Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also 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. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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Five Things You Should Know About the WCA

Since August of last year, some 1,200 clergy and laypersons have become invested in a renewal organization within the United Methodist Church called the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA garnered some notice because of the timing of its unveiling, though actually it has been in the works for several years. The inaugural event in Chicago last October galvanized two thousand people around the prospect of “the next Methodism” and that idea has captured our collective imagination.

The obvious fact is that the UMC is in crisis but we all know that for imaginative people, a crisis is an opportunity in disguise. What opportunity does this crisis provide our faith tradition? What kind of renewal could rise from the ashes? If the UMC is heading for a significant change anyway (and it is), what would we want to emerge on the other side?

Those are the kinds of questions being asked in gatherings and conversations around the country. With such energy, we have the opportunity to shape the next Methodism. This is the very hope fueling the formation of the WCA. If you are new to the table, what five things might help you get into the conversation?

Our first love is Jesus. Every person at the WCA table is there because they believe the Church is the hope of the world. However, as faithful as we want to be to the United Methodist expression of that Church, I don’t know of a person centrally involved in the WCA who is clinging to institutional salvation. We all care a lot about the UMC — enough to invest in this work — but the glue that holds us together is Jesus. Our confidence is in Christ. Our covenant within the United Methodist Church is founded on its Articles of Religion, which profess an orthodox understanding of this gospel. Those foundational articles are grounded in Christ as the exclusive savior of the world. Those who remain connected must insist on a relationship built on integrity and true accountability around the confession of Jesus as the center of our gospel and foundation of our faith (Articles II and III). Likewise, we trust the authority of Scripture, which “contains all things necessary for salvation” (Articles V and VI).

Our goal is to breed confidence for the future. Last year’s General Conference set in motion a process designed to give the UMC a way forward. We want to trust both that process and God’s timing. We urge churches, clergy and laypersons to let the system do its work. Hang in there. Stay focused in this “already and not yet” season on the good work of your local church. We can be honest about what we suspect. There will likely come a day in the UMC when we all have to make a mature and hard choice, peacefully admitting that we are better off heading our separate ways. But timing is everything. Let’s let the system do its work so we can say on the other side of this that we stayed the course as faithfully and as transparently as we knew how. Meanwhile, the WCA exists as a good landing place, an advocate, and a supportive partner that is allowing hope to have its power. We are leaning into what can be.

We love people.  Every person at the WCA table is there because we believe the Church is the hope of the world and every one of us has a heart for the eleven million people who call themselves United Methodist (not to mention the seven billion who call themselves human). God so loved the world and we are motivated by that love. We are in this because we genuinely care about connecting people with the heart of Jesus and we believe solid, orthodox Wesleyan theology is the best conduit for making that connection. That’s what made us Methodists in the first place; that passion hasn’t changed.

We believe that for the gospel to be true, it must be global. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. We seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the globe, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith. The WCA has had remarkable support from leaders in other countries, and we have invited representatives from each Central Conference to join our Council. We reject any revision of our structure that separates our connection geographically because we believe in the global nature of the gospel and the Great Commission.

We are here for the long haul. The existence of the WCA does not hinge on one vote at one General Conference. Folks, our issues are far deeper, our institutional divisions far wider, our concerns far more grave than the substance of one vote. Our intention is to build a bridge from what we have to what can be. That kind of vision will take years to live out but we are committed for the long haul. The WCA is here to stay.

When new things get started, getting off the ground can be a little bumpy. Since our first gathering of the WCA last October, it has been like drinking water from a fire hose. To build a thing that stands the test of time takes a tremendous amount of effort — developing systems, making budgets, writing (and re-writing) by-laws, making hiring decisions, talking theology, creating communication systems. And prayer … a lot of prayer. This is not a short-term fix.

As we’ve said often in these early conversations, let’s not waste a crisis. The UMC is in need of renewal. No one on any side of the equation should be in this to “win” on one issue so we can all go back to business as usual. Let’s shoot for something more noble, more grand — to see the Kingdom of God manifest within the Body of Christ on earth for the sake of the redemption of the world.

When that happens, we can all go home to the unhindered presence of Christ. And oh, what a glory that will be.

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