Let’s Not Fix Our Church

In this Lenten season of giving-things-up, I want to suggest something that we United Methodists and other mainline Christians could give up for Lent—in fact, for good. Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s give up trying to save/renew/bail out failing, floundering, foundering institutions that are at best resistant to change and at worst incapable of the “adaptive change” that some would make our new United Methodist buzzword. (When I told my wife what I was writing about, she said, “So you want to let the church go to hell?” Of course not. Stay with me as we move toward a transforming alternative.)

I’ve been reading the latest round of “how-to-fix-the UMC” blogs, articles, and ponderous pronouncements. This excruciating experience has driven me to offer this drastic strategy. Let’s give up trying to fix/revive/bail-out/prop up our church. Let us embrace anew our stated mission: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Let us dare to make our stated mission our actual mission by aligning the expenditure of our money, time, energy, prayer, and attention. Let us begin with ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ within our reach on any given Sunday.

One obvious question arises. “What is a disciple?” We could spend endless time and energy pharisaically debating the issue. Some (including myself) would say that our penchant for endless debate and insufficient action has gotten us exactly the results we should have expected. We’d also point out that our planet already has a climate-change crisis. The last thing we need is more hot air!

My working definition of “disciple” comes from Dallas Willard:

“A disciple or apprentice…is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is…as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God…I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.”

Nearly every church has at least a few people who embody this vision of discipleship. Nearly every church also includes others whose growth has been severely stunted. Sometimes  these are long-time church members, but “developmentally delayed” immature disciples. (DISCLAIMER—All of us have periodic relapses into immaturity—especially when we judge and point fingers at someone else’s “immaturity”.) With that in mind, consider Johnny, the clearly-out-of-place student in this video, “Faith in Kindergarten”. [For those unable to view the video, “Johnny” is a 40-ish man enjoying his “career” in kindergarten. He embraces his success and steadfastly refuses to leave his comfort zone to face the challenges of first grade and beyond. If you can’t see the video, I urge you to get some technical support—perhaps your child or grandchild! It’s really a must-see.]

Who’s responsible for our collective spiritual immaturity? I am—along with my clergy colleagues, laypeople in every church I know, and conference and denominational leaders. We have settled for mediocrity in ourselves and others. We have accepted and even cultivated spiritual immaturity. Granted, we have seen notable individual and institutional exceptions. But they have been just that—exceptions. Our growing desperation to reverse decades of decline points like garishly flashing neon to our collective immaturity. Mature discipleship focuses minimally on ourselves and mainly on God and our neighbor. But we care more about ourselves, about “my church” “my needs”, and “being fed”. We care more about not rocking the boat and maintaining the institution than about embracing and immersing ourselves in God’s mission where we live life.

Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the recently-appointed leader of the Phoenix Area, wrote recently in his column “Living the Connection, Renewed by the Spirit” about getting acquainted with the congregations he now serves. He says that he’s heard inspiring stories of sacrifice, dedication, and accomplishment in his visits with churches. But so many of those have been “good old days” stories. Now those same congregations struggle with decline. A few, not nearly  enough, are finding a way forward. He identifies three questions that seem to shape that way forward:  “‘Who is my neighbor?’…‘What are the… physical…AND spiritual needs of the people who live around the church who are not yet part of the church?’…‘What can I or we offer them if we really want to reach out and touch their lives with the love of Jesus Christ?”’ 

NOW, AS PROMISED, A TRANSFORMING ALTERNATIVE— Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to heal the brokenness of our “developmentally-delayed” discipleship. Let’s stop living out of fear and start living by faith. Let’s decide to be who we say we are. Let’s intentionally focus all available resources on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

It doesn’t take years of political maneuvering. It doesn’t require mountains of legislation. It begins with a critical mass here and there. The size of a “critical mass” varies according to our context. Jesus did a lot with twelve people. He told those twelve that “two or three” plus his presence could form that critical mass (Matthew 18:20).

Talk to folks who might join you in becoming a “critical mass”. Share your hope and dreams. Pray together deeply and frequently. Keep your pastor in the loop. Work with him/her, not against. Don’t be secretive. Do be humble and open. Find people who are serious about apprenticing themselves to Jesus. Explore together what that means for you separately and as a community. Your “critical mass” may well include formerly-churched, differently-churched, de-churched, even unchurched people.

Bishop Bob offers us one model for living out our mission. It’s hardly the only one. But it’s a great starting point. It’s simple, Biblical, and comprehensive. PLEASE—Let’s not engage in endless debate like good Methodists. Let’s be good Nike-ists. “JUST DO IT!” Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s take up following Jesus as faithful apprentices wherever he leads us.

85 Responses to “Let’s Not Fix Our Church”


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  2. 3 x March 2, 2013 at 1:51 AM

    Please…I do get tired of folks dismissing those who want to “be fed”.
    Man’s gotta eat! It’s like mature theologians dissing those who experience emotional highs in worship… that bugs me, because sometimes those are gifts from God, for those who need them.
    How can we carry on without sustenance?
    Please excuse my rant…I do agree with most all you’ve written in this post.
    And I actually looked up ‘disciple’ today in the dictionary, before I read this, as I am thinking of this too.
    I hope I can step out of my comfort zone. But I feel very unprepared, and if God does not provide sustenance from other apostles and His Holy Spirit, I can do nothing.

