Yesterday I made the mistake of posting an obscure scream on Twitter about a frustration I was feeling in regards to what seems to be an increasing trend in United Methodist leadership. Many seemed confused by my comment that it seemed to me at the time that leaders in our communion seem to think being United Methodist is a bad thing. I attempted to clarify that I was becoming frustrated with what seems like an overdependence on consultants, experts, gurus, and know-it-alls from outside our own faith tradition to tell us what we are doing wrong and how we need to change in our to “save our denomination.” Most didn’t understand what I was trying to say, so here is an attempt to clarify my frustration, recognizing fully that it is a sweeping generalization that may be more true in my context than throughout the rest of the church.
My frustration began when I looked at a brochure advertising training event in our Annual Conference. The event looked interesting, but the keynote speaker was a young guy I had never heard of before, so as is my normal practice, I Googled him to try and get a sense of what he was bringing to the table.
His website was slick and hip, and I heard about a ministry with young folks that seemed high energy and cutting edge, but didn’t cover a lot of specifics, which always makes me a little nervous. So I began to look at his endorsements and his upcoming calendar of events. It became quickly clear that this young guy was big in the Assemblies of God and independent charismatic church circuit, and had little connection at all with the mainline world. Yes, his material looked alright (albeit nothing especially cutting edge for anyone who hangs our around kids very much) and I am sure we can learn from his experience. But, and this is the large qualifier that is generating this post, he doesn’t know who WE are, doesn’t know our language, and will make assumptions about who we are that will likely make his relevance to our setting less helpful.
This isn’t about him, for the fact is that many events in my Annual Conference in recent years have drawn upon non-Methodist leaders who have important voices and things to say, but who fail to recognize our context, how our theology and practice informs us, and who fail to make the translation between the (largely) evangelical world that they inhabit and a communion that tries to balance head and heart, faith and works, personal and corporate salvation. It isn’t that these voices aren’t helpful, for they often can be. Rather, my frustration is that often we have persons in our own communion, persons who both understand and resonate with our identity and the struggles we face, who would be much more effective in teaching and leading us than those outsiders who are cool, hip, and happening, but who don’t have any clue what it means to be in a non-Calvinist tradition of faith.
Now I need to make a disclaimer here. Folks will complain that I am simply an old fuddy duddy who is insular and doesn’t want to change. Some might believe that it’s outdated entirely in our post-denominational world to worry about whether those who lead and train us have a sense of our history, tradition, and theology. “Isn’t there only ONE God?” these folks will ask. “Aren’t we the universal church with a common identity in Jesus?”
The answer is of course yes, we do worship the Jesus and that Christ calls the church to be one. But as Paul taught with his image of the body of Christ, there are many different parts of the one body which work together for the good of the universal whole, and it is the responsibility of each of those parts to be faithful to who God has created them to be.
Regardless of the theological realities, the fact remains that I have been one of the most open to reaching across denominational and theological lines of pretty much anyone in my conference. In just a few minutes I will gather with Baptists, Pentecostals, and others to pray for our community. I have been a part of the ongoing emerging church conversation, reaching across denominational lines to further the work of our church. I don’t believe for one minute that United Methodists have any sort of special blessing from God, and that we shouldn’t be willing to listen to others as we pursue where God is leading us.
At the same time, there is a desperation radiating throughout the leadership of the United Methodist Church at all levels that somehow seems to think that they only voices that matter are those from outside our communion. Again, these voices can be helpful, when they have a sense of who we are and what we believe. However when consultants come in a make suggestions based on market research, what is working in other churches, or the latest church growth fad with little consideration of where we’ve come from and what we believe, they end up doing more harm than good for they attempt to steer us in directions that we can’t sustain, they attempt to form us into something that our beliefs will never allow us to be.
I experienced a sense of this several years ago at a large youth event in our conference. The speaker was well known in youth circles, with a shiny head and and engaging personality. He was funny and smart and the kids generally liked him. I did too, until I realized that he was basically walking though the traditional evangelical message leading to an altar call on Saturday night. Now don’t get me wrong, certainly kids need to be invited to follow Jesus. However we maintain a theology that talks about baptism and confirmation, not salvation as an event based happening. This guy was “good” as a presenter, and effective in creating an emotional response, but his Baptist background have him no ability to help good and faithful United Methodist kids respond in accordance with their upbringing and our beliefs. Instead it was all about walking the aisle and accepting Jesus as personal savior, which led many in my youth group to be confused, for they had never walked an aisle but has personally professed Christ as Lord at a confirmation service months earlier. They believed themselves to be (and were) fully Christians, but the speaker bordered on saying that they weren’t because they hadn’t walked the aisle and prayed “the sinners prayer.”
The fact is that we DO have a theological heritage and a tradition of practice that is our own. It may be that this stream of belief is dead and irrelevant to the world (I think not) but it is who we are. Our task should not be trying to become the best neo-Calvinists or Baptists or Willow Creeks in the world, but rather to be faithful to who we understand God has called us to be. That certainly should and will include an updating of both practices and theology along the way, but always done within the context of where we have come from.
The great unseen reality is that there are many, many gifted persons in our communion who understand this, who are able to help our denomination to be more missional and more authentic to who we are, but who are ignored as less than helpful because they are one of our own. “What can they know,” the crowds and leaders say, “aren’t they United Methodists.”
Prophets are never honored in their own home towns. And our leaders seem to take this belief to heart.
Yes, a variety of voices is helpful. But don’t think that we are incapable of change on our own.