This morning I was surprised to get a bunch of Facebook hits from friends congratulating me for being mentioned in one of Brian McLaren’s latest posts on his site. I have to confess that I was a bit shocked. I consider Brian a friend, although it isn’t like we hang out very often. We’ve worked on several things together especially in the early days of the emergent conversation, and I consider it an honor that he thinks that I’ve offered something important to the conversation.
And yes, I suppose in those early days, I was one of the first United Methodists to the table. I expressed concerns early on that the young evangelicals (to use Robert Webber’s appropriate term) seemed to be suggesting that they had discovered something new, theological perspectives and ecclesiological insights that had been part of my life and journey for many years. I suggested in those conversations that evangelicals had always been able to be structurally flexible in pursuit of mission but rigid in regards to theology, while the mainline traditions that I was a part of were flexible in theology, but far too rigid in our structures. I believed that we had a lot to learn from one another, and in those early years there was great conversation over where God was leading us.
Those conversations led in part to my blogging, and founding the MethoBlog as a place for conversation. It led me to connect with folks like Gavin Richardson (who would convince the Foundation for Evangelism to hold the first MethoMergent conversation in Kansas City at the Church of the Resurrection), and together Tony Jones and I met with the Cokesbury folks to try and get them to start an emerging series of books (something that never panned out as well as hoped). I had my fingers in several parts of the pie, but there was a fact that kept me from ever falling into the “cool and hip” part of the equation. That fact was that I am a United Methodist pastor, called to go where I am sent, and not always given the freedom to try and start something new and creative.
You see, while I wanted to (and still want to) be a part of something that is creative and unique, some sort of new monastic, ancient-future, missionally focused community, with participants who are artistic, rooted in the web, and with scraggly goatees, my calling and commitment in an itinerant system is to serve at the whim of the Bishop, and the congregations that I have been called to serve are neither hip, nor especially young. In the churches I’ve served, the average age of attendees is far closer to 65 than 30, and the primary means of praising God involves an organ and hymnal, not a djembe and mandolin. While I work to create an atmosphere of openness and inclusion (believing firmly in the wideness of God’s embrace) more often than not I am focusing each week on the basics of discipleship, working with biblically illiterate church members whose growth in discipleship has been abandoned by a church too often focused on programs and not on one’s connection to God. I am, by all definitions, a traditional pastor in a traditional church, trying to move the places I serve to new understandings, but struggling to turn a ship that is on the verge of capsizing around into the shallows where it can bail out and float again.
That isn’t to say that I haven’t tried to be creative along the way. In my previous appointment I started a new worship service called Prime (taken from one of the daily offices) that attempted to mix contemporary music with more traditional liturgical elements, and experimented with a more dialogical form of preaching. I can’t say that it was a huge success, for we never attracted a huge number of participants (due primarily I think to it being early on Sunday mornings) but it was a good experiment and I’ve taken the basic form of those services to several special events with pretty good success. But I can’t really say we created anything that was particularly emergent (whatever that means these days).
I still participate in the conversation, especially with our local cohort which meets at the Flying Saucer each month. Folks like Dixon Kinser are great friends and mentors in faith, and those conversations sustain me in my own faith.
But the fact is that I am no MethoMergent leader. That mantle has been passed on to a new generation of folks, from the guys who are doing amazing things at Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh, to D.G. Hollums, who was doing really creative ministry with folks in need in Kentucky (until the system shut them down). Taylor Burton-Edwards at GBOD has been the most faithful and effective voice for emerging conversation in the UMC, and really should be lifted up for his work in facilitating that conversation through the connection.
I am an Wannabe, at best. I haven’t fallen on my sword or taken great risks to push the envelope in starting something new and exciting. That’s not my calling. No, my calling is to respect what has come before while slowly and steadily trying to shift directions. It’s not especially sexy, and in fact it can make one pretty weary, but it is what God has called me to for the current season.