If the laity of The United Methodist Church want to reclaim the Methodist heritage of winning communities for Christ, they have to invite people to church, carry the name of Christ with them and claim a personal ministry.
That is the advice Lyn Powell, lay leader of the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference, gave to the 992 delegates attending the 2008 United Methodist General Conference.
The denomination's top legislative assembly meets every four years, and the Laity Address is one of the highlights of the meeting. General Conference draws delegates from around the world to establish policies for the 11.5 million-member denomination.
Powell's April 24 Laity Address, titled "Disciples Transforming the World," challenged the lay people to reclaim spiritual gifts that would bring people to Christ. The New Testament considers adding new members to the church to be of utmost priority, she said.
While the central conferences - those areas in Africa, Asia and Europe — understand "the clarion call" and are doubling their membership percentages, the church in the United States does not have a positive report, she said.
The United Methodist Church in the United States lost 55,000 members in 2007 and 70,000 in 2006, and 60,000 the year before that, adding to the annual decline in membership in the U.S. church since the 1970s, Powell said. Nearly 8 million people now belong to the United Methodist Church in the United States. There are 11.5 million United Methodists worldwide.
Why is there a decline in membership when there are unchurched and under-churched people surrounding every United Methodist church in the country? she asked. Why are 80 percent of the residents in most U.S. counties not meaningfully connected to a church? Why did 42 percent of the denomination's 34,398 U.S churches not have a person join by profession of faith? she asked, citing a church statistic for 2006.
Powell cited the famous tag line of the comic strip character Pogo, who said, "We have met the enemy and ... they is us." She said, "Well, we have met the answers to our questions, and they is us."
Equipping for ministry
The Apostle Paul brought people to Christ by preaching the gospel to anyone who would listen, she said. Church buildings and clergy and laity did not exist when Paul began his ministry, but with an understanding of the gospel, Paul established churches in town after town, and trained people for ministry.
"These designated pastors did not do ministry themselves; they equipped the laity to go out and do ministry," Powell said. The training, equipping and use of their spiritual gifts were so effective, that 2,000 years later Christianity is flourishing. "A few pastors could never have accomplished that alone. Only the laity, on fire for Jesus Christ, equipped by the pastors, could do such a thorough job of converting the known world to Christianity," she said.
Laity have lost the skills needed to engage the community and bring the entire community to Christ, she said. She noted a historic book of fiction called Gilead in which a nondenominational pastor talks about a group of 300 Methodists gathered by a river in the late 1800s. The church would throw open the windows to hear the Methodists singing and listen to the jubilant and spirited preaching.
Those Methodists at the river were not ordained pastors but 300 "committed, passionate lay Methodists, equipped by their pastors, who understood that it takes a whole congregation to win the community to Christ. The pastor cannot do it alone," she said.
Quoting the Rev. Lovett Weems Jr., professor of church leadership and director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., she said a community must see itself in the church and if it does not, the church will begin to decline.
"If we are going to be 'Disciples Transforming the World,' then we have to get out in it," Powell said. "And who better to get out in it than the laity?"
Disengaged from serving
It is unreasonable for clergy, with their myriad responsibilities, to spend quantities of time engaging the unchurched, interacting with them, going where they are and being with them, she said. "But the laity are already there," encountering the unchurched in all walks of daily life, she said. "And yet, so many of us are not reaching out to the community, are not doing personal ministry."
She defined personal ministry as that which transforms lives in the name of Jesus, ministry that offers Christ to the world, an action that was part of the first 150 years of Methodism.
In the past 50 years, many lay members have "disengaged from the idea of having a ministry of any kind, much less a transforming one," she said. She said that it was no coincidence that when the laity disengaged from the ministry, the denomination began its decline.
Laity, she said, have become complacent and think it is their calling to receive ministry from clergy rather than be equipped by the clergy, with the clergy's unique gifts and graces, education and training, to go out into the world, do ministry and offer Christ.
Many people think the church is a private club and would not enter the doors on Sunday, she said. It is the laity's responsibility to invite them, she said.
Lay and clergy partners
Partnerships between laity and clergy are important, Powell told news media in an afternoon press briefing. In annual conferences in Africa, lay people attend a two-year lay academy and are trained in how to plant new churches before being sent out to plant those churches, she said.
"Africa depends on well-trained lay people to go out and plant churches," she said. Unless churches in the United States equip lay people to do that kind of significant ministry, "we will never be as vital as our African brothers and sisters."
Powell highlighted churches that are engaged in invitational and personal ministry and asked what the church would look like if each member of a congregation had a personal ministry.
"Imagine the transforming effect on the communities around us" because new and exciting outreach ministries would bring more people into the church, she said. "Most people do not like church work, but they love doing the work of the church, and they will seek out a church that understands the difference."
If lay people want to reclaim their Methodist heritage of winning communities for Christ, they must "joyfully invite" everyone to their churches and invite the pastor to do likewise; carry the name of Christ with them in mission and ministry locally and globally; and claim one personal ministry that could be possibly centered around the denomination's four focus areas: leadership development, congregational renewal and growth, engagement in ministry with the poor and stamping out killer diseases by improving global health.
"We do that through the eyes of the three simple rules: do no harm, do good and stay in love with God," she said.
The Laity Address is given by a member of the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders at each General Conference. Sixty conference lay leaders from around the world submitted manuscripts to the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, which is affiliated with the association, and Powell's entry was chosen.
Retired in 2003 as vice president of information technology for Associated Credit Union, Powell has served extensively in the church, beginning with her local church, Snellville (Ga.) United Methodist Church, where she has held numerous leadership positions and taught DISCIPLE Bible study and the Christian Believer course.
As the conference lay leader, she serves on the extended cabinet of Bishop Lindsey Davis and the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. She is a member of the conference's Vision Forum, vice chair of the Simpsonwood board of directors and serves on the board of Aldersgate Homes.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405(817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470(615) 742-5470.