The Methodist Middle or the Global Center?

On any given Sunday, United Methodist churches gather to worship God in nearly 60 nations around the globe. Across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, our tribe attempts to be a witness to Christ in a hurting world. The one entity – and the only entity — that speaks for that international witness is the General Conference, a global body. It is smack dab in the center of what it means to be United Methodist.

Regrettably, that body — and our United Methodist Church — is in a season of crisis. The Greek word krisis means “to separate, distinguish, judge,” and can apply to both positive and negative experiences. A crisis can be an opportunity to shake loose the needless and redeem the needful. I am convinced that all of us in the UM Church, no matter what theological position we take, are hoping for a positive end to a crisis-heavy season.

A group of clergy within our denomination have recently organized themselves under the banner of the Methodist Middle. For those of us supportive of the global Methodist center, we welcome these voices. This is a big denomination and everyone should have an opportunity to be heard.

It is charitably fair to assume that the Methodist Middle was not looking for a crisis. Who would? While they’ve been more hopeful, progressives and conservatives (or traditionalists or orthodox believers), have felt the pressure of a growing tension. Truth be told, those in the Middle have felt it, too, though in a different way. They’ve struggled to hold the tensions together in one hand and may even consider themselves the voice of tempered reason in a world of extremes. It must be frustrating to find themselves now — after years of asking us not to take sides — creating a “side.” As the Middle organizes and communicates with the average layperson, allow me to make a few observations and one appeal.

Unity can’t be the goal. 

First, it seems as if the Middle is asking the people in the pews to make theology less important than unity. To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the Middle wants the entire global denomination to adopt and/or accept a liberal position on human sexuality. In exchange, it seems, United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, the Middle seems to be reducing the crisis down to one issue — a mistake that would take us backward by several decades.

This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. It is damaging to everyone and to the work we take so seriously if we minimize all the theological differences and decide instead that for the sake of unity, we should reduce ourselves to a few simplistic and practical ideas.

Whether you are progressive, middle or conservative, what you believe matters. What you teach matters. Those things should not be minimized. This is the essence of our faith.

Whose Bible is it?

Second, my friends in the Middle are missing the opportunity to challenge the average layperson to really think about how they read the Bible. For instance, the Upper New York Annual Conference floated a resolution this year* condemning the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I’m a member). Whatever their motivation, the statement they produced was actually very helpful in drawing the distinctions that exist among us. In their document they noted: “progressives/ liberals/ reconciling United Methodists use a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate … ” Many progressives would go further to say that God’s revelation is not fixed but “progressive” — still unfolding and not bound by the tenets of scripture.

Upper New York had a point to make in their disapproval of the WCA, but let’s be clear: their take on the Bible does not speak for United Methodists worshipping in 60 nations around the globe. Their voice should not be dismissed; to the contrary, it needs to be placed in context. The Upper New York clergy who signed that statement have invested themselves into a fundamentally different perspective from an orthodox understanding of Scripture which views all of Scripture as true, using a variety of literary styles to convey that truth. We believe the Bible includes an historic account of God’s work in the world (conservatives use “faithful” to characterize our reading, rather than “literal”), and that it is Living Word and contains all that is needed for faith and life. The current crisis in the UM Church is an opportunity to deeply examine how we read the Bible, how we understand what it calls us toward, the power it has to guide us.

And central to that reading is what we do with Jesus.

Which Jesus do we follow?

“All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” That was the declaration of a United Methodist youth pastor at a “Gather at the River” conference hosted by a progressive group within the UM Church.

Although my Methodist Middle friends would cringe at the use of such an extreme example, please hear me out. This statement exposes the gravity of difference between two world views. To minimize these differences or to assume we can duct-tape them together with polity is to miss the mark and disrespect those who give their lives for precisely these kinds of beliefs.

The man who made this statement calls himself Methodist. So do I. But our understanding of Jesus (and Methodism, I’m guessing) couldn’t be further apart if we tried. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Testament scholar anywhere on the spectrum who would define Jesus as Queer, Black and Poor. Actually, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jewish man, born into a specific context at a specific time in history. Orthodox believers assert that he came in order to do battle with the spiritual forces that created our fallenness. He is not a metaphor for all the good in the world. He was and is flesh-and-blood, mysteriously fully God and fully man. The resurrected and ascended Jesus — Son of the Living God — sits at the right hand of God the Father. He died and rose for the sake of breaking the power of sin and death. Sinless himself, he is on the side of the sinner – queer, straight, black, white, poor, rich. He has compassion for the one who is oppressed. He has a preference for the poor, but he is not some nebulous idea or Transformer toy who becomes who we need him to be, even when those needs are contradictory from person to person.

