“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
(quoted from pg. 1 of Almost Christian)
It’s rare that a book comes along that truly touches on the trigger of contemporary issues. Kenda Creasy Dean has done it with her book Almost Christian. The book is a commentary based on the National Study of Youth and Religion that is running from 2001 through 2013. This study is intended to follow a group of young people as they age and develop in the hopes that somehow the religious preferences of young people can be tracked and measured over a 12 year period. You can read more about the study itself here.
Kenda Creasy Dean offers a brilliant commentary in her book that I’m currently reading. One of the major points discovered early on in this study is that young people are largely influenced by those closest to them when it comes to faith. Further, when asked young people think Christianity is good, although it’s not that important.
So Dean pushes the study to this conclusion: “The religiosity of American teenagers must be read primarily as a reflection of their parents’ religious devotion (or lack thereof) and, by extension, that of their congregations” (p. 3-4)
Over the coming days and weeks I plan to blog about this book as I read it. The genius of Dean’s work is in her diagnosing American Christianity suffering from what she calls MTD Syndrome (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). As we face a declining church it’s my belief that Dean’s work can help us identify many ways we’ve neglected or not lived up to our call to be the Church. You see, as much as we’d like to blame society and the external lack of interest in Christian faith for our decline (and believe me, there’s a lot of that), that’s not our entire problem. We have, in many ways, failed to live up to the calling of Church. Instead, we’ve grown complacent with a version of Christianity that remains intellectual (read: Just believe the right stuff) and non-threatening (read: We’d rather be political than Christian).
I hope you join me for this self-examining journey that promises to be both enlightening as well as somber. And maybe, by the power of the Holy Spirit, conversation can be stirred around issues I write about and we can take ideas back to our local churches. God’s not finished with the Church just yet…
Question: In what ways have you seen the Gospel watered down to fit particular cultural standards?
Being a young clergy person is tough sometimes.
On the one hand, you’re told that somehow you’re supposed to be the salvation for a declining church. The United Methodist Church has experienced over 40 years of regular decline. And now, on the heels of a financial crisis that has called our denominational leaders to explore how to rediscover ourselves in a new era, young clergy are being pointed to as signs of hope for the future of the denomination.
On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how educated I am when I enter ministry, or how well I did through seminary, there are lessons that life and experience in ministry must teach me. This requires time and patience on my part. As much as I might think I’m ready for anything, I must remember that growth and readiness come as fruits of time, practice, and patience in ministry. Further, I depend on the voices of my elders in the ministry. I need to hear encouraging words from those who have gone before me. I have a lot I need to learn and mentoring (or shall I say discipling) is the greatest gift a seasoned pastor can give a newbie like me.
As a young person in ministry one is constantly holding these truths in tension with one another. These truths are often what call young clergy to use their discernment in deciding when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to be quiet and listen. Wisdom is a learned art that doesn’t come easily. At the same time, experience and age have a track record of robbing clergy of passion and energy. Vitality can easily be sucked from gifted clergy through the day-in and day-out rigors of ministry. And so young clergy can often harken an older member of the clergy back to days of reckless abandon and passion. Either way, we’re stuck in tension of these two contrasting ideas.
If you’re a United Methodist, you know that many are still recovering from a hectic two weeks of General Conference in Tampa. The gathering definitely had its share of contentious debate. You could find just about any flavor of discord and disharmony at the session. And over the two-week period a new voice emerged on the scene. You see, this was the first General Conference where Twitter and social media played a significant and ongoing role during the sessions. Naturally, younger clergy dominated these forums because social media one of the languages of our generation. I was blown away by some of the thoughtful and insightful posts many young clergy had. I was also dismayed by the pettiness and self-centeredness of other young clergy posts.
