"there is no spoon."

this afternoon i attended a "listening seminar" at st. andrew umc in plano. the point of the seminar, or so i thought, was to communicate findings about the future of annual conferences within the south-central jurisdiction of the united methodist church, changes mandated by the denomination's general conference in 2004. i was wrong. the listening seminar was designed for our bishops to listen to our feedback on these issues, then they would share that feedback with the other bishops.

we began with a summary of a report generated by the lewis center for church leadership out of wesley seminary in d.c. the report lists all kinds of stats and data about the preferences by clergy and layfolk across the jurisdiction. the college of bishops and the jurisdiction will consider this, combined with these feedback sessions, in determining the future alignments of conferences and roles of bishops. general conference mandated that this jurisdiction eliminate one episcopal position by 2012-- go from 11 bishops to 10.

guided by some discussion questions, we broke into small groups for an hour. we talked about what we would like to see in a bishop: more time with people than the office; less administrative duties; strong leadership; ability to use technology effectively; understanding marketing and crafting of a message to the unchurched; etc. toward the end of the discussion, someone said one of the great united methodist cliches (we didn't invent it, but we've perfected it): "we need to think outside of the box." a few moments later i responded: "we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that there is no box to think outside of."

for years, in a good-hearted effort to reverse the steady tide of membership losses, we have searched in vain for models that will save us. contemporary worship and video will attract young people. then we went away from that and explored more contemplative experiences. slick marketing ads (and many not-so-slick ones) and mailers will draw people in. our large churches offer workshops on what they've done to be successful, so we flock to ginghamsburg or montgomery or leawood and vigorously take notes. now we're trying a new effort, a more holistic approach to reaching out.

don't get me wrong. i welcome every single one of these ideas and goals. we should lean on those who have been successful and who are more than eager to share. i spent a week with adam hamilton a couple of summers ago and found him remarkably humble and approachable. i have used lots of his ideas many, many times with varying degrees of success. but as i heard these good people talk about thinking "outside of the box" (another group shared that they too had had the same discussion), i began to wonder if we are looking for solutions and answers in the wrong places. there may be no box. there may be no pre-packaged, it's worked there so it'll work here, statistics say this is what your target audience needs, what you need is inside this box, or outside of it. it seems to me the more we take this discussion further and further away from the local churches the more generalized and ineffective it will become.

i am reminded of a scene in the matrix where neo is still frustrated by his inability to dodge bullets or fight super fast or do anything else the other cool guys in the dark glasses can do. he goes to see the oracle to learn more about his surroundings and encounters a young boy who teaches him a valuable lesson.

"do not try to bend the spoon. you must learn the truth. there is no spoon." once neo concentrates on the spoon and realizes it is not really there, he can bend it. and soon he's not only dodging bullets-- he's flying.

i have no idea if reducing the number of our bishops in this area by one will make lasting changes to our denomination. these new emphases may spark renewed interest and passion and result in more discipleship of folk and more transformation of the world. i wonder what would happen to our united methodist churches if we stopped looking for a box to get out of-- realized there may be no box to begin with-- would we learn to fly too?


Anonymous said…
Interesting article, Frank. Glad you went. Yes, there is a box. We each create our own box and then we like to stay in it.
Anonymous said…
this is an excellent essay. the problem with boxes is that we *are* looking for them...one that opens quickly, has easy-to-read directions on the side, and where the ingredient mix well...preferably with nothing more complex than water.

so, like in every other industry, we look to experts who seem to have had some degree of success doing what they do.
but, as you point out, their context may be totally different.
... Read More
a part of the insanity of a large system like we have now is the group-think that makes us believe all good ideas should be replicated everywhere. which is really probably crazy, if you think about it.

context, it seems to me, is far more important than the contents of the box, or the desire to get out of it.

what is the context for ministry in each place?
do we understand it?
we we support it?
can we allow a "live and let live" structure where we allow our churches to develop *very* different from each other (in every way I can mean that...)?
Anonymous said…
Very well thought out review of your time, Frank. I was too busy to attend today. I think you are hitting on a theme that I constantly find plaguing me when I see us buying the latest "I did it and you can too" books, or attending the same named seminars.

I, personally, was always taught that if you ever find yourself succeeding greatly at a ... Read Moreparticular church - never write a book to tell everyone how you did it. Its all contextual, and what what works for me isn't going to be the same mix as what works for you.

