By now, most who will read this are aware that this is a time of transition from 12 to 8 Districts in the NC Conference. Realignment is taking place in the General Church also. The brutal facts of declining membership, aging congregations, church closure and the like have caused us not only great consternation, but has motivated us to realize we are a church in crisis and now we must do something about it. This reality is forcing us to risk, re-evaluate, re-think and re-cover that which once made us to be a movement.
As the last truly global Christian movement, Methodism grew beginning as a sect within the Anglican Church of England to astonishing numbers especially on the early American frontier. Through the passionate spiritual leadership of laypersons & lay preachers, along with committed circuit-riding ordained clergy, the movement connected vast numbers of immigrants who had left their country and extended family, for the land of opportunity and freedom. At one point, 35% of all Americans were in a Methodist Class Mtg, usually in somebody’s home. The 5-fold ministry described in Ephesians 4—Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers—were evenly distributed among these Methodist Societies, laity and clergy alike, such that it was truly a priesthood of all believers.
But then, we built our chapels and churches, hired our clergy full-time (who of course had to justify that position by collecting the 5-fold ministry unto themselves), and by the late 19th century, the movement ended. The institution took its place—the very thing John Wesley feared the most! And now, we are really Between a Rock and a Hard Place as a church in crisis.
Believe it or not, we now live in a Post-Christian society where the large majority (62%! according to missiologists such as Alan Hirsch) of the population does not and will not come to church, no matter how much we spend on advertising, how relevant & passionate the worship services, how refined the programs from cradle to grave, how radical the hospitality, how excellent the facilities, how much we demonstrate we are Christians by the love we have for one another, no matter what we do to get them to come and see, its just not working anymore. Which explains why 90% of established churches are not growing, let alone making new disciples of Jesus. This is even true among evangelistic and spirit-filled churches. So it’s not for lack of trying! It’s just that the mission field is a moving target and why the Office of New Faith Communities is attempting radical new methods. In fact, much of what we are discovering is being utilized throughout the Conference as a core strategy in the Conference Transition to 8 Districts and the new Leadership/Discipling role of Superintendents.
This is truly needful as 50% of the 835 churches in the NC Conference now find the average age of those attending worship is over 65, meaning in a mere 20 years, some 400 of our local churches will die simply because we are not effectively engaging the culture and reproducing spiritual children. This is inevitable with our current model of ministry. We are getting exactly the results that our existing church systems & methods at every level (local, district & conference) are perfectly designed to produce in this culture. We are Between a Rock and a Hard Place!
THE SCHOOL OF HARD ROCKS
In light of these sobering realities there is cause for great hope, as it’s forcing deep, yet needed change throughout. For example, in New Faith Communities…
Here’s what we did before:
go out & start new churches,
get them to come & see what we’re offering and
how excellent & sincerely we’re offering it, so that we successfully extract & win as many people as we can from the world to Jesus.
And here’s what we found: If you start churches, you may have lots of converts, but you rarely have disciples of Jesus. Because who we attract when we reach persons first through exciting and attractive worship services that exude with excellence and creativity in all elements of music, message and production, whether traditional or contemporary style, will always be consumers by default; consumers, who need to be fed week after week because that’s what consumers do, of course. But in the consumer church, you’re only as good as last week’s performance, remaining the church of choice till a better operation comes along.
But, here’s what we’re learning:Jesus never told us to go start churches. He told us to Go make disciples. .who make disciples. He said, “I will build my church.” You make disciples, because when you make disciples, you always get the church, because disciples by definition, make disciples. That is the point, the mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ . . for the transformation of the world.
See, we’ve had this so backwards for so long and it’s so ingrained, and not only in new church ministry. For too long we’ve been trying to jump straight to Acts 2, Pentecost & beyond, without ever first establishing the disciple-making (discipling) culture of the 4 Gospels before it! Personally, in my own new church start, we launched with over 200 in worship the first Sunday. Then I spent the next 12 years trying to turn consumer-believers into reproducing-disciples. The cart was before the horse! For so long we’ve been trying to birth new churches or get new people to come to our established church’s worship services, but forgotten how people are actually discipled, and it’s not through better, more relevant worship services or finely tuned ministries. Disciples are formed, loved, invested in, sacrificed for, raised up and sent . . . to do it all over again themselves. Hirsch calls it “The Forgotten Ways.” Wesley called it “Practical Divinity.” Jesus called it being His “disciple,” a follower of the work and the wayof Jesus, and very little of His work and way happened in the “church” house. It was house-to-house.
