The Late George E. Morris, Evangelist to the Poor

The Rev. Dr. George E. Morris, founding director of the World Methodist Evangelism Institute, died last week at the age of 86.

I did not know Morris personally, though I learned from his legacy as a scholar and church leader when studying congregational vitality. As a tribute, this post provides a glimpse of his vision of “kingdom-oriented” congregations in contrast to the reigning “church growth” paradigm of evangelism.

Morris drew attention to idea of “vital congregations” in the early 1980s by hosting a five-day consultation of 100 church leaders from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In the resulting edited volume, he explained his views. “The congregations we develop must be kingdom-oriented . . . mean[ing] that the local church is essentially evangelistic and missionary, or it is not a church.” This description anticipated by several years the main theme and image of the widely read book, The Logic of Evangelism by the late William Abraham. Both men offered a critique of the church growth movement.

Contrary to church growth’s homogeneous principle, Morris advocated expending more resources and energy evangelizing in areas that did not yield immediately quantifiable success.

Since Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel to the poor is a concrete sign of the kingdom of God, it also becomes a powerful criterion by which we judge the validity of our congregational development. It will mean that mission analysis always gains ascendance over demographic analysis and that we concentrate larger and larger amounts of human and material resources in our cities, among the poor of the earth, and with struggling ethnic minorities.

George E. Morris, Rethinking Congregational Development, p. 32.

The measure of missional vitality for Morris was not church growth, as such. Instead of measuring faithfulness by the fruit of increased church membership, his “kingdom-oriented” congregation focused primarily on ministry to the poor.

Rest in Peace, George. The kingdom is always but coming.

The above is adapted from my article “Healing Congregations: A Corrective to the Metrics of Congregational Vitality,” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education 34. September 2020.

What Happens If General Conference Does Not Meet in 2022—or Ever Again?

United Methodists are facing the very real possibility that General Conference will not meet in 2022, as scheduled. David Scott explored the near-term implications of not meeting in 2021, examining denominational division in one post and budgets, boards, and bishops in another. The following discussion is becoming my annual reminder to the people of The United Methodist Church (UMC) that we do not have to wait on General Conference to declare this denomination broken. We do not need to approve a flawed “protocol” in order to move past intractable divisions. Here, I explore the question, What would happen if General Conference never met again?

For those church members worried that such a possibility would mean the end of the UMC, it is important to recognize that the UMC does not currently exist—nor has it ever existed, at least not in a legal sense. According to our own Discipline, the UMC “as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes” (General Discipline 2016, para. 141). In other words, the general church is a fiction.

To be sure, General Conference is a real thing. It met May 10–20, 2016 in Portland, Oregon and again February 23–26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. It even passed legislation and approved a general church budget to fund the work of boards, agencies, and commissions between sessions of general conference. However, General Conference ceased to exist as soon as the meeting came to a close, February 26, 2019. It will not exist until it meets again—if it ever does. The boards, agencies, and commissions mandated to carry out work on behalf of the General Conference continue to exist between sessions of General Conference. They are independently incorporated legal entities, and most have positioned themselves to serve multiple, splinter denominations in the event of a denominational schism. But that which we know as “The United Methodist Church” or “the general Church” does not exist.

What does this fiction mean? The UMC is a figment of our collective imagination, or to put it more theologically, the UMC is a covenantal agreement. The Discipline is our “book of covenant”: “It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together” (General Discipline 2016, p. v). The UMC “exists” only as a covenant. The only thing animating the idea of the UMC among United Methodists is our mutual buy-in. Consider funding: apportionment formulas are precise and much debated, but actual payouts are unenforceable. Congregations and annual conferences pay what they choose to pay to the general Church.

The UMC is only as “real” as we allow it to be. When we participate faithfully and with integrity in this covenant, the denomination takes on life. Our covenantal life together can become a wondrous instrument of God’s grace. To whatever extent we fail to be in covenant, the UMC also fails to be the general Church that we so value. For many in the UMC, that covenant has already been broken; the UMC has failed to be a church for many years. Thankfully, the general church is not the essence of United Methodism.

