Several years ago, I met with the lead pastor of a vital, growing, transformational congregation to encourage him and his church to become a “teaching church.” The congregation had sustained rapid membership and worship attendance growth over nearly two decades. It was deeply engaged in local and global missions, with a regionally acclaimed prison and restorative justice ministry. It ministered to over 300 youth through a small-group discipling system and a weekly youth worship service. It was training and unleashing hundreds of lay servants for ministries within and beyond the congregation. The congregation was clearly and effectively living out the scriptural imperatives to cultivate spiritual vitality, reach new people, and heal a broken world.
My vision was for the congregation to develop and market an annual, multi-day teaching seminar so it could share lessons learned and resources with other congregations eager to emulate its fruitfulness. The lead pastor was flattered, but aghast, at my suggestion. I ignored his shock and pursued my argument. Finally, the pastor stammered that he simply couldn’t lead such an effort because he wasn’t a “systems thinker” and had “no idea how the congregation became so vital.” I pressed him. His next words both surprised me and instructed me: “All I do is tell the people about Jesus.”
The pastor’s comment could be heard as simplistic, smug, dismissive, or naïve. But, the truth of the matter is that every vital congregation I know focuses on “telling the people about Jesus.” Not the Jesus we too often wrap in our own nationalistic or cultural blankets, but the Jesus that offers us born-again life and insists on justice for the poor and oppressed. The scriptural imperatives to cultivate spiritual vitality, reach new people, and heal a broken world are more than a vision for every United Methodist congregation in Minnesota. These imperatives are Jesus’ very methodology for fulfilling his mission. Telling people about this Jesus is the key to congregational vitality and kingdom reign. This is the Jesus people hunger to encounter, see, touch, know, and love.
I was intrigued by Rachel Held Evans’ recent CNN opinion piece, “Why Millenials are leaving the church.” (It was posted July 27 on CNN’s Belief Blog. I encourage you to read the entire article.) Among many thoughtful insights, backed by her research, I found the following quote one of the most provocative:
“Time and time again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to the church is simply to make a few style updates—edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated website that includes online giving. . . . What the Millenials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”
Rachel concludes her blog with this profoundly true and utterly frank observation:
“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we long for Jesus.”
The hunger for God is universal. We were created by God with a fundamental (but not insuppressible) yearning to be in relationship with God. The longing for the Jesus that transforms lives and culture and ushers in the very reign of God is an expression of this fundamental hunger. To not feed this hunger, to not squarely address this longing, to not passionately tell people about Jesus is the pathway to irrelevance, spiritual atrophy, and decline in missional impact.
One of the great joys and blessings in serving as your bishop is the opportunity to witness and encourage the many United Methodist congregations, of every size and perspective, across Minnesota that have retained and strengthened the signature Wesleyan vision of our Methodist movement: “Offer them Christ.” I pray daily for God’s Spirit to break through to unleash and renew our passion to simply “tell the people about Jesus.” I invite you to join me in this prayer.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota episcopal area.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church