Earlier today I was reading a post by the ever supercilious Bishop Will Willimon in which he offered his critique of those who who questioned the bishop’s Call To Action initiative, suggesting in his take-no-prisoners fashion that those who asked questions of the initiative were simply invested in maintaining the status quo. “I am confident that there enough frustrated United Methodists,” he wrote,” …who have languished at unproductive board meetings, who have watched helplessly as one congregation after another quietly slips into death, have prayed that someone would cast a vision and move forward.” That vision is simple, he suggests: vital congregations.
The problem, as I’ve said before, is that simply repeating a mantra of “vital congregations” over and over again is not casting a vision, for it fails to provide a connection to how congregational vitality is connected to discipleship – our primary calling and mission. Willow Creek is considered to be vital by the numbers, but Bill Hybels himself has suggested that they may have failed in significant ways in leading persons to become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who are engaged in transforming the world. Congregational vitality is vitally important – but the descriptors of vitality have been fewer. Certainly, the one description of church vitality as the “…dynamic forward leaning state of engagement that connects to God, each other, and the world in profound ways…” is a significant descriptor. And yet, as all would admit, it’s hard to measure dynamism or engagement outside of some metrics related to certain practices. That is, I suppose, what the vital congregations metrics are an attempt to do – to identify practices which are connected to engagement and connections to one another and the world. Unfortunately they miss out on God and say nothing about whether the congregation is dynamic and/or forward leaning.
There is another problem for me, which is how are United Methodists specifically called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In all of the Call to Action material and in all of the Vital Congregations literature there is no mention of how United Methodists are uniquely called to proclaim the Kingdom of God and make disciples. Frankly, based off of what I’ve read there seems to be little interest in suggesting that the people called Methodists are in any way different from the other expressions of Christian faith in the world. There is an acknowledgement of structural issues (our so called connectionalism) but not much to suggest that United Methodists are called to be in the kingdom at this time and place for a specific purpose. Frankly, the non-denominational guys do a better job of creating “vital congregations” as we are defining them, so why don’t we go ahead a simply shut down the apparatus and give in to what my friends like Tony Jones call the death of denominationalism. It doesn’t seem to me that there has been much vision casting to suggest that maybe we Methodists indeed have a place in the world today.
This past fall a group of United Methodist leaders gathered together to think about the future of what it means to call ourselves United Methodists, and to think about our mission in the world. Many of us had experienced a document written by Alan Hirsch, Ed Stetzer, and others in the “missional church” conversation – a so-called “missional manifesto.” We thought it was an interesting document, outlining some of the values that group saw as foundational for being missional, however we recognized that it failed to capture the unique character of what it means to be part of the Methodist/Arminian theological tradition, and we believed that our church would benefit from a similar vision. We pulled together a small group of persons to draft our own Methodist Missional Manifesto as a means of providing a theological framework which would then guide our own understanding of what it means to be involved in promoting congregations of vital faith.
This is a document in process, and we fully understand its limitations. There are all sorts of ways it could be perfected, but my goal in sharing today is to open up a space for conversation about what it means to call ourselves Methodist, and how having a “missional manifesto” might open up the Call to Action conversation to new possibilities and alternative ways of thinking about church vitality.
So here is our offering to the church. We hope it will be helpful as we think about who we are as the United Methodist Church.