I Love the Church

In a lot of the conversations about church renewal and hope for turning around mainline denominations, I sense a longing for a church that people haven’t experienced. There is a vague dream of a better Church somewhere “out there,” and the subtle suggestion is that if we are just smart enough or creative enough, we will bring it into existence. People on one side of this conversation dream of the good old days (First Church Corinth or Laodicea perhaps?), and the people on the other side dream of the glorious future when the Church will finally align with their dreams and preferences.

In light of this, I want to celebrate the Church (and churches) I’ve experienced.  I prefer the messy, but beautiful, reality of church as I’ve known it to the theoretical churches of the future and the idealized churches of the past.

This isn’t a plea for a particular denomination. The church of my childhood, imperfect as it was, is Baptist, and the church of my adult life, imperfect as it is, is United Methodist. In both places and communities, I’ve seen people actively pursuing God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in ways that are inspiring and real, and I want to share with you some of what I’ve seen.

My dad was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was in junior high, and had one of his lungs removed as part of his treatment. For the rest of his life, he was in and out of the hospital fighting off whatever infection attacked his remaining lung. During that season, I’ve seen pastors sit with our family for hours in the hospital. I’ve seen fellow church members help my mom feeding cattle and helping take care of their farm when she and my dad were away from home. And I’ve even seen a congregation move their worship service on a Sunday night to my parent’s house when my dad was too sick to attend.

I saw it in the senior minister in the first church my wife and I joined after getting married, a UMC. This pastor took time to meet with a group of young adults every Tuesday morning over donuts and coffee so that we could study scripture and ask tough questions, while at the same time he was looking for signs of God’s call in our lives. I saw it in the Associate pastors who led mission trips, taught Disciple Bible Study, and prayed for us when we attended spiritual renewal events like Walk to Emmaus. In that same congregation, I saw it in a dear friend and accountability partner giving up a lucrative career to enter full-time ministry.

Early on after I became a United Methodist pastor, my dad died. Coming out of his funeral, there were a handful of members from my first appointment who I will never forget, who took time out of their busy schedules to attend a service where they couldn’t even get into the tiny little church where we held the service. Those same members were willing to try anything I suggested (with one or two exceptions, and they ended up being right…) and launched into mission and ministry in ways that I think even surprised them at times.

I saw it in the other congregation I served during my first appointment spending their time with kids whose parents would rarely darken the doors of our building. They used their own resources to lead after-school programs and youth ministry events for young people who would never give anything back financially because they believed that knowing Christ was a gift worth giving at any cost.

I continue to see the beauty of God’s people pursuing Christ where I serve today. I see it in the small group I meet with every week who encouraged and prodded me until I read through the bible in a year for the first time in my life. I see it in their prayers and their friendship, even when I’m cranky and sarcastic. I see it in a congregation who gets fired up about feeding the poor and teaching and mentoring children who are struggling to learn to read. I see it in their  appetite for learning God’s word and seeing it take root in their lives. I see it in their willingness to invite people who don’t know Jesus to come and experience worship with them. I see it in elderly men and women who celebrate and pray for a new worship service that they will never attend because they want to know we’re trying our hardest to reach people who will connect with God in ways that are very different from them.

I see it in my colleagues and friends around the conference and across the denomination who encourage me, pray for me, and especially those who put up with countless texts and calls. These friends care about the people entrusted to their care (inside and outside the walls of their congregation) and want them to have a deep relationship with God through Christ more than anything in the world, even when it’s hard….even when it hurts. They, like me, know that we live and work in a system that isn’t perfect, but they have the ability to stop thinking about that long enough to work hard for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.

Yes, I could tell you stories of times the Church or churches have let me and others down I could share moments of disappointment and even incredible frustration, but I could also keep going on and on sharing stories like those above. God is still at work in churches all around the world, and it is a thing of beauty and grace. Take a look and see.

Control or Commitment in the UMC

In my last post, I reflected on some of Jim Collins’ insights from his chapter in Leading Beyond the Walls: How High Performing Organizations Collaborate for Shared Success. Jim’s chapter is the best in the book, so it merits another post (don’t buy the book on this basis, by the way – just read his chapter in the store).

He begins his second point with these words,

…executives must build mechanisms of connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice, rather than relying on systems of coercion and control.

Think about United Methodism (and most organizations for that matter). Do we rely on connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice or do we rely on systems of coercion and control? From administration to evangelism, I’m afraid that we often rely on the latter. Jim describes his high-powered research team and talks about the way he recruits people for that team,

…as a precursor to all our mechanisms of commitment and connection, each person invited to join the team receives a written and verbal orientation on team values, purpose, and performance standards and is asked to join only if he or she can commit to those principles. Before joining, each person is told, “If you have any doubt about whether this is the right place for you, then it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of rigorous introduction to the values and purpose of the organization reminds me of the old Christian catechism. Is it sad that becoming a member of Jim’s research team is more stringent and commitment laden than becoming a member of some of our churches?

It goes back to the basics here. If you don’t have team values, purpose, and performance standards, you can’t present them to people, and you sure can’t ask for commitment. Can you imagine having a clear, confident, and concise statement like that defining the mission of your local church? You could hand this to new visitors and say, “Here’s what we’re about, and everyone here is committed to it. If you have any doubt, it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity.” Talk about true connectionalism!! This could be the same for clergy. Our connection could be in our adherence and commitment to core principles rather than in bureaucratic structures.

People often ask, “How do we get individuals to share our core values?” The answer is, “You can’t.” You can’t open somebody up and install new core values in his or her belly. The key is to find, attract, and select people who have a predisposition to sharing the core values, and to create an environment that consistently reinforces those core values, buttressing it with mechanisms of connection and commitment.

Interestingly, the predisposition can really be linked to the Christian concept of calling. I don’t twist arms to get people to join our congregation. My thoughts are that if they see what we’re doing and want to be a part of it, then they are welcome to invest their lives in our congregation and live our their faith in our community. If you have to be coerced, you won’t be committed.

Of course, God is the one who does all the calling and attracting. Once we have a little more faith in that, we can define and develop our core values more clearly.  Then we won’t have to rely so much on mechanisms of power and coercion. Only then can we describe and develop mechanisms of true commitment and true connection.

Jim write, “The minute you feel the need to control and mold someone, you’ve made a selection mistake.” We’ve been so vague about what people are committing to that we have to develop more stringent control methods and we end up arguing and spending valuable time working on power structures. On the other hand, a core of people committed to Christ, called by God, and enlivened by the Spirit will be thoroughly committed to the ongoing mission of the Church. Control and manipulation would just stunt the vibrant stuff that would come out of these folks, be they clergy or laity.

There’s a lot more I could say on this, but I don’t want to short-circuit the ideas that you’re coming up with. What are our core values? Once we articulate those, what mechanisms of connection and commitment could we implement to replace our mechanisms of power and control? Can the United Methodist Church survive thrive using a model that went out the window with cassette tapes and VHS? What do you think?