If we refuse to acknowledge these vast differences in belief, we are actually refusing to hear each other. We are the like the co-dependent mother who refuses to believe any of her children might do anything wrong. It simply isn’t healthy. The Middle may mean well, but good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that this crisis is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one.

To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Whose fault is it? 

There is a misconception that the conservative wing is fixated on preserving the past but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the past has been institutionalized and even petrified. Conservatives and progressives alike are hungry to move forward. It is which direction forward we’re debating. As we have come to realize, there is a tremendously important distinction between the global center of Methodism and the progressive-leaning Methodist Middle found regionally in the U.S.

So … do we change to accommodate a world no longer in step with many American United Methodists or with the American culture at large? Or do we commit to holding a theological line at our global center, refusing to cross over into territory not in keeping with historic Christianity, the theological principles of the Book of Discipline as they stand, or global, orthodox Christianity?

These questions shape our current crisis and are forcing us out of stagnation. It makes me wonder if God himself is the author of this crisis; if so, we ought not to avoid it.

But it seems so simple … 

Many will hear the voice of the Methodist Middle with a sigh of relief. It seems to make the issue so clear and simple. “Yes! Can’t we just agree to disagree on this one issue and still live together?” Those with that hope will gather in the Middle and wait for the storm to pass.

What those hopeful souls are missing is that their choice to place their confidence in this group will eventually lump them together with the vast majority of progressives in the United States who will also embrace the ethos of the Middle. The average Methodist who just wants their church to stay the same won’t see how their choice may send them over the edge into a progressive world they didn’t sign on for.

And this is my appeal to my friends in the Methodist Middle. It is a plea for full disclosure. In your conversations with local congregations, please don’t hold back from telling the whole story. Please don’t reduce our current crisis to something akin to a paper cut needing a bandaid when it is more like a canyon-sized gap. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity — if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing — to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

According to the Scripture, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples began to preach boldly this good news about the Messiah and it enraged the Pharisees. They decided they would stifle it by killing Jesus’ followers. They might have succeeded early on, but Gamaliel appealed to their higher nature. He reminded them of others who had popped up with innovative ideas, only to see them eventually fizzle out. Given those experiences, Gamaliel urged his colleagues to let the theology do its work. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” he said. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39).

My friends in the Methodist Middle, let the theology do its work. Let’s be honest about the diverse collection of differences we now share and consider the way forward that best preserves both the integrity of United Methodism and the freedom of those who no longer fit comfortably within this tradition.

Again I say, let the Holy Spirit do His work.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that this resolution passed. That is my error. I understand it was narrowly defeated, replaced by a revised resolution denouncing schism. The point stands: there is a segment of United Methodist leaders who believe in the statement mentioned enough to promote it to their conference. Their resolve further illuminates the theological diversity.

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How I almost quit (and why you shouldn’t)

Today, I quit being a Christian.

That was the leading line in a Miami Herald article by Annie Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles. Annie was a self-proclaimed atheist who eventually returned to the Church.* Now she has decided Jesus is okay but the Church is not. In the article, Annie says, “I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I assume there are a world of people like out there like Annie. You may be among them — one of those people who likes Jesus but the church … not so much. If you are attached to my denomination that may be compounded by a sense of frustration that borders on hopeless.

Maybe you’ve decided you have no room in your life for that kind of hassle. It is easier to stay home and be angry than to contend with a broken system. I get that. If Jesus weren’t real, I’d find easier ways to spend my Sunday mornings and my work life. But let me share why I think the Church — and your church — is worth the hassle and your allegiance.

It is simple, really: Jesus is head of the Church. He is the founding pastor. He cast a vision for it after his resurrection, then set it in motion at his ascension. In fact, a lot of the New Testament is Paul working out his theology of Church in the context of first-generation churches. They are, he concludes, in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

Let me say that again: We who follow Jesus are in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

How do you quit that, exactly?  I’m not sure you can, and still call yourself a follower of Jesus. This isn’t about a particular tribe or flavor. What I’m talking about here is the life of Christ on earth, signified by the community he has called together.

What do we do, if we don’t like what we’ve got, but don’t have permission to quit?

1. Repent for your own short-sightedness. This is where God has had me in the time since our United Methodist General Conference in 2016. For years, I’d been in an internal “quit” mode where the UMC is concerned. A long time ago, I lost my patience for what we have and was looking for an exit door.

I wanted to quit.

I expected to find a “door out” at last year’s General Conference but then something happened, something no one expected. It seems as if God had decided to do a new thing. And I didn’t see it coming.

