The denominational mission statement for The United Methodist Church is "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." This mission statement, like most good mission statements, provides focus for a diverse organization while still allowing for a variety of interpretations.
Yet there's one common interpretation of this mission statement that is, I think, quite problematic despite being perhaps the default understanding of the mission statement (at least among Americans). I think when many United Methodists hear "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," what they really hear is "recruiting church members to continue church programming." This understanding is problematic for two reasons.
First, there is the equation of being a disciple of Jesus Christ with holding church membership. The first is an active process of following Jesus and drawing nearer to him in love. The second is a static state generated by saying a couple of words one Sunday.
There are certainly many who are not members of The United Methodist Church (and perhaps not formal members of any church) who are still true disciples of Jesus Christ. Conversely, there are also certainly many who are members of United Methodist churches but who are not seeking with their whole heart to follow Jesus, who have the form of holiness, but not the power thereof.
This understanding of making disciples means, first of all, that we pay insufficient attention to discipleship and spiritual formation within our churches. As long as people come occasionally and perhaps donate some to the church’s budget, we are content and ask no questions about how it is with their souls. We lose the central Wesleyan conviction in sanctification if we do not see disciple-making as an on-going process that applies to all in the church.
If we are focused merely on whether people are coming to our churches rather than how they are growing because of their church membership, then we become focused on institutional maintenance, not spiritual vitality, an all-too-common malady especially in the United States. American United Methodists are very concerned about membership numbers as a way, not of drawing more people closer to God, but of preserving our prestige, our budgets, and our buildings.
Even worse, some churches brag about continued growth in members despite dramatic drop-offs in worship attendance. I don’t want to equate worship attendance with discipleship, either, because being a true disciple involves much more than showing up somewhere for an hour Sunday morning, but we can assume that most who are not showing up on Sunday are not engaged in United Methodist discipleship at other points in the week, either.
Not only does this understanding of making disciples distort how we think of church members, but it distorts how we think of evangelism, too. Evangelism from such a perspective is not about an encounter with the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ but about the deployment of new and more sophisticated marketing and business tools for recruiting organization members or, worse yet, customers.
Mission, too, is misunderstood from this perspective. Mission becomes not something we do because we are disciples of Jesus, seeking to pour ourselves out in love to the world as he did, but something we do just to attract new members. Our mission becomes clouded with ulterior motives and we are will to accept coercive strategies for distributing aid and assistance that aim to gain us members but fail to reflect our basic Wesleyan beliefs in free grace.
It might be sad but somewhat excusable if this sort of misunderstanding were common among the people in the pews. Yet, this misunderstanding reaches to the highest levels of the denomination and is reflected in some of our most important initiatives. As I have written elsewhere, the focus on Vital Congregations and dashboard indicators in the American United Methodist Church is largely a focus on membership numbers and not on discipleship measures.
There are some of the dashboard indicators that do correlate with discipleship, especially those focused on small group membership and mission trip participation, but even the best of the dashboard metrics count members rather than asking anything about the spiritual quality of those members’ relationships with Jesus. Admittedly, it is much easier to count members than to assess spiritual impact, but that’s not necessarily a sufficient excuse for focusing on numbers only. Moreover, to the main point of this article, when we count numbers rather than assess spiritual impact, we send a sign that the former is important and the latter is not.
An approach to our mission that conflates disciple-making with member-recruitment is not only deeply spiritually misguided, it’s also not terribly effective in the long haul. If The United Methodist Church is only a membership organization, then inevitably it must compete with other groups who can also offer community service, friendship, social prominence, political action, or any of the other non-religious benefits to church membership. The history of capitalism teaches us, too, that almost all organizations are eventually outcompeted. If we are a membership organization only, then we can expect our decline to continue.
If, however, The United Methodist Church is a place where people can be supported in the hard but life-changing work of following Jesus, a place for people to experience the affirming, transforming power of the Holy Spirit, a place where people can draw closer to the God that loves them, that is something people can’t get elsewhere and will always have staying power.