I was not physically in Tampa but I did follow intently as decisions were made and commentary followed. In reflecting on all of this, I’d like to briefly share some lessons I learned:
One day I’d like to possibly be a delegate to General Conference — I’ll admit that publicly. But I learned that day isn’t today. This is a season of learning and waiting in many respects. Maybe I’ll try to live by my own interpretation of a famous quote: “Speak softly and carry two big ears for listening.” I’m still working on that one. But God is still working on me — shaping and reshaping me into the pastor I’m called to be. There will inevitably be many mistakes along the way. But I’m also hopeful that, by God’s grace, there will also be many successes. And if you read this blog often enough, you’ll find I’ll discuss both on a regular basis
I was hurt yesterday.
Watching General Conference this morning from the comforts of my office in the downtown church where I serve hurt me today. You see, for over 40 years our church has been split over the idea of homosexuality. There have been amendments to change language in our Book of Discipline. We’ve fretted over the idea of ordaining self-avowing, practicing homosexuals. We’ve debated the issue in circles for two generations now.
So here we are in the year 2012 and we’ve made zero progress. Both camps for this issue have long entrenched themselves so deep in their respective stances they can only come out about once every 4 years — just in time for General Conference — in order to talk past one another. Just hearing the rhetorical battles are really enough to exhaust you.
But yesterday morning, wonder of all wonders, there was a glimmer of light — hope, if you will — in the long, dark tunnel of division. It began when Dr. James Howell stood and spoke in favor of an amendment that simply tells the truth about our situation — we don’t agree. In this amendment there was hope for a possible “third way.” Pastors who struggle with the fact that we love The United Methodist Church, uphold the integrity of our church law, and want to advance Wesleyan holiness in our local contexts, and yet also recognize the present reality that we have homosexual members who faithfully serve our churches had an chance to hope for another path. For many of us, we long for the church to not only tell the truth about our present disagreement, but we also strive to commit ourselves both to each other as well as our homosexual friends, neighbors, and church members.
The debate continued when Rev. Adam Hamilton stood and shared a substitute motion that he and Rev. Mike Slaughter had written together. If you know Robert’s Rules, the beauty of this was that we had to vote on a substitute first, and then go back to vote on the original motion. Essentially there were two hopeful pieces of legislation on the floor at once.
I won’t rehash the entire debate except to say that neither motion passed. The issue was quickly polarized by: a) those who didn’t think it went far enough; and b) those who refuse to budge an inch in their resistance. There was enough grandstanding to go around. You could pick your flavor. You could move to ask a question and let that question be asking for permission to stand with protestors in favor of inclusion. Or you could get worked up with those who would oppose such a radical stance.
Let me be perfectly clear: Protestors who purposefully disturb the process of conferencing to make a point do NOT speak for me. Likewise, those who seek to preserve our current stance by hook or by crook do NOT speak for me.
I long for a church that is bold enough to be a place where hard issues can be discussed openly and honestly. I long for a church that can tell the truth about its current reality of division and yet continue to strive for unity. I long for a church that doesn’t over-simplify issues to a choice between loving people and loving the Bible.
And I want those in both camps on this issue to be put on notice — I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. There are many like me who struggle in hope that our church can, in fact, overcome division through thoughtful dialogue. We believe that our true calling is much bigger than making a choice on a single issue. As Bishop Scott Jones reminded us, “We are sinners. God is still working on us.”
I remain hopeful in my hurt and frustration. It’s still Eastertide. And I’m reminded that if God is the God of Cross and Resurrection, then surely God is the God of the seemingly impossible — the same God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who brought order to the waters of chaos at Creation. I will continue to faithfully serve my local church and next year I hope to be fully ordained into this often dysfunctional connection where, by the power of God, grace continues to abound.
On another note…
For some odd reason, our General Conference debated the meaning of Romans 8 to determine if there was, in fact, anything that could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You’ll be glad to know that we voted nothing meant nothing. But you see, I knew that before they took that vote. I preach and teach that fact where I serve: Nothing can separate us from God’s love. I love my church members, gay and straight alike, because I still believe nothing can separate us from God’s love. I love those who continually frustrate me with their self-righteous platitudes and judgmental spirits because nothing can separate us from God’s love. And all of this is possible because of the mysterious gift of God’s love for me — and nothing can separate us from that kind of grace.