    • 4 soulmanlv March 2, 2013 at 8:16 AM

      So I actually moved you to the dictionary? That’s a pretty high compliment. Nothing wrong with being fed. We all need it. My problem is with folks focused on getting themselves “fed” without understanding that we are fed in order to help carry out Jesus’ post-resurrection commission to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). A colleague speaks of spiritual maturity as becoming a “spiritually mature self-feeder”. One thing I think that means is that we take responsibility for our spiritual “nutrition”. We may not know all the answers, but we have an idea of what we need and where to find it. Spiritual maturity won’teat a steady diet of “junk food”. It understands that we need a balance of comfort and challenge, solitude and community, action and contemplation, etc. I’m watching my grandchildren (ages 2 yrs. and 9 mos.) learn to “self-feed”. It’s a messy process. They need lots of assistance and guidance to be sure their young growing bodies get everything they need. But I’ve seen the three older grandchildren who are now teenagers learn to “self-feed” and take responsibility for what they eat and make good choices–along with an occasional glorious trip way off the reservation!

      Thanks for your comment. Was in your town recently.

  3. 5 Dan Morley March 2, 2013 at 7:42 AM

    Mike — well put. Lately, I have realized that the next greatest idea, product or workshop for the church continues to divert my attention and focus away from the workshop I need to continue to work and give my full attention and self — being a disciple. We already have what we need, or more importantly, who — Christ — He’s the way for us. Thanks for the focus and challenge!!!

    • 6 soulmanlv March 2, 2013 at 8:20 AM

      Thanks, Dan. One of the temptations of ministry is to be distracted from the best and most important by “good things”. That’s why one of my mottoes continues to be “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.”

  4. 7 Betsy March 2, 2013 at 2:27 PM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Because of my family, I have a complex relationship with the United Methodist Church. I have an ongoing writing project that is helping me to understand “where I come from” and the role The United Methodist Church has played in my life. (During the last months, I have been “forced” to give up all things church to gain some perspective). I now classify myself as an immature, mature Christian. I say that because for starters, I have not had enough consistent information about who God is and who I am, which, as i have discovered is the true beginning of redemption–I chased down the info on my own. I have also not had any good role models as to getting discipleship out of simply “going to church” and into my life. The following is my description of what my journey has felt like:

    “My knowledge of God was sketchy:
    what I knew was far less than what I did not know.
    What I did know was gathered in tiny fragments in random fashion;
    from liturgy and hymns and brief glimpses into the lives of others
    There was no cohesive “teaching”
    It all depended on “who crossed my path” at the moment
    My knowledge and understanding were random snapshots.
    I made sense of them as best I could;
    tucking each away, patiently waiting for the whole picture to emerge.

    Tell me the story of Jesus…”

    I end each section that details one facet of my “journey” with “Tell me the story of Jesus” because, amazingly enough I have not had a clear understanding of who He is and His impact on my life–the gospel and its impact on a person’s life is the best kept secret for those of us that have no other way to hear about it, see it lived out:

    “I knew there is a Trinity:
    The Father had some substance from Old Testament stories;
    The Son, Jesus, was in the shadows, murky
    There were stories of wonderful things He did while walking this earth
    We celebrated his birth
    He rose from the dead
    I knew He died on a cross, but that was never directly addressed:
    Church went directly from Palm Sunday to Easter;
    leaving me to wonder, “What is so Good about this Friday?”
    The Holy Spirit was something “I believe” when I recited the Apostle’s Creed.
    It had more to do with “that church” over there.

    Tell me the story of Jesus…”

    What inspired me to configure “my story” in such a fashion was this comment written by a young pastor/seminary professor on his blog:

    “I am almost tempted to say that United Methodists should fast from doing things for God. Instead, we should relearn how to talk about what God has already done for us. We need to start by telling ourselves about Jesus, about what he has already done for us and which we cannot do for ourselves – practicing it until none of us are embarrassed or hesitant to say the name of Jesus. We need to state clearly that we are all desperate for God’s grace, that without it we are utterly and hopelessly lost.”

    Here is my summation, as I am struggling with what’s next:

    “So what is the future for this “genetic methodist”?
    an imperfect church kept me from completely sinking into the darkness
    but she never quite helped me walk in the light of God’s salvation, either
    which left me “muddling around in a grey area”.
    (My knee jerk reaction: I wish there was somebody around I could sue!)

    Tell me the story of Jesus…”

    My suspicion is, I am “not alone”–people may be immature simply out of ignorance. I found this comment by another pastor on his blog:

    “I remember being told in seminary that most church members wouldn’t have the time patience or tolerance for deep and difficult bible study. However, when I got into the local church and started pulling out the harder stuff I discovered a whole pool of folks who were longing for something deeper and more substantive.”

    I also have a word for the UMC from Steve Jobs:
    “Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean, make it simple. It’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

    Thanks for letting me share your space. It is so exciting to find someone else “who gets it”. :0)

    • 8 soulmanlv March 3, 2013 at 8:41 AM

      Betsy, Your writing’s clean, simple, and expressive. It clearly conveys your journey/quest/struggle for depth, understanding, and clarity. “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” is a Sunday School song that still loops in my mind from time to time. It’s a good theme for our discipleship training in the church and for our life int he world. But it’s critically important 1) to get the story straight; 2) to learn the languages of the people with whom we seek to share the story so that we can communicate effectivedly; and 3) to find our own places in the story as we live out and incarnate the next chapter in our mission and ministry wherever we are. End of Sermon! Keep writing and journeying!

      > Date: Sat, 2 Mar 2013 21:27:13 +0000 > To: soulmanlv@msn.com >

  5. 9 soulmanlv March 10, 2013 at 4:56 PM

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness. We’ll talk again.

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