Rethinking church means refocusing on evangelism

WESLEYAN WISDOM: Rethinking church means refocusing on evangelism

Donald W. Haynes, Jun 11, 2009

Donald W. Haynes

By Donald W. Haynes
UMR Columnist

“Evangelism is to the Christian faith what fire is to burning.”
—Emil Brunner

Rethink Church is the theme of a new campaign to re-brand the image of United Methodism. The timing could not be better; we have been “vanilla” too long!

As members of “the Protestant Establishment,” we have been in a maintenance mode with declining membership and influence in the public square. Too many local churches are either much older than their surrounding communities or have a different demographic.

The United Methodist Church has dropped more than 40 percent of its members, from 11 million in 1968 to fewer than 8 million in 2008! We have closed more than 12,000 local churches! Is this time to rethink the UMC? “If not now, when; if not us, who?”

During the 20th century, mainline churches shied away from focusing on experiential religious faith. The word “evangelism” had accumulated so much negative baggage that it was stigmatized.

Until the 1960s, Christian education and Sunday school were our major emphases. But since 1968, the quadrennial emphases of United Methodism have been social justice issues. Steady decline has been the sad and unnecessary result.

The time for candor has come. We have only two options: grow or die.

Kennon Callahan was on target when he began his book Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (Harper & Row, 1989) with: “The age of the local church is over. The age of the mission station has come.”

We can still work creatively within our denominational heritage, but denominationalism and hierarchical bureaucracy is passing. Pastors and local churches must see themselves as missionaries and mission stations.

The overwhelming majority of our local churches are good people who have lost their vision of following Jesus and have settled into being a religious club. Some are what church consultant and author Lyle Schaller called “cat churches”—with “a mind of their own”—while others are “collie dog churches”—like kind and gentle yard dogs who long ago lost their instinct to find lost sheep or strayed cattle!

At the urging of the Council of Bishops, a phrase was added to the 2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline that is important to the mission of a local church: to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Unfortunately, many pastors are imprisoned by parish expectations: By the time the demands of the flock are met—hospitals, nursing homes, maintenance-mode committee meetings, funerals, counseling and Sunday service preparation—there is no time or energy left for “radical outreach.”

Every local church must ask, “If our church closed, who outside our membership would miss us?” The mentality of United Methodism in the parish and in the cabinet is often that of a maintenance-mode church. Almost never is a pastor asked to move for lack of numerical growth. Often pastors with repeated membership losses are moved to larger churches!

How can we “rethink” the mission of the local church? How can we change parish ministry from the role of congregational caretaker to that of missionary pastor?

Here’s one example. In 1988, the Western North Carolina Conference had been losing membership for 21 consecutive years. One way to stop the trickling loss was the development of a comprehensive program of evangelism called “Vision 2000.” Following its implementation, the conference saw a net gain every year from 1989 until 2006. Forty-five UMC conferences used some dimension of Vision 2000.

The bad news is that Vision 2000 was seen as just another “emphasis” and ended up having just a short run.

The challenge today is for “Rethink” to be the beginning of a new redemptive process: the transformation of the culture of a denomination.
The 1996 General Conference was snookered into adopting a resolution requiring each United Methodist seminary to have a professor of evangelism on faculty, yet there was no funding! The shining knight to the rescue was the Foundation for Evangelism, under the visionary leadership of Bishop Earl G. Hunt, who secured funding for the position in all 13 seminaries.

Now that Foundation is girding itself for a larger role: training more scholars, developing more transformational settings and publishing more transformational literature.

A later General Conference required a course in evangelism for every ordinand! The result has been the recovery of evangelism as a concern of United Methodism.

The old stigma is gone; “rethink” has begun.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster’s 2008 book, There’s Power In the Connection (Abingdon), should be trumpeted in every parish church. It should be read as a textbook for our times. It is not a defense of “the connection” as we know it, but a ringing call for extreme makeover.

He quotes Sandra Lackore, former top executive of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration, who said in 2006, “It is critical for all us church leaders to take notice of our surroundings, to name what we see and feel, and fully engage in what I believe is a pivotal point for our denomination.” She described it as God’s “hovering over us and creating a wind of change.”

Bishop Goodpaster remembers how programs grounded in principles of the church-growth movement failed; he refers to our fascination with Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybel’s “seeker sensitive” insights, and he recognizes the newest movement on the horizon called “the emerging church.”

Then he places all of them in the U.S. cultural context and accurately doubts that any of them will be an elixir for United Methodism.
When Alan Walker of Australian Methodism trumpeted the “ringing call of mission” throughout World Methodism in the 1960s, I heard him tell of sitting in the outback of Australia and hearing the wind blowing in the gum trees planted as windbreaks around homesteads. A customary Australian saying to predict a change in the weather was, “Listen to the wind blowing in the gum trees.”

In Walker’s powerful preaching, told of how Jesus engaged Nicodemus in conversation about the necessity of being born again. When that ancient doctor of law and theology protested that he did not understand, Walker made us eavesdroppers on Jesus’ words: “Listen to the wind, Nicodemus, listen to the wind.”

Is that not a metaphor of Pentecost itself!

United Methodism still has a message to proclaim, a ministry to invest and a mission to fulfill in serving this present age. God is not through with us yet!

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said in High Point University’s 2008 commencement address, “If you want to know the road ahead, talk with someone who is coming back.” This is precisely what evangelism is!

Authentic evangelism is “good news.” We have voices in our United Methodist wilderness who have been scouts down the road ahead. They are “coming back” from ministries of comprehensive growth.

Evangelism is not a numbers game, not a bag of gimmicks and not a “program.” Holistic evangelism is:

* growing deeper in our relation with God
* growing out in mission to humankind
* growing together in supportive koinoia fellowship
* and as a consequence, growing more in numbers.

We humbly salute congregations in United Methodism that are growing in both influence and numbers. Unfortunately, they are exceptions, not the norm! Some of them even hesitate to use the word “United Methodist” on their lawn sign, and most of our megachurch pastors are virtually outside the itineracy—both signs of the times.

To see entire Methodist conferences that are growing, we now look outside the U.S. to learn how the gospel spreads, takes roots and transforms both individuals and cultures.

United Methodism is not “a ship” but a flotilla of ships, each with its own captain. Keeping each captain in formation is a challenge, especially if the admiral is calling for a change of course! To do so calls for nothing less than the transformation of congregational culture—church by church. Time to “rethink”!

We must recover our own language of what Wesley called “experimental grace.” We must recover our confidence in message and develop a competent methodology and a visionary missiology.

That could be the meaning of “Rethink.”

Dr. Haynes is an instructor in United Methodist studies at Hood Theological Seminary.

Leave a Reply