Minnesota UMC

Pep Rally or Game Plan?

IMG_8391Last week was the Annual Conference of the Minnesota United Methodist Church. It’s our big gathering. Our clergy and lay members gather in St. Cloud, MN to reflect on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re headed. It’s a fun and fruitful time, but also an exhausting and exasperating time (at least for me). What I fear, however, is that what our Annual Conference has become (or is becoming) is a mere pep rally when it should be a locker room talk.

It’s like this: My daughter’s fast pitch softball team really struggles, and that’s okay. What I find amusing, however, is often we’re in a game and losing by as much as a dozen or more, and they chime in with one of these cheers that seem to be what the bench does in softball. It’s a call and repeat cheer that goes something like this: “Janey is her number (repeat). 7 is her name (repeat). Even though we’re mixed up (repeat). We’re gonna win this game (repeat).” Then everyone goes on in unison chanting, “Hey don’t be a fool. Somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one having fun in the sun…”. A few of us parents chuckle every time, because while calling out this cheer, they are down by double digits and have won one game all season. They’re not gonna win this game. And they’re far from number one.

As our Bishop mentioned this year, the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is the fastest declining conference in the nation two years running, yet sometimes I felt like we’re cheering within that truth, “…somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one…”. While we need encouragement, and need some atta-girls and atta-boys, I felt very strongly this year that we were getting a game plan in the locker room, but we were treating it like a pep rally in the gym.

Our key note speaker was Rev. Junius Dotson who is the Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, and his talk reminded us of what this is all about- of in fact what being a United Methodist is all about. It’s about discipleship. He said that if we can’t connect to our “why”, then what we do will have little to no effect. He was talking a lot about our personal “why” (that is, our personal purpose in this world) but he was also talking about our communal “why”. As we look at our Conference and the churches that make it up, we must ask “why do we exist?” Well, if we’re United Methodists (which we claim to be), then no matter what your church’s mission/vision/values are, the answer to that question is easy: We are here- that is my church and your church exist- to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s it. That’s our collective, communal “why”.

The trick is that there’s another why beyond that. Everybody wants to have a positive impact on transforming this world. The way I like to phrase it is restoring shalom to the world or working for wholeness in the world. The “why” within this is, “why do we need to be disciples of Jesus Christ in order to transform the world?” To put it another way “to what degree do we believe that being a disciple of Jesus Christ actually does that?” Do we believe it at all? As Junius Dotson indicates in his short video at seeallthepeople.org, are we merely trying to “fix” our churches? Or are we working to partner with the Holy Spirit in transforming the world?

 

 

If we are going to be who we say we are- which is United Methodists- then we must trust that being a disciple of Jesus Christ can actually transform the world. And I don’t mean this some God-awful imperial way with sword and spear. I mean this in an actual Jesus way with basin and towel. This does not make us the saviors of the world, but it does mean that we believe that when we give our lives to the ways and rhythms of Jesus, that we believe that our own personal worlds (that is, our hearts, souls, minds, and even bodies) can be transformed; that our local worlds (that is, our homes, neighborhoods, cities and communities) can be transformed; and that (as redundant as it sounds) our global world can be transformed.

The “why” of the Church for United Methodists is the transformation of the world by being disciples of Jesus who go a make disciples of Jesus. But as one of the “TED Talk” speakers at Annual Conference said, “making disciples is hard work”. There is no quick fix to this. That’s why Jesus said in his most thorough and exhausting teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, “The Gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14, NRSV). [Side note: If there “few who find it” what might this say about churches that draw and woo the masses?] Being a disciple requires being disciplined in an intentional way of being or rule of life.

To put it another way, being a disciple of Jesus requires a method. It’s time we in Minnesota put the “method” back in Methodist. We don’t need anything new. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, or even come up with a whole new mode of transportation. The method has already been laid out for us, but you might have to crack open that 2016 edition, or even dig up an old dusty edition of the Book of Discipline (which perhaps we should rename the “Book of Discipleship”).

Go ahead do it: Listen the binding crack and smell those fresh thin pages. It’s not just there only to tell you about restrictions on property sales and how many people should be on Trustees. It’s actually got the whole game plan of discipleship outlined for us in paragraph 256.1, which also refers us back to the General Rules (we keep using that word- I do not think it means what we think it means) in paragraph 104. And when you’re done with that, give paragraphs 216-221 a good reading as well. This is our game plan, folks.

We don’t need to ask, “what’s your/our discipleship method?” We should be asking, “how are you structuring the discipleship method?” We already have the method! That’s why we’re Methodists! It’s laid out for us in the Book of Discipline, but beyond that there is Disciples-Making-Disciplesmore help in doing this. Go grab the “Developing an Intentional Discipleship System: A Guide for Congregations” at seeallthepeople.org, and perhaps work through this with your leadership team and staff. Also consider ordering the three part series of books recently released, the first of which is written by Minnesota’s own Rev. Steve Manskar called Disciples Making Disciples. The others in this hat-trick of resources help us in fanning this out to our children and youth (perhaps our biggest failure so far as conference), and are called Growing Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Children and Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Youth.