Rather than church as usual, which is “come & see,” disciples“go & be” – disciples live out the relationship and representation of Jesus before a scoffingworld that’s watching. Disciples bring Kingdom life into ever increasing realms of their own life. But we can’t learn how to walk this walk by reading a book or hearing a sermon alone. We learn this by imitating the life & ministry of Jesus we see in people who open up their life to us and invest in us with teaching (in organized gatherings) AND training (in organic life-on-life relationships). It happens through information AND imitation, which just can’t happen in our church services, nor in our church buildings.
How many of us have ever been discipled by someone who took us under their spiritual tutelage? From the age of 19 to 22, while I was a college student, a UM pastor Dr. James Thobaben, his wife Marcy and their family did exactly that for me and I can honestly say, I grew more as a disciple of Jesus in that period than the other 42 years combined.I am the result of this very kind of missional discipleship.
Making disciples while we’re scattered is what gives us the reason then to gather in worship at all—to celebrate God’stransforming Kingdom work in the world generally and in people’s lives specifically. That’s the mission. God’s Church doesn’t have a Mission in the World. God’s Mission in the World has a Church!!! The church isn’t the mission; it’s the vehicle for Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.
The challenge before us then is to go from “Come & See” to “Go & Be,” from attractional to missional, living out the life & ministry, the work & the way, of Jesus. For the church to grow, we have got to get out of the church building . . for as long as possible. That, I believe, will reach that ever-increasing 60+%. Otherwise, we’re all just fighting over the other 40%, which is now 38%, and next year will be 36%. Do you see where this is going?
This is why we’ve stopped planting “churches” per se, and started planting missional discipleship movements, trying to recover & reclaim that which made us a movement in the first place. The “method” in Methodism is sublimely relevant again!In the days of the movement, we focused on what Wesley called Bands, Classes, Societies and Congregation. While the sacramental “means of grace” in congregational worship were indispensible, the core of the movement and primary experience of discipleship occurred in the home-based Class Meeting. (It was in one of these mid-sized groups of 20-50 people at Aldersgate St in London that Wesley’s own heart was strangely warmed!) Classes, and smaller Bands of 4-6 people were the two vehicles that really drove the movement—one a discipling vehicle, the other a mission vehicle.
SPIRITUAL FAMILIES ON MISSION
The relational realities of the 1700 & 1800’s exist again today as we’ve come full circle. Then, mass immigration was the cause. Today, it’s mass relocation for work. Now, just as then, the culture is yearning for extended family (20-50 people to do life with, who provide nurture and support—large enough to dare, small enough to care). They don’t need another new church or service or program. They need an extended family on mission together. It should come as no surprise that these new Missional Faith Communities noted by their Discipling Culture are growing nationally at 10 times the rate of even the mega-churches!
But this is who we are supposed to be! This is the Method in our Methodism, and where this is happening today, whatever the denominational label, there is a movement. Ironically, there are growing pockets among Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals and others emerging around the country that understand the Method better than we Methodists do of late! Go figure. If we won’t make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world in our Wesleyan-Methodist way, it appears that God is finding people who will! And it’s reaching the 60%.
This is what we in the NC Conference are attemptinggoing forward.I’m excited by what I see God doing today, because we serve a “go & be” God with a missionary heart, who wants to make us a missionary people who truly understand that the church is not our parish. The world is! I’m excited about the new missional opportunity unfolding in the culture, and while the relational–missional approach is slower to develop, the return on that investment goes from addition. . tomultiplication! It’s truly exponential. It’s Wesley 2.0!
When new faith communities,local churches, districts and conferences are willing to acknowledge their brokenness in that place Between a Rock and a Hard Placeand recover the Method in Methodism, movementum will happen and it will be a wonderful thing to see!