The global body charged with discipleship resourcing in the United Methodist Church recently announced an award for churches that increase their professing membership. Is that what we should be focusing on?
“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergy or lay; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.”
John Wesley (adapted)
Conference Awards Quality over Quantity
I recently surveyed the United Methodist Clergy Facebook group and received several examples of awards given at Annual (regional) Conferences of the United Methodist Church:
- In many conferences like Oklahoma and New England, the “Denman Award for Preaching” is given every year. It’s not based on length of sermon or number of people slain in the spirit from hearing it. In West Michigan, the Church & Society gives an award for “Peace Sermon of the Year.” It’s not based on the amount of peace it caused or number of words.
- In West Ohio, a “Vital Town & Country Church award” is given every year. In Oregon-Idaho, a “Vital Church award” is given every year. It’s not based on numerical increase: My local church won it in 2014 and the list of accomplishments were only half about quantity.
The pattern (with exceptions, of course) is that most awards are about quality, not quantity. They are about that amorphous, hard-to-quantify quality of an individual or church. It takes discernment (and a committee) to tease out what to celebrate, not simply sorting the numbers on a column in a spreadsheet and seeing who ends up on top.
One Awards Quantity over Quality
The One Award seeks to give $1000 to the nominated church in a region that has professions of faith (meaning “new” Christians coming into membership, not church-hoppers). While I can’t find language that it should be given to the church that has the most professions of faith in a conference, I’d be surprised if that’s not a regional consideration.
The One Award’s purpose is to reverse the statistic that over 50% of all United Methodist Churches (so over 16,000 churches) do not report any baptisms or professions of faith each year. That’s a huge statistic and a worthwhile number to change. But is this the right way to do it?
The False Proxy Trap
This blog champions appropriate means as well as laudable ends. Because of that, I’m cautious of initiatives like this because human nature is to focus on what we count. And when something is hard to count, well, we count the closest we can get to it.
Author Seth Godin writes:
Sometimes, we can’t measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that’s much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.
TV advertisers, for example, could never tell which viewers would be impacted by an ad, so instead, they measured how many people saw it. Or a model might not be able to measure beauty, but a bathroom scale was a handy stand-in. A business person might choose cash in the bank as a measure of his success at his craft, and a book publisher, unable to easily figure out if the right people are engaging with a book, might rely instead on a rank on a single bestseller list. One last example: the non-profit that uses money raised as a proxy for difference made.
It’s hard to gauge an amorphous quality and it’s much easier to gauge an approximation. But what happens when we focus on the approximation and not the quality? Godin concludes:
You’ve already guessed the problem. Once you find the simple proxy and decide to make it go up, there are lots of available tactics that have nothing at all to do with improving the very thing you set out to achieve in the first place.
When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead.
One Matters…but how?
Full disclosure: my local church has professions of faith every year and thus we would be eligible for this award…but that also means I have standing to talk about it.
By shifting our definition of the hard-to-quantify discipleship to the quantifiable (but important) category of professions of faith, I believe we’ve fallen into the False Proxy Trap.
The One Award’s philosophy is that we should reward professions of membership increases to make churches focus on it. But just as there’s problematic aspects of rewarding arrests, I think there’s problematic aspects of rewarding proselytizing.
- It divides the UMC into churches with Zeros and churches with Ones on a spreadsheet, on the basis of discipleship. I really don’t want to see the Zero churches painted as “not doing discipleship.”
- Professing Membership is not a pre-requisite for discipleship, especially in the None Zone and in the age of the recent Pew Report. More and more in the Northwest, we see people participating in church, in small groups and service…without being professing members. Is the opportunity given? Of course. But in Robert Putnam’s world, we continue to bowl alone–at least for a while.
- Finally, I don’t want to reinforce the narrative that churches are about proselytizing because it actually makes doing good works and increasing human dignity harder after the bait-and-switch. As a recent Relevant Magazine article reflected:
When we sell people on a Jesus who is easy to follow, can we really blame them for bailing out or drifting off when things don’t go smoothly?
In my church and community, I see people expressing their discipleship powerfully everyday–but they wouldn’t show up on a statistical report, and they wouldn’t change a Zero Church to a One Church. But they’re transforming the world–which is kinda our mission too.
Go and Make Disciples…
Earlier this month was Ascension Sunday. When Jesus ascended and left the Disciples, he said in Matthew 28 “Go and make disciples of all the nations.” That would be a fitting end to this blog post, but Jesus goes on and says “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Dang, that kinda blows this whole blog post out of the water, right?
Perhaps. I interpret that to mean that baptism is part of the journey, but the goal is discipleship. Can you be a disciple of Christ without being baptized and without professing faith? I think you can–at least at some stages along the way, and perhaps for longer periods of time in this anti-affiliation age we are in.
May we not be quivering masses of institutional anxiety because our Zero church hasn’t notched another one up yet this year. May we instead be people who see and seek discipleship that transforms the world, even if it can’t be easily counted.