Dialogue continues on Bishop's call for churchcraft

Three months after Bishop Timothy Whitaker discussed "churchcraft" at the 2011 Florida Annual Conference, some church leaders hope to keep the dialogue going.

In his talk, Whitaker defined churchcraft as "a body of skills for building up the church as the body of Christ." He added, "But that's not really a very good definition, because it leaves out a feeling element. It's not only just the body of skills; it's also a certain sensibility. Or I might put it like this: a certain, reverent feeling about what the church is."

Bishop Tim Whitaker speaking on Churchcraft at the 2011 Annual Conference event.

Now the conversation turns to those who are interested in further defining what churchcraft means in practical terms, and how to implement it.

“I like what the Bishop is saying,” said Dan Johnson, senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville. “It’s about the church, not the particular person. Churchcraft affirms the sense of the institution. The idea of churchcraft helps pastors and people appreciate this marvelous thing that is the body of Christ.”

Johnson observed that one notable strength of Trinity UMC is “the church leadership gets it; they understand that it’s not about the clergy. Understanding this makes committees work well…it’s not about ‘hero-izing’ individual leaders (pastors). We do well when we rediscover the institutions of the church.”

Congregations can learn the practice of churchcraft, according to Johnson, through means such as teaching.

“I’m doing a six-part series on the book of Acts; these are transferable concepts. It’s teachable and trainable. There also needs to be more empowering of congregations, and arranging for healthy vibrant churches to facilitate peer training in area churches. It’s fresh; it’s real; and I don’t think we do enough (as a denomination) to leverage our resources,” Johnson asserted.

Discipleship fits into this conversation as well, noted the Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish, senior pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa. “I affirm the bishop’s concern here,” Harnish said. “He’s touching an important nerve in terms of our understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ. We do need to recover a sense of the life of the church, and I hold a very high view of the church. The biblical language is the language of discipleship, and that’s where we’re putting our energy here.”

Rev. Jim Harnish, Sr Pastor Hyde Park UMC, Tampa

In evaluating its own health in making disciples, Hyde Park spent two years exploring the question, “What is the process by which we move into a deeper life with Christ?” Harnish said what emerged was an intentional focus in the following seven practices of spiritual discipline: prayer, Scripture, corporate worship, Christian community, service, financial generosity and invitational evangelism. This emphasis serves the same end as the concept of churchcraft, he added.

“Sunday mornings we’re using a graphic to help us,” Harnish continued, “so even the children can name the seven practices.”

The approach has been so effective that Hyde Park partnered with Abingdon Press to produce the A Disciple’s Path workbook – set to come out in January 2012 – along with ancillary resources.

“We’re framing the seven practices around the membership vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness,” Harnish said. “It’s about helping people discover the practices by which they can take the next step in their discipleship; very Wesleyan.”

In his June 3 address, Whitaker specifically referenced the connection between honoring membership vows and the practice of churchcraft.

“…Membership is a profound theological and spiritual concept because it means belonging to Christ and to one another,” Whitaker said. “Just like your hand is a part of your body, so you are a part of the church in an integral way. You're not just something extraneous that’s attached to it.”

For Jamie Westlake, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church of Brandon, churchcraft means a grateful response to new life in Christ.

“It’s a ‘Now what?’ question,” he said. “What will we do, and what are the methods and strategies we use? We’re always inviting people to see how they’re going to live out their commitment. We look at what we’re doing, and then we’re deliberate about training people in how. We give tools and instructions how to use those tools.

“The word craft implies a skill,” Westlake said. “That means we always train to get better at it. Do we have – for example – 30 years of experience? Or do we have one year of experience repeated – the same old way – 30 times?”

Westlake believes the Missional Vital Signs – based on information contributed by Florida Conference churches each year to the Office of Congregational Transformation—help church leaders measure how the body of believers puts the skill into action.

“We’ve been a declining church (denomination) for 43 years,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, and somehow it hasn’t been getting done.” In Brandon, Westlake and his congregation “talk about the ‘what’, and the ‘why,’ ” he said, “and then we give actual opportunities to serve – that’s the ‘how.’ It’s not about sitting on committees unless good meetings help us to do good ministry. The meetings aren’t the ministry.”

Matt Wallis was recently appointed as pastor of Grace Community UMC at Fish Hawk—Lithia. Serving a recent church start that has relied on active lay-leadership since day one, Wallis sees training in churchcraft as one of his primarily responsibilities.

“The job of the pastor is to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” Wallis said, “but too often the saints rely on paid laborers to do the ministry for them. The challenge is to overcome, ‘Why should we do stuff we pay the pastor to do?’ But every believer is a priest and we all have something God has called us to do. I see a real opportunity to see that lived out in ways that are vibrant as people see the importance of their role in the Kingdom of God.”

The joy of implementing churchcraft, for Wallis, is moving church members from “We’ve done it because we had to,” to “I get to.”

Van Dyke United Methodist Church in Lutz focuses primary attention on the relationship of members to God through Christ. The Rev. Matthew Hartsfield immediately honed in on the centrality of that relationship in response to the question “How is training in churchcraft implemented at Van Dyke?”

“We believe in investing in the laity of Van Dyke Church and helping them develop growing relationships with Jesus Christ,” Hartsfield said. “This begins with our orientation class which leads into our six-week membership course, which helps them understand their discipleship and how it can best be expressed through the ministries of Van Dyke and beyond.”

Churchcraft begins in the context of that relationship, Hartsfield believes. Then, it is worked out in practical terms via ongoing training.

“In addition to that starting point, we have many groups, classes, courses, seminars, studies and service opportunities,” he said. “These augment our weekly worship gatherings.”

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