By Chuck Griffin
Change is scary for a lot of people. Change creates incredible opportunities, however.
I’m trying to keep that second principle in mind as the United Methodist Church moves toward General Conference 2019. It seems there are four basic possible outcomes:
(If you want to read more about the Traditionalist, One Church or Connectional plans, details can be found here.)
I see good coming from change regardless of the form it might take after the 2019 General Conference has ended.
Somehow, some way, a group of us will rally around the idea of scriptural authority, living according to the Bible’s definition of who God is (the infinite giver of grace) and seeking what God wants for us (holiness, made possible through that grace).
It is my great hope that when change comes, we will do more than just embrace traditional doctrines. I pray we also will consider whether the institutional structures and habits to which we’ve become accustomed support the basic mission of the church.
Some possible changes I hope will be considered:
Local, Local, Local
The denomination we currently find ourselves in is much too top-heavy and interested in micromanaging the local churches. Unless we end up with Outcome 3, I wonder if something more along the lines of an affiliation of orthodox churches might develop.
The “top,” however we define it, would focus on maintaining clear doctrinal standards for affiliates, ordaining clergy according to those standards, and organizing assistance in areas where the local churches could not meet the missional needs of the community.
And while the top would want to gather data, that effort should be limited to very basic information—mission-oriented numbers like current membership and professions of faith immediately come to mind.
Those Mobile Ministers
Would it be helpful for effective pastors to remain in their communities for a decade or longer? Our best church studies show the answer is yes.
The above “affiliate” model might bring about the end of itinerancy, anyway, as it easily could lead to a system where vetted pastors are interviewed and hired under contract rather than “placed” by a bishop.
For pastors comfortable with guaranteed appointments, this might be terrifying. They need to consider this, however: They would simply be entering the world where most of their flock exists every day, a world where you have to focus on your task, build relationships and perform at a certain level to succeed.
As one Holston bishop once put it, “If you want a bigger church, grow one.”
Being a Methodist used to mean you were methodically committed to a life-changing movement. In particular, Methodists related to their fellow Christians through covenantal small groups. Even after having to become a formal denomination, the Methodist movement for many years emphasized the need to develop spiritually through those encounters.
The UMC currently asks new members to support the local church with their “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.” This is a good starting point. But to have a vote regarding the life and direction of a local congregation, perhaps a member should be willing to enter a covenant to fulfill these vows in measurable ways.
Will you covenant to pray daily for the community? Will you show up for a small group and for worship regularly—say, 85 percent of the time? Will you learn what your spiritual gifts are and employ them accordingly? Will you tithe on your gross income? Can you name the last person you helped bring to a belief in Christ, and can you name the person you’re trying to help now?
If some baptized Christians aren’t ready for such specific commitments, it doesn’t mean they’re not saved. I’m just suggesting that the leaders who make critical decisions about the life of a local church should be able to joyfully enter such a membership covenant. Perhaps we need a new level of membership, calling these people “covenant members.”
Unlike a lot of notions we float in our orthodox Methodist circles, these three ideas are certainly debatable. I’m simply hoping that once change is upon us, we will take time to debate them, and other ideas like them.
Chuck Griffin is an ordained elder serving in the Hiwassee District.