United Methodist ecclesiology is based on connectionalism. Connectionalism, that “vital web of interactive relationships” (General Discipline 2016, para. 132), distinguishes Methodist polity from congregationalism. Connectional relationships between the general Church and every annual conference and congregation embody the functional and financial relationships of the UMC. However, we do not need a “general Church” for connectionalism. There are more immediate levels of covenant within United Methodism. This is why United Methodists claim that “The annual conference is the basic body of the Church . . .” (General Discipline 2016, para. 33).

If General Conference never met again, most of what we recognize as United Methodism would continue uninterrupted. The annual conference is the heartbeat of connectionalism. United Methodist congregations are connected to each other in an annual conference through participation in an itinerant ministry; clergy are connected through the Order of Elders and Order of Deacons; laity are connected via elected members to annual conference. In practical terms, the annual conference is where ministerial candidates are evaluated and nurtured, where clergy are commissioned and ordained, and where elders itinerate and receive pensions.

Some aspects of connectionalism would change. Political wrangling in the quadrennial arena of General Conference would cease, along with the vitriol practiced there. Annual conferences in the US, independent of the general Church, may choose different means of inculturation for Methodist polity, adapting the Discipline to their own missional needs, as conferences outside the US do currently. The process by which certain elders are elected, consecrated, and assigned as bishops would be opened to adaptation—perhaps within a pan-Methodist or wider ecumenical environment. It is also possible that some annual conferences might follow the example of the Methodist Church of Great Britain or the erstwhile Methodist Protestant Church, choosing to forgo an episcopacy. General apportionments would cease. Annual conferences would still be free to send money to general agencies, boards, and commissions to support ministry and mission around the globe. True, those payouts would be unenforceable. But is that not actually the case today?

If General Conference never met again, new relationships would be allowed to form while remaining true to the core of United Methodist ecclesiology. Old, forced relationships could be allowed to end rather than fester in acrimony within a divided denomination. Removing the denominational façade might actually help foster more genuine connection between individuals, congregations, and conferences—especially across national borders. We would have to give up the imperialistic features of our global connection and our ambition to become a “worldwide” denomination. Rather than relying on structural ties, annual conferences and congregations would have to do the hard work of relationship building. The dissolution of the UMC by abandoning General Conference would open new possibilities. Recentering our connectionalism in the annual conference could renew United Methodism in ways we have yet to imagine.

Divergence and Vitality: Evangelism as Community Development

Every once in a while, I read a book that I think every pastor should read. This review is about one of them. Reclaiming Rural offers a remarkably hopeful and grounded approach to church leadership. Rejecting simplistic narratives of vitality and decline, Allen Stanton provides a deeply Wesleyan approach to evangelism, mission, and community development, resonant with my own perspective. “The church is a vital anchor institution in rural communities,” he writes (xi). Yet, the importance of this book reaches far beyond whatever we define as “rural.” Its wisdom also applies to Christian leaders in urban, suburban, and exurban areas—in all of their divergence.

Allen T. Stanton, Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations (Rowman & Littlefield 2021).

Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations is an exercise in sparking our theological imaginations about the potential of rural and other small membership churches. In chapter one, Stanton expresses frustration about popular narratives depicting the rural community as either an “agrarian paradise” or a site of “rural decay.” Neither Wendell Berry nor J. D. Vance depict the “rural community” accurately. Rather, “there is no such thing as a stereotypical rural community” (16). Instead of offering a grand narrative about the virtues of rural life or its poverty, backwardness, and inevitable decline, Stanton observes that rural communities are all of that—and more. Each rural community exhibits the shortcomings and the potential of humanity, and church leaders need to be attentive to both. Effective congregational leadership is a contextual, not idealized, task: “we are tasked with serving the communities in which our churches are found” (16). For pastors, the true rural community is the one you are serving.

