Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Number's Game?

Somewhere on the blogosphere (forgive me for not giving full credit I could not find the original post) I came across this website for the North Alabama Conference of the UMC. This "dashboard" as they call it gives weekly updates for attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, total membership, and apportionments paid. Participating churches, I do not know if participation is mandatory, plug in number weekly and the corresponding measurement device responds accordingly. Also, if a church does particularly well or poorly they are placed on a kind of honor roll or delinquency list. I watched the instructional video on the website and the narrator claimed that this is a tool to measure the life of a church, district, and the conference as a whole.

My first question is this, can we judge the life of a church, district, or conference only by statistics, which is the only thing displayed on this website? My answer is an emphatic no. Larger churches in larger cities are by their very nature going to bring in more members, attendance, baptisms, etc, of course the inverse is also true. Numbers do not tell the whole story. Numbers do not tell of the love that is in a community. Numbers do not tell of the number of hours spent helping those in need. Numbers do not tell of the importance of a local church to a community.

That is not to say that numbers are not helpful and that a website like this does not provide some motivation for growth. However, the Church should not be just about numbers, but is seems more and more like numbers are all that count. At charge conferences and year-end reports the statistics are very important, maybe too important. We spend too much time treating the Church like a business where the only thing that counts is the bottom line. This is unhealthy and in a lot of ways unfair. The small churches will always be at a disadvantage. Growth is vital because a church that does not grow is dying, but judging a church strictly by the numbers does not tell the whole story.

All that being said, I am looking at this as an casual observer without any direct knowledge of why this system was implemented. I do not want to make absolute claims without all the facts. This is my opinion from my limited view.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thoughts on the Tennessee Annual Conference

A few things struck me today during Annual Conference. One was the lack of understanding of UMC polity by laity and clergy alike. I think there are two reasons for this. One very few people, especially laity, take the time to learn the basic concepts of UMC polity. I am not saying that lay persons should be fluent in every aspect, but if you are going to make the commitment to be a delegate to AC then you should have a working knowledge of UMC polity. The lack of understanding leads at best to confusion and at worst to manipulation by those who DO understand the polity.

Secondly, I was pleased at the Christian manner of the debate and discussion on these amendments. There were passionate arguments for and against each one, but everyone was respectful. I don't know what the results were and think they may remain confident until all ACs have a chance to vote.

Finally, I am impressed that we are running, as of this afternoon, on schedule. (I might have just jinxed the whole thing.) Everyone has been on the ball with the reports and very concise and direct. If we could only do this every year.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Let's Get Serious About It

The Methodist Laity Reform Movement voted for the Iowa Annual Conference to support a Marriage Protection Amendment in the Iowa Constitution. This would revoke the rights for same-sex marriages passed in Iowa recently. Here is a excerpt from their statement "We are for one-man-one-woman marriage as an essential foundation for a strong, stable society. There are strong secular reasons to protect marriage as a union of one man and one woman." OK, fine. If we are going to protect marriage then let's get serious about it.

If we are going to protect marriage then the next logical step is to ban divorce. There is nothing more damaging to the sanctity of marriage than the dissolution of said marriage. In fact, Jesus makes an explicit statement against divorce. So, right after we pass an amendment to protect marriage by preventing same-sex marriages then the next amendment should ban divorce. The Church should defrock all ordained divorced clergy; after all they are examples held to a higher standard by the community. Let's take all divorced laity to church trial and have them removed from the rolls. It's for their own good. They need to learn that marriage is a "God-ordained lifelong covenant between one man and one woman." If it is lifelong, then let's get serious about it.

If we fight tooth and nail to prevent gays and lesbians from celebrating lifelong commitments to one another and we do nothing to ban divorce then we are nothing but hypocrites.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Church of Convenience?

On yesterday's CBS Sunday Morning there was a story about a church in Daytona, FL located in an old drive-in movie theater. I believe it is a Disciples of Christ church, not that denominational labels are relevant to this post. The congregants would drive up in their cars and listen to the service from a speaker. There was an usher who walked around collecting offerings and distributing the elements of Holy Communion. The people there seemed to like it because they didn't have to dress up. They could bring their dogs, snacks, etc, and they didn't have to leave the comfort of their car. It was convenient for them. The pastor even reached in the window and shook their hand as they drove away. They had community because they met for coffee in the snack shop before and after the service. Which makes no sense to me, why get out for coffee and donuts, but not for worship.

People gathered in their cars, isolated from the elements and also from one another. This was not a community; it was an amalgamation of individual bubbles. Community is about joining together without the separation of plastic, steel, and glass. How can the Church be the Church without the ability to touch, to join voices, and to be under one roof or at least in the same proximity to one another? This was a cute story, but I believe that this story is indicative of a deeper problem within the American Church and culture. We want our isolation and our privacy. We don't want the Church to knock on our doors or get involved in our lives. We want our hour of salvation and then go home without anyone talking to us or getting too personal. We don't want people to notice when we skip a Sunday and call to ask if we are OK. That is too personal, it is too nosy. How then can the Church be the Church? That is one reason why, I believe, the mega-churches are so popular. If you are in a congregation of 5,000 or more you can slip in and out without notice. In the small church of 100 or less anonymity is an impossibility.

Also, the Drive-In Church is another example of a gimmick driven Church. The Church in the United States, especially mainline Protestant Churches, have struggled to bring people back into the Church. We try contemporary worship music, causal dress code, and the obligatory Cappuccino and Christ. Churches have tried everything from the clever to the cliche and many attempts at increasing attendance seems more about gimmicks than gospel. In any case, it all seems to no avail. I have no problem with a causal dress code or contemporary music for that matter, but when the worship service becomes more about the gimmick than it does actual worship I think there is a problem.

Perhaps instead of changing the Church, we should work to change the American culture that creates these problems.