“The church is not the destination any more than the plane and a successful flight are the ultimate destination on your next trip.” I heard Dr. Joy Moore, associate dean for Black Church Studies and Church Relations at Duke Divinity School, use this metaphor in her address to the 2011 World Methodist Conference in South Africa. The plane and a successful flight are indeed important, maybe essential, to reaching the destination, but they are not the end and purpose. The end is arriving at your home to be with your family or to successfully complete your business or enjoy your vacation.
The end and purpose of the church, according to Dr. Moore, is the way to salvation. If you know Dr. Moore, you realize that the phrase “the way to salvation” is no throwaway line or formulaic utterance. This is no thin theology or shallow ecclesiology. Dr. Moore uses “the way of salvation” in the full-bodied Wesleyan sense. Both the end and purpose are growing in grace and in the knowledge and love of God, serving neighbor and seeking justice, pouring our lives out in service to God. Dr. Moore holds robust notions of the purpose of the church, grounded in scripture and derived from our Wesleyan roots. Her understanding of the purpose of the church includes all the richness of the Wesleyan acts of piety and works of mercy that you can possibly imagine!
Let me push the metaphor further. If the destination is not the church, but the way of salvation, then the test of any congregation—its worship, community life, and service ministries—is whether it takes people to the destination or not. Does our worship take us to more profound connections with God? Does it help us see the world through God’s eyes? Do our service and justice ministries pull us into the fullness of Christ’s compassion for a hurting world? Do they stimulate the call of God in us and provide the channels to make the difference God calls us to make? Do they take us where we need to go in our obedience to Christ, to have in us the mind that was in Christ Jesus? Do the community experiences of learning and loving together take each of us personally and all of us collectively to greater compassion, generosity, humility, and prayer than we would have ever reached on our own? Do the congregation’s ministries prod me along to deeper exploration of the spiritual life and the heart of God? Am I becoming a new creation in Christ because of belonging to the body of Christ in this congregation? Does our church take our world to a better place that reflects the reign of God and the peace of Christ? What is the destination and purpose of the church, and are we moving in the right direction?
I’ve flown on more planes than I can count, so I’m going to push Dr. Moore’s metaphor even further. As with congregations, sometimes the way forward involves a tolerance for unexpected turbulence. Traveling on the plane requires me to get along with people I might otherwise not choose to sit alongside. Sometimes I’m assigned comfortable seats and other times I feel squeezed and inconvenienced, but this is all part of seeking the destination. Without the plane and the flight experience, I would never get there. Without belonging to a congregation and everything that involves—worship, community, service—the destination of growing in the grace of Christ remains a distant desire, a philosophical abstraction.
Now I’ll overwork the metaphor beyond all reason: even if I board the plane and get along with my fellow travelers, we’ll just sit on the tarmac unless someone has learned how to fly the plane and has prepared a flight plan. Like planes, some congregations never leave the ground. Others circle the airport, eating the snacks but never moving toward the destination. Some don’t take us where we need to go.
The Call to Action urges us “to redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (the adaptive challenge facing The United Methodist Church as stated in the Call to Action reports).
Lovett Weems, director of The Lewis Center for Church Leadership, reminds us to ask the “so that” question* about any proposed ministry, and to keep asking that question until we arrive at a substantive purpose related to our mission. If we cannot do that, then we may need to rethink the proposal.
Why do we want more vital congregations? So that . . . The United Methodist Church survives? The numbers look better? The general boards have funding? The bishops have jobs? No! It’s not about institutional survival. We fail if we view congregations, conferences, The United Methodist Church, or our jobs as ends in themselves. The church is not the destination.
God uses congregations to change the human heart and to reach a hurting world. Congregations are a means of grace, a concrete and personal way God reaches into our world to work God’s purposes in us and through us. They open us to the way of salvation. They bring us Christ, and through us, they bring Christ to the world. We work for more vital congregations so that God’s plan of salvation becomes accessible, real, and visible.
The mission is not ours; it is God’s. The invitation is not ours; it is Christ’s. It’s not about us. It’s about God’s mission in Christ and how we embody that in our churches, and for that it makes sense for us to work to have as many vital, effective, fruitful congregations as possible. Otherwise, we will never reach the destination.
* See chapter 3, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results by Lovett Weems and Thomas M. Berlin.
How does God use your congregation to fulfill the purposes of Christ? How would you describe the purpose of your annual conference?
What do you think should be the destination, end, or purpose of General Conference? How do we keep this clearly in focus?
To go deeper, review Luke 4:16-21; Matthew 28: 16-20, and the many “I am . . .” statements by Jesus in John (the bread, the good shepherd, the light, the gate, the resurrection, the vine, the life, the way). How do these passages help us understand the purpose God has for the church?
For further exploration, read John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation .” For a sampling of Dr. Joy Moore’s ideas, read her chapter on preaching in Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for The United Methodist Church (Andrew C. Thompson, editor).
For diverse expressions of the purpose of the church, check out H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry and then peruse Simple Church by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Church Re-Imagined by Doug Pagitt; The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, or On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church by Alan Hirsch and Dave Fergeson.