From the Lead Pastor’s Desk — July, 2017 – Reveille United Methodist Church

In 1896, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noted in 1896 the principle that bears his name: that roughly eighty percent of effects come from twenty percent of causes. Pareto noticed that eighty percent of the peas in his garden came from twenty percent of the pods. He also noticed that eighty percent of the land in Italy was owned by twenty percent of the population. This 80/20 rule has been noted in other disciplines, including business (eighty percent of your sales come from twenty percent of twenty percent of your clients) and mathematics (a power law or Pareto distribution).

And the same is probably true in most congregations, and that is not a mere principle. It is a theological problem that twenty-first century Christians must have the courage, dedication, and devotion to confront if our churches are going to accomplish our most basic directive: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Confronting this principle will be challenging, mainly because the challenge is so elusive. For centuries, congregations like ours were able to survive, even thrive with the standard Pareto 80/20 division of leadership and effort. In fact, one can argue that prior to the Reformation, this kind of division was preferable to some in the Western church, as it made more power and influence available to the clergy and less available to the laity.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and things were able to continue to work in Western churches, still following the 80/20 rule. Protestantism, with its emphasis upon and greater valuing of the leadership and contribution of the laity offered more people in churches more opportunities to do more things, so the twenty-percent was comprised of both clergy and lay leadership. And this worked well for awhile. Consider how many congregations in existence in the United States today were founded in the nineteenth century. There was a veritable boom of churches and congregational life. Many hands made light work, and there was much work that was done. It was something of a gilded age for American Christianity.

But then two important things changed that dramatically altered the landscape.

These things were easy to ignore, mainly because the church had so much cultural momentum that it was easy to miss what was occurring just outside of our stained glass windows. First, as the period known as the Enlightenment continued, the church found it more and more difficult to be the sole claimants to absolute truth. The advent of a scientific culture and postmodernism’s assertion of the relativity of truth meant that Christianity was no longer a solo voice. It became, and is, one voice amidst a cacophony of voices in the marketplace of ideas.

The second change, while ultimately very good, affected the Christian movement in ways that church is only now beginning to address: the entrance of women into the workplace and the subsequent emergence of the two-income family. Now, I want to make clear that equal rights and opportunities for women is a good, righteous, holy, and necessary thing. The problem is not working women or two-income households. The problem is that the church failed to adapt to it.

In the days of the single-income household, many women stayed at home, and these women were able to use a portion of their daytime hours to be a part of that essential twenty-percent of leadership in congregations like ours. Churches created ministries and outreach programs and the necessary committees to run them utilizing the gifts, talents, and dedication of these saintly women who were differently available generations ago than they are today, and men were generally limited to support ministries and meetings that met in the evenings.

Today, we see vestiges of this model everywhere. We have numerous important ministries and committees in place that are structured to support them. We have still have elegant ideas for ways to bless our membership and bless our world. Our problem is not a shortage of ideas or even the resources to birth and sustain them. Our problem, then, is that we lack the available human capital to dream, birth, and sustain the exact kind of life-changing ministries that our increasingly secular culture so desperately needs now.

Yet because we are still filling the old wineskins with new wine, as it were, we so often find ourselves simply limited by who is available to help, who can find some time away from career and family, who has the stamina to add one more commitment to an already crowded agenda, and as the culture continues to change, the number of people in this category continues to shrink. Ministry, almost as it was prior to the Reformation, becomes the work of the very few, which results in decreased ownership of and passion for the ministries themselves. Put simply, it is more difficult (although not impossible) to passionately live into a ministry one did not help create.

Increasingly, in what is certainly a stop-gap measure, congregations of all sizes are addressing this by adding staff. Each day, job postings cross my email inbox that sound like this: a pianist for ten hours a week, a youth director for fifteen hours a week, a church secretary for eight hours, a children’s director for six. What a generation ago was considered a perfect opportunity for a willing servant to bless and be blessed is now something that can only be imagined to be done by a very, very, part-time staff person, simply because it is often actually easier to find money than it is to find people with available time. As such, the old 80/20 rule becomes almost an aspiration to reach than a problem to be addressed.

