Cleverly Devised Myths in UMC’s Call To Action?

Sermon by Robert Hunt

At a clergy meeting a few months back (before the 2010 release of the Call to Action report), a very senior pastor of a large congregation talked to a few of us young clergy. He told us to beware of “church growth bubbles,” as he called them. He said that every few years, some consultant or methodology is built up, diffused over all the clergy as “the way”, and then it flitters away a few years later or bursts into unremarkable results. These cycles happened over and over and while the pastor said he got ideas from it, he didn’t revolutionize his whole ministry plan to them…and ended up just fine by preaching the Gospel.

To this sentiment, while valid, there is little doubt that a concerted effort by the church global and local is necessary to self-examine failures and successes to find a better way to support one another through the declining presence of the United Methodist Church. But the question is: are we asking the right questions? And is the advice being given one that is grounded in the Gospel or is it grounded in pop-business principles?

Via a friend on facebook, I was clued into this section of a sermon given by Dr. Robert Hunt, the Director of Global Theological Education at Perkins School of Theology. It references the United Methodist’s Call to Action report that we’ve discussed here at length.

Following is a full-text excerpt of the sermon found here. This sermon was preached at this year’s Perkins Theological School for the Laity at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX.

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Clever Myths

Peter, in [2 Peter 1:16], says, “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” This reminds me of second kind of distraction we have been drawn to – the contemporary version of “cleverly designed myths.”

In Peter’s time these were the old Greek and Egyptian myths that provided such a colorful basis for cultist ritual, secret societies, and temple processions. And of course quasi-metaphysical costume dramas are popular today. We have folks that find some vague religious meaning in dressing up like characters out of the Star Wars saga, or the Lord of the Rings. How much more comfortable to find one’s meaning in the mythical world of Frodo and Bilbo fighting the Dark Lord than actually engaging the prince of darkness at work in a crack house or the U.S. Congress. Peter is reminding his readers that their faith is about real-world encounters, not mythic fantasies.

Speaking of which, these days the clever myth currently vying for our attention is the “Call to Action” published in October of 2010. It appears that many United Methodist church leaders like to dress up as corporate CEO’s heading for the board-room to live out the myth of American corporation as savior. Instead of Bibles they now carry under their arms laptops full of spreadsheets with statistics and demographic surveys of potential religious markets. The result? Although the “Call” is based on an expensive analysis performed by an outside consultant it does nothing more than regurgitate into a PowerPoint presentation and Executive Summary the church growth doctrines of Donald McGavran from the 1960’s, followed by the seeker church gospel of Willowcreek from the 1990’s, and most recently the power of positively thinking about how to build an “onramp” church from a 21st century Joel Olsteen.

The recommendations, and I take these directly from the document, are:

  • Many small groups particularly for youth,
  • A mixture of contemporary and classical worship with the use of multi-media,
  • Topical rather than lectionary based sermons,
  • Strong lay leadership,
  • And pastors who do not need theological education but do need to be good managers and inspiring preachers. (Of course this last interests us at Perkins, since apparently the best way to train pastors in the view of the Call is the get them a subscription to the Harvard Business Review and a membership in Toastmasters.)

These things, we are told, are the definitive characteristics of “vital congregations.” Well they are not necessarily bad things. They just aren’t worth paying a consultant for, since they’ve been repeated in dozens of church self-help books over decades. But most importantly nowhere in this list, or the document as a whole, is there any mention of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or fidelity to the witness of scripture and the traditional teaching of the church. None of these are apparently regarded as signs of a vital congregation. Yet without these things our church is living in the fantasyland of a market driven business plan to sell spiritual junk food.

And that is why the entire document is a distraction, a clever myth – directing us away from the message to which Peter was an eyewitness toward a group of management and PR tricks designed to increase our share in a declining market for overt religiosity. It is pandering to a market for which we do not and should not have anything to offer. It measures success without reference to the gospel, and therefore has no grounding in reality.

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I also have expressed wariness at the Call to Action report, both in its methods and its conclusions. And while I’m not about to throw it out wholesale, the way how the “business of church” has gotten so bad that it supplants the Gospel message as our first concern is disheartening.

Thoughts?

(Image credit: Desiree Palmen, 1x4x9)

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Comments

  1. Lisa Beth White says

    Church as corporation is frightening and very much a contemporary myth of success. Corporations as persons with rights to participate in the political process, corporations as entities that need total freedom in order to maximize profits, corporations that value the bottom line over the needs of the humans who earn a living in the corporation or who buy products from the corporation – these are the powers that be, the powers that we contend with, and yet if we criticize them too much do we put our own employment as clergy at risk?

    I’m curious what you think about this sermon and the Call to Action report in the light of the fact that one comes from the academy and the other from the church? Will academy and church listen to each other in this debate or will it just be status quo?

  2. says

    I can handle the occasional topical sermon but prefer the lectionary. With a few exceptions, topical preaching most often leads to soap box preaching – week after week. Topical preaching allows us to avoid all those stories and passages that are hard, that we don’t like or don’t understand. Again, with a few rare exceptions I think it is both shallow and dangerous. The thought of a seminary education no longer being required for ordination is causing my blood pressure to rise. I’m scared to imagine what that would look like. And finally, until we decide to stop caring about numbers and start caring about the transformation of the world we’re going to remain all those things that survey after survey say that we are: hypocritical and irrelevant. The Call to Action report makes me sad.

