I’ve been a skin-cancer sufferer for about 10 years – the technical name is basal-cell carcinoma – a result of genetics, being fair-complexioned, hauling hay in the summers, and playing a lot of golf, tennis, and baseball without sunscreen. The damage is done, and I’ve numerous places shaved off, frozen off, and excised out so much that I get frequent-patient discounts from my dermatologist.
Because of this I’ve become an expert in knowing when a “spot” needs to be looked at. And while that sounds a bit ominous, I am thankful; it is at best a “nuisance” cancer. Rarely do folks die of basal-cell carcinoma. However, it’s close cousin melanoma is a much different situation. It’s dangerous and those cancer cells multiply rapidly. If not detected and dealt with quickly, it spreads to the lymphatic system. You can’t just remove the top layer and call it quits; you’ve got to go deeper, check the margins. Sometimes, it takes chemo and radiation. You have to get at the roots of the cancer to eradicate it.
I recently read Bishop Willimon’s article, “The Tough Truth About our Small Churches.” Will is an acquaintance of mine, and I find that he is often right about a great many things (just ask him!). He certainly brings great insight and depth to many issues. However, on this piece – I think he’s wrong. Having recently closed two churches, I can see how small churches are running out of resources – human and monetary – and I think many of them face difficult decisions sooner rather than later. While, as he says, “Small churches are doggedly resilient,” they are experiencing the same woes as medium-sized churches – they are graying and not replacing their ranks. With an increasingly smaller base, fewer and fewer have to do more and more – and atrophy and fatigue finally wears them down. One older person at the last church I met with (which is closing) said, “I’m tired. I can’t do it anymore.” A younger couple said that they would stay but there was nothing for their children. And one very devoted but wise middle-aged man said, “I hate it. But we can’t do it anymore with these few. We simply don’t have the numbers.” As rugged and committed – even stubborn – as some small churches can be, there comes a time when critical mass simply isn’t there. It can no longer be sustained.
I will agree with the bishop that small churches can be petty, demanding, and even mean. But “clergy killer” churches are not limited to small membership churches. Medium and large-membership churches can be clergy killers too. And to be honest, some pastors can be “church killers.” None of these things are to blame, however – they are the symptom, the mole of the cancer. We’ve got to address the root cause: failure to make disciples.
We’ve lacked for a catechism for a long time. We’ve not developed a culture of discipleship and mission. Doing those things has never been easy or quick; Jesus modeled a three-year catechism for the first Twelve that was full of drama, tumult, and frustration – however, when it was over, he commissioned them to go forth: “Go make disciples… baptize and teach.” We know that many of them met martyrdom. All left a legacy; it’s no coincidence that the most popular Christian name in India is “Thomas.” But it takes, as Jorge Acevedo says about church revitalization, honesty and courage: honesty to name the current reality, and courage to do something about it. That’s where we are: small church, medium-sized church, even large-sized church. Bill Hybels showed all of us, clearly, that even the large church has missed the mark on discipleship.
I preach root causes so much that my colleagues are tired of me saying it. But I don’t see how we avoid it – if we don’t do discipleship, we not only miss the mark where mission is concerned, but soon die from a lack of generativity. Pettiness and unrealistic demands are symptoms of the problem, but not the root cause.
It takes “guts” to do this very difficult work. But aren’t guts at the heart of the incarnation (“God
taking on flesh”) and discipleship? Discipleship is the invitation to embrace the God who takes on flesh in Jesus and to get down and dirty with others. And here’s where I’ll agree with the bishop at the end: Wesleyanism is called by God for a considerably larger vision, and we Methodists have the method to do this – and the method worked. But we have to treat our problem as a cancer rather than just a mole – it’s deep, and it’s not confined to small membership churches.
Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.
Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:16-20