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Watson cries out for United Methodists to return to missionary roots

Watson cries out for United Methodists to return to missionary roots

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Watson cries out for United Methodists to return to missionary roots

June 25, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0506}

NOTE: This is one of a series of articles related to news from the “Witness With Power” 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event June 1-3 in Lakeland. See related article “Watson gives laity one-on-one time,” e-Review FUMNS #0507.

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — The time is now, according to Dr. David Lowes Watson.

He said the church’s laypeople have been waiting quietly in the wings, but it’s time they reclaim their rightful place in the church.

That was the crux of Watson’s message to Florida Conference laity and clergy the first day of the conference’s annual meeting. Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker introduced Watson during the opening plenary session June 1 in the arena of the Lakeland Center.

LAKELAND — Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker (left) expresses thanks to Dr. David Lowes Watson after Watson addressed laity and clergy during the opening session of the "Witness With Power" 2006 Florida Anual Conference Event. Photo by e-Review Florida UMNS staff, Photo #06-386.

Whitaker said Watson has been working with the conference during the past year to encourage church members to return to their Wesleyan heritage by advocating for accountable discipleship groups, which Whitaker says can offer “a life-transforming experience.”

Watson has been working to help foster a clearer, more defined Christian understanding of the ministry of the laity in the Wesleyan tradition.

“It’s time in the church that we recover the apostolic ministry of the laity and begin to experience it in our life together,” Whitaker said.

Watson is director of the Office of Pastoral Formation for the Nashville Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church. He has written extensively in the fields of Methodist history, theology, evangelism, congregational life and mission. His books include “Accountable Discipleship,” “The Early Methodist Class Meeting,” and “God Does Not Foreclose.”

He began his 55-minute address by saying a spiritual disturbance is working its way through The United Methodist Church. He said it is a “healthy and good” disturbance and should not cause alarm — the end result would turn the church “upside down and inside out.”

He noted an alarming number of clergy leave the ministry within five years of ordination and said there is a lack of testimony within churches. He said the latter is concerning because a person doesn’t effortlessly choose to become a Christian, as if simply shopping among many choices of places to patronize.

“That’s not the way it works,” he said. “You finally give up. The Holy Spirit makes sure that the dynamic of Christian calling is not choice, but surrender.”

Watson gave a brief history lesson on the foundation of Methodism, which he said began as a lay mission movement. Watson said Charles and John Wesley were Anglicans, and the general rules they published never mentioned the word Methodist. He said the first Methodist pastors where not ordained, but laity. The movement’s “groupings” or societies were led by lay “stewards” and were the precursor to churches.

Throughout the years The United Methodist Church has moved away from its beginnings as a missionary movement led by circuit riders to an established church, according to Watson, with clergy preaching the gospel to people who have heard it many times before. He added the church has become a religious organization, resulting in “professionalized” clergy and the decline of lay leadership.

The shift occurred when circuit riders settled into a grouping or church, causing the inevitable bumping of heads with strong personalities, Watson explained. He said someone had to be in charge and clergy filled the role, while laity became subordinate, rather than partners in ministry.

“This is a paradigm that is reinforced each Sunday,” he said.

Watson noted when clergy and laity reach a roadblock about an issue it becomes difficult to work through it. Today, church members can opt to attend another church, rather than deal with the issue. He said that fact creates anxiety for young clergy.

“There’s got to be some commitment,” he said of laity.

Referring to the spiritual disturbance he mentioned earlier, Watson said it’s no wonder “the Holy Spirit is on our case.” He said laity and clergy must proclaim the gospel and show their love for God and neighbor.

“How much of what we’re doing is really worth the life of the son of God?” he questioned. “That’s the fundamental question. It brings us up against the suffering of the world.”

Suffering exemplified in the estimated 30,000 children each day who face death from starvation and hunger-related diseases, Watson said.

“What can we do about it? We’re doing a great deal. I don’t know of another organization that does more with its money, more efficiently, than the United Methodist Committee on Relief,” he said. “The suffering of the world is much bigger than our concerns.”

Demonstrating that point Watson said following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a German pastor in Nashville spoke of the outpouring of sympathy by his countrymen. The pastor said the German parliament suspended its session for the week and students marched silently with candles lit in memory of those who lost their lives.

