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Commentary: Church must strengthen its lay faith education

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The Rev. Clayton Childers
July 25, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Clayton Childers*

“Why is the church doing so poorly in being a voice for social justice and change?”

This question was put to me recently as I led a seminar on globalization at the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference’s United Methodist School of Mission. It’s a challenging question for all of us who make connecting the church with social advocacy and action a church priority.

My answer: I think a lot of the fault lies in our current system of lay faith education. It is failing us.

Two considerations:

  • Many local church members were not raised as United Methodists and often don’t learn about the church’s Social Principles and positions when they join the United Methodist Church. Many youth do not learn these lessons in their confirmation classes. My personal experience after leading dozens of Social Principles training events throughout the United Methodist Church has shown me that even many lifelong United Methodists have not been exposed to the church’s social teachings in their discipleship training. In fact, I find many church members are shocked to learn that our church even has something called the United Methodist Social Principles. They’ve never seen it before.
  • And here is the greater challenge. It used to be that people were in church regularly and were more active in Sunday school and church training programs in which social concerns might be discussed from a faith perspective.

Now think for a moment about the average United Methodist today. First, most United Methodists do not attend church regularly. Fewer than half do. Of those who are regular churchgoers, many attend only two Sundays a month, maybe three. A very small percentage attends Sunday school, and even fewer people attend United Methodist Women or United Methodist Men meetings.

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A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry

The United Methodist Social Principles can be found in the Book of Discipline.

So we can say, on average, most regular United Methodist attenders are in church three Sundays a month for a one-hour worship service. During that service, there will likely be a sermon lasting 15 minutes or so. Of that time, perhaps one or two minutes will address a social justice theme from a faith perspective (even this might be generous).

So we can calculate that one or two minutes times 36 Sundays will total less than one hour of teaching on social justice from a faith perspective in an entire year! How can we expect that our people are going to be conversant on the multitude of difficult social issues challenging people of faith today with only one hour of training a year?

That’s why we should heartily affirm the education ministry being offered through United Methodist Women’s Schools of Missions. Imagine: Eight hours of solid class time on economic globalization. Eight hours of plenary discussion on Christian peacemaking. Where else in the church is this kind of training being offered? The only place I can think of is our Washington and New York Seminar Programs offered by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and the Board of Global Ministries.

We, as a church, need to celebrate our success stories. We need to celebrate the fact that sometimes we really do “get it right.” And then we need to build on our successes.

We are in a rebuilding process right now, recovering our rich Wesleyan heritage of both personal piety and social action. But we are also at a critical juncture. What will the future hold? Will we become a church focused beyond ourselves or will we turn inward?

Our challenge is to return to our singular mission. If we are truly in the business of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” if that is truly our reason for being, how will we ever succeed without making quality faith education for world transformation a central priority of our church?

*Childers is the director of annual conference relations for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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