Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton
Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference
June 9, 2011
VIDEO – Realities (available from General Board of Pensions
I.                   The talk about the future of the church and its long-term unsustainability has definitely escalated in all circles of the church’s life since we last gathered here in Grove City. The talk is happening within some of our local churches that no longer have the privilege of drawing upon endowments for financial stability or growing memberships for increased and sustained involvement. The talk is happening within the Annual Conference as we continue to discuss how to make meaningful and lasting connections with the local church through leadership, connections and resources. The talk is happening on the General Church level with active discussions about the reduction in the numbers of General Agencies and the decrease of apportionment askings.
II.                But the talk is not confined to The United Methodist Church. Mainline denominations across this country are all facing uncertain times and an increased inability to draw upon the comforts of popularity and respect. The number of nonbelievers in the USA is now over 15%. In the May 16th edition of the USA Today, Oliver Thomas wrote in an article entitled, “Faith in America: Get Ready for Change,” “Young adults appear largely uninterested in our denominational jousting over “correct” doctrine. They seek opportunities to worship, serve and become part of a nurturing community that cares deeply for one another.” Later on he writes, “It will be interesting to see whether a new generation of church leaders can begin speaking about their faith in a way that will appeal to modern audiences.” 
Large and small membership churches are each facing increased competition and not necessarily from other churches. That competition is with a world and a culture that, on its best day, actually embodies some of the theology we preach about and, on its worst day, tempts people to embrace ideas and movements that are, quite frankly, more appealing than attending an 11:00 a.m. worship service full of tradition and liturgy but empty of spirit and meaning.
III.             All of these conversations around the future sustainability of the church has begun to center around an effort we call “The Call to Action” and a paragraph we call the “Adaptive Challenge.” The “Adaptive Challenge” is:
To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The key is whether or not we as a church can stay on point. We are so easily distracted by sidebar issues when, in reality, no issue will mean anything if there is no vital denomination or church within that denomination to support those issues. We are at a critical junction in the church’s life. A period of time we can no longer to take the “let’s wait and see what happens” or “surely something will happen that will help us turn the corner” attitude. We’ve waited and seen our church continually decline. We reached the corner and in order to cross the street we are going to have to be bold and focused in our leadership both within and outside the church.
IV.              What that will require from us is a willingness to change. While it’s not a blanket statement, it can be argued that in many places of the church’s life what we are doing and the manner in which we are doing it just isn’t working. This is not the appropriate time to say “Oh, it’s the General Church’s fault or the Annual Conference’s fault or the local church’s fault.” There are things that are working in significant ways on all levels of the church’s life. But there are things that are not working, not blessing, and not meaningful enough to make new disciples in our quest to transform the world.
Did you know that there was a movie made depicting the United Methodist Church’s position on change? Take a look and whether or not it reminds you of anyone you know?
opening scene of the procession beginning right after the clump of grapes falls on the ant’s head).
I know how hard it is for some of you to think about changing the manner in which you do church. I’ve heard the many stories that reflect that difficulty. We’re all for change just as long as we don’t have to change our worship time. We’ll change just as long as we can stay in our building. We want to change but we won’t share a pastor.
I truly believe that if Jesus were to come back tomorrow he wouldn’t say, “My, my you’ve done a really nice job preserving your building and maintaining your tradition.” I am convinced that he would ask, “How have you built the kingdom since I’ve been gone? How have you offered grace to a broken soul and ministered to the least of these since I’ve been gone?”
I am well aware of a grim reality represented in this room today. Given the realities of an unsustainable future in our current form I know that some of the churches represented here will rise to the challenge, embrace the adaptive challenge, stay on point, and make meaningful and inspirational changes. But I also am well aware of the opposite as well. Some churches represented in this room, for whatever reason (and there are many), cannot/will not change. Resistance will rise, opposition will mount, and you will dig in and preserve what you have. With that spirit, within ten years, a significant number of our 860 churches will be no more. The institution will not close them. They will just fade away and die.
V.                 This is a grim report of a grim future to be sure. But we have a choice to make today. Reality is staring us in the face but the determining factor in our future is not reality alone. It’s what we do with reality once we embrace it.
You see if you combine reality with the word resignation then the resulting action is death. But if you combine reality with the word hope then the resulting action is determination.
Much of our future will be determined in how we convert the reality of our decline into our opportunity to rise again into new life and vitality. If we can’t convert that reality into an opportunity we will drown in a sea of negativity and when you think about it, who would want to be a part of any of our churches in specific or our denomination in general if all we talk about is “Why not?” instead of “Why?”