The problem with both approaches (out of the box / there is no box) is that one has become a tad trite and overused, and the other tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think we can glean lessons from others experiences...and some of those lessons will work to varying degrees for us (as you wisely stated). But I am inclined to believe that there IS most definitely a box...but our current box is to be outside of the box. Maybe we just need to find another box that's more tested and true and get in that one?!

No, I take that back. I think our real answer is stop talking about boxes and to start talking about what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. How we are being led, as pastors, to effectively change our world.
... Read More
At the Walk to Emmaus weekend I just helped lead I was re-impressed with several of the lay addresses. Maybe we need to revisit some of those theological points that we don't make very often as clergy and reform our understanding of what it means to be the church in a world that has found other ways to be spiritual than to show up and play silly games with people's feelings, or experience shame.

Sorry...I guess I started ranting. BTW, are you available this Saturday to preach a candlelight?
Anonymous said…
Wow, Frank! I am blown away...I have not been sure what language to use as I have read articles and thought about this newest issue in our denomination's vast efforts to renew itself, and wondered, "When will we get it?" but I love the analogy you have used here. If the box doesn't exist then we are free to stop trying to get out of it and move ... Read Moreon.

This reminds me that the empty tomb of the Resurrection is less important than the reality that Christ is risen and living among us and within us. What a thought to complete
Lent and prepare for the Holy Week that is nearly here!
Anonymous said…
I will observe that there are many many smart folks in the UMC who desperately want us to get out of our little boxes and creatively change the church. some of the restructure several years back, that allowed local churches to structure their own committees at their own level was immensely helpful to churches everywhere. And it's interesting, ... Read Moredespite the fact that we all don't necessarily have a "Council on Ministries" or an "Administrative Board" our DSs, Bishops, and all of us as colleagues can still understand how other churches *function* even if they function differently than our own.

we need *more* of this...but the problem is that it's terribly challenging to many people. theology and social issues cloud the ability of many to truly embrace that kind of of "live and let live" attitude.

it is not the ISSUES that will kill us, it is the arguing *over* the issues that will, and not simply freeing God's Holy Spirit to do what it will do.
Anonymous said…
I love the "Did You Know" videos:

they remind me that the WORLD continues to change at lightening speed. meanwhile, our church changes at what is basically geologic speed. (changing every FOUR years? geologic time...)
... Read More
we have been taught to be proud of this system of checks and balances that consistently slows down change. and I myself have talked about my pride in it over and over and over again.

