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The Church Isn’t Dying, It’s Already Dead

The United Methodist Church isn’t dying. Its already dead. I’m not sure when it died, maybe in the 1970′s maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later. It might still take us a while to notice, but it happened.

There’s good news, though: resurrection has happened! In fact, it’s still happening, all around us, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

I used to wonder what we could do to bring change to The UMC through General Conference. I had my first real brush with our obsession with legislation when I was asked to go to the California-Nevada Annual Conference as a youth delegate, as a freshman in high school. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but after the first few sessions I was already fast asleep at my table in the convention hall. Was this the only way to bring change in the church? Yes, I was told, yes it was. And so, fast forward many years later in May 2012 where I found myself lobbying for campus ministry legislation at General Conference, in Tampa, FL.

Well, we all know what a disaster GC2012 was. Career delegates, the same people who have been our delegates for what seems like decades were all making plays to make a name for themselves, to enshrine themselves in the UMC history books as reformers, as the ones who “saved” the church.

It was appalling and disgusting to watch. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t one group or faction, this was just about everyone, including me, who was lobbying for changes in The Discipline that would strengthen campus ministry. It wasn’t so much about change as it was about winning.

I’ve spent the months since General Conference thinking “if we don’t figure things out by 2016, we’re going to die.” “What piece or pieces of legislation could we pass to put us on the right path?”

Well, this past February, along with a crack team of volunteers and visionaries, I put on the second Relevance LEAD event in Las Vegas, NV. LEAD was born out of the desire to move away from conferences, events and trainings that focused on “professional experts,” or people who get paid large sums of money to talk about their latest big idea, program, concept or strategy that’s “just what our organization needs.” Instead we asked our UM brothers and sisters to submit topics for talks on new ways to be in ministry with young adults in the UMC. We selected presenters who submitted topics based not no their practicality but their ability to inspire new ideas and creativity in our own contexts. We had a successful first event in 2012, so we did it again in 2013.

At the end of the 2013 event a District Superintendent (from outside my conference) grabbed me to say how much he enjoyed LEAD but then he said, “I’ve always thought change in The UMC was going to come from the margins, somewhere down the road, however, what this event showed me is that the folks who presented here and attended the event are not the margins, this IS the church. This is what is happening at the center.”

Since that moment my thinking has completely changed. What was going on in Tampa in May 2012 wasn’t The UMC of today, it was the UMC of the past. It was The UMC that has already died.

Over the past few years something revolutionary has happened. While we have all been screaming “the end is near,” a group made up of young leaders, innovative leaders and strategic thinkers have been creating The UMC of today and have been laying the foundation for The UMC of the future.

This is not a group that is trying to create change by going at the institution head-on, they are a group that has put one foot outside of the institution while keeping one foot within it. They’re taking the core of our heritage and the best of our heritage and combining it with an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. They’re taking The UMC mission statement to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” seriously, using all other metrics as secondary. They’ve found allies in powerful places who are holding the door open, serving as mentors, running interference with the the institution and opening up the flow of resources from the dead UMC to the new UMC. This is not a unified or an organized group, but innovators and insurgents who have been popping up one by one all over our denomination. Although, they may be beginning to organize, which can help to strengthen and expand this movement, though there is a danger in simply creating a new institution and falling back into old habits.

And all of this has been happening right in front of us, not within denominational committees and boards, through some piece of legislation or in some back room at General Conference. The new UMC is happening in reclaimed church buildings, homes, bars, coffee shops, non-profits, concert venues, homeless shelters, college campuses, intentional living communities, and the list goes on and on. It’s not what the church of the past few decades looked like and it probably won’t ever look like the past, so lets stop trying to go back in time to an institution that’s not coming back.

The UMC is dead, long live The UMC.

This post originally appeared at Rethink Bishop

About the author: Rob is the co-founder and current co-pastor of City Square Church, a new and innovative United Methodist faith community in downtown Phoenix. In his years of experience in spiritual formation and creating active and engaged communities, Rob has become an expert at connection and networking. He now uses these experiences, along with technology and social media, to bring others together around creative ideas and events that aim to inspire innovation and bold leadership.

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  • Pastor Nina Yardley

    Good thoughts, Rob. Thanks for discussing this hopeful note publicly. As always “We are the church”, not the Conferences, not the Administration, but “We” who sit in the pews or directly lead those who sit in the pews. Legislation follows what the many individual churches are doing. On a national basis, we may sometimes legislate change. But even in the public forum, change usually happens and THEN we legislate around it. God is present in the hearts of all of us. When we welcome that and say, “I am yours”, then God will lead us in how to spread that Good News and how to create the many right ways to invite others into God’s work, in a building or out of it.