That’s what I really want to address in this report today. We can spend all day with statistics and projections and get ourselves real depressed over a grim reality of an unsustainable future OR we can talk about what we have to do to give it our best shot over these next 4 or 5 years to see whether or not we can invest our resources and conversations and energies into local church vitality, renewal and revitalization.
The way to address an unsustainable future is to talk about what will it take to make us sustainable and to talk about sustainability requires us to address one key question – “What’s right with the church?”
VI.              What IS right with the church?
1)       Our Theology
This friends must be the foundation of any “Adaptive Challenge” or “Call to Action” or program for revitalization that we initiate. There has to be a reason behind the action and we have that reason. It is our theology – our belief structure about God and God’s call upon our lives as individuals and our churches as communities gathered to praise AND witness.
Our theology of grace has enabled broken and despicable people like you and me find a place in the kingdom of God. That theology begins at baptism when an infant who cannot express their love for God is embraced by a God whose love is not dependent on us. That same theology confirms us as children of God in spite of our inability to ever get it all right and claims us throughout the journey as worthy enough to tell the story of God’s love until Christ comes again in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. 
Our theology makes peace an order of the day because of God’s call to love our neighbors at all costs and our theology brings a word of hope in the midst of despair and brokenness because our theology believes that God will see us through. Our theology affirms that we were created for joy and nothing less and that when we are tempted with anger or a conviction that will alienate another, our theology will trump that attitude and call us back to our center. Our theology sings out, “We shall overcome,” “My Hope is built on nothing less,” “On Christ the solid rock I stand,” and “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound.” That’s what’s right with the church!
2)      What’s right with the church? Our Outreach
In his USA Today article that I referenced earlier entitled, “Get Ready for Change,” Oliver Thomas writes, As soon as a religion fails to meet human needs – or even to connect with its audience – it begins to die. History is strewn with the wreckage of once vibrant faiths that became irrelevant.”
Even though we have much evidence of churches that have turned inward in an attempt to preserve themselves and have or are dying, one of the hallmarks of the people called Methodist is our ability to reach out. In a world where there is a growing perception that United Methodists are out of touch, there is a constant surprise among those naysayers when a disaster strikes and a need is expressed because the people of the United Methodist Church is always there.
The Rev. Tom Hazelwood has a fancy title with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, but essentially he heads the denomination’s response to domestic disasters. In his 13 years in the role, he has seen winds whip the asphalt off roads and floodwaters wash away towns. He also has seen the remarkable legitimacy of the church as a connectional institution. 
“Our ability to reach and connect quickly almost anywhere in the United States is a unique thing to our denomination and is so powerful,” he said.
In a recent story on the United Methodist response to the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, Jan Synder wrote, “It’s stunning to see just how powerful that old United Methodist edifice can be when the storm hits because it really isn’t about a building but about being a church. There is a connectional foundation that is strong, worthy of respect and extremely relevant in a frantic world.”
I really think we surprise ourselves when a need arises. We spend a lot of time telling ourselves and others we can’t and then when a disaster strikes we prove to the world that we can.
What I really need us to think about is that if a sustainable future for our church is an impending disaster, how can we employ the same kind of determination to turn our church around? Or even more important, how can we begin to realize that there are people in our communities who are experiencing the disaster of not knowing Jesus Christ who need us to implement a disaster response that will offer them hope and a way through the storm.
What’s right with the church is our Outreach – let’s use it even more.
3)      What’s right with the church is Our People.
I have been pretty transparent about the fact that in my office I receive letters. I am not the first bishop to receive letters. I will not be the last. Many of those letters are just nasty. The tone is evil. I receive phone calls. This spring one person called my house & the office 14 times – the tone was ugly. I hear stories of church meetings where someone will stand up and shout profanities over decisions that are being made. This all from people who claim the title Christian.
But I would report to you that those stories, calls and letters are from a loud minority. They do not represent depth and breadth of our people. They, like the stories we read and hear about in the newspapers and on CNN, garner the headlines but do not reveal the whole story. Our story is a tale of good people who do great things with a deep faith in God who has called us into this work. Our story is a witness of wonderful people who can do anything when they put their mind to it. 
Let’s go back to the tornado in Joplin, Missouri. A reporter documented the work of the people of The United Methodist Church: “I watched an army of United Methodists from outside the area arrive with chain saws and tarps.
“Spread out in the neighborhood; do whatever anyone needs,” barked one of those United Methodist leaders as the trained Volunteers in Mission emergency responders donned hard hats and work gloves. They didn’t know anyone here, but they understood immediate needs.”
Later in the same article she writes, Just as quickly as the Joplin tornado struck, the United Methodist connection came into play. On a local level, church members checked on one another and circulated throughout the stricken neighborhoods to help; the district superintendent gathered her well-trained clergy; and Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase offered his prayerful support by walking hand-in-hand with his flock.   
