A couple of weeks ago, I received a gracious congratulatory letter from our bishop for reaching the 25 year milestone serving as a United Methodist elder. It’s one of those numerical moments that, though it shouldn’t have, it came as quite a shock. Twenty five years as a United Methodist elder.
I have served my entire ministry in a dying denomination. Why do I stay?
“Uh oh, here he goes again,” some will say. “You’re always the negative nellie. Just think of all the great things United Methodism is doing.” I’ll grant you this point. But in comparison to what is possible, to what is desired and envisioned (not to mention what is commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ) in the scriptures and that has been demonstrated in gloriously compelling ways throughout the church’s history, what we have going now leaves very much to be desired.
The big picture for our denomination looks glaringly different than when we cherry pick the good congregations as a way of bolstering our corporate self-esteem. For a writing project I’m pursuing, I’ve gone back through Kenda Dean’s Almost Christian (Oxford University Press, 2010). One chapter, “Mormon Envy” (Kenda is a brilliant writer), does a cultural analysis of why Mormon youth are more religiously devoted, more active in their faith communities, more mission-minded and service-oriented and more happy and well-adjusted than other youth their age. By comparison, mainline Protestant youth are captive to the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism brought to light by Smith and Denton’s book, Soul Searching (Oxford University Press, 2009), with grievous results. The religion of most mainline Protestant youth is that of Benign Whatever-ism.
You can fuss all you want with these characterizations, but the empirical evidence is simply too devastatingly comprehensive and compelling to deny. I work on a university campus and I see it played out literally every day. I’m not attributing blame. I am not the least interested in scapegoating. I’m a team member on the team that’s losing. I’m part of the problem, responsible for the outcomes the research on youth and emerging adults is describing. We must take responsibility and do something different. Drastically different. Thoughtfully, wisely, prayerfully, Spirit-led different.
There have to be a few Jeremiahs in the world and, perhaps, in my own little corner, I am one. Jeremiah said hard things to his own people. He was deemed a traitor for prophesying that the Babylonians were God’s instrument of justice against Judah, that faithful Jews should accept what God was doing rather than run to the Egyptians for help. He used the metaphor of the heart (e.g. 17:9) to describe the hardness of God’s people toward God’s intentions. What a pessimist! What a whiner!
But that’s not the whole story about Jeremiah. He also prophesied restoration and renewal, the amazing work God would yet do. The exiles will return from Babylon. God will write the law on their hearts. They will all know the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest of them.
I’m with Jeremiah on this side, too.
But they had to repent. They had to change their minds and their directions. Instead of resisting God, they had to yield. And so do we. But yielding is really, really hard…
A Short and Necessary List
Repentance and renewal, I believe, must involve – but is not limited to – the following. I believe these topics demand immediate and sustained attention. We’ve done the demographic analysis. We’re up to speed on sociological theories and trends. Now it’s time to do some hard theological and moral work. We must figure out what, if anything, unifies us United Methodists. Unity for the sake of unity means nothing. It is a waste of time. Unity for the sake of faithfulness to the Triune God and the missio Dei: that is why unity matters.
1. We must find a doctrinal core and agree to be held accountable to it. Our doctrine provides the basis of our covenant. Lack of accountability makes the whole affair meaningless and offers cover for covert power moves. It’s time to stop making the silly claim that to discipline our own is somehow unloving. If there is no discipline, there is no love. It is no wonder that our youth leave us at such high rates.
Doctrinal unity does not mean groupthink or the squashing of diverse opinions. Doctrinal unity means shared vision. Shared vision means tremendous energy and focus released to serve the reign of God and the present age. If we do not make our doctrinal affirmations clear, explicit and binding, then hidden or, at least, unspoken doctrinal assumptions of the ecclesiastically powerful will run the show.
The ecumenical creeds are a good starting point. In fact, they are a necessary starting point. The doctrinal claims therein have implications. They bind us to a certain vision. They eliminate some options. This is freedom, not bondage. The lack of doctrinal clarity, thus the lack of shared missional vision – that is bondage!
Some might argue that doctrinal clarity and accountability don’t really matter. Why do we have to fight about these things? Why can’t we just live and let live? Mainly, because we don’t have that kind of polity. As long as we are organized as we are now, people with vastly different visions will struggle for control of the direction of our resources. We will continue to bang into each other at annual and general conference meetings and in our agencies and we will waste lots of time and energy scrumming for power.
