Last week, I suggested that United Methodists, especially American United Methodists, frequently misunderstand the denominational mission statement in problematic ways. 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." Last week, I looked at the first part of this misunderstanding. This week, I will look at the second.
The equation of transforming the world with continuing church programming may not have quite the same disastrous spiritual consequences as misunderstanding the nature of discipleship, but nonetheless it prevents us from being effective in loving the world as God would have us do.
United Methodist churches run a wide array of programming that varies depending on the context. Across the world, United Methodists run schools, operate health clinics, host addiction recovery groups, welcome migrants, feed and clothe those without adequate sustenance, visit the imprisoned, and provide clean water. We also hold church dinners (in the US, Methodists are known for potlucks), Sunday school pageants, committee meetings, holiday celebrations, craft fairs, and the like. Not all of these activities are bad, and some of these activities are quite good.
We make a couple of mistakes, however, when we confuse church programming with the transformation of the world.
First, we easily overlook the distinction between inward-focused programming and outward-focused programming. It has been my experience that, at least in the US, church suppers and many similar programs are usually for those who are already members of the church, no matter how many flyers are posted around town. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As noted last week, discipleship is a vitally important part of the life of the church, and discipleship is an inward-focused activity of the church.
Nevertheless, when we have an event for our members that is not discipleship-related and then call it outreach, we’re deluding ourselves and misunderstanding outreach. Ham and turkey dinners for the membership generally do not transform the world. Moreover, when we’re honest about when a program is inward-focused, then it’s easier to assess the disciple-making impact of the program.
Second, in equating church programs and the transformation of the world, we confuse cultural activities and mission. Churches, and not just those in the US, often serve as a space for organizing activities that reflect and perpetuate local cultures, often not just for their members but for the wider community. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The church needs to be able to dress itself in the clothes of the culture where it lives.
What is bad is when we mistake these cultural activities for the transformation of the world. It is great to hold a holiday sale if that is part of the culture of your town and lots of people from the outside of the church come to it. That does not mean, however, that you have transformed the world by selling tchotchkes to non-church members. To be world transforming, activities need to be not only outward focused but related more to the work of the gospel than to cultural activities.
Third, we make a mistake in equating church programming with world transforming if we continue to do the same programs we have always done. There are many church programs out there that had worthwhile, world-transforming impacts when they were started. Yet the context shifts, personnel running the program shift, the focus of the program drifts, and eventually, it is not having the same impact as it used to.
The question to ask about church programming is not, “Was this program originally set up to be outward-focused, gospel-related, and world transforming?” The question to ask is, “Is the program currently having a demonstrable impact on the world?” Asking such tough questions is especially important in an era when budgets are reduced and we must do “better with less,” not “more with less.”
Fourth and finally, when we equate church programming with the transformation of the world, we assume that the transformation of the world must happen in particular, structured ways. Methodism is a testament to the positive effects of a good organizational scheme, so I am not knocking organization in general. Moreover, within the modern world, many good, outward-focused, gospel-related, world-transforming endeavors are indeed formally organized, whether those are tutoring programs, evangelistic campaigns, or health clinics.
Still, if we assume that God only transforms the world through our organized activities, we restrict (or overlook) the work of the Holy Spirit. Much of the transformation of the world happens not through carefully organized and run programming, but through relationships. Such a misunderstanding is a particular danger for Americans, who are often so focused on getting things done that they neglect relationships, which can be the real conduits through which the Holy Spirit works to transform the world.
Thus, let us continue to do church programming. Yet let us be honest and reflective in the programming we do, recognizing the ways in which it does and does not contribute to the transformation of the world and always remembering that God is at work both through and beyond our programs.