of worrying about what global denomination to join, we would do well to start planning what sort of annual (regional) conferences we want to birth. The new denomination will be, I predict, very permission-giving related to regional conference organization and ministry. There are exciting opportunities to invent something new, life-giving, and Kingdom-focused on this regional level.
At the end of the day, the basic alternatives for most Methodists is the denominational reboot being planned or continuation in the present dysfunction with those very willing to ride what is left of the UMC into oblivion. For me, that is an easy choice. But (in the words of a song of my generation) I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
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