“A horrific tsunami and devastating hurricanes make us one with the world,” Watson added.

“Jesus Christ did not die for your and my character flaws,” he said. “If we want salvation, we better get beyond ourselves. The fact of the matter is this is not our church. It belongs to Christ. It continues to call for clergy and laity to finish the unfinished work.”

Watson said the church is not a democracy, but a Christocracy. He conceded there are certain aspects of the church’s life that require democratic procedures, but the focus must be discerning the will of God in ministry. That ministry cannot function properly if it doesn’t have Christian disciples. He compared it to an orchestra where musicians can’t play their instruments or read music.

Watson said simply believing in Jesus Christ is not the same thing as discipleship. He said a person doesn’t become a disciple by making a commitment to Jesus Christ. “It means you’ve simply begun to become a disciple,” he said. “You must learn to be a disciple.”

While clergy are primarily called to preach and teach the gospel, laity are called to lead the church in discipleship, Watson said. He said Christians grow in Christ as they walk with Christ and gradually become better at being Christians. Then, they are able to share faith stories. Laity are more capable of doing that than clergy.

Lay members are claiming their rightful roles in churches in Africa, according to Watson. He said he knows of a Zulu pastor who is in charge of 57 congregations. The pastor visits each church about once every three months, relying on laity to fill in the gaps. Watson said The United Methodist Church in the United States can learn from the ways Methodism is practiced in other parts of the world.

The shift into a new way of thinking about pastors and laity cannot be programmed.

“We have to allow things to happen in response to the Holy Spirit,” Watson said. “We have to leave behind the paradigm that every congregation needs a pastor, but it cannot be done piecemeal. It has to be a connectional initiative, as a conference looking seriously at the ministry of the laity.”

Watson said clergy often shield laity from negativity and rude behavior and become punching bags as a result, but laity are the ones who can “get away with” stating the facts in a manner clergy cannot because of their roles.

Closing his address, Watson relayed the story of a couple who served as his hosts in a coalmining community. They were sitting in the front row at the church service, very pleased with themselves for being host to the guest speaker, when a church member at the lectern let loose a tirade on the unsuspecting couple.

“You haven’t been here in eight months. And we’ve been here every week, so get yourself back,” he said, speaking directly to the couple.

Watson said the two were beaming with pleasure because it meant they been missed. They could also not sneak back to the church without repercussion because they would be held accountable for who they were. He said clergy would not have had the courage to say what the church member had said.

LAKELAND — Laity and clergy gather on the floor of the Lakeland Center arena during the opening session of the 2006 annual gathering of Florida United Methodists to discuss questions regarding the role of laity. Photo by e-Review Florida UMNS staff, Photo #06-387.

After Watson’s message, Florida Conference Lay Leader Bill Walker instructed clergy and laity to form clusters of about eight people and answer three questions related to Watson’s comments.

Once the groups had discussed the questions, people were encouraged to share their answers with the entire assembly or make general observations.

One man observed that church members knew the significance of lay-inspired ministries, such as Stephen Ministry, but preferred visits from clergy. Another noted longer pastoral appointments has led many church members to opt to “wait out” the pastor, rather than working with him or her to address issues.

Whitaker said Christianity must be viewed as a way of living. Walker noted that in the Christian life it is not faith or works, but faith and works. “Faith is alive and tangible in churches,” Walker said.

Churches sometimes have a tendency to think they are not really a church unless they have a paid pastor, Watson said. He reiterated The United Methodist Church can learn from world Methodism, where lay speakers are utilized to their fullest.

One woman said she fully understands the importance of lay ministry and said without laity she wouldn’t be in The United Methodist Church.

After the session, Victor Kovac said Watson had inspired him and made the annual conference event the best he has ever attended. Kovac said he was pleased Walker and Whitaker had brought Watson before the annual conference to stress the importance of lay ministry.

“I like the empowerment of lay people to go out and do the work of the Lord,” said Kovac, a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Melbourne. “Some people want to wait on the pastor when they know what to do.”

Interested individuals may go to for the full text of Watson’s address.


This article relates to the 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.