The theme of this year’s WNC Annual Conference, which concluded on June 23, was “To Serve the Present Age.” In a summation of the present age of the church, Bishop Ken Carter stated, “The church of 2013 is not Biblical, not Wesleyan, and not sustainable. Other than that everything is fine.” Ouch. After great messages and teachings from Bishop Goodpaster, Dr. Elaine Heath, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Shannon Sherfey, Bishop Peter Weaver and others, I find myself drawn back to Bishop Carter’s words. Is the church in trouble? And if so, how can we turn the tide?
Bishop Carter’s words were particularly relevant considering that they were offered to the 2013 class of provisional elders (commissioning, or those just entering into ministry). To be sure, the burden of sustainability will largely fall on their shoulders. But this issue goes beyond sustainability. The second we attempt to create a sustainable church is the second we lose focus on our mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. If we are indeed making disciples, sustainability takes care of itself. Yet, if Bishop Carter’s words are true, and I believe they are, our current structure is not sustainable. Which can only mean that we are failing to make disciples for the transformation of the world.
The issue of sustainability is complex, and there are many factors as to why the church is in trouble. But Carter, quoting Kennon Callahan’s Effective Church Leadership (link), offers one symptom by stating that, “The day of the professional minister is over. The day of the ‘missionary pastor’ has come.” Keep in mind that Callahan wrote these words in 1997. 1997! Sixteen years later we continue to churn out one professional minister after another. Our seminaries are designed to produce professionals, not missionaries. Our churches are expecting a professional clergy person, and as such, clergy are largely evaluated by the degree to which they are a professional minister. To paraphrase Jim Griffith, we have become more concerned with taking care of the saints than we have with seeking the lost sheep.
Later in Callahan’s book, he goes on to suggest that, “The day of the local church is over. The day of the mission outpost has come.” Along the same lines, Bishop Carter suggested that, “We need more churches that are focused on mission, and fewer churches that are preoccupied with their own weaknesses.”
Which means that our clergy have got to become less professional and more missional. And our churches have to support that. It also means that our churches have to begin to see themselves as “mission outposts” instead of a building where “church” happens. And our clergy have to support that. Let’s commit together to rekindle an affinity for our mission field and go and make disciples. And as a result, we will find ourselves once again square in the middle of being Wesleyan, Biblical, and sustainable.