Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The United Methodist Representational Problem, Part II

Today's piece is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.

The first part of this blog discussed ways that the representation to annual and general conferences is not proportionate or representational of the body of United Methodists. This second part will discuss whether the polity and election formulas are consistent with the UMC’s mission statement.

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The mission statement calls us to make disciples, yet representation to General Conference is awarded to those who make members. Are making a disciple and making a member the same?

In some cases, the process of making a disciple and making a member overlap, and becoming a member of a local church is a logical outcome of becoming a disciple. However, they are not always synonymous. In our churches there are disciples of Jesus Christ who are not members, and there are church members who may not be committed disciples.[1]

For example, in the church I attend there is a young man who is active, attends worship regularly, gives generously, participates in mission and outreach, yet has not joined the church. After General Conference in February he commented to me that: “it would be a hard sell to invite any of my friends to the United Methodist Church right now.” Recently there was a whole confirmation class in Omaha, Nebraska who decided to not join the church.

There are countless others in our churches who attend worship regularly, volunteer, give financially, yet are not members. I would call them disciples, but not members.

Inversely, there are other churches that focus on maintenance of current membership. Some members have been on the rolls for decades with very little involvement. Some are “Christmas and Easter Christians.” Unless there are extenuating circumstances that prevent them from attending (such as illness, physical mobility or proximity to church), I would say that they are members, but not necessarily disciples.

A church may invest in ministries that make disciples for the transformation of the world without making members. I would argue that these are actually some of our most fruitful investments. I point to the example of our denominationally-supported campus ministries that disciple college students who will be the future leaders of society. They may or may not choose to join a United Methodist Church, but will participate in a lifetime of Christian witness (whether in the UMC or not) and the transformation of the world through their professional vocations.

Other examples are our new church starts and Fresh Expressions that de-emphasize denominational connections. Studies have shown that young people today are less interested in supporting an institution, and so these ministries often do not use the cross and flame logo in their publicity. These ministries emphasize making disciples but not necessarily members.

Ministry is contextual, and each local church decides its own budget based on its own priorities. Some churches see themselves as the salt of the earth and place major emphasis on social ministries. Many have outreach programs to serve their community. Others are very missional and support international missionaries and VIM teams.

All churches would like to grow, but this depends on how one defines growth. Is numerical growth the best metric for measuring a healthy and effective church? Is it not possible to be engaged in healthy, effective ministry that transforms the world (or a least the surrounding community) and yet be a small membership church?

In his book, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, Reggie McNeal makes the case for using such metrics of church vitality as volunteer service hours. Conversely, there are many cases of members who do not uphold their vows to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

Should the voice and vote of the member be valued more than the active seeker? Should the voice of the elderly be valued more than that of the young? An 80 year-old lifelong member has representation, but a young person in the youth group or a new disciple who is not a member cannot vote.

Inviting new people to participate in decision-making and have ownership is part of discipleship and one of the best way to retain young people and their needs and opinions should be given serious consideration.

[1] For further discussion on the United Methodist mission statement see Dana Robert and Doug Tzan’s article “Is the UMC’s mission statement really Methodist?”

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