More explicitly, I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination … or that he cared. I write that now with such heavy contrition. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert, to cut streams through the wasteland. God moved in a surprising, redemptive way last year in our denomination and I almost missed him. That is cause for repentance, for course correction, for humility in the face of all I may not have eyes to see. I don’t know where God is taking us, but He has given me a new heart for the 11 million people called Methodist, and I want to be respond to that gift faithfully.

2. Pray and live prophetically for the future of the Church. Prophets learn to hear the voice of God, to see where he is working. Then they put that into language that edifies the body of Christ and instructs the surrounding culture. The Church in the U.S. is starving for people willing to pray and speak boldly into both church and culture. We starve for prophets unafraid of being a peculiar people — holy, chosen, strange in the sense of being … well …

Strange. Different. A light in the darkness.

I’m talking about people with faith enough to say, “I see something beyond the obvious here, something that ought to change your sense of reality.” We need prophets who keep us focused on the big picture. We need folks who understand the ramifications of our leadership choices.

3. Actively practice your gifts. Whatever your gift, practice it (note: complaining is not a valid spiritual gift). Become a valuable contributor to God’s work on earth. This is how the Kingdom comes. Besides, if you don’t lead, who will?

4. Don’t quit. As we cultivate the gift of prophecy, we begin to see with clarity that God is indeed working. It may not be obvious to the naked eye but He has not given up on this world, nor has he given up on the Church.

Jesus has not quit. Not you. Not the Church. Not the world.

Which is to say that the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

 

*Church with a capital “C” refers to the Church in general, wherever it exists around the world. “Church” with a small “c” refers to a particular church, like your Baptist church or my Methodist one.

 

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Holiness and the African UMC: An open letter to the U.S. Church

I have stated in other posts (here and here) that it has taken me a while to understand exactly how to posture myself within the current United Methodist Church. While at times I’ve been more content to wait for an exit door, in this season God and global Methodism have been drawing me toward the UMC, not away from it.

The hook is the global church. I am convinced that a globally connected church leads to a more faithful expression of the gospel. Early on, John Wesley displayed his commitment to the heart of a missionary God by traveling from England to Georgia for the cause of spreading the gospel.

It is in our DNA. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. Today, we seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the world, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith.

Given that commitment, I am grateful for the following word from UMC Africa Initiative. Their expression of bold faith at General Conference inspired us and their continued engagement in this season is prophetic and wise. Disagree with their theology if you must, but have an appropriate respect for their right to reflect back into the UMC the very faith carried to them through Methodist missionaries.

Keep in mind: African United Methodists don’t have to engage our American problems. Their jurisdiction is sufficiently removed, both geographically and politically, that they could easily extract themselves and move on independently with little reverberation. They have enough of their own tensions and complicating issues to deal with without having to take on ours. And yet they stay connected, passionately defending orthodoxy and the covenant we all accepted. Their commitment inspires me to do the same.

This letter from UMC representatives in Africa deserves our attention. I share it with the hope that it will help the reader better understand and honor their perspective and even more, that it will inspire you to pray for a more globally focused, Kingdom-oriented approach to the gospel and the Body of Christ.

A MESSAGE TO GLOBAL UMC FROM UMC AFRICA INITIATIVE

5th August 2016

Over the past weeks we have been following the events and activities of the five jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church with mixed emotions and serious concerns about the future of our beloved church. We have read of actions taken by some in gross disobedience to the Bible and our Book of Discipline, and of others who have written to express their disagreements. We are deeply concerned. However, we are praying for God’s intervention as we discern God’s plans for the future of our church.

It is shockingly amazing that in the communication of “Love Prevails” to the Council of Bishops there was no mention of a specific reference to any passage of the Holy Scripture, our primary authority for doctrine, faith, and Christian living as the Church of Jesus Christ, to support any of its claims, arguments, and demands and justifications for the actions it has taken in recent times. This attitude and behavior has the propensity to embarrass, ridicule, and blur the message of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone has the power to save and transform society.

In light of the commitment we (African delegates to the 2016 General Conference) made to the request of the Council of Bishops by our support to have them set up a special Commission to inquire into all human sexuality issues contained in our Book of Discipline, many of us are deeply saddened by the actions of some of our brothers and sisters to attempt to derail the unity of global Methodism. Their actions to grossly disrespect our Bishops and disobey our global decision at the recent 2016 General Conference are incompatible with fostering unity within global Methodism.

Furthermore, their actions seem to confirm the fears of our founding father, John Wesley. About five years before his demise, John Wesley had expressed his fears about the future of our church in regards to its continued commitment and submission to the Scripture and discipline that govern us. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America [in Africa and the rest of the world]. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out”. When we abandon the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of some philosophies and ideologies of contemporary society, we cease to exist within God’s parameter of grace.

