One of my favorite bloggers within the United Methodist fold is Andrew Thompson over at Gen-X Rising. He has written a fantastic post on denominations and specifically United Methodism that every leader in the United Methodist Church should read, whether they agree with it or not.
Guy M. Williams has some excellent thoughts on appointing pastors missionally over at Gen-X Missional Wesleyan. He really hits on one of the challenges we face as a denomination with an abundance of small rural and small town congregations. Many of the clergy we have aren’t from these congregations. In turn we find,
indigenous leadership of congregations is arguably not happening when “city folk” are sent to smaller-to-medium towns, and vice-versa.
Guy helpfully qualifies that with a tip of the hat to folks who those who realize that being a “native” isn’t necessary to finding a way to be indigenous,
…it is important to acknowledge up front that sometimes persons discover affinities for places that are unlike that in which they grew up. That said, affinity for place is closely related to being “indigenous” in my view.
He makes two important suggestions. First, he argues that we should examine the culture of call in small town and rural congregations,
One element of this would include solving the riddle concerning the relative lack of persons in rural and smaller town areas responding to a call to ordained ministry. Is a “culture of the call” lacking in these places? Is there something about our denomination’s organizational culture that works against this?
He then argues that instead of sending people with an affinity for certain places away from their preferred setting we should look for creative ways for them to live out a missional calling in the places they care most deeply about,
A second element of this would involve a commitment to creative thinking about opportunities for ministry that we are not seizing because we are sending persons with a metro/suburb affinity away. What if they were invested in the place of greatest affinity? We are a shrinking denomination, so surely there are opportunities we would do well to seize in the metro/suburb context?
He then heads off three potential objections:
- That he is saying we can only serve in one place or expressing an affinity for that one place is self-serving. Guy suggests it is a reality and we have to deal with it whether we like it or not. I agree
- That he is devaluing the rural/small town church. He states that he’s simply dealing with the trajectory our denomination seems to be on, not making a value statement. It didn’t get a devaluing from what he’s written. Instead, I think he’s trying to place increasing value on nurturing the call in people from a variety of backgrounds.
- The obvious anecdotal counter-examples of success stories in places people didn’t really want to go. He believes that the existence of these stories are good examples of God’s grace & blessing while being in serious tension with the mass of stories that suggest conflicting values, methods, etc. I think he’s right here too. We can’t devalue either set of stories.
These are terrific questions, and I believe they have to be seriously considered by anyone who has a heart for the United Methodist Church. Even though I really agree with Guy’s thoughts on the importance of indigenous missional leadership and “place,” I have a thought or two I’d like to add. While rural/small town ministry calls for a different set of gifts and graces than suburban/urban ministry, there are still certain intangibles that are essential no matter where you serve. For example, whatever the context, relationships are a central part of pastoral ministry. If someone has trouble developing and maintaining relationships in rural areas or small towns, it probably won’t make a tremendous difference if you put them in a their preferred socio-economic setting.
That reminds me of the story of the man who goes into town and says, “What are the people like here?” The townsfolk reply, “What were they like where you were before?” “Oh they were mean, nasty, and irritable…” “Well, that’s pretty much how they are here.” Later, another person came into the same town asking the same questions, yet her response was, “Oh the people back home were gracious, interesting, and pretty good folks,” to which the same townsfolk replied, “That’s pretty much what you’ll find here.” The small town I grew up in loved that story and told it often.
Finally, if we begin to scratch the surface about the reason things are the way they are, we’ll have to get into serious questions about qualifications and training for ministry. All processes are selective whether we like it or not. The current process for encouraging the call to ministry and the ensuing training is selective as well, and for a variety of reason it seems to primarily be producing people from larger population centers (Yes, I know there are anecdotal counter-examples). If we want to encourage people from more diverse socio-economic backgrounds to think about pastoral ministry, we should do some serious thinking about what it would mean for them to spend 10 years of their life preparing to respond to the call to pastoral ministry. Are there ways we can use technology to train and prepare more indigenous leaders?
Thanks Guy for an interesting post.
If you are interested in thinking about the ongoing mission of the Church in this century, you really have to read The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch. This is a book that I will almost certainly read twice, which is something I almost never do. It is really causing me to rethink, in a positive constructive (heck, even Wesleyan) way, many of the assumptions I have about the way we go about mission and ministry within the United Methodist Church.
At the center of what Hirsch calls the “Apostolic Genius” is the central affirmation that Jesus is Lord. Surrounding that center element are five aspects of mDNA (missional DNA): Disciple Making (which is what my last post was about), Missional-Incarnational Impulse, Apostolic Environment, Communitas, Not Community, and Organic Systems.
In chapter 5, he discusses the Missional-Incarnational Impulse, the second aspect of mDNA. Patterned on the “missionary God” (as described by Darrell Guder), he suggests that “a genuine missional impulse is a sending rather than an attractional one (p. 129).” Like the Incarnation of God in Jesus, we’re called to move into the neighborhoods around us in mission rather than operating from the “outreach and in-drag” model that the Church operating from a Christendom model is built for (p. 61).
Hirsch describes at least four dimensions that frame our understanding of the incarnation, and he believes these should profoundly shape our response to the ongoing mission of God:
- Presence: In Jesus, God is fully present to us. Jesus is no substitute or intermediary, but God in the flesh.
- Proximity: God approached us in Christ in a way we can understand and access, befriending the outcast and living close proximity to the broken and lost.
- Powerlessness: In the incarnation, God took the form of a servant. Hirsch writes, “He does not stun us with sound and laser shows, but instead he lives as a humble carpenter in backwater Galilee for thirty years before activating his messianic destiny,” showing us how love and humility reflect the true nature of God.
- Proclamation: He initiated the gospel invitation, heralded the reign of God, and called people to respond in repentance and faith.
In these four aspects of the incarnation, we find the following calls for our work together with God in mission (these are just snippets of what Hirsch describes):
- Being present in the fabric of a community, engaging in the humanity of it all. All ministry is relational and based in our particular local presence. “…Jesus actually liks to hang out with the people we hang out with. They get the implied message that God actually likes them (p. 134).”
- Like Jesus we’re called to be in proximity to folks from every level of society. This involves genuine avaliability, spontaneity, and regular friendships and community.
- We too are called to powerlessness: humility and servanthood to each other and with the world. This is an integral aspect of church, leadership, and mission.
- Genuine incarnational approaches to mission will result in our proclamation of the gospel story with the people we engage. “We are essentially a ‘message tribe,’ and that means we must ensure the faithful transmission of the message we carry through proclamation”
He goes on to provide specific examples in faith communities of the missional-incarnational impulse.
I have a lot of questions for my fellow United Methodists. Every now and then I get messages saying, “Do you want to have a knock-down, bang-up method form mission and discipleship? Come to this or that conference. This will work in churches of any size, shape, or fashion!” Are we kidding ourselves to think any method is one size fits all (OK, I know you know where I stand on this, so it’s a leading question. haha)?
How can we encourage our congregations to moving from “outreach and drag-in” to incarnational gospel presence within communities sharing the message of Christ relationally?
What kind of influence do our largest UM Churches have on our plans for carrying out God’s mission? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-megachurch, but should churches in communities of 1,000 or even 5,000 base their approach to mission on something happening in a large urban or suburban congregation?
How do we, like Christ, move into the neighborhood? I did hear of a pastor and his congregation who held a block-party in their small-town community among a group of unchurched people. I think this embodies a lot of what Hirsch is saying. What do you think?