This morning I came across a blog written by my friend, John Stephens, who is the Chair of the Order of Elders here in the South Georgia Annual Conference. In his piece, John asks some fundamental questions about the identity of The United Methodist Church displayed in and through the decisions being made at General Conference.
One paragraph in particular jumped out at me:
“While “making disciples for the transformation of the world” may be our espoused theory, is it really our theory in use? Is it really what we do? Does the whole denomination embrace it? Is the vision shared? Or, are we a collective of differing interests and priorities?”
Let’s push this reasoning a little further.
I’ve found as of late that the go-to answer in most circles of The United Methodist Church is “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” It’s simple, catchy and even sounds very theological. We throw this answer out whenever we discuss issues ranging from mission to money to church decline. We claim it as a mission statement and, by God, we hold ourselves to using the phrase on a regular basis.
What does it mean to “make disciples”? What does a disciple look like? How does one not only become a disciple but also continue to grow as a disciple? Why is discipleship important?
These are fundamental questions that I don’t think we have consensus on. So if there’s no consensus, does using that catchy phrase render it empty? In many ways I think it does.
The hard truth about The United Methodist Church is that along with much of mainline, Protestant America, we’ve been more concerned with forming good people — people who love their families, pay their taxes, go to church regularly, and try to be nice to others — than we have with forming disciples of Jesus Christ. Now that people have begun to figure out they can be all of those things without going to church, we’ve lost ourselves in the despair of decline.
We’ve done very little in the Church to distinguish Christianity as something unique and different. We’ve been comfortable in our perch as an American institution and we’ve done our parts to ensure that remain our place in society. Unfortunately the 21st Century has awakened us to the reality that were knocked out of that perch a while ago. We’re just now waking up to that reality.
I’ve heard leaders and advocates of various restructure plans say in one breath “this isn’t a magic bullet” and “we’re doing this to ensure we make our top priority the making of disciples” (my paraphrase). If we aren’t discussing the basic questions of discipleship — what it is, what it looks like, what changes are required to live into it — then plans of restructure are simply plans to grow the church and sustain viability. These aren’t bad things at all. Nor are they 100% mutually exclusive. But we simply can’t go on assuming that we all agree on the very basics of discipleship just because we all agree on a catch phrase.
I do hope there are some delegates present who will at least ask the tough questions of discipleship when they hear the catch phrase “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” If we don’t ask the tough questions, I fear we are, in fact, making a values statement by our lack of speech. We’ve got a long way to go if that statement is to reflect the reality of our lives together. It’s my hope that we begin the journey of a few thousand miles with a few tough questions.
“I shall argue that strong men, conversely, know when to compromise and that all principles can be compromised to serve a greater principle.”
Compromise might as well be a 4-letter word these days. Everyone accuses one another of compromising morals, compromising values, or compromising ideals in order to keep peace. It’s as though by compromising, we’re somehow willing to make a deal with the devil. We’d rather champion our personal goals and values. We think the “voice crying out in the wilderness” is much more appealing than a communal pursuit of any common good. Boy I sure hope that’s not the entire story of compromise.
When big issues arise and decisions need to be made by consensus, compromise is quite often the very best course of action. Sure, it might be nice if we lived in a totalitarian regime some days. That way, if you’re ideals lined up with those of the regime’s power, you were always on the “winning side.” But then again, in that scenario there’s quite often another side always being oppressed. Nonetheless, winning debates sure sound appealing.
As our delegates continue their gathering at General Conference in Tampa, FL my hope is for a spirit of compromise on the big issues we face. I know there might be some who would rather take their toys and go home if they don’t see the change they went to Tampa to bring about. But I hope we would remember that we’re Methodists. And it’s part of our Methodist DNA to gather together, and somehow, in the mayhem that ensues, look for signs of holy conferencing and live into them. What makes conferencing holy is the ability to find the will of God above our own personal wills. And that’s a lot harder than it may sound.