We are left to wonder, why are we not identified as Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, etc., but Christians? It is because every religious faith has a doctrine and a religious code of conduct that distinguishes it from all other religion. In the case of Christianity, it is the Bible, the Holy Word of God, as the Quran is for the Muslims. One’s religious identity is not found in the most appealing cultural or political system of the day, for that is fleeting. Loyalty, obedience, and submission to the teachings of these “divine writings” of the faith to which one belongs defines, distinguishes, and truly identifies adherents. One cannot claim to truly be a member of any of the world’s religions and live in gross disobedience to its teachings. (John14:15; Psalm 119:9-11,105; 19:7-11). Let the church be the church; and let not the culture of the day define the global Christian community called United Methodist, but the Bible (Joshua 1:8; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Christian Church, bought and birthed with the blood of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:1-13; Matthew 27: 32-61; John 10:10-11; Hebrews 10:1-39) is not and cannot be a social club; it cannot be directed by any form of political activism that contradicts the teachings of Scripture. And it is not a social or political system based on humanism or secular ideologies and philosophies (2 John 2;15-16; Colossians 2: 8-15;1 Samuel 8) that seeks endorsement for a kind of “human rights” to the detriment of human existence as God our Creator has designed it. Instead, the Church of Jesus Christ is a global community redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, who lives in loving relationship with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They are a people called out from the world and yet sent into the world (John 16:7-11; Acts 1:8; Genesis 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 28; Judges 2:10-13; 17:6) to share the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit in order that persons might come to faith in Christ and become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We cannot in any way be “bad news” by our decisions, actions, and attitudes, and yet attempt to proclaim the good news.

It is time to return to the faith of our fathers and mothers (the Holy Scriptures) and be the church. In spite all that is going on, there is hope for the continued growth and development of the Church of Jesus Christ because Jesus is still the LORD of His Church. We will remain committed and determined to live in loyalty and obedience to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, and to our Book of Discipline. We will also remain supportive of the unity of the global United Methodist Community as long as the Bible remains our primary authority for faith and Christian living. We shall remain loving of members of the UM Church who have chosen to tread the cultural path of contemporary society that is inimical to the teaching of Scripture, in the hope that we will reconcile our differences and submit to the Lordship of Christ. They are our brothers and sisters for whom Christ also gave his life. However, we shall not compromise our Christian faith on the altar of what seems to the minds of some to be “socially acceptable and politically correct” cultures and practices of contemporary society.

We are confident that God is in sovereign control of His Church. He promises to continually build it until He returns to receive us unto Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b). We need to only be still, yet vigorously prayerful and discerning in such a time as this, and we will see the deliverance of the Lord.

We must admit that global United Methodist Church is at the crossroads (Jeremiah 6:16). We have choices to make. On one hand, we can choose to obey God and His word, and thereby repent of the sin of gross disobedience and abandon the quest to be like the rest of the world. On the other hand, we can choose to continue in pursuit of what the cultural practices of the day dictate that denies God’s sovereignty over God’s creation and accepts what feels good, what seems politically acceptable to society, etc. The choice is ours.

But as Joshua, at the close of his ministry in Shechem, said to all of the Israelites, and by implication to all United Methodist at the crossroads today, we wish to challenge all born again believers in Jesus Christ (John 3:3-5), in the words of this great general of God’s people, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness…But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household (the UM Community in Africa, in particular, and all faithful Christians everywhere who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the undiluted Word of God for belief and practice), we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14-15). Together, we shall make it for God’s glory (Joshua 2:17-18; 2 Samuel 10:9-12). God has wonderful plans for the prosperity of His Church on earth (Jeremiah 29:11). Let us be firmed and very courageous in prayer and in discerning God’s will for the future of our church, always abounding in the Word of the Lord; for we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain (Joshua 1:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:58). May God bless the people called United Methodist.

For His Glory,
Rev. Dr. Jerry P. Kulah
Central Conference Coordinator
UMC Africa Initiative on behalf of the UMC Africa Initiative
Liberia Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church
13th Street, Sinkor
Tel.: +231(0) 88 652 0399
Email: jerry.kulah@gmail.com

(Find this letter here.)

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Abrahamic faith and the UMC

This message was delivered this week at the organizational meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group poised to advocate for a strong, orthodox, Spirit-led, global movement of United Methodists. I post this here as an invitation for you to join us in Chicago on October 7th.

Abraham and Isaac stun me. Because I’m a parent.

