Friday, September 08, 2006

Are We a Movement Yet?

The greatest fear of the church-planter is that one plants a “church” but ends up with an “institution.”

It happens all the time. And my biggest worry over the last two years has been that my work in Cameroon will end up simply creating a new, organized, and ultimately irrelevant branch of the Protestant church.

I do consider myself a “church-planter,” since it is my mission to establish a United Methodist Church presence in Cameroon, which entails starting new congregations and encouraging existing ones to grow.

But I have a broad definition of “church,” understanding it to mean a community of disciples of Jesus Christ who are committed to following and serving him in holiness of heart and action. It doesn’t necessarily include anything like bishops or clergy, though these can be included. It certainly doesn’t necessarily include buildings, though these can be immensely helpful for the work. In my definition of “church,” even money is not essentially necessary. All that is needed is a clear vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

In fact, the best way to describe my understanding of “church” is to call it a movement. Every breath of fresh air in church history has been a movement – the conversion of Gentiles in the Mediterranean basin, the movement of ascetics into the Egyptian deserts, the formation of monastic communities in the Roman church, the countless numbers of “protestors” who followed Martin Luther, the awakened converts of John Wesley’s preaching, the civil rights movement … These were grass-root, bottom-up movements of people who had been caught by a sense of excitement and truth. They were so eager to see things change that they brought about the change itself!

The question that nags me now is, “Is Methodism truly a movement in Cameroon?”

At this moment in time, I have to be truthful and answer, “No, not yet.”

Actually, there are a number of people in our churches who still define “church” in institutional, hierarchical terms. They are attracted to our churches because they think we might actually do “church” better than some of the other denominations currently do it in Cameroon.

But I have no interest in doing “church” better than everybody else. That’s a meaningless goal anyway. And it implies a sense of competition with other Christians, which is ultimately destructive of Christian unity.

No, what I am hoping to see happen here is a movement, plain and simple. I am praying that a number of people (it doesn’t matter how many, by the way) commit their lives wholeheartedly to being true disciples of Jesus Christ, and seek to serve him with integrity and holiness, never mind the consequences or circumstances. I am looking for people who have a desire to see their country change, for corruption to dry up, for wealth to be spread, for the poor to be given dignity, for the sick to find healing. I am seeking out people who are driven by the desire to love God more fully, and to love others as they love themselves.

It has become clear to me, in my two years on the mission field, that the movement must happen first. The Spirit must be at work in a group of people, who then decide that they need to get some structure in place to harness the Spirit’s power and energy. Then the organization begins to take shape.

But I confess that I am slightly worried that we have put the cart before the horse. We have organized our connection, taught our churches how to be organized in committees, and even put our pastors through some ordination requirements.

The vessels are ready … I pray that we are filled up with divine love, the only thing that will turn this ragged batch of pastors, missionaries, and laypeople into something slightly resembling the mighty people of God!