Sunday, April 09, 2006

Organizing Religion

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about our big upcoming Annual Meeting. On April 21 and 22, we will be celebrating our status as an official Mission of the United Methodist Church. Our new bishop will be in-country, along with a list of dignitaries from various boards and agencies in the US. And every church has been invited to send two delegates along with their pastors.

I am excited about the celebration – we’re going to have a big party! And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Instead, I am worried about the Annual Meeting itself. Because the church in Cameroon is about to get organized. And anyone who knows anything about history realizes that organized religion is rarely either.

This is the legacy of Methodism, however. John Wesley left his imprint on Western Christianity largely because he was an extremely disciplined – alright, perhaps “anal retentive” is a better description – person. He was one of many preachers and leaders of the English revival movement of the eighteenth century, but he is the one best remembered because he had a plan of action for those who had been “awakened” in the revivals. He organized new converts into small support groups, and encouraged them to meet together and share their lives together. They continued to meet and grow as disciples, long after the revival preachers had moved on.

Then Wesley created societies and conferences, began to train preachers, created a system for spreading the evangelical message across the country, and before you know it, the Methodist movement had become … organized. For better or worse, the United Methodist Church today has inherited this legacy.

If you’re prone to think “for better,” you would argue that the genius of the church is this very organization -- the connectionalism, the network of churches and clergy, the system of accountability. But if you choose to be pessimistic, you could say that the church often gets bogged down in a top-heavy administrative structure, with too many committees and too little clarity about everyone’s roles.

So we’re about to introduce this system to Cameroon. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be organized like all the rest, with a bishop and superintendents. There will be delegates who will actually be voting on certain issues.

And the stage will be set for us to become just like every other organized church in the world. We will be ripe for power struggles, petty arguments, fights, jealousies and factionalism.

Hey, you can’t argue that I am being cynical about this. Just consider your own church, or conference, or denomination …

Of course, the stage will also be set for other things to happen – beautiful, extraordinary, and powerful things. We will be ripe for new ministries to be birthed, as we invite all our people to consider God’s call on their lives. We will be ready to witness the birth and growth of new leaders in our midst. We will begin to see a boldness and confidence among our pastors and lay leaders.

Yes, getting “organized” is an anxiety-producing idea. And it should be.

But I can’t forget that administration is itself a gift of the Spirit. This is why I often to turn to the story in Acts 6. It’s a rather mundane story of a rather uninspiring event in the life of the earliest Christian community. The apostles were swamped with work, praying and preaching, when they suddenly realized that a certain group of widows were being overlooked in the daily soup line. This caused a crisis in the group, until someone had the bright idea that this job should be delegated to a seven-person committee. And, thus, the first committee was born. At that moment, the church was “organized.”

It worked out alright, actually. Because we don’t hear that there were any more problems with the under-served widows.

I suppose that the church has to be, at some levels, organized. Any organization requires vision, a plan of action, the means to pursue the vision, and leadership. On top of that, Scripture reminds us that the Spirit has itself endowed people with the ability to do these kinds of things. I Corinthians 12 tells us that there are varieties of gifts, services and activities, given by the one God, but “for the common good.” That’s the goal of any group of people who choose to live, work, and pray together. Everything has to be done “for the common good.”

But I Corinthians 12 closes with an even more important word of warning for the organized church. “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way ….” That “way” is described in the next chapter – love.

This is the problem with what passes for religion in most places – it lacks love as the genuine, ultimate organizing principle.

And I hope “love” remains the cornerstone of the Mission in Cameroon, long after I leave this place.