i feel like every year of my life that ticks by, I am less and less comfortable with this answer. we have an 18th Century way of making changes, in a world that changes at lightening speed.
Anonymous said…
Great job Frank...I think until we move to mission field centered ministry we will languish in the Willow/Rez/Fellow/Windsor/Lifechurch strategy recreation model. Ministry rises up in different communities differently, so rather than being commited to recreating a succesful church's system, we need to marry ourselves to the practice of intimately ... Read Moreconnecting to our mission fields, and letting that connection drive our ministry strategies (under the broader banner of making disciples)..this is the Gospel that Jim Griffiths and Don Smith are preaching to our next generation of church planters and I think they're absolutely right. Also, as I shared in our small group, I think the we pastors have to be more positive in our communications about our church and our system itself. Unfornately,we at times do an excellent job of shooting our wounded even if the wounded is the very system we've been ordained into...At times I think we talk ourselves out of the unchurched person's marketplace...
Anonymous said…
.I think it is important for me and others be mindful of when and where and to whom and how we present constructive criticism...I worked as a jewelry saleman for 8 years at Zales Jewelers...My primary responsibility there was to sell diamonds...all ... Read Morediamonds have inclusions (imperfections)...These inclusions are visible with a jewelers loupe...to be a succesfsul salesperson I had to learn how to sell an imperfect product...I liken that experience to presenting the church to the unchurched and inviting them into it...we are inviting people to an imperfect product that is founded on the birth, resurrection, identity, and principles taught to us by an perfect Christ...a daunting task is today's culture...I'm simply saying the church's public image is under attack enoungh already without us contributing to the barrage of public criticism...I say that for me as much as anyone else...
Anonymous said…
This is a tremendously encouraging conversation. I resonate with Mark's comment that we're inattentive to the Holy Spirit, and that it's an essential time to ask, "What is God doing with the UMC?" The typical response has been "Damned if we know" accompanied with throwing up our arms. That's our type-A American DNA kicking in; we figure that we'... Read Moreve got to figure it out. If we can just get to the bottom of the problem, then there will be solution. I think our people can see our anxiety about the direction of the church, so I wonder if it's way past time to say, "we can trust God with the future of the church. In the meantime, let's ask "Who are we? What are we called to do? Who is our neighbor?"
Anonymous said…
I love the point about no boxes, no spoons, no death - I agree we may not be able to spin our specific "methods" beyond their contextual relevance - I would like to add that there is a pattern that seems to be required in order just to be (beyond boxes, spoons, death . . .) and that pattern involves sustainable reproduction - - whatever "method" is... Read More chosen we have to accomplish three things- we have to teach who we are (proclamation), know who we are (illustration), and show who we are (application - Thanks, Jim G. for those 3 good words). We nurture those who are in the church to grow spiritually, and we teach them to live in Christ wherever they are so that their lives are witnesses to the transformational power of the Spirit. Real application requires these nurtured, transformed beings to extend the love of God to those who remain trapped in the boxes, with the spoons and specter of death.
Anonymous said…
As a lay person I think that the future of the church is in our past. The Methodist church experienced its greatest growth when the church was not as dependent on the clergy. In the days of the circuit riders or when clergy might have only stayed in an appointment for a couple of years, the laity of the church where driven to reach out in their ... Read Morecommunity. They understood that they couldn't wait on the appointed pastor. (I also think this is why the church is flourishing in parts of Africa.) Too many members of our churches have become too dependent on staff to do everything, in essence waiting on the appointed pastor to lead. If the Methodist church is to regain it's footing in this country the laity will have to truly lead the church and enable the "preacher" to inspire. What I fear is that our system has created an institutional authority that results in too many people (Clergy and Lay) admiring the situtation and not enough people willing to take a chance and lead.
Anonymous said…
I think all of this comes down to the issue of relevance. During my years in ministry I have served more than one congregation that was not relevant. There was no work by the laity to reach the unchurched. Quite honestly, they didn't care if I worked to reach the unchurched. They were quite satisfied with their congregations just the way they were... Read More. I once served a community with two churches, one Baptist and one Methodist. The two churches were both dying. I took it on myself to stop at a few stores in town one day to ask people what they knew of the town's churches. No one I saw knew anything about either. I find that disturbing. Many of our churches are not relevant today, not because we don't play the right kind of music but because we are in no way representative of the greater community around us. Until the people of our communities see us as relevant we will continue to face difficulties.
Anonymous said…
What is the difference between McDonalds and Burger King? What is the difference between KFC and Church's?

What is the difference between the Wesleyan Tradition and the Roman Catholic? The Southern Baptist?

We have a great and wonderful "recipe" that has been proven over the course of 200 years to be an effective means of bringing people to and... Read More encouraging them to grow in Christ. Membership envy is the bane of our existence, and to follow Edlen, when we've been successful, our mission hasn't been cultural Christianity; it's been multigenerational, missional, relational, musical faith. The best way for us to define ourselves in this 21st century, post-Christendom "marketplace" is, I believe, to simply stick to home cookin'. It's cool that Saddleback and all are doing their thing, God bless their journeys, but what makes us distinctive and useful tools of God's kingdom isn't broke. We are Arminian, we are sacramental, we are spirit-led. No one else does that!
Anonymous said…
What a great discussion...thanks Frank! Somehow i can't escape that our 'culture' is so set within the Christian Era that we can't adap our 'practices' to be relevant in this Post Christian era. But we keep trying to find practices that work from those rare successful models and overlay them on to our current church-reality culture. The Holy ... Read MoreSpirit, i believe, is going to blow the freshest winds toward our 'culture' not our 'practices'. It starts with our organizational culture: a clear understanding of our identity and how we act out that identity in covenant and community with each other. So often the system wants our churches and members to act in a way that is not congruent with the culture the system itself exemplifies and promotes. It all starts with culture...our organizational culture from top to bottom.
Anonymous said…
And I think not *just* our organizational structure must change, but the way we measure our effectiveness. Perhaps that will come as our focus changes, but I worry that until we adapt our measurements (esp. counting members), then we will have a difficult time finding the freedom to stop worrying about them and move into a different model of ministry.