After decades of numerical decline, the bishops of the UMC have discovered that the United Methodist Church has a mission, and that mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That might not seem like a big deal, but apparenly, the people of the UMC don't know how to make disciples, at least according to Bishop Peter Weaver of the Boston Area, and current President of the Council of Bishops. Is it just me, or is there something wrong when Christians don't know how to make more Christians?
I know plenty of United Methodists who could organize your bakesale, petition your state senator, picket your city hall, and be extremely nice to you if you happened to darken the doorstep of their local church -- but far too few of my fellow United Methodists seem to have the desire or the wherewithall to tell you why you should join them in their local church. Maybe I'm crazy, but if our mission is to make disciples who can then transform the world, we need to be a bit more effective at making disciples!
For some time now, in many of our conferences, we have closed churches in areas where the population isn't falling (and often where it is growing), and we have had decreasing church attendance in other places as well. Anecdotally, in the city of Boston, one of the old men in my home church can remember attending Boston District Methodist Youth events with the youth from our church and the youth from over 30 other Methodist churches in Boston -- today, there are no youth in our church, and usually only about 20 people on a Sunday morning, and only 7 other UMC's in Boston... The district now stretches well into the suburbs, and while it contains more churches than the Boston District did when Jimmy was young, it's almost impossible to develop the same fellowship with youth from a 50 square mile area, as a 7 square mile area with good public transportation, and even with all the churches now connected, I would guess there are fewer youth than in Jimmy's day.
I don't know when things went wrong, but it must have been during or after World War II, judging from the older generations who continue to teach Sunday School and who remember how things used to be. Yes, there might be some cultural factors involved, but the primary one is that most of the church members I know who are much younger than Jimmy know how to talk about "God," but don't seem to know all that much about following Jesus or how to make disciples of Jesus. Worse yet, for the life of the church, many of these church members have defended to me their own children's lack of involvement in the church because "they pray and have a relationship with God... they just don't come to church all the time."
The problem with this thinking is that for a disciple, "Church" isn't a place where you go, but who you are. Unlike being a Sous Chef, or a Biologist, or an M.D., you can't be "Church" alone, and Christian disciples are both formed and find their identity within the Church. Can we be Christian without much involvement in the local church? Perhaps -- but we cannot have the kind of rich and fulfilling Christian life that makes being a Christian so wonderful without the Church. Yes, Jesus can be our Best Friend without the Church, but it's hard to hear the voice of our Lord without spending time in his Body, the Church.
I'll have to stop here, if I keep going, I might never finish... but, hey, this is what I've got -- it worked for me,and it's what inspires me to live the way I do... when I don't get in the way.