I have one daughter, and I am fairly convinced she is the one who hung the moon. If you’re a parent, you get this. Parents have a kind of insanity when it comes to our kids. We will take a bullet for them without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. We will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch our child up and take him home without breaking a sweat. We’ll go without food if it means she will get a better education.

Our children can make the worst possible mistake, but the next time they cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us they’d rather spend an evening with us than their friends, parental amnesia sets in. The slate wipes clean. In a way, it is like being possessed. A parent’s love is different. It is fierce. So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him … well, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what real faith looks like.

No other story more vividly paints what God is asking of us when he asks us to have no other gods before him. No other story makes so plain what God means when he tells us to love him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength. Because Abraham is possessed. He is a hundred-year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. He has parental insanity. And knowing that … knowing what he is asking of this man … God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into something great. You will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together and to you it may feel like the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

“Abraham,” God seems to say, “This is what faith means. It is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it.”

Can I say that again? Faith is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it. 

This is the brand of faith God is asking of Abraham when he tells him to kill his son and burn the boy’s body. And after you’re given those kinds of instructions, there isn’t a whole lot left to be said. Abraham takes his son and a couple of servants and begins climbing that mountain. For three days they walk together.

Can you imagine what that walk must have felt like for a man who waited decades for a boy of his own? Who would take a bullet for his son? Who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Brothers and sisters, this is what it means to make an affirmation of faith. This is a far, far cry from, “Please stand and turn in your hymnals to #881…” This is different. This faith has the quality of gold in fire. This is the quality of faith on which God wants to build a people. Isaac wonders just where the sacrifice is coming from and Abraham, with the full weight of mature, history-shaping faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and proclaims: “The Lord himself will provide.”

The Lord will provide.

With that line, Abraham shows us the difference between a people-centered faith and a Person-centered faith. Abraham walks with his son, but he trusts in God.

Brothers and sisters, I have to confess that it has taken me a while to be able to stand among my peers and say to you that I want to walk with you while I trust in God. And I have to confess this because a few of you know where my heart has been. Somewhere along the way (I am pretty sure it was the Tampa General Conference) I misplaced my heart for the United Methodist Church. That General Conference was the first time I’d heard the proposal that maybe American Methodists ought to separate from the rest of the world for the sake of better accommodating the culture. I could not fathom not being part of a global church, so I decided that the day the U.S. broke off from the global church I would cease to be a United Methodist. That was my line in the sand.

Isn’t it ironic that the enemy of the global church is universalism? Which I suspect is the root of all our other issues.

The global church was my line and so for four years I have been looking for an exit door. I was pretty sure I’d find it at this year’s General Conference but then that thing happened that no one expected.

God showed up at General Conference, and it was the global church that exposed Him.

On the Sunday after General Conference was over — as I began to synthesize the pieces of that historic gathering — it dawned me with a heavy contrition that God might actually care about the global Body of Christ and God might even care about the place of the United Methodist Church within the Body of Christ. And most humbling of all, it dawned on me that God might have done a new thing in that Body and I didn’t see it coming.

I am confessing that I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert. It never occurred to me that there might be a ram in the bush. I had to repent and I had to lay my exit door up on the altar. Instead of looking for a door out, I had to look for where the gap is in my own faith that has kept me from being able to see the great moves of God.

Now, I am not blind to the things that have happened since General Conference but I have come to suspect that maybe God’s heart breaks for things I’m not even praying about yet. And maybe this is why God has me walking up that mountain with Abraham. It is to remind me that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. I won’t get to the mind of Christ with people-centered faith.

Those of us who work for renewal within our denomination do so because we believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are NOT the authors of our faith.

The author of our faith is Jesus Christ.

We have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith.

Hear me: we love people! We are passionate about the things that break God’s heart and people in need of mercy break God’s heart. But to have anything at all of value to offer to people — any people — we have to go through the heart of God. Otherwise, we’ll land short of the Kingdom.

This is the brilliance of Abraham’s brand of faith. He is unwilling, even for the suffering required, to stop short of the call of God. He isn’t willing to make choices rooted in emotion, comfort or convenience. There is no “spare sheep” in his backpack, no “contingency ram” in the trunk of his car. If he wants to get to the ram in the bush, he has to walk all the way up that mountain with his boy.

At the top of that mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together. We all know Isaac is a young man at this point (not a little boy) and his father is at least 120. Isaac could have muscled his way out of this if he’d wanted to. But Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God and not on personal tastes.

Isaac is not about to let go. He is in this until God shows up, walking with his father but trusting God.