Stanton leverages his contextually based perspective on rural communities to engage the discourse of “congregational vitality” in chapter two. He correctly critiques common metrics of vitality, such as those utilized in The United Methodist Church, as biased against small membership churches. (Consistent with my own critique of vital congregations discourse.) This bias supports a measuring tool that stifles the imagination, causing congregations and their leaders to believe that a small membership church is inherently flawed or incapable of vital ministry. These convergent metrics, based on common denominators and imposed top-down, are accompanied by standardized techniques that do not fit the particularities of many rural congregations. Instead, Stanton observes that rural communities are divergent, “incredibly complex places.” He argues, “The ideal of vitality must be measured differently in these places, reflecting the divergence of both rural places and the culture at large” (31). To do so, he recognizes that rural church vitality is more appropriately viewed through three indicators: a clear theological identity grounded in a sense of congregational vocation; a commitment to community, informed by data and narrative; and good stewardship, attentive to all of their resources and assets.

The heart of this book is about reclaiming evangelism in contextually appropriate ways as a central practice of the church. In chapter three, Stanton builds on the work of William Abraham and Laceye Warner to offer a holistic view of evangelism. Evangelism should not be equated with church growth or social witness or reduced to “proclamation, recruitment, and marketing” (49). Rather, evangelism focuses on participating in the Kingdom of God already at hand in our communities. Stanton brings a Wesleyan theological lens to Asset Based Community Development, discussing prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace to interpret various aspects of the task. (For a parallel in missional theology, see my chapter in The Practice of Mission in Global Methodism.) He describes a process in which a congregation can partner with other community members and institutions to become “agents of reconciliation, hope, and transformation” (64). Thus, he sees “evangelism and community development as two facets of the same work” (64)—when the congregation understands that work in light of the Kingdom of God.

Implementing this process of evangelism in an actual congregation can be challenging. Chapter four addresses several tensions that arise when leading a church in a process of community and economic development. Should the congregation concentrate its efforts on charity or justice? Both, he argues, though acts of charity might helpfully precede justice advocacy work as the congregation develops a shared vision for its ministry. (I imply the same in Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom.) How shall the congregation engage in community development: “being with” or “doing for” others? Incarnational Kingdom work involves both kinds of relationships. And finally, what about the divide between theory and practice? Congregations need both. Pastors must engage congregants in both theological reflection and social action in order to transform communities. Grounded theologically in the Kingdom of God, each of these tensions ceases to be a barrier to ministry and instead becomes a catalyst to vitality.

Stanton provides several vignettes of evangelism as community development in chapter five. These pictures of “reclaiming rural” serve to illustrate the practice of evangelism and inspire readers to imagine their own vital ministries. In the concluding chapter, the author suggests ways that denominational structures can promote rural vitality: recruiting pastors to rural communities, reshaping the narrative of vitality, exploring new models for ministry, and creating accountability. I especially appreciate his lifting up bivocational ministry as a viable model of leadership for rural congregations. Small membership congregations and the pastors who serve them will need much more judicatory support and new narratives of vitality in order to reach their full potential.

I find Stanton’s vision for rural congregational leadership compelling. For rural congregations to thrive, they must imagine a future beyond a naïve nostalgia for an “agrarian paradise” (an image that promotes stasis) and beyond a cynical judgment of “rural decay” (an image that promotes hopelessness). Congregational leaders can help provide new narratives and new images, focusing on what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Attention to relationships within the particularities of divergence is the key to Stanton’s approach and the basis for hope in transforming church and society. These relationships must begin interpersonally, from the ground up; there is no shortcutting the hard work of ministry and community leadership. However, I wonder if the work of justice will necessarily emerge from such a model or whether this justice too-long-delayed will perpetuate current injustices. Nevertheless, the implications of Stanton’s community development model provide hope. If congregations have any role to play in healing the political polarization currently ripping apart the fabric of US society (the church included), church leaders in all contexts (rural and otherwise) must move beyond simplistic narratives, identify their own theological footing, and engage in community partnerships. In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “The Kingdom is always but coming.”