A More “Nimble” United Methodist Church, or Niche Marketing?

In an address to the Council of Bishops in 2007, Council
President, Bishop Janice Riggle Huie suggested, “United Methodists need to get
past their perception of themselves as an institution and once again become a
movement that responds nimbly to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”  This means, the Bishops hope, that there will
be a “renewed desire for United Methodist churches to become more effective and
fruitful” and that there will develop throughout all levels of the church “a
unity in the Spirit that can help transform both the church and the
world.” 

            Remembering
Barry Harvey and Michael Budde, my interest here is not to interpret what the
Bishops meant or did not mean.  Nor do I
propose that their vision for the United Methodist Church is not a desirable
one.  We should be aware how such
conversations may be subject to distortion and limitations – either by the
bishops themselves or by church leaders who follow their lead—as we continue
unaware of our potential service of the contemporary market.  Such distortion and limitation is possible at
all levels of the church.   

            Giving
weight to Budde’s warning about the market’s formation of our assumptions, is
it possible that the move to becoming “nimble as a “movement” rather than an
“institution," is a
move we have borrowed from the story of the twentieth
century North American corporation as United Methodists congregations are facing
shrinking bottom lines and increasingly disinterested consumers?  Is it possible that the bishops’ desire for a
nimble movement reflects what Budde describes in post-Fordist consumer culture
as the development of flexible production?

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About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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2 Responses to A More “Nimble” United Methodist Church, or Niche Marketing?

  1. Gina Dawson says:

    I’m a little confused as to what your concern is.   Is the problem you have in the terminology and the possibility that the Bishop is borrowing buzzwords from the corporate world?  Exactly what kind of “distortions and limitations” might occur from using the words?  Isn’t your assumption at the end of your post (your final two questions) assigning meaning to the Bishop’s speech with usage of corporate phrases and buzzwords or am I just not understanding what you are saying?  I wonder how “just-in-time inventory” might be utilized in the church?  I’m not saying that churches should use non-business buzzwords.  I think that the sentiment behind them needs further exploration and discussion and that all words have limitations to describe what is needed.  What is a movement (or revival or reformation or whatever John Wesley would have called it) today? 

  2. Corey Sharpe says:

    The concern I have is one regarding the nature and purpose of the church.  When a pastor facing decreasing worship attendance hears the bishops’ words, he/she might interpret them to mean churches should develop a wider diversity of programs to reach more potential members (consumers).  We need to look deeper than that, and examine the lens through which we interpret reality.  My concern is what shapes our assumptions regarding how we approach worship, evangelism and Christian nurture.  An understanding of church shaped by late modern capitalism overlooks the question, “What does it mean to be the body of Christ in the world today?, and instead focuses on “How can we attract new people into our building?”     

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