OK, let’s think about next steps.
That’s my best advice for what to do after all the hubbub around General Conference has passed. After the final vote has been taken. And after the last delegate has boarded his plane for home.
Next steps. Specifically, what those next steps are going to be, and where they’re going to be taken.
The goings-on at the General Conference level have a great deal of relevance on one level in the church. But at another level—a local level—they don’t matter nearly so much.
At the time I’m writing this column, I have no idea what the fate of the Call to Action plan is going to be. I don’t know if the delegates in Tampa will accept it as is, alter it significantly, or reject it entirely. They could accept the idea of change while opting for one of the other options, like Plan B or the Methodist Federation for Social Action’s alternative. Or, the delegates could simply go with the status quo.
And don’t get me wrong. Yes, I do think what the church decides to do at the macro-level has real importance. We don’t need our canon law hamstringing our ability to organize the church in the most efficient and effective way for ministry. Since the CTA plan is largely about administrative canon law, it would seem especially unfortunate if we allowed an outdated, overly bureaucratic structure to keep weighing us down.
So I do hope that by the time you read this the General Conference in Tampa will have made some changes toward helping the general church become a leaner and more mission-focused entity.
The ‘visible church’
But with all that said, the next steps we need to be focused upon have little if anything to do with church bureaucracy at the highest levels.
We don’t need to be looking up (at the General Conference) but rather around on a horizontal level (in our own communities).
The “visible church”—as we assert in Article 13 of our Articles of Religion—is “a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance” (¶103).
It is a description of the church that is decidedly local in character.
It suggests that the church is not in its essence a global institution. Nor is it even a conference-level connection. It is a local expression of the body of Christ where the marks of faithful ministry are seen.
Article 13 is an important doctrinal definition for the church to embrace. But it does not speak to the matter of discipleship formation, which has been a significant emphasis of the church’s task in recent years. To see that emphasis, we need to look at our stated mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (¶120). As a companion statement to that mission, the church affirms that “local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”
These two points taken together should show us exactly where our next steps need to be directed. The church exists in its most robust, most consequential form in local congregations. And it is through the witness and ministry of those congregations that new Christians are called to faith, baptized and formed as disciples of Jesus.
The Call to Action proposal (or any of its variants) can facilitate these steps structurally through its attention to “vital congregations.” But it cannot make these steps happen in any substantial way.
Evangelism and witness are Christian practices that faithful Christian men and women pursue in a local community. Worship happens in congregations. And redemptive love must always be given and received from one to another. That love comes first from Christ to the church, and it can then be shared person-to-person.
All this means that ministry is an inescapably intimate reality. As necessary as certain legislation might be from the “top down,” it can only serve in a secondary capacity to the calling upon Christians in their local situations—where life happens, and where salvation is received.
So the future of the church is still largely what it has always been. We—the pastors and laity of the United Methodist Church—must repent, recommit ourselves, and so reinvigorate the life of the church in our day.
We should remember this fact whatever the outcome of the proceedings at the General Conference in Tampa.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at: www.andrewthompson.com