February 27, 2014

The first iRun Conference was conducted January 16 – 18 in Houston, Texas. The International Rural and Urban Network is a new combination of ministry put together by the General Board of Global Ministries. It opened with perspectives on shift from leaders in the rural and urban church.

Rev. Sharon Schwab served in rural locations Western Pennsylvania, supported churches on Conference staff, then served on cabinet where she advocated for God’s people in remote areas.

“I’m from hill country, and in hill country, where you stand determines what you see,” Schwab said.

In preparation for this conference she reread notes from seminary where she took courses on change management, and intentionally focused on rural ministry. She had come up with list after list after list of shifts that needed to happen. When she became a pastor she came up with her own lists of shifts that needed to happen in my congregation.

On Conference staff, she studied quest for quality, paradigm shifts and paradigm pioneers. In the 1980s she earned a PhD in rural sociology.

“As I prepared for this weekend, everything new I read wasn’t much different than what I read long ago,” she said. “At first it was disheartening.

What have I done in ministry that made a difference? What have I accomplished for the kingdom of God? Where are we today compared to where I started? I wasn’t hopeful. I was looking at all that I invested in, and all the UMC has invested in, and said where are we?”

Then she considered that in the 1990s, the United Methodist Church for the first time said let’s have a mission statement: Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

“It’s only 15 – 20 years old, but it’s also as old as the gospels,” she said.

Local pastors and laity have been more empowered to do ministry. “In many places this has made a big difference,” she said.

Schwab is a fan of Loren Mead, author of The Once and Future Church, and has learned from him that transforming the church is a long process.

“Mead said the transformation of the church takes about 100 years. We’re in the 30 year mark on some of it, only at the 15 to 20 year mark of having a mission statement,” Schwab said. “We’re right smack in the middle of transition. We’ve made the shift. The shift we need to make is intentionally making disciples of Jesus Christ. Not pew sitters or people that want to be redeemed without making any difference in their lives. We don’t need the ‘for the transformation of the world’ part, because if we make disciples, they will transform the world.”

Making disciples isn’t about conversion, it’s about transformation, Schwab said. To keep new Christians from being stuck developmentally, they need to be taught how to pray and how to read the Bible with the Holy Spirit’s help.

Schwab discouraged the use of strength finders tests and spiritual gift assessments.

“Don’t just hand out silly inventories,” she said. “The person who knows my gifts isn’t me; it’s the people who have seen me use them.” Schwab believes if a church is truly making disciples, it will grow, because those disciples will be making disciples.

“I haven’t made a disciple until I see that disciple make a disciple who makes a disciple,” she said. “It’s more fun to be grandparents than parents. What grandkids do we have in the faith? Are your disciples making disciples?”

Schwab said Transitions made up of three parts:

1. Letting Go – hardest part is saying this used to work, but it doesn’t work anymore.
2. Wilderness
3. New Beginning

“When God lead the Israelites out of Egypt I believe he closed the Red Sea, not to kill the Egyptians, but to keep the stupid Israelites from going back,” she said.

Schwab pointed out that even in the heyday of churches in the 1950s, the church was already losing ground, because the population was growing faster than the church.

“We inoculated people against Christianity. We gave them just enough so that they couldn’t get the real thing,” she said. “We’re in the middle of transition, in the wilderness, and we can determine how long our time the wilderness is going to be.”