            So then, what are we to do? I have six essential ideas:

We have to believe that there is something at stake in what we do.
Decades of cultural moralistic therapeutic deism has reduced the central proclamation of the gospel to “I’m OK, you’re OK,” as if a saving relationship with God in Jesus Christ is something that is either nice but unessential or something so vague that it is unrecognizable and thus meaningless. The New Testament is not about acquiescence to an ideology. It is about conversion to a totally new way of understanding God, our neighbors, our enemies, and ourselves. The Book of Acts chapter two teaches us that this conversion is not merely possible, but recognizable in the lives of those who experience it.

We have to move beyond institutional preservation.
Jesus simply did not give his witness and ultimately his life so that our congregation can gather in this place. Instead, he gathers us in this place so that we can make visible in our life together his life and witness which is good news for the world. Faithful discipleship is never about asking God to bless what we are doing. It is about us, passionately, and without apology, doing the very things that God is already blessing.

We must remember that our offerings of our time and talents to the church is an offering to God.
Too often we regard our offerings of ourselves as means by which the church continues to survive, as if the church is a mere human institution and not the mystical body of Christ on earth. No wonder we feel disconnected, unrewarded, and burned out! Instead, Christians must reclaim a sense of love and wonder for God, and to see what we do at church, worship, growth and service, as ways in which we bless with gratitude the very God who blesses, redeems, and sustains us.

We must reclaim servanthood as a central tenant of all that we do.
Our Lord himself stated that even he “came not to be served, but to serve.” Jesus, too, served when he was tired and gave the best of himself in challenging situations. Our call is to do the same. However, if our ultimate goal is to measure the good we do simply by what we get out of it, I fear we will never be sated by our efforts. Instead, we must enter into every opportunity asking not what we will receive, but what it is we can give.

Our service must be without preconditions.
It is too easy for us to justify hiding our light and withholding our gifts and service by reciting to  ourselves the list of things we disagree with at church: “If only the church would do this, or if only the church would go back to being as it once was, then I would be willing to serve.” This thinking harkens back to those who tried to conditionally follow Jesus who replied “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” On this side of the coming of the Kingdom of God, the church is always reforming, always becoming, always to be growing. The biblical model is not to wait until the church is perfect. The biblical model is to serve the church as we find it, trusting God to honor and sanctify whatever we bring, blessing it, and multiplying it for the purposes of holiness.

We must visibly live our promises.
When we became United Methodists, we promised before God and the congregation that we would do two things. First, we would “be loyal to Jesus Christ through the United Methodist Church and do all in our power to strengthen and uphold its ministries.” Second, we promised that we would support our local congregation with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” Each time we baptize a child, we promise this: “With God’s help, we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”

Likewise, response to all baptisms, we say “we renew our covenant faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church.” We all made these promises, and because we are imperfect, we often fail to keep them. Yet, the problem is not in our failures, as God is a God of abundant grace. The problem, however, is in our complacency with our imperfections, with our unwillingness to live our promises in a visible way, or to do so only when it is convenient or when the church and its leadership please us or meet our own imperfect standards of who and what the church should be.

Read carefully, one can notice something that all of our vows have in common: they all presuppose that we need God, and that we need each other. When any of us fail to live out these promises of our faith, we harm not only ourselves, but we harm the rest of our gathered community whose lives are intimately and intricately woven into our own by depriving others of the edification and blessings of our own lives.

Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” God has indeed granted us great power, but with that great power comes the expectation that we will use it and use it for good. We cannot do it without our collective witness in this rapidly changing world. As Thom Rainer writes, “keep in mind that nearly nine out of ten of the churches that die are in communities that are growing. The problem is not a shortage of people. The problem is a shortage of courage, commitment, and sacrifice.”

But if we have those things, by the power of the Holy Spirit, there exists in our life together nothing less than the power to transform the world.