The Relational Church

For the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking quite a bit about the notion of connectionalism, and how that concept is unfortunately broken in relation to the United Methodist Church that I love. As I was writing on this topic, there was a particular direction I was headed in thinking about renewing the concept, believing the value of a corporate networking scheme to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our mission together.

Then, in writing my sermon this past week, I encountered Jesus.

I have always believed that efficiency and effectiveness are not always values compatible with God’s Kingdom. It can be argued that Jesus’ own earthly ministry was not especially efficient and that his effectiveness among his disciples was limited as demonstrated in their choice to abandon him when faced with the reality of the cross. It was only through resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit that those who had walked with Jesus were transformed from fearful people into people with power to change the world.

This week, in working on a sermon on transforming discipleship (drawing on some materials by Trevor Hudson) I was reminded that Jesus always values people over efficiency and effectiveness. What do I mean by this? That relationships matter, and that the ends of efficiency and effectiveness NEVER trump the call to love individuals where they are. The radical and amazing love of Jesus gave time to all who needed him, and understood that God’s desire is less about a “vital church” and much more concerned with transformed lives. This work of transformation isn’t easy, for it requires time and attention as we talk with and stand with those who need to experience the love of Jesus.

Part of the issue that we deal with in thinking about church is the legacy of the great revivalists – Finney and Moody – who believed that revival (the transformation of lives) could be systematized for greater effectiveness. Many churches still engage in worship practices that draw on their system, and it is certainly true that people have been changed through the industrialized mass meetings of folks like Billy Graham. Yet, the push for efficiency and effectiveness, the desire to quantify our success in the Kingdom, can easily move us from seeing people as individuals in need of the love of God toward a demographic, a generational grouping, or some other nameless and faceless body that doesn’t take into account the unique stories of Bob, Sam, Sandy, or Debbie. Efficiency replaces names with categories and while this may lead to greater effectiveness at some levels, I wonder if it really is what Christ was thinking about when he called us to love the world.

One of the great tragedies of modern corporations have been the movement away from the language of personnel (a word closely related to personal) toward that of “human resources” or even worse “human capital.” These terms clearly state the value of those people who work for those companies – that people are simply tools or resources to be used up until they are consumed and thrown out. Certainly, HR professionals would say that they are concerned with the lives of their employees, but the language of the corporation reveals that there is no special love directed toward those who give their lives for the success of the company. They are simply items to be used.

Perhaps what we need to do in the UMC is not to talk about “connection,” which seems impersonal and less concerned with people. Perhaps we need to understand ourselves as a relational church, a group of congregations which value one another in the same way that we hopefully value the individuals in those congregations. Maybe we need to model a different way in the world, a way that is neither individualistic (congregationalism) nor concerned ultimately with corporate efficiency (connectionalism) but rather based on a mutual love for one another, a love in which we are willing to give of ourselves for the success of others. Maybe we need to quit talking about all the works we accomplish through our connection and talk instead about Christ’s call of love for that church down the road, and our desire that people’s lives are being changed in that place. Maybe we need to move to a language of mutual love, congregation and congregation, and person to person.

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