That’s the sacrifice. What Abraham and Isaac lay up on that altar is their glorious faith. It is their faith they are about to set on fire! And I don’t know what would have happened if it had gone up in flames, but it didn’t. In the last moment, just as Abraham raises his knife against his own child, God calls to him. “Abraham, I see your faith,” God cries out. “I see your faith! I see that you fear God, that you’ve withheld nothing from me. All I ask is that you worship me with all your heart!”

And so they do. Abraham and Isaac together pull a ram from its place in a thicket and they offer it to the Lord, calling upon his name: Jehovah Jireh. The Lord Provides. And Abraham declares: “On the mount of the Lord, it shall be provided.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is how it goes in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To love people we have to love God more. To save anything, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

And this summer, since General Conference and living in community with my people, this is where God has had me. He has had me steeping in questions inspired by the father of our faith. These questions seem like a good place to begin as we consider the future — where God is taking us as a church, as pastors, as followers of Jesus, as the people of God:

Is your faith Person-centered or people-centered? Do you need to repent at any level for practicing people-centered faith?

What about the quality of your faith? Do you have ram-in-the-bush faith? Do you have faith enough to see the great moves of God?

What are the deepest earthly concerns you need to lay down so there is nothing left between you and Jesus?

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What just happened? (My take on #GC2016)

General Conference 2016 is now in the books. After a long season of great anticipation and some trepidation, our denominational leaders have now gathered and adjourned, leaving the rest of us to reflect on just what happened in those ten days of conferencing.

There were moments along the way that were downright embarrassing. At least once, I found myself weeping as I listened, wondering just how much more this corporate body could bear without breaking. Much of the proceedings were painfully stifled by the combination of Roberts Rules of Order and an obvious spirit of distrust.

And yet, beneath the surface a trajectory seems to have formed in Portland that is leading us forward in a surprising direction.

My prediction before #GC2016 was that on the most controversial issue to be discussed —  the language of the Book of Discipline — we would maintain the status quo, leaving our denomination without clear answers and many without peace and resolution. That prediction has proven true. What I would not have guessed, however, is what happened beneath the surface of General Conference.

It seems, from an analysis of multiple votes on various issues, that the United Methodist Church has taken a decisive step in a more orthodox direction, and certainly a more global direction. The presence of non-American delegates was more powerfully felt and from comments to reporters one gets the sense that our African members especially now have a stronger voice in the process. Our global connection has not only been retained but deepened.

Here is my take on what happened at General Conference:

  1. An overwhelmingly strong vote (75% to 25%) disaffiliated the UMC from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. This represents a significant shift in thinking for the global Church.
  2. The church continues to pursue important justice and mercy issues including human trafficking, stamping out killer diseases like malaria and AIDS, environmental stewardship, and the sanctity of human life.
  3. The language of the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality remains as it is. Other votes related to this issue were shelved in favor of a future conversation guided by the Council of Bishops after further study.
  4. The Conference defeated motions to separate the American Church from the global Church. The call to remain a global Church became one of the more important themes of the Conference.
  5. The body of the Conference requested and received the leadership of the Council of Bishops on the issue of human sexuality. A commission was formed which has been charged with studying the issue and developing a strategy for graceful exit and disaffiliation for those who disagree with its findings.
  6. A disaffiliation-with-property proposal passed a committee vote, signaling support for an eventual conversation about this. While that proposal did not make it to the floor of the Conference, it should be a priority of the Bishops’ commission to explore this option.
  7. The margins in the votes on key issues signal that the weight of opinion has shifted toward a more orthodox theology.
  8. Both the University Senate and Judicial Council received a number of new members who are more theologically orthodox. For the first time, the chair of the Judicial Council is not an American.
  9. A proposal was made and accepted requiring bishops to hold one another accountable for decisions in their individual Conferences.
  10. For the first time (or so it seems), those on the far left publicly discussed a possible exit, signaling that none of us on any “side” is ready to settle for the UMC as it currently exists.
  11. The strength of the UMC is now clearly in the hands of the global church. The African church, growing at significant rates, now holds the power in our denomination. The General Conference is scheduled for the first time outside the U.S. (in 2024 in Manila, Philippines, followed by 2028 in Harare, Zimbabwe).
  12. The UMC grew by a total of 1.2 million members in the last four years, mostly outside the U.S. The Africa Central Conference has grown by 329 percent, while in the United States the denomination has declined by 11 percent.*
  13. The charge to the Council of Bishops has no definition beyond the formation of a commission. No timeline or specific goals other than the discussion of human sexuality were assigned to this commission.
  14. Through two weeks of meetings, there was an obvious conversation about separation that needed to happen, yet no one presiding on the Conference floor was willing to step up and lead that conversation publicly. Consequently, that conversation happened at every level except on the Conference floor.
  15. There is a growing disconnect between the theology and ethos of the American church and the rest of the world. Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia, is quoted as saying, “The church has taken on strangely a new direction. People from the country that brought the Gospel to us are now preaching a different Gospel.”*

As the gavel fell on Friday afternoon, it seemed from this distance as if no one on any side of the conversation left #GC2016 with a clear path or encouraged spirit. Yet, many who have been deeply discouraged left with the realization that (as we say in the south) it ain’t over yet.