I remember a commencement address Stephen Colbert gave at Northwestern University. In it, he told the graduates that he would shy away from the classic graduation remarks like, “You are tomorrow’s leaders. Go and take the future that waits for you.” Colbert reminded them of a lesson he learned at the Second City Improv School in Chicago. “Actors cannot win scenes,” he said. The art of improv is discovered in how you treat your colleagues in the scene as the most important part present. You can’t hog a scene if good improv is to happen. It’s always about the whole group. If everyone treats one another as the most important character, then the scene wins. The collaborative efforts of sharing yourself with others in such a way that the greatest goal is for the scene to win — in spite of our own personal desires to win — is how great improv happens.
I pray that delegates in Tampa hear the call for our scene as United Methodists to win in spite of our personal ambitions. Our life together as United Methodists will be made better when we discover the art of improv acting in community — the ideals of the communal life together always outweigh those personal ideals we might want to champion.
I don’t know if Andrew Carnegie or Stephen Colbert were United Methodists. But I sure hope they were…
I’m 400 miles away from Tampa, FL and I’m already getting tired. Trying to manage my day-to-day tasks at my local church and keep up with the proceedings of General Conference is a daunting task. It’s been an eventful first couple of days. A few things have struck me as interesting and I’m curious to see what changes (if any) are coming.
The Tokenizing of Young Clergy
Between those advocating for the voices of young clergy to be heard and those who want to ensure that young people find a place in our churches, I’m growing a bit weary of this tokenizing of younger adults. I’m 29 years old and after 2 days of watching General Conference from afar I feel like I’m either a part of a token group for leaders to cite in proposals or I’m ignored in favor of “raising up” a magical group of younger leaders not yet called into ministry.
It’s tough to be a young clergy member. There’s so much to learn and so much you don’t know. Experience and time often serve as the greatest teachers in ministry. And at the same time, there’s a glowing gap of my contemporaries in the local church.
So you’re stuck between two often competing ideas:
It’s not enough anymore that Jesus’ death and resurrection is our salvation, we now need younger leaders to save our church. That’s a lot to take on when you’re just getting your feet wet in ministry. And there’s a potential to either defer responsibility upon those who are younger or even discriminate against those who are older, yet still serving faithfully and effectively in ministry.
It can be easy for people to judge an entire demographic based on a limited experience with a few representatives of said demo. I hear all the time, “young people all think x,” or “young adults all want y.” My fear in the reform offered at General Conference is that we run the risk of projecting certain ideals on an entire demographic of people. That would be fine but I’m not convinced enough younger adults have been brought into the decision-making process for that to be done with integrity. What we forget when we do that to any demographic is that more often than not we end us projecting our own personal values on others because of our bias. Listening and learning are key components to faithful change and reform.
Tone and Tenor of Debate
This is a tough one because I’m chief among the sinners here. In a previous article I wrote about the power social media will have in this year’s General Conference gathering. The problem with granting access and voice is that it can become messy. Honest and thoughtful critique can often turn snarky and unproductive when you’re just working with 140 characters at a time. Honesty is important and many will discredit honesty by calling it “snarky.” But nonetheless, critiques and questions should always be measured against the love of Christ.
On the other hand, I’m also concerned by the tenor of the discussion over reform on the other side. Have we really bought into a theology of death for our church if we don’t act? When did our mission becoming defined solely by our actions? When did our identity as church become solely dependent on how effective we are? Here I thought we were called to be the Church of Jesus Christ — a calling defined by life and not death.
I want to wholeheartedly support the concerns of those who want to change the structure of our church. We do need to change and adapt for the 21st Century. But I personally wanted to see a presentation on change based on hope and not death. Why didn’t the presentation ask more questions like “Can you imagine our church looking like this?” or “What if we decided to be the Church in this exciting way?” Instead we heard the same song and dance about declining numbers. I don’t think the numbers and decline should be ignored — they shouldn’t. But my question is should that be the story that ultimately changes us?
These are just a couple of my initial reactions as a distant spectator of the wonderful gathering of The United Methodist Church known as General Conference — a gathering I’m praying for and a church I dearly love.