We have voted for change. When I say “we,” I mean more than two-thirds of the lay and clergy members of all three conferences: Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska. On January 1, 2014, we will become the Great Plains Annual Conference.
I do believe that we have made the right decision, but, as one of my friends said in an email, “Now, the real work begins.”
The new conference will have more than 200,000 lay people, nearly 1,000 congregations and almost 800 active elders, deacons, associate members and local pastors. God has blessed us with rich resources.
The hard work comes in discerning how God will best use those human resources for God’s purposes. We know that the mission of our church is unchanged, while the mission field of Nebraska and Kansas has changed since 1968 when we last formed annual conferences. We need to “rethink church.”
I am convinced that the United Methodist way of being Christian and doing church is the best answer possible for the 21st-century, American mission field. I’ll put my reasons in three categories.
First, our doctrine is the best possible interpretation of the whole Bible. Moreover, it speaks well to the spiritual needs of people who are looking for the meaning of life, a pathway to fulfillment and a purpose worth giving their lives for. When we talk about being disciples of Jesus Christ, we are talking about spiritual journeys.
We claim the fact that all human beings are special, created in the image of God and therefore valuable. We know that God’s prevenient grace is working in the life of every human being.
We also know that all human beings are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention. Convincing grace is helping us name our problems from God’s perspective. We invite everyone to repentance, to turn their lives away from hate, anger, quarrels, drunkenness, injustice, immorality, greed, racism, sexism and all other forms of sin toward the love of God and neighbor that is our Creator’s intention.
Convincing grace is operative in making that invitation. We know that we can do nothing to earn salvation and identities as daughters and sons of God.
Justifying grace is shaping our hearts and minds to say “yes” to God’s invitation through faith. It is the doorway through which we enter the Christian life. The Christian life is growing toward maturity—to become more and more Christ-like. It is the movement toward Christian perfection, toward being grown-up men and women and more filled with love.
Sanctifying grace is at work in the lives of all Christians. Saving faith is our response.
It is the Church that works as a means of grace helping people make spiritual progress. This disciple-making activity happens best in local congregations but also through our connectional ministries like camps and campus ministries. Disciples who are being sanctified give of their time, talents and money to be witnesses in ministries of justice, mercy and evangelism.
Second, our mission as a church is to be used by God to change lives and transform the whole world. Our mission statement, found in paragraphs 120-122 of the 2008 “United Methodist Book of Discipline,” is biblically based, grounded in our Wesleyan doctrine and sufficient for our future. When congregations are clear about their mission and disciplined in following it, great things happen. Our connectional church is seeking to increase the number of vital, disciple-making congregations.
Third, our core disciplines are excellent. Our connectional, episcopal polity has huge organizational advantages over other ways of being church.
However, our mistakes are allowing conferences and bishops to so over-regulate us that we have become rule-bound rather than nimble and bureaucratic rather than missional. We have to increase clarity about our mission, align our resources and focus our work on the task God so graciously has given us.
It is in this last area that the creation of a new conference holds the most promise. Our transition team has said that the most important thing the annual conference does is to recruit, equip and deploy leaders into the mission field. We have an incredible opportunity to pray, discern, discuss and plan how God can lead us to greater fruitfulness and faithfulness.
I am excited about the future of the Great Plains Annual Conference. The real work has begun, and we need to do it together.