I have recently seen many blog entries reacting to General Conference, many of which touch or focus on the failure of any restructuring proposals to pass at this General Conference. One in particular which did not resonate well with me was a post by Pastor Andy Langford called “An Open Letter to United Methodists” [click the title for a link to the post]. The following began as a comment on his post, but got so long I decided to make it a blog post in response to the original. Please keep the discussion going.
I, too, write as a young person whose continued participation and ministry in The UMC has been as a direct result not only of my participation in the ministries of the general boards and agencies but also of serving on one of them. So rather than trying to cite statistics and prove to you through logic how the general boards and agencies impact the vitality of congregations [even though I am not completely sold on the markers of vitality as presented by the CTA, particularly given that I think they focus far too much on the density of the church and not its depth], I will just tell you my story.
Unlike many of the young adult leaders my friend and co-conspirator Audrey Krumbach cited [in her comment to your post] who came to The UMC through the Reconciling Ministries Network, I am a cradle United Methodist. I grew up as the daughter of two UM clergy and have had home, community, and family in local churches across central Illinois for as long as I can remember and then some. I was blessed with opportunities for leadership at the local, district, and conference levels starting very early. Stemming from those opportunities, and thanks to the support from leaders in my conference, I was, at the ripe young age of 14 [eight years ago], nominated for the North Central Jurisdictional Pool, to potentially be placed on a general board or agency.
I was asked to serve on the General Board of Church and Society that quadrennium [and the present quadrennium, as well], not as a youth token member, but as the representative from my conference. It was in serving on the GBCS that I came to realize another face of church vitality that has less to do with bringing people into the church and far more to do with being the church everywhere, particularly in the public square. I became aware that vitality doesn’t just relate to the number of new participants a church brings in, or the number of youth that participate in its youth group, or the number of infants the church has baptised.
Vitality has everything to do with the ways people are living out their faith, especially in the public square. How are we living out Christ’s calls to love our neighbors, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger? Prophets were never popular, particularly among power-holders. But, if the church is not seeking to use its prophetic voice to transform the society around it, and continues to be a place where people are not challenged to grow and reach beyond themselves, is that church truly vital? My answer is no.
But I should continue with my story. My time on GBCS so fully sparked my interest in social justice and international relations and solidarity that I decided to go to college for just that. I graduated just less than a year ago from DePaul University in Chicago [yes, the Catholic one, but they’re Vincentians, which is practically United Methodist] with a degree in International Studies and Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies. Simply put, I majored in world-transformation [sound familiar…”make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?], and plan to continue on the path of encouraging The UMC to do the same for the rest of my life.
The church I attended in Chicago [Holy Covenant UMC] was probably among the most vital congregations I have ever been a part of. While it wasn’t by any means a huge church, its average age was well under that of The UMC at large, members were engaged in the church’s ministries, the church was actively engaged in the community, and it attracted and turned out more young adult missionaries and seminarians than I could ever imagine in a church. Upon graduating, I became a Mission Intern through the General Board of Global Ministries, and am currently serving my international placement in Bogota, Colombia and in 9 months will return to the US to continue as part of this vital young adult ministry of a United Methodist general board.
You may say I’m an isolated case among many, but respectfully, I fundamentally disagree. I could go through and name dozens of other young adults who are participating in and living out vital lives as United Methodist leaders as a direct result of the general boards and agencies and their ministries. Many bring it back to the local level, and I am proud to count them among my colleagues, friends, and family.
Frankly, if you’re worried about the declining membership and increasing average age of The UMC, you need to look to the places which offer the most vital ministries for young people [among which I would count the seminar programs of GBCS and the Women’s Division and the young adult missionary programs of GBGM, as well as a variety of opportunities through GBHEM and GBOD]. Because we are not just the future of the church, we are here today, even if on the margins. And if the church doesn’t make intentional efforts to engage us where we’re at and where we are truly vitally engaged and challenged, the church will lose us, and the church will die of old age and irrelevance.
Thank you and peace,
Kara Johansen Crawford