Growing Together in Christ: What Kind of Church Do We Want To Be?

Gary E. Mueller, Bishop of the Arkansas Conference

What kind of church do we want to be? In a sense, it’s so audacious to think I could possibly answer such a question that I need to repent for even considering trying. But it’s also so important that it’s essential to try, even if I fall short.

The question about the future of the church is never merely theoretical because many of us have lived our faith in the United Methodist Church and long for it to be as vibrant and faithful as possible. It is never asked in a vacuum, but in the midst of real life that involves everything from the upcoming 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, to the reality that our church’s place in the culture has moved from being privileged and at the center to marginalized and at the edges, to the painful admission that we continue to grow smaller and older in spite of all our best efforts. And, perhaps most importantly, it can never be reduced to simplistic answers that revolve around defining the church merely by a theological stance, worship style or size.

So, here is what I hope United Methodist churches will be like in Arkansas in the coming years. Some of what follows is fully developed and some still a vision yet to be grasped. Some of it has staying power, and some probably needs to be tossed aside. Some is ginormous in scope, and some may be insignificant. But that’s okay. Such is the nature of seriously listening to God, immersing myself more and more in the deepest pain and longings of the world, and going deeper in my journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I pray we will be a church rooted in the 2,000-year-old Orthodox Christian faith that is shaped by the Wesleyan understanding of grace – Jesus’ unconditional, invitational and transformational love. Think what a difference it could make if each of us grew for a lifetime into the riches of the Christian faith and were filled with such compassion that we cannot wait to share with others the blessings of salvation, healing, hope and joy that we have received as a free gift when we needed it most.

I long for us to be a church so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to do things we otherwise would never do. Think what a difference it would make if we could not wait to get out of ‘our church’ to share Jesus’ grace in a snarkified culture, were united in Christ in a polarized world and took Jesus to the people instead of waiting for them to come to us.

I hope we will be a church that is so passionate that we are willing to invest, innovate and take risks to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Imagine what a difference it would make if we took to heart that Jesus selected ordinary people as his disciples, sends the Holy Spirit to empower us, and is still telling us to go out and make disciples with boldness because he is with us always.

I pray we will be a church that is so authentically humble we take Jesus absolutely seriously, but not ourselves. Think what a difference it would make if we were to listen as well as talk, receive as well as give and welcome as well as seek.

I hope we will be a church that lives out the Wesleyan heart that transformed America. Imagine what a difference it would make if we truly ‘see all the people’ and go to them because we care so much that they experience Jesus’ love in real ways that we work to make an actual difference in the lives of those who are hungry, sick, struggling to find hope and suffering oppression.

I want us to a church that grows. Imagine what a difference it would make if towns where churches are closing become towns where churches are growing, if members were growing into disciples, if congregations were growing in their ministry with the people right outside their doors and if churches were growing in the number of people worshipping, participating in intentional discipling groups, being baptized and professing faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

When all is said and done, all we really have is Jesus. He is the Shepherd, and we are the sheep. He is the vine, and we are the branches. He is the head, and we are his body. Imagine what a difference it would make if we were passionately in love with Jesus, proclaimed him as Lord and Savior, made him the reason for our being and were so serious about him that we actually tried to live the way he shows us.

We would be Jesus’ church not just in name, but in spirit; not just on Sunday in the sanctuary, but every day out in the world; not just with those with whom we feel comfortable, but with those on the edges; and not just as another institution, but as the Body of Christ that shares his saving, healing and joyful love with a world that longs for it even if it doesn’t know it yet.

May it be so.

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