I challenge all of us Minnesota United Methodists (clergy and Lay Leaders and Lay Members to the Annual Conference) to read these books over the next year, and then maybe the planners of our 2018 Annual Conference could find some space for us to talk about what we’re learning from them, and, more importantly, what we’re doing about them. This is our game plan. We’re not number one, nor are we even number two. And the point, of course, isn’t winning (by no means), but that statistic should give us great pause. It should cause us to look at our game plan pretty closely. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of pep rallies. I want to get back into the playbook and make sure I understand and begin to run the game plan.

We have work to do, friends- hard work. Let’s be honest about that. This is hard work. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t Tweet well (I’ve tried). It’s not a quick fix. It takes immense focus and discipline. But it’s beautiful work. It has the power to change lives, change our communities, and change our world, and even enliven our very own souls as we lead our congregations in it.

It is in fact why we have a “people called methodists” at all. Let’s put the method back in Methodist.

Has Confirmation Lost Its Way?

Schoolchildren bored in a classroom, during lesson.

Confirmation is a beautiful and right idea, but I wonder if it has lost its way in the United Methodist Church. At its very root it is about confirming one’s baptism. When you’re a baby, your parents put white clothes on you (probably), and bring you to a church where you stand awkwardly before some pastor who asks you a series of very odd (almost Harry Potter like) questions. Then they hand you to the pastor who holds you near what one child in my congregation affectionally referred to as a “baptism bucket”, and proceeds to pour, drip or drizzle water on you and says something to the effect of “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Then people dote on you for a little while and you go and have brunch. That’s it. Done. Whether you like it or not, at this moment you become a connected to the community of faith and the community of faith becomes connected to you by committing to raise you as a disciple of Jesus. You have no choice in this matter what so ever. And it’s beautiful. It says, among other things, “God is working in you, and you belong here” before you even realize that you do. You have no say in the matter.

That is, until some point in your early adolescent days. You’re trying to figure out who you are, who your friends are, and what this world is all about, and suddenly this thing called “confirmation” pops up. Depending on the church it’s a 1, 2, or 3 year program designed to help you “confirm” your baptism. That is, it is now time for you to have some choice in the matter. Do you want to be a member of this community of faith? More often than not, the answer is yes.
So at some time in the Spring (and these days more and more in the Fall), upon finishing the confirmation class, however long it is, you head back to church, all dressed up. This time without your parents you stand independently before a pastor (sometimes even the same 2944861-hogwartspastor), and that pastor asks you the same Hogwartsian questions your parents were asked when they dragged you in there in that white outfit you wore only that one time in your life: “Do you, Harry Potter, renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness in this world…” and so on and so forth. You say “I do” and “I will” and such and such, and then the pastor and some other folk (depends on the church) put their hands on you, say some words, and, boom, you’re confirmed. Check! Then you never go to church again.

I’ve been leading and co-leading confirmation programs for 19 years. I’ve done it in a variety of forms, and in every one, for various reasons, there’s something missing. Something really important. Something, perhaps, more important than anything else. And something with which I’ve been wrestling for 19 years. This will be my 20th confirmation/baptism class and it’s time for me to rethink this whole thing.

Confirmation, remember, is about confirming your baptism- confirming what was said for you on your behalf when you could not speak or choose for yourself (which is why it is logically absurd to baptize a student and then immediately confirm them. A student who chooses to be baptized does not need to be confirmed, and it sends a bad theological and liturgical IMG_5945message when we do. Phew- got that off my chest- feel better now). So if confirmation is about confirming your baptism, it follows, then, that confirmation is about baptism. It is about the same thing baptism is about. And in the United Methodist Church (as I understand it, anyway- I’m no UMC theology and polity expert) one of the, if not the, primary components to baptism is the joining and committing to the community of faith. The baptismal candidate commits to being a full participant in the community of faith’s method (there’s a reason we’re “methodists”) of discipleship, and the community of faith commits to growing and nurturing that candidate in her discipleship. This is why we UMC pastors are discouraged from doing private baptisms. It’s about participation in the community. The community needs to be there!

Because baptism is about being a full participant in the community of faith, so is confirmation. And here’s where our problem is. What do we do?

We set up a wholly separate program for a specific age group wherein they rarely participate in the life of the community because all they have time for in their busy schedule is the wholly separate program that we set up. And the reason we do that is that there is so much we need to teach our students about the faith so that they can participate in it. Now let’s think about for a minute:

First, why would we expect our students to be full participants in the community of faith, when the very program we’ve designed to help them do that mostly separates them from the community of the faith and has an end date? We may have expectations that they participate in worship, and we may have a mentor of some kind for them, but those are generally secondary to being a part of that class we set up. Why are we surprised when our confirmands “disappear” after confirmation? We separated them from the community in the very program that’s supposed to teach them about being a part of the community!

