September 25, 2013

Should the Primary Location of Ministry Be the Local Church?

Should the primary locus of ministry be the local church? Believe it or not, our UM Church is struggling with this question.

You might be surprised to find that the "official" answer is "yes." But keep in mind that Methodists across the world answer that question differently. Our friends and fellow Methodists in the British Isles would actually say "no." Their answer comes from their experience of being part of a Christianity that is under siege. I have an English friend who has done a lot of work helping youth in Northern Ireland get to know English youth. He says that Christian mission works best outside of the church, in secular places. He says that way, we, like John Wesley, meet and minister to people where they live.

The local church is obviously important for congregational life and it is an important place of ministry. But acting like it is the only or even most important place where ministry takes place simply blinds us to other opportunities. The local church is where Christians gather, but the emphasis should be that we are sent from there into the world to light it up with our witness. Being sent out to make disciples is our commission given to us from Jesus, not counting noses in worship.

One ramification of believing that local churches are the primary places where ministry happens is that most of the resources are concentrated there. So, in these days when money is scarce, ministries like Wesley Foundations on college campuses, seminaries and religious colleges and universities, hospitals, and other religious social service agencies, missions like UMCOR both here and abroad go without. Or they are relegated to the curb and given a tin cup in which to collect a pittance.

What if we saw the local church rather not just as a place, but, in addition, as a life-giving process? The task of the local church would not simply be "to be," like a bump on a log, but a means or method by which people are sent. Then it might not be so difficult to imagine being sent from (and not just to) other places as well, for example: seminaries, general agencies (yes, even them), college campuses, United Methodist Men and Women groups.

For ministry to be effective and attack the complex problems of our day, we have to marshal all our resources and not segment our lives with church in one compartment and mission in another. This is surely what Wesley had in mind. For Wesley the locus of ministry was never the local church, if that were true, we Methodists would still be Anglican. For Wesley, ministry is a process of connecting people to what they need. For him this is salvation, which includes salvation from starvation, disease, ignorance, poverty, and injustice.

You can probably tell that I feel strongly about this.
Grace, Kathy

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