Monday, July 9, 2012

Why Vital United Methodist Congregations Matter

By Amy Valdez Barker
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 1 Corinthians 12:24-26
The Rev. Amy Valdez Barker
I’ve been thinking about the Body of Christ in the expression of The United Methodist Church a lot lately.  I know many think of this all the time and others rarely contemplate its existence, let alone the church’s affect on the world.  However, maybe like a few, I am feeling the urgency in the matter of considering WHY we should be the Body of Christ through The United Methodist Church as we face the reality of declining participation in the mainline Protestant faith traditions.

There is no question about it, the U.S. culture has shifted rapidly in the past thirty years. There have been significant changes in attitude towards and participation of people in U.M. congregations across the nation.  Some say it is technology and a person’s accessibility to vast amounts of knowledge, others say it is media and its moral impact on our families and children, while others continue to blame this faction or that faction in the church and everyone remains fractured and discontent with the state of God’s children and the state of The UMC.  And yet, we still hold on to hope above all else that God hasn’t given up on us and that there may still be a possibility for God’s transforming love and grace to be shared throughout the world guided by a Wesleyan theological narrative.  I am claiming this narrative because it was highlighted recently in a Vital Congregations Conversation between congregational developers, academics and agency leaders at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in June. We discussed WHY vital UM congregations mattered for our world today.   Participants had several perspectives around this and I would like to share mine.

Small group discussion about vital congregations at GETS.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.1 Corinthians 12:27-31
I believe that our Wesleyan theological narrative is beautiful.  It captures what every human soul desires by giving people an identity in Christ, fearfully and wonderfully made, graciously beautiful to the core.  To be able to see ourselves through the eyes of God, so unique and so deeply loved that no other human-made identity could fill the emptiness of our souls the way God’s gracious love fills us is a gift God invites us to claim and share.  I believe it’s a narrative for everyone.  Our Wesleyan theological narrative is so beautiful and abundant that it spills out into our everyday living once we have accepted our place in God’s story.  It is one of the few traditions that beckons to our longing to be connected to one another.  In our deep love of God and God’s unfathomable love for us, we are compelled to share that love with others. 

Our love for one another is lived out in many ways in our world today.  United Methodists across the globe join together to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, build shelters for the homeless, seek justice for the oppressed and offer mercy for the merciless.  Offering a person an opportunity to live out of love is one of the best gifts this faith tradition encourages disciples to do everyday.  It is finding ourselves in this narrative and claiming our place in God’s story that leads us to actions, which together can transform the world.  That’s what matters most about Methodism. 

Claiming to live as the Body of Christ and following through on our part of the covenant with God, that is WHY we do what we do.  This is WHY vital UM congregations matter so much for our world today.  The local congregation is “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”  If we give up on vital and fruitful congregations that invite people to a holy and worthy way of living, then we give up on our very reason for being the Body of Christ.  Then God will find another way to reach God’s people and it may or may not be through The United Methodist Church.  But, from my seat in this church, I still believe God is beckoning to us, inviting us to find ways to be faithful and share that grace and love with others.  So yes, God isn’t through with us yet and we still have a compelling reason for being United Methodist Christians who are living out of the vital relationship we have with our risen Lord. Now we’ve got to say it and do it!

Amy Valdez Barker is the project manager of the United Methodist Vital Congregations Project. To learn more about the project, visit: www.umvitalcongregations.org.