As the United Methodist Church slowly drifts into the sunset of its vitality, the last few efforts at resurrecting the denomination are being heard. And, not surprisingly, one of those leading the charge is Adam Hamilton, pastor of the mega-Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas and best-selling author. His books pretty much keep the United Methodist Publishing House in business.
It appeared that Adam used quite a bit of his political and personal capital to endorse the Call to Action legislation at General Conference 2012, which proposed major changes to UM structure; I think he felt like this was his responsibility as a leader. He had some leverage and, seeing the danger of a declining church, he tried to make a difference.
I don’t blame him for this attempt. I certainly would expect it from someone in his position.
The problem is that we in the denomination, as a whole, are responsible for over-idolizing Adam and Church of the Resurrection (COR). Adam pops up everywhere in UM circles – in magazines, at conferences, in videos. He and the church are considered a success by every dashboard indicator that we have. I am absolutely certain that every bishop would kill to have an Adam and COR (or three or four or twenty!) in their annual conference.
And those of us who are laypeople and colleagues largely go along with this assessment. Adam’s church is a good model of ministry, mission, and hospitality. It makes a difference in the surrounding community. Adam is a great communicator and his message is positive, life-affirming, and Jesus-centered.
But I think it’s not too much to suggest that the denomination is obsessed with Adam and Church of the Resurrection. We are proud of him; his church makes us proud to be United Methodist. We try to get his name out there as much as possible, because he gives us a great public face.
Most United Methodists consider Adam and COR an unqualified success story, and a model that ought to be imitated. In fact, most of us UMs have internalized the idea that, if our church were doing everything right, it would be just like COR. If we were doing everything right in our own local churches, we believe that membership would be growing into the thousands, our budgets would be growing into the millions, and we would be asked to pen books on church growth.
When this doesn’t happen, we pastors tend to blame ourselves. Since we tend to give Adam the credit for COR, we pin the blame for our own tiny, low-tech, declining congregations that look nothing like COR on ourselves. We see ourselves as inferior preachers and lousy communicators. In other words, we just don’t have the chops like Adam Hamilton.
I know this is the way pastors think. I am one myself, and I distinctly remember the day in one of my earliest appointments when I finally realized that I was not Adam Hamilton. I was depressed for weeks.
There are many, many problems with this kind of thinking, of course. It should be obvious that we must not compare ourselves to others, that this is a path that will only lead to self-abuse, frustration and discouragement. It should also be obvious that different pastors have different gifts, and that we all cannot expect to be dynamic speakers and fantastic administrators.
And it should be obvious that the success of COR is a very unique situation, given the context and timing of Adam’s arrival in Leawood. This is what happened in a particular place and particular time. There is no way that we should expect that this style and brand of church could – or should – be duplicated anywhere.
But it’s also possible that we are idolizing the wrong kind of ministry. Where did we get the idea that a mega-church is necessarily doing anything at all right? Where did we fall into the trap of thinking that bigger is better? Why in the world have we succumbed to the secular criteria of relevance and efficiency?
Look at it this way: why does everybody know who Adam Hamilton is, but hardly anybody knows Lorenza Andrade Smith? See what I did there? Do you know who she is? She is an ordained UM pastor to homeless people in San Antonio. She lives on the street herself. I have no idea what her “numbers” would be, and up to this point, she hasn’t written any books. She doesn’t do any podcasts, and she has never organized any leaders’ conferences.
But she is someone to be admired. Her ministry is perhaps the most Christ-like in the entire denomination, because she is actually doing what Christ did. Why don’t we lift up her ministry for emulation? Why isn’t her work the gold standard in the UMC? Why don’t young pastors feel badly when they realize that they aren’t going to be on the streets like Lorenza, but instead will be speaking comfortably to thousands of people every week?
There are pastors like her at work within our denomination, with and without clergy credentials, who deserve to be emulated, precisely because they eschew popularity, fawning crowds, grateful applause, and offering plates full of fat checks (and I’m not suggesting that Adam Hamilton desires these things). These unknown, unappreciated, and unnoticed ministers, in fact, are actually in the process of saving the soul of the United Methodist Church.
Because they are pursuing the forgotten pilgrim’s way of Christ.
Because they are resisting the devil’s temptations to turn stones into bread, perform diving tricks off steeples, and accept the world’s adulation (see Matthew 4:1-11).
Because they aren’t in it for the sake of being relevant, or changing the culture, or leaving a heritage.
They don’t care about reviving the numbers; they only care about resurrecting the old Methodist emphasis on putting faith into action. And in 2012 America, “faith in action” means standing in solidarity with people who have been forgotten, discarded, and abused, and offering them the concrete love of God.
That’s the only way forward now, regardless of what happens in General Conferences, or at Adam’s church. The future does not consist in growing big churches, raising up young hip, rock star leaders, or restructuring any organizations.
The only future worth imagining is one in which we act a lot more like Jesus.
(Important Disclaimer: I do not know Adam Hamilton personally, and despite the headline of this post, I do not have anything against him. I am absolutely positive that he is a great guy – a man of God, in fact — and I’d like to meet him someday. I hope that Adam continues to be exactly who he is, but I also wish that the rest of us would stop trying to be “Adam Hamilton” and become pilgrims on the way of Christ, even if that means doing ministry in lonely places.)