Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
In previous posts, I have suggested that one means to greater financial self-sufficiency for the church in developing countries would be to reduce the required institutional framework and that calls for a return to the vitality of early Methodism are misguided if they do not take into consideration the differences in institutional complexity and financial model between present and early Methodisms.
Both posts could be read as critiques of modern, institutional understandings of the church, local and global. I am not, however, trying to paint church institutions in a universally negative light. I am trying to point out that, while modern organizations present themselves as self-evident and inevitable modes of collective life, they are not. They are options we choose. My intent through these posts has been to highlight the tradeoffs involved in adopting a more expensive, more organizationally complex model of the church.
Simpler and less expensive is easier to reproduce. It can spread more quickly because the start up and operation costs (in money and effort) are much lower. It is easier to sustain in a self-sufficient manner even among people with limited financial resources (or time resources, as many in the West experience). These are all advantages of a simple, less expensive approach to church, and these advantages should lead United Methodists to consider such approaches to an extent they usually don’t.
I am not, however, arguing in these posts that all churches everywhere should go back to a very simple, non-programmatic model with minimal buildings and minimal paid workers. I have suggested that such a move might be a good idea in some situations, but I do not mean to suggest that should be how the church should operate always in all situations.
There are some very good things that can come out of a more institutionally complex and more expensive model of church. Mission and education are high on that list. A house church with only a couple of lay leaders and a very occasionally present, minimally paid minister is unlikely to start a school or open a medical clinic. They might be able to send one of their members as a missionary elsewhere, but that missionary might face significant challenges without a support network.
In order to start colleges, operate hospitals, send missionaries, or coordinate disaster relief, one needs a certain level of organizational complexity and financial resources. Moreover, such activities are not bad or un-Christian activities. They connect to central features of Christianity. Education, literacy, and healing have been significant attractions to Christianity for centuries. UMCOR is one of the most universally popular parts of The United Methodist Church, and you can’t have UMCOR without some organizational structure for collecting, dispersing, and monitoring donations.
Hence, there are tradeoffs between simplicity and scope of ministry. Calling these tradeoffs implies that there are benefits and disadvantages to each choice. Neither is clearly better in all situations.
Yet if we recognize that church need not involve an expensive, organizationally complex system and that there are tradeoffs between simplicity and scope, then we can be more mindful about navigating those tradeoffs.
To begin with, we can determine to what extent the organizational and financial model of our church is something that should be standard everywhere and to what extent it is something that should be open to contextualization and adaption. While contextualization is a contentious word in The United Methodist Church currently because of its role in the debate over sexuality, as a general practice not tied to this one issue, contextualization is a natural and healthy part of how Christianity is practiced around the world and across denominations.
Beyond the issue of contextuality, if we recognize the choices and tradeoffs involved in financial and structural models of the church, we can then have honest conversations about how God is calling us to be in ministry. Is God calling us to be a lightweight and easily spread movement, or is God calling us to undertake significant and complex missional tasks? Where do our gifts and graces fall in this spectrum? What do such choices mean about our future? If we recognize these questions as questions, then we can do the difficult work of sorting through them in a way that will hopefully make us clearer about how we intend to serve God faithfully.
Whatever choices we make about finances and structure, recognizing these choices as involving tradeoffs can also help us appreciate that faithful people may have differing answers. The Bible is silent on the issue of finance secretaries, staff-parish relations committees, denominational agencies, and universities. Their existence is not biblically endorsed or prohibited.
Of course, it is possible to present answers about structure and finance that stem from bad motives – fear of the other, fear of change, desire for control, etc. Yet the answer one arrives at is not itself an indicator of faithfulness or faithlessness.
Instead, we must seek to understand each other’s motives, aspirations, and senses of calling that inform our views on structure. To do this, we must get to know each other’s hearts and the heart of God, which is a very Wesleyan undertaking. Indeed, any conversation, even difficult conversations about money and structure, that brings us closer to each other’s hearts and the heart of God is a good one.