3. We likewise must find a workable biblical and theological hermeneutic that we can claim as identifiably United Methodist. (Passing references to the “Wesley Quadrilateral” will not do.) Yes, of course I know that Christians have “always” disagreed about how to interpret the Bible, what weight to give to various parts and interpretations, etc. That truism is blindingly obvious and trivial and offers no excuse for not doing the hard work of coming to communal conclusions. This requires the related work of painstakingly examining methods. Doing so will help us either recognize each other as fellow travelers or force us to admit that we are not.
Remember what the Wesleys and their little group of friends did at the first conference in 1744. They asked themselves not only what God was calling them to do, but also what to teach. This is hard work and our forbears did it. We must, too.
4. We absolutely must enact a moratorium on political labels as identifiers for the “kind of Methodist” that someone thinks she or he is. Calling a particular theological position “progressive” or “conservative” perpetuates (ironically) the very groupthink that we often say we deplore. These words are code that do nothing more than allow people to decide whether they like the theological idea or not without having actually to engage the idea itself. It thus stops necessary reflection even before it gets started.
Using political labels, therefore, like “progressive” and “conservative” and, in some ways “evangelical” does nothing but short-circuit and maybe even ruin the possibility of important and serious conversations. Let us please stop using them, at least long enough actually to talk and listen to one another without these maddening distractions. I am not naive to think that we’ll stop using them altogether, but let us please become very self-aware and spare in our use of them. And we should agree never to use them as conversations stoppers in public debate.
5. We United Methodists absolutely must find a way to talk to (not about) each other about sexuality. The church is so far behind on this topic that all our leaders should cease and desist making public statements! We foolishly declaim without demonstrating that we have done the hard work of thinking about the range of possible implications of our statements. We are completely held hostage by reductionist political terminology. We bite and devour one another.
If we are to offer any sort of morally uplifting vision to the society God has called us to reach, we must put all sexual activity on the table for examination and discussion. We should start with heterosexual fornication, adultery and divorce, in order to begin to get our own house in order (judgment begins with the household of God). We should talk about what eschatology does to our view of marriage. Then, and only then, we can move into more controversial areas. Doing so requires that we explore concepts like “gender” and “identity” and “love” and the moral assumptions flowing from them. Then (and only then) we can talk about same sex marriage. But we can’t stop there. We must talk about polygamy, polyamory, sado-masochism and other sexual expressions that nobody in the church mentions in their publicity statements. This conversation will take moral courage that I’m not sure we have.
Why do I pick out these topics? Because Kenda Dean is right. We have bequeathed the worst of our theological and moral confusions to our children. And sexuality is right in the middle of the crisis that we in higher education have helped to create and stand by watching every week. Our deeply confused and fragmented moral visions contribute and those visions depend on our theological convictions. It’s all connected.
And maybe, if I can’t get you riled about college students, since fatalism about “college kid” behavior reigns supreme, you should know that more and more of these problems manifest themselves among seminary students. Yes, the people training to be your pastors are often as confused and unclear as the rest of the population. And we are doing precious little to help them sort it all out.
Praying and Working for Renewal
As Jeremiah envisioned for his people, I believe in the renewal of The United Methodist Church. I believe God yet has plans for us even though I readily admit that what our denomination will look like in the future may be nothing that we can imagine at the moment. But I believe the organic, integrative, conjunctive theology and practice that John Wesley and his co-travelers worked out – and that we continue to draw on, learn from, refine and deploy in our context – offers a beautiful, glorious, life-giving vision to this generation and ones to come.
Whatever we may call a denomination in the future – whether it is The United Methodist Church as we know it now or something else – the world needs Christian communities bearing witness to the Gospel who are guided by a body of teachings and a legacy of world engagement deeded to us by our Wesleyan and Methodist forbears. United Methodism is not the church catholic, but we are definitely an important part of the church catholic. We need to step up, to do our jobs, to answer God’s call as a people with a particular take on God and on the human condition, which we then offer in service to the world as a part of the church catholic. As United Methodists, we have a very important mission.
And that is why I stay.