It saddens me to see so many UM local churches that are declining and ineffective, because we don’t have to be. I’m not saying that all UM churches should be flourishing with members, growing each year, and have lots of money in the bank. Not at all. But I know that every single UM church has the power to be a transforming presence within their neighborhood and community. I strongly believe in our message and theology. And I strongly believe our capacity to bring transformation into our community and the ability to make healthy and effective disciples of Christ.
In case you’re wondering, this has nothing to do with any outcome of the General Conference 2012. I tried to get excited for it, but I couldn’t. I even tried following along with the live feeds. But when people were presenting amendments to the amendments, I couldn’t endure it. I’m waiting for someone to post cliff notes of all things General Conference 2012 soon.
But from local churches to the General Conference, I feel like many of us are sitting around and talking until we see eye to eye on everything before we do anything (from John Perkins). That’s never going to result to anything. There’s not a single community (secular or religious) that exists where everyone sees eye to eye on everything
I think what bothers me the most, from my limited view and experience, is that many of our struggling local churches make the mistake of trying to be without doing (also from John Perkins). We put all the energy and breath into what we think we should be. But when it comes to doing something about it, well, it never happens. A lot of times, a subcommittee is created to do more talking about the ideal being. Then disagreements happen. Someone hijacks the committee’s vision and brings his or her own agenda. Sometimes another task force needs be created to deal with the disagreements. We have amendments to the amendments and a task force or a sub committee for every new amendment and eventually, everyone’s confused and/or there’s too much to clarify and organize. Either way, the end result is that nothing really happens.
And because of all this talking about how we should be, we’ve slowly lost track of what year it really is and the reality of the culture and community we are surrounded by. The culture is decades ahead of our church, so much so, that walking into some of our local churches is like experiencing time traveling. And it frustrates me to no end that churches do not use media technology, especially in SoCal, arguably the mecca of media technology. I mean, Hollywood is our backyard. (A quick side note, projecting the lyrics to the hymn on a screen helps everyone. First, people look up and can see everyone else’s face. Second, it’s easier for many to read (the bigger) words projected on the screen than strain to look at the small type in the hymnal. Third, it never hurts to incorporate media like pictures, video clips to enhance your sermon, once in a while.)
Every year in our ordination exams in the Cal-Pac Annual Conference, this question is asked:
You are seeking to join an annual conference that has experienced more than three decades of decline and has scores of struggling churches? How will you address this reality in your ministry as a Deacon or Elder?
I answered that I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to change anything within the Annual Conference. Simply, it’s big and vast and too much to think about bringing any chance to the Annual Conference. I told them that my goal is to do the best that I can by and through God’s grace for the local church and the community that I am appointed to.
They pushed back asking about our connectionalism and that we’re called to serve the Annual Conference and not just our local church.
I responded with, How’s that working out for us? We’re still declining. How long are we going to wait for change to come from the top down? There are too many differing opinions and thoughts within our Annual Conference. While the diversity is beautiful and necessary, we’re going to spend so much energy and time arguing about how things should be that change doesn’t really happen. In the history of the church, it’s always been a small group of people that made drastic changes for the entire body of Christ. The 12 Disciples. The Apostles. The Desert Fathers. Martin Luther. I strongly believe that some of our local churches will start hitting a grace-filled stride that results in effectiveness, healthiness and growth and other local churches will notice. And because we tend to be a copycat church, when one UMC does something that is effective, other churches will start trying to translate the methods of the effective church into their own setting. And maybe they’ll be enough of a ripple effect that makes the entire conference notice.
I didn’t pass that year my ordination exams that year. I could tell from their response that many of them didn’t like my answer. And I’m not saying that it was a good answer or that I was right. I mean, still today, I don’t even know if I answered the question correctly.
But I still believe in what I said though, that effective change always seem to have come from the down up. To wait for the General Conference and the Annual Conference to make the necessary changes is not productive use of time, gifts and energy. By the time we get this massive ship that we call UMC to make important shifts and changes in direction, we’ll already be years too late.
I believe that our local churches have no excuse to be dying. Check that. I believe that we have no excuses of dying without putting up a fight. I say, if we’re expecting to close our doors in the next two years, let’s go out with a bang. Let’s throw a banquet and invite the poor and the sick and the migrant workers and have a taste of what heaven would be like. Let’s make our presence felt and known in our community. Let’s be like Jonathan and his young armor bearer in 1 Samuel 14 and, well, “just do it.”
Perhaps I am still too young and naive to understand how everything works. A clergy at a district gathering once said to me, “Just wait until you get to my age, and you’ll see.” What I’ll see, I have no idea. But I’m sure he was talking about how young and naive I appeared to be and how out of touch with “reality” I was. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that we can’t afford to spend too much more energy and breath talking about how we should be and how things should be. As John Perkins writes, “Being is not complete until doing.”
We need to start putting our faith into work.
All of our local churches has the potential to bear fruit.
All of God’s churches has potential to make some sort of difference in our community.
We just need to stop talking about it and start putting our money where our mouth is.