And what is ahead may surprise us.

 

* Emily McFarland Miller. “African Methodists Worry About the Church That Brought Them Christianity.” Ministry Matters: May 20, 2016.

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Betty Crocker and the United Methodist Church

Last June while attending the North Georgia Annual Conference, I wrote the following as I wrestled with a deep personal concern about the dangers of denominational unity at any cost:

Betty Crocker is not real.

She was conjured up by someone at the Washburn Crosby Milling Company who wanted to personalize the responses to baking questions of housewives who wrote in. Betty’s now-famous signature was the result of a signature contest at the company. To produce her face, they called every female employee into the room and had someone draw a composite of all their features.

That face — the one that looks like everyone’s mom — became the face of the world’s first boxed cake mix, so complete that all you had to do was add water. It was supposed to make a perfect cake every time.

Does it get any more convenient than that?

It bombed. Folks who tried it felt like they were contributing nothing to the process. It was too easy; in fact, it was offensive to any serious cook.  Betty’s creators tried again. This time, they asked the customer to add an egg in addition to water.

That worked. The new, improved cake mix (which didn’t actually need the egg) was a huge success.

I wrote the above as I heard colleagues in the hallways at last year’s conference say things like, “Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we agree to disagree? Can’t we just be a family, with all its dysfunctions and crazy uncles?”

This is a very United Methodist question. For decades, our denomination has stretched to make room for a widening array of opinions and theological perspectives. We’ve somehow made room for conservatives and liberals, universalists and literalists, traditionalists and charismatics. Every time we’ve flexed to include another perspective it is as if we’ve added another face to the picture. We have allowed ourselves to become the Gospel According to Betty Crocker — a composite of everyone’s theological profile.

Pleasing, non-offensive. Just add water.

That hasn’t worked for us, any more than it worked for Betty. At the end of the day, all the blending — as well-intentioned as it has been — has made us something so generic, pleasant and convenient that we are unpalatable to the rest of the world. Our numbers bear this out.

Today as General Conference nears its close, I am only confirmed in my opinion: Our structure is not designed to withstand our diversity. By trying to make it fit, we’re doing no one any favors. By adding yet another study commission to the pile, we’re only prolonging the pain. Meanwhile, we’re filing the edge off our personality. It is a downright shame, because Wesleyanism was so edgy when it was Wesley preaching it. We were distinctive enough to get kicked out of places.  Today, I’m not sure we could get kicked out of anything.

Like I said, a shame.

I am praying that those doing the work of the church in Portland will hear the wisdom of angels: Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. I’m praying for voices in that room audacious enough to suggest creative alternatives to simply placating every opinion and stripe. I’m praying for bishops with courage to step up and lead honest conversations now, rather than delaying the inevitable. I’m also praying for folks with courage to confess our differences and spiritual maturity to consider the very real possibility that unity at this point holds no integrity.

I am praying for Spirit-led minds at General Conference who want to do more than “just add water” — keeping us conveniently bound to the most generic face possible.

That face is not a fair representation of anyone’s gospel. It simply isn’t real.

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A Layperson’s Guide to General Conference 2016

Today, our quadrennial United Methodist General Conference convenes in Portland, Oregon. You may not be able to muster a thimbleful of concern about this, but I can assure you that Methodist leaders will be glued to the proceedings these next two weeks.

For those of you who don’t really get how it all works, here is a brief UMC primer to help you understand how our structure fits together — from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in Portland.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition, however; we are connected to each other.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents. District Superintendents are part advocate, part arbitrator, part administrator and part appointer. They connect churches and pastors to the larger Annual Conference.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy and is presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictions do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, which comprise areas beyond the United States, including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area (864 this year) come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops.

Ours is a global connection. “Connection” ends up being an important term in our structure. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. Like families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. The connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are, then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.

Because this is a critical piece of our structure, it bears repeating: A connectional church has an agreed-upon set of expectations.

Of course those expectations can change if enough people think they should. At General Conference, there are issues up for debate that could fundamentally change the ethos of our denomination. The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. As David Watson, a professor at a UMC seminary puts it, we have reached an impasse on matters related to “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” people.

