I have been a part of the United Methodist Church since birth. I grew up in this church. It formed me. It connected me with men and women who shaped me profoundly. And as nearly all Methodists are now aware, I recognize that we stand at a major crossroads as a denomination. There are so many who have diligently contributed to the theological and organizational discussion ahead of February’s Special General Conference. I have not publicly offered an opinion on any legislation and will still refrain, not feeling I have much to add to the already somewhat over-saturated debate.
I claim to be an expert on absolutely nothing. I speak only as one who has spent nearly all my adult life serving the United Methodist church in one capacity or another. With all that is swirling in our denomination now, even if just for my own reflection, I decided to put down a few thoughts on what is stirring in my heart…
There is no plan coming to the General Conference in February that will fix what is broken in our church. Quite simply, there is no legislative answer to a spiritual problem. Structure our denomination any way you like. Pass any resolution you like. Fight, or stop fighting. Honestly, it seems to me none of it matters if we will not get serious about reclaiming the essence of what it once meant to be Methodist. Or perhaps more rightly, what it still means to be a full-time Christian. Here are my questions and encouragements for the church that I love and that has helped shape my whole life…
Will we again embrace a disruptive faith? A faith that leaves us uncomfortable in an increasingly secularized culture. A faith that compels radical obedience no matter the cost. A faith that requires sacrifice. A faith that calls for more than climbing some imaginary ladder of clergy success. A faith that demands more than politely sitting in a pew most Sundays of the year. A faith that has little worry for pensions and property. A faith that as led people across the centuries, and still across the globe today, to willingly lay down their very lives for the truth we say we believe.
Will we take the Gospel to the lost rather than sitting around and scheming ways to try and get people to come to us? Will we re-imagine what field-preaching looks like in the twenty-first century and then actually do it, not just talk about it? Will we embrace the sacred act of setting aside the idol of dignity? Not the sort of dignity that sees infinite worth in each human life, but rather the sort that prevents us from doing anything as Christians that may stir up feelings of embarrassment or leaves the possibility of our being misunderstood. Will we embrace our heritage of willingly being shunned and mocked by the world around us? Of being made a fool for Christ? Will we ever again be viewed as the ones who will go to any length to preach the Gospel, not only in good deeds, but with the actual proclamation of God’s Word, accompanied by transformed holy living?
Will we be open to the unscripted and untamed power of the Holy Spirit? Will we set aside our tightly managed plans and leave room for things that at least give the possibility of once again being accused of enthusiasm? I do not propose that we pursue enthusiasm, nor abandon discipline, reason or the gift of order. I do, however, long for the day when Methodists might be accused again of something radical or other-worldly.
Will we offer to the world more than self-help groups or topical studies that fill our brains with information but leave our people utterly unchanged? Will we call people to real accountability and confession of sin, living together in intentional community like class meetings and band meetings where there is no hiding one’s life from the loving friction of accountable community? Will we get serious about training people to actually know what they believe, to learn the Word of God, and then to actually live what they come to know?
Will we pray as if it actually matters and as though we are out of answers? Will we abandon our schemes and crusades of human ingenuity to instead cry out to the One who is and always has been the only source of real revival? Will we get desperate enough to stop all our striving and wait, like those in the upper room, as ones desperate for more power than we can manufacture on our own?
I am tired. Not physically tired, but tired of all the rhetoric. Tired of uninspired plans of action. Tired of cute band-aids aimed at preserving a dying institution. Tired of hearing about what will reach young people or what might scare young people away. The only remedy for all ages and all generations is the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…nothing more and nothing less than the news of an in-breaking kingdom available now by grace, through faith in a crucified and risen Christ, made possible by the indwelling and transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
I’m tired of endless amounts of energy and countless committees focused on our internal struggles while are neighbors are destined for hell and many are experiencing it’s grips even now. I’m tired of lots of passionate talk inside our buildings, but very few who will speak of Christ in our streets. I’m tired of political games and campaigns co-opted from the culture as an attempt to remedy the church. I’m tired of boundless amounts of information, study and debate, with relatively few hours of prayer and fasting.
To be honest I am not all that concerned with what may come this February. What will be, will be. I am supremely confident in the Christ who promised to build his church and so I do not fret over the form it will take or how the Lord will work out this mess to his sovereign ends.
Sure, the lines have been drawn and the sides clearly outlined. Good folks are engaged in the fight on all sides. The stakes are in fact real, and I personally have clear opinions and desires. But in spite of all that, I am chiefly concerned that regardless of any vote, regardless of what denominational shape may come…I am only concerned that we (even if just a small remnant) regain the essence of what ignited this movement in the first place.
I want nothing more than to be a full-time Christian. To live as if I actually believe what I profess. To see the likeness of Jesus grow to fullness in my life. I long to live, by the power of the Spirit, as one unashamed and willing to share the Gospel, that is salvation, with every person I meet. And I want to be a part of a church that is serious about calling people to that sort of full-time Christianity. Not just attracting religious consumers. Not just a collection of people we hope might be marginally better than their neighbors in certain moral categories. Not people who will help plan nice church programs but never utter the name of Jesus to a coworker. I long to be a part of a church that raises up full-time Christians. People who are accountable to others. Confess sin. Live noble and gentle lives, but are willing to be undignified for the sake of Christ.
These words from famous missionary, Jim Elliot, come to mind…
“We are so utterly ordinary, so commonplace, while we profess to know a Power the twentieth century does not reckon with. But we are “harmless,” and therefore unharmed. We are spiritual pacifists, non-militants, conscientious objectors in this battle-to-the-death with principalities and powers in high places. Meekness must be had for contact with men, but brass, outspoken boldness is required to take part in the comradeship of the Cross. We are “sideliners” — coaching and criticizing the real wrestlers while content to sit by and leave the enemies of God unchallenged. The world cannot hate us, we are too much like its own. Oh that God would make us dangerous!”
There was a time when being Methodist meant something radical. To follow in the way of Jesus is always to be radical by the standards of this world. Whatever may come in the days ahead for our denomination, I sense none of our decisions or votes will matter much if we are not set on reclaiming that full-time Christian identity once again.
And with all that said…I am full of hope. I sense a renewed Wesleyan spirit is coming. I see the seeds of revival bubbling up around the country. I see leaders rising to take that mantle. I sense a new day dawning for the people called Methodists. I am just unsure yet whether or not it will have anything to do with the official United Methodist Church. As one who has been a part of this family since birth, I pray that it does.
Come Holy Spirit, we are desperate for you to do what we cannot.