The issue is providing the opportunities and vision before our people so that they can channel their God-given energies and faith in the right direction. This is the critical role of leadership as we move forward into this uncertain future. Our leaders must work harder than ever to be spiritually sound, theologically motivated, visionary and positive about the future so that we can create possibilities for transformation rather than allow shallow visions to limit our future. This is not a time for leaders to go on tangents or lose focus on the task at hand. In Joplin if the pastor, the DS, and the Bishop would have said, “This disaster is a time for us to talk about pensions or to talk about our position on this social issue,” they would have garnered little response. It is time for us to keep the main thing the main thing. If we have ten years of sustainability left, I need our leaders to lead in a way that will demonstrate that we are giving it our best shot at transformation and renewal. This is not a time to re-trench but a time to push forward with hope and possibility. We can do it. I know we can because I believe that one of things right with our church is Our People.
4)     What’s right with the church IS YOU. 
You have come to this Annual Conference as a leader from your local church to create this community of faith and witness from throughout Western Pennsylvania. We are here this week to try our best to set the course and find motivation for what we must do to give God glory and demonstrate God’s love. We are here to make our best effort to send the very best leaders we have to represent us at our General & Jurisdictional Conferences. We need leaders to go to these meetings who have demonstrated that they can grow the church, rally people around them, speak eloquently of their faith, and lead out of a sound & rational spirituality. While there are issues that we will discuss while we are here, our main purpose, the main thing, is to have a time of holy conferencing where we can continue to keep the main question before us: how can we best witness God’s love and focus our attention on the adaptive challenge of bringing vitality to our local churches. Let’s not any issue or matter before dominate our emotions more than the call to bring renewed energy and vitality to as many places as can and as will! What’s right with the church is you especially when you take your leadership skills, combine those skills with God’s call upon your life, and channel your life into a lifestyle that will show the world nothing less and nothing else except the awesome love of God and a beautiful witness of love for one another.
There are a lot of potential movements surfacing throughout the church. Among the Council of Bishops there is a movement of accountability and a resolve to lead. The bishops of the church are keenly aware that leaders must lead and we are committed to holding ourselves more accountable than ever to the opportunity before us to turn around our decline and us our reality as our advantage not our demise.
In our Annual Conference, significant work has been done to re-align our staff and our ministries around our Mission, Vision & Core Values, most especially our vision to “provide leadership, connection, and resources to local church in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Keys to the re-alignment are moving lay and clergy leaders into ministry groups for conversation, study, prayer, and strategy. The staff is being re-aligned and at a major fall retreat, our conference staff will be presented with new measures of accountability focusing not on the events that they plan but the manner in which they impact and complement ministry in the local church. I am very grateful to Greg Cox, our new DCM, and Pat Morris, our Conference Treasurer, for their excellent and bold leadership to create a staff that understands its role and implement a staff that understands our mission. The cabinet has decided to re-evaluate the multitudes of institutional forms that are required at the charge conference in order to clear the way for conversations, strategies, and goal setting around the “Call to Action” and the future of the church. It cannot be business as usual.
And what about you? What would it look like if we committed ourselves in this room to a moratorium on business meetings in our local churches and replaced those meetings with conversations, strategies, bible studies, and prayers actively seeking, surrendering, and inviting the Holy Spirit back into our lives and our churches? What would it look like if we held our local church leaders in place, did what we needed to do to care for our buildings and our finances, and focused every other conversation on what we need to do to equip ourselves for making new disciples, providing renewed opportunities for strengthening existing disciples, and discovering once again what God’s REAL call is for our church in ministry and mission to the communities where we are placed? 
That will not happen if leaders, both lay and clergy, do not lead. We do not need to lead our people in any other way except to focus on whether or not my local church can accept the adaptive challenge and whether or not we are willing to position ourselves around the renewal and revitalization of the church as a disciple-making, God-bearing, witness-giving, body of Christ once again. A body with vitality, passion, and purpose. Realistically, I know that some of our churches will respond while some will not. Realistically, some of our churches will find vitality and purpose while others will lose focus, wither and die. Realistically, I know that the “Call to Action” will be perceived as yet another failed church “program.” But I also know that if we don’t do something, in ten years the vitality of The United Methodist Church will be gone.
But I hope! Why? Because I believe in YOU. You are what can be right about the Church?
VIDEO – “What is the Church?”
I pray that you will join me in this focused time of discernment and resolve. I pray too that you will let our theology, our believe in the undying love of God and the ever sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit, guide us all into whatever it might be that God has in store for us.
Do you believe it?