What are the Essentials for Mission in a Worldwide United Methodist Connection?
We live and lead in a very troubled and divisive season of the United Methodist Church’s global movement. We are beleaguered and burdened by several unresolved issues, chief among them, matters related to human sexuality and the realities of being a world-wide denomination. Long-term, unresolved issues or questions lead to deep conflict and diminished productivity or mission effectiveness in any organization, including the Church. Further, the revivalist and evangelical energy that fueled and directed the early Methodist renewal movement has become increasingly shackled by our more contemporary experiences and expressions of polity, power and politics. Exceptions are found in pockets of innovation in the United States and in many of our missions and conferences outside the United States where the focus on reaching people and transforming lives and communities is often more organic and less “structured.”
There are many bright spots within our worldwide United Methodist connection that can, I believe, serve as a blueprint for a future with hope. One of the bright spots is the nearly universal affirmation and articulation of our mission. I will never forget the Sunday morning I worshipped with one of our United Methodist congregations in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the pastor began the service by reminding the congregants that their mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Many clergy and lay leaders have discerned more accessible ways to state this mission. The specific wording is not essential. But, what is essential to any organization, and particularly a world-wide church, is a clear, compelling and shared mission.
Likewise, the four areas of missional focus – developing principled Christian leaders, creating new places for new people and strengthening existing churches, ministry with the poor and stamping out the killer diseases of poverty – are proving essential expressions of congregational vitality for our world-wide connection. Many of our congregations, large and small, have embraced these four areas of focus as building blocks for their missions and evangelism ministries. They recognize that these four areas of focus are sound Wesleyan practices, and engagement in them bears kingdom fruit. The four areas of focus lead to vital congregations; and, vital congregations generate fruit in each of these areas of mission.
Another essential for mission effectiveness will be a recovery of connectionalism grounded in its historical purposes of fostering spiritual accompaniment and spreading scriptural holiness across the land. When the polity of The United Methodist Church adopted the characteristics of the emerging corporate and bureaucratic structures of late 19th century and early 20th century United States’ culture, connectionalism began to become synonymous with committee membership rather than discipleship, agencies rather than agents of transformation, paying apportionments rather than cultivating stewardship, and rules and regulations rather than missional entrepreneurship.
The Global Book of Discipline proposals coming from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, and endorsed by the Connectional Table, begin to offer a corrective essential for the mission of a worldwide church. While retaining our core beliefs and ecclesiology, the proposals move us away from disciplinary and structural obligations devoid of missional context toward greater flexibility and freedom to adapt to the missional needs and opportunities present across the globe. Similar proposals are being developed to extend these adaptive principles to the U.S. conferences as well.
Wesleyan connectionalism and its inherent evangelistic and pietistic impulses cannot survive in a regulatory environment. The “connection” can only foster growth and vitality in a rapidly changing, social-media driven world when we re-define or recover connectionalism as a spiritual, relational, adaptive and missional movement.
Vital local churches across the globe are also essential for the mission of the United Methodist connection. We affirm that local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs. The Council of Bishops has identified increasing the number of vital congregations as the critical adaptive challenge currently confronting the United Methodist connection. Why? Because local churches, with their multiple, diverse and entrepreneurial avenues of outreach can efficiently go to the people in the streets, the workplaces and our communities to offer the hope, healing and saving grace of Jesus. People worship God in local churches. People profess their faith in local churches. People engage in true Wesleyan holy conferencing in local churches. People are equipped and sent as witnesses through local churches. Local churches call forth and develop leaders. Local churches create new places for new people. Local churches are in ministry with the poor. Local churches bring healing to the world.
But, perhaps even more significantly, local churches are innovators. They can go to the edges of the connection and expand its reach and impact. They can move into the shadows where people are forgotten or forced to hide. They can go into the stress fractures that arise from our divisions and bind up the wounds. They can facilitate people seeing Christ in the “other.” They can give expression to orthodoxy through unorthodox methods. They can address unresolved matters by building relationships. They can spread scriptural holiness into the nooks and crannies, the highways and byways of cultures throughout the world. They can recover the vitality and power of a truly spiritual and practical “connection.” The innovative and adaptive energy of our local churches will likely determine the extent and impact of our Methodist revival movement in the 21st century.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Chair
Dakota-Minnesota Episcopal Area