The Book of Discipline currently reads this way: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.” The position goes on to affirm our strong commitment to a loving, grace-filled approach to all relationships. This position is in line with orthodox, historical Christian teaching. In most areas of the world it is the acceptable norm, though in Europe and the United States, the culture around homosexuality has changed dramatically.

At this year’s General Conference, there will be dozens of proposals on the table that promote some version of a change to that position. There will be protests and demonstrations by those who want to see the Discipline changed. It will not be a comfortable place to be, no matter what your position.

If the position as it is currently stated in the Discipline changes, it will most certainly be newsworthy. If you’re a Methodist, don’t be be taken off guard. What you’re seeing is what happens when families — really big families — disagree.

Chances are, when the gavel falls again at the end of this General Conference, the wording of the Book of Discipline will not have changed. But not so with the UMC. Why? Because our core value is connection and the connection is unraveling. That is already a fact and no matter what decisions are made at General Conference the connection as we know it will continue to deteriorate. The United Methodist Church will likely change in fundamental ways, sooner rather than later.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not?

How we answer that question determines how we answer all the other questions in Portland in the days ahead.

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A Few “What ifs” for the United Methodist Church

Conversations these days about the future of the United Methodist Church tend to go something like this:

“What do you think is going to happen at General Conference?”

“I have no idea.”

“But what do you think is going to happen?”

“There is no way of knowing. A lot of proposals are being floated … countless blog posts … white papers often entitled some hopeful version of “A Way Forward” … an undisclosed number of secret and not-so-secret conference calls. At the end of the day, no one can really predict the future.”

“Of course not. But … what do you think … ?”

I will tell you what I think. I suspect that unless a Holy Spirit-infused “way forward” surfaces between now and May 20th (when General Conference ends) the UMC will slowly bleed to death, though at a faster rate than it is currently. According to an article on the UMC website, The General Council on Finance and Administration reported last year that worship attendance in the UMC has decreased by more than 52,000 annually in the last ten years. Economist Don House notes that “between 1974 and 2012, the U.S. church lost 18 percent in worship attendance. During the same period … the number of U.S. churches shrank by 16 percent, the number of conferences by 19 percent and the number of districts by 21 percent.”*

The UMC is already bleeding to death. What happens next will be more like the dam breaking, and dams generally break after they are already cracked and leaking.

Even with such bleak statistics, at the end of the day no one can be sure of what happens next.  The best we can do is wait and listen. Perhaps in the waiting we will find if not a better set of answers then at least a better set of questions that will allow us to think more creatively and less desperately about our future. Here are a few that come to mind:

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again? Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. Rather than trusting the brand to be exactly what we expect (like at McDonalds), we will engage each individual church culture discerningly, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

What if a return to theological integrity is a good move for all of us? By all of us, I mean all of us — those who love and trust orthodox Wesleyan theology as well as those who have moved in a more progressive direction. What if those inside as well as those outside our denomination are better served by a clearer witness and more reflective approach? Rather than selling a brand, what if we talk honestly about the beliefs that particular groups, churches and individuals espouse, then each live by those beliefs unapologetically and with integrity?

What if a split means we’ve outgrown a historic structure? A designer of skyscrapers will tell you that the foundation and structure of a five-story building is very different than that of a fifty-story building. In similar fashion, the foundation of a newly designed 18th-century movement is surely different than that of a complex 21st-century organization. In designing our structure, Wesley couldn’t possibly have predicted the needs of a 12-million member, global denomination. What if our current strain is the effect of an over-burdened structure?

What if this is an opportunity to show the world what grace looks like? We may well end up splitting or splintering over deep and difficult theological issues and it may be that nothing we do prevents that. If it happens, are we willing to at least demonstrate the kind of grace toward one another that we preach to the world? Can we at least learn from those denominations that have already dismantled and do our best to shed grace broadly?

What if this isn’t such a bad thing? What if this crisis we’re in isn’t failure but growth — if not numerically then spiritually? Yes, the theological differences are significant. Wherever one falls on the spectrum of belief, I assume we are all grieving the very real possibility that what has been familiar, even comfortable, is coming to an end. But what if God is actually true to his word and what if he really will work all things together for good? What if somehow, on the other side of this valley, there is a feast?

Christians have developed a high tolerance for the tension between the “already” and “not yet,” so this season of waiting for what is next may end up being a season for which we are uniquely prepared. I hope we use it to our advantage — to pray, listen, pray some more, and acknowledge that this may not end as we hope … and that may not be all bad.

 

*Heather Hahn, “Economist: Church in Crisis but Hope Remains.” UMC website, May 20, 2015. http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/economist-united-methodist-church-in-crisis

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