The United Methodist Church is about to have a very significant international meeting called the General Conference where major changes are being considered that a lot of pastors like me are anxious about. I’m actually most concerned about an initiative that has already been adopted called “Vital Congregations.” Depending on the outcome of other proposals, Vital Congregations has the potential to do to the United Methodist Church what “No Child Left Behind” did to the public school classroom where I taught. I am not trying to impugn the motives or hard work of those who developed it. I’m sure that they were prayerful about it, and I imagine they sang praise songs to open their meetings and hopefully looked to the Bible for guidance (and not just the reports of church consultant industry thinktanks). But the way this initiative is being communicated makes it sound like United Methodism has replaced Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with a new Trinity –the Thinktank, the Consultant, and the Bubble Sheet.
My concern is particularly with the Vital Congregations’ 16 “drivers of vitality,” which are referred to as “ministry strategies,” even though they appear to be fruits of vitality rather than strategies. A footnote at the bottom of the page where these drivers are listed unwittingly encapsulates my concern perfectly:
While the Call to Action study noted that vital churches give more to missions, some have noticed that other types of mission engagement and outreach are not listed as proven “drivers.” This is because… the research could not quantitatively substantiate mission engagement. But, in conversations with vital congregations, they tell us this is a
vital part of their ministry…
It also should be noted that while the study alludes to spiritual vitality in the faith of the laity and the inspirational leadership of the clergy, one should not see these ministries/strategies as mechanical operations. Rather, they are undergirded or enlivened by a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ.
Here’s the problem. If these 16 measurable “vitality drivers” are the means by which church vitality is evaluated, they will in fact turn ministry into a “mechanical operation.” And if mission is not one of the drivers because its impact has not been “quantifiably substantiated,” then it will be deprioritized regardless of whatever qualifications are expressed in the footnote. Instead of taking our priorities from God’s guidance in each particular ministry context, we are prioritizing the measurable. Perhaps this is an expression of my newly out of seminary idealism, but I really think that the tyranny of the quantifiable within United Methodism is the primary source of our lack of vitality. If pastors are going to be suffocated by even more stacks and stacks of bubble sheets, it will stifle our ability to engage in Spirit-led, locally contextual ministry whose vitality honestly requires subjective, narrative evaluation rather than number-crunching.
When I was a high school teacher under “No Child Left Behind,” I was required to write my learning objectives on the board every day in educational industry jargon that made no sense to my students. This was so that an assistant principal could walk up and down the hall with a clipboard to “measure” our classroom “vitality” by looking in the window without having to assess the subjective unquantifiables that I regard as the true measure of effective teaching or ministry. I’m just not sure what role Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has in a church that privileges quantifiable measurability above all else in its decision-making and evaluation. That’s why I say we have a new Trinity.
It seems from the “Vital Congregations” material that pastors are going to be expected to set goals based on these vitality drivers. So what will that really mean? For example, if driver #13 is implemented — that pastors use “topical sermon series” — is that effectively the end of expository preaching in United Methodism? I don’t think you have to use gimmicky sermon series to preach compelling, inspiring sermons. The more that I feel like I have to make a theme work in my sermon, the less attention I can give to the nuances and context of the Biblical passage. Topical sermon series are popular with evangelical megachurch pastors because they don’t see a problem with pulling individual Bible verses out of context in order to support their themes. But when we engage in proof-texting like this, we are leaving Wesleyan Biblical interpretation behind.
So what about the use of “multi-media” in driver 16? Am I going to have a quota of PowerPoint driven sermons that I’m expected to reach? Or since PowerPoint is old hat now, will I be expected to project twitter feeds in the middle of worship to show the powers that be that my sermons are “innovative” and “conversational”?
I think there’s a difference between having goals and having a vision. Goals are quantifiable while vision is narrative. To set “significant goals through effective leadership” (driver 10), you read a book from a thinktank, hire a consultant, and crunch the bubble sheets. To gain a vision, you listen to God, which is the ultimate immeasurable but indispensable task of ministry. Prayer should not be a ritual you do to “bless” your goal-setting meetings before “getting down to business.” Prayer should be the primary process by which decisions are made. Vital congregations need vision more than we need goals. I’m not sure how we can dream and pray about the kind of church community God has called us to be if we are asked to focus our energy on achieving a set of one-size-fits-all measurables.
I really believe that churches are the most vital when laity have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to do things that are “unreasonable” to the world and thus enter more fully into God’s kingdom rather than just visiting like tourists once a week. Tourists stop coming
when they get busy, but once your heart has been tattooed by the Holy Spirit, you can’t go back to country club Christianity.
John Wesley’s standard for congregational vitality was the “primitive church” of Acts 2. How many churches today would give themselves so completely to the Holy Spirit that they held all their property in common? The more that we stay within the boundaries of “reasonableness” by carefully supporting all our ideas with statistics, surveys, and expert opinions, the less compelling a vision we have to offer our congregations.
What can we do to cultivate true disciples who say to Jesus like Peter, “We have left everything to follow you”? My goal as a pastor is to carve out
the space in small, intangible, and not necessarily “goal-oriented” ways for the Holy Spirit to grab peoples’ hearts and yank them into full kingdom living. I hope the goals of the United Methodist Church will never crush the vision God seems to be giving me.