Second, just think on this again: We set up a 1-3 year program to teach our students what it means to be a participant in the community of faith. Just let that in: We need to set up a separate program to teach our students what it means to be a disciple in a denomination whose very mission statement is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. What has happened to the church that we are not already doing this? We shouldn’t need to teach our students this. They should already be doing it!

Our confirmation programs usually consist of things like teaching our students about the Bible, what it is, what is not, how it’s structured, etc. We teach them about the Trinity. We teach them about Jesus more in depth (short changing the Holy Spirit, per usual). We teach them about the early church, we teach them about God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s grace.

What are we doing that we’re not doing this in our ministry to children and youth to the extent that we need to set up a separate program from our regular ministries for our teenagers to do it? And we do so by holding a certificate hostage that their parents desperately want/need on their students’ graduation open house table. At risk of hurting some feelings (I just think we need to name the problem), I believe that the fact that we need a separate class to teach our young people what it means to be a disciple is an indictment on the church’s abject failure to live out its mission with young people. We shouldn’t need a separate class from their regular large and small gathered communities to teach young people about being a disciple. We should just make disciples. We need to do a better of job calling our people of all ages to a life of prayer, searching the scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and acts of service all in the context of the large gathered community and (no “or”) small gathered communities.

What this means for our teenagers is that our youth groups and our worship contexts should be enough to teach them what it means to be a full participant in the community of faith. And those programs (and, yes, worship is a program too) should be enough because they should be disciple forming programs. What our confirmation “programs” should be is the calling of a deep commitment to these methods of discipleship that are centered on prayer, searching the scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and acts of service in large and small gathered communities. It should be a 1,2 or 3 year commitment to discipleship in the community of faith, but not its own program that ends after 1, 2 or 3 years. We should be calling them to a commitment to our respective ongoing discipleship processes.

And hear this: This is not on our youth ministers, children’s ministers, and Sunday school teachers. This is on pastors like me. It is our job to set up methods of discipleship that enable the entire community- including our students- to become full participants in AAEAAQAAAAAAAATPAAAAJDNlMDIwMTg0LThjODgtNGMyNi04YWZlLWZkMDMyMjE5NzVhMwthe community. But when our worship services are done in a language that alienates them, and when we don’t make room for them in leadership, and when we demand that our youth pastor “grow the program” through mere fun and games and glitz and glamour, we fail to implement adequate discipleship methods for our young people. We need “entry points”, but we fail to disciple our young people when their weekly core gathering lacks discipleship methods. I would rather my youth group be small and make disciples, than be the hot spot in town for teenagers to play foosball (that being said, there’s nothing wrong with foosball in a youth room!). Furthermore, the reason we need “entry points” into youth ministry is that we as pastors too often fall short of discipling their parents that we hang our hopes on our children’s and youth ministers to draw and reach new families. The entry point to the church should not be children and youth ministry. It should be parents bringing their kids with them because a friend, neighbor or family member has come so alive in their own spirituality through the ministry of the church that they can’t shut up about it and invite them.

So that’s what we’re thinking about at Aldersgate UMC this year. Our namesake makes a claim for us that we want to be a place where hearts are strangely warmed. That is, we want to be a place of spiritual vitality, and as Methodists, we believe there is a method to spiritual vitality. So for confirmation, we are going to call our young people to our discipleship process. We are going to call them to commit to their youth group, which will be a place of prayer, searching the scriptures, and acts of service. And we call them to participate in and lead worship, which will be a place of prayer, searching the scriptures and the Lord’s supper. And as they approach confirmation Sunday, we will call them away for one weekend retreat to tie it all together and call them to reflect on whether this life is a life they want to commit to for the rest of their lives. And then when confirmation Sunday comes, those who so choose and have been baptized before will kneel, we will lay hands on them, and we will celebrate their commitment to being a disciple of Jesus as set forth for them by their parents having them baptized. And those who have not been baptized, will kneel and will likewise simply be baptized (and not confirmed because their baptism will be their confirmation!).

There’s risk in it. What if they don’t choose to be confirmed? Well, that should be the caseunspecified
in any confirmation system. And what if there are too many distractions on Wednesday to adequately teach them the core tenets of the faith? Well, when Jesus told us to go and make disciples he didn’t say “teach them everything I’ve commanded”, but he said “teach them to obey everything I’ve commanded.”Jesus didn’t teach students in a classroom. He apprenticed disciples in the world. I don’t know if it will work, but if I’m honest, I don’t think what we’ve been doing has been working.

And so I wonder… I wonder if those students who stick with the commitment to engage in the community of faith, just might stick around after confirmation Sunday. Because “confirmation” will not have ended, because discipleship will not have ended. I don’t know if it will work. But it might. So let’s stop isolating confirmation. And let’s do our busy families a favor but setting up simple but meaningful methods of discipleship for all age groups, and in so doing, let’s get back to being who we say we are: Methodists. Define the method, then call everyone to it, and celebrate those who find renewed vitality through it. There is no need for anything else.