    • Cyndi says

      Actually, Laura, it is a gross stereotype that topical preaching avoids the hard topics and becomes soapbox preaching. It has been my experience that as I am preaching my way through one of the gospels, the HUGE gaps in what is included in the lectionary becomes apparent. We are only finishing the 6th chapter of Matthew and Jesus keeps talking about our attitude toward money and possessions. I have already encountered sections that are not included in the lectionary. If I were lectionary preaching, I would address money and possession just once or maybe twice, rather than monthly. If Jesus talked about it with great frequency, so should we. I find it more challenging to be fresh when not preaching on the lectionary, but not because of MY soapbox, but because of Jesus’.

      • says

        Cyndi, I would say that what you are describing is actually lectio continua – a continuous reading. You let the text dictate what you will talk about, just like with the lectionary, rather than picking a topic and then letting the scriptures come out of that. I like to do both in my preaching, but find that I can only sustain topical preaching here and there. The lectionary is rirch and more often than not has the words to speak to what is going on in the world around us.

  3. Ken Harmon says

    I worked in the corporate world for almost three decades before becoming a pastor’s spouse. The corporate world has repeatedly flitted from fad to fad as management books came out or gurus came and went. The same is happening to some churches. I think the basics still hold. The church should be about helping people, serving those in need, and doing as Christ instructed. Many who do not go to church are kept away by the divisive issues where societal issues such as gay marriage, abortion, evolution, etc. create the appearance that “Christians” are judgmental and intolerant, and focussed on who’s in and who’s out. We must change our approaches to get back to serving, missions and the like. One-on-one relationships as Christians help others help the spirit and fulfill the purpose of Christianity.

  4. Randy Kiel says

    Matthew 13:22 “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
    Ordinarily, I don’t like using a single Bible verse, proof-texting, for an argument; but in this case, assuming the reader knows the Parable of the Sower, I believe it to be a sufficient and accurate refutation. The “Call to Action” is a secular call, not relying on our Lord or the faith of the congregation!

  5. says

    I’ll add my own twist to this. I’m an academic and a small town pastor. Although I’m an academic working on a PhD in Public Administration (think of it as the nonprofit side of business). I’m afraid that many people will dismiss an academic reading of the call to action report because its academic. I think an academic reading of this is what we need! I agree with Hunt that we really don’t find out anything new in this report. Not only have church self-help books been telling us the same things, but reading broad themes in the nonprofit/business literature would tell us just about the same thing without spending all the money. But I do think the information gathered for this report could be really useful.

    One of my biggest pet peeves is that we’re given these “drivers” as if they can be applicable to every church. I love the rural church and small town ministry, but this report doesn’t tell me anything useful. What I’d like to see is what the data they’ve gathered looks like when its broken down into different categories. My question would be, what do vital rural churches look like? If I were in the city I would ask what do vital urban congregations in economically depressed areas look like? Given the size of the report, these questions should be able to be answered. Numbers can tell us a lot, but only in context. For me, context is missing in this report which means that folks can superimpose their own theology/ideology/agenda on the report.

  6. Anom says

    If implemented then this will bring about a fundamental change in the nature of the United Methodist Church and in what we view a church to be. Seminaries and the theological education they provide will be irrelevant and the meaning of being an elder will be fundamentally changed. Maybe it’s necessary, I doubt it will changed our denominational decline, and it will be bloody. Here in MO we already have some casualties laying around.

  7. Cyndi says

    When the Call to Action was presented to the clergy in our conference, the message was clear. We are holding you, the pastors, accountable for what goes on in your church – period. The data collected and used for evaluation is not inclusive of all we do as pastors. Nor does it take into account the community context or the fact that many people who visit today feel no need for membership. There is little consideration for the silo mentality of some of the members of our congregations. Furthermore, the biggest difference between the CEO in the business world and the pastor of a church – we have lots of responsibility, but not much true power. Remember our structure ensures that the pastor is not the “pope” of the church. A good bit of our data collection is truly irrelevant to what is really going on.

  8. says

    Although I am not a member of a heirarchy of seminary students or leaders, I have read Robert Hunt’s sermon. The most important point, as I see it, is the contemporary happenings of this new and ever-evolving world vs. the lectionary Bible teachings that have been used from the time of the beginning of Methodisim. As a member of a small town UMC, we are seeing contemporary changes (“classical worship, multi-media additions to services”) and these have produced much of the hidden talent that has long gone unnoticed in the church, ( We do offer two services; semi-contemporary, followed by a traditional service) I have seen the positives of both services, but the thread that runs through both is a pastor that comes in, not with a computer under his arm, but a Bible. He is not our “Pope” or “CEO”, but he is a person who gives us a lectionary that sends us out to be better servants of Christ. So, I guess I”m of both persuations.

  9. says

    Does it matter if one denomination is declining if others are growing? I live in Scotland where church decline seems to have halted with some still declining but some growing.

    None of the “fads” work. They have never worked.

  10. says

    Call Action Research seems sinderely tried to find the moral and faith status of UMC. But it failed according the event of our church in New York.
    Bishop Peter Weaver and oters were informed about the clergy embezzlement, but none of them cared about. Espeicallly Korean bishop Hesu Jung was apathethic too. MC is an organization in the name of Christ without His spirit, according to the criminal events.
    Please retreace it on the basis of the events in the letter if any of them answered faithfully

    Embezzler’s Bible Read (2).

    Is there any faithful in UMC?

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