Now if you’re not a United Methodist, you should probably tune out right about now. But for those of us who find ourselves exercising our faith in The United Methodist Church, this is the time of year for our annual gathering among all of the churches in our immediate geographic area.
Quick United Methodist Polity lesson: Your local church is organized in a cluster of churches in and/or near your town. We call these districts. Those districts are organized with other districts in the surrounding area of your state (possibly including parts of your neighboring state) and we call this body the annual conference. Read more from our friends at Wikipedia here.
If you’ve ever been to an annual conference gathering, you’ll know that it looks a like a church version of a pep rally. Churches celebrate ministry. Agencies report on their work from the previous year. Pastors are honored for their work. We remember those who have died from the previous year. And at the very end, appointments for the upcoming year are fixed. It’s a wonderful time to come together and share in the love and joy that’s integral to being a part of the Body of Christ.
As we prepare to gather and make decision that will affect the life of the church in our area, I’m reminded of a very simple, yet powerful, truth: God is not confined to our Annual Conference gathering. You see, it can be a bit misleading to think just because we’re discussing the business of the church, God is somehow exclusively in our midst. We can get all pumped up for the latest program, revitalization strategy, or budget-saving idea. We can even work ourselves into a frenzy and start believing it’s our job to leave Annual Conference and take God back into the world. But last I checked, the very missional nature of God locates God actively in the world already. God doesn’t need to be “taken” anywhere. What God really wants is a church with the guts to dare to follow Him into the margins of the world that are too often forgotten by our churches when we worry so much about reports and budgets and programs.
Annual Conference is a wonderful time for reconnecting, celebrating, remembering, and yes even reporting. It’s a time to see old friends and to hear the Word even amid the stacks of paperwork and seemingly endless agenda items. But let’s just make sure we don’t confuse our time together as some sort of opportunity to hatch a plan to take God into the world — God is already there just waiting for we United Methodists to find the courage to come and follow.
God gives us strength and courage to be your missional people. Grant that we may hear the call to follow you wherever you may go. Amen.
“Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?” — James K.A. Smith
(quoted in Almost Christian p. 5)
What Kind of Christianity Are We Modeling?
Kenda Creasy Dean notes:
“Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life.” (p. 6)
I would argue that for a long time now we in the Church have treated Christianity as more of a belief system than a life of trusting and following. One can believe the right way with very little demand on how they live their life. Sure, we say our beliefs have a great deal to do with how we live, but do we really mean it? You hear clichés around the church about “putting your trust in God” or “living for Jesus.” But what does that mean? Where’s the sacrifice? Frankly, we’d probably be fine with sacrifice as long as it doesn’t impede on the American Dream. In the end, I fear that we’re much too comfortable with a version of the Christian faith that prefers right believing over right living.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD Syndrome)
Dean argues that American Christianity is more akin to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than to the heart of the Christian faith modeled by our Christian ancestors. So let’s begin by breaking down the phrase in order to fully understand what we’re dealing with. Dean offers Guiding Beliefs of MTD:
- A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself
- God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem
- Good people go to heaven when they die
“Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them” (p. 16)
1) Most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise don’t give it much thoughtRead: Teenagers need to know that faith matters both inside and outside the walls of the church. Adults should know that young people don’t argue over issues of faith. We live in more of a “live and let live” world when it comes to matters of faith. But we also, by and large, do not regard religion as a source of identity. Churches must find grace-filled ways to lead young people to see their faith as an identity marker shaped by practices that inform unique ways of living in the world.2) Most U.S. teens mirror their parents’ religious faithRead: Contrary to popular opinion, teenagers conform to the religious beliefs and practices of their parents to a very high degree. Some will experience a time of “breaking away” later on in adolescence (think early college) and even largely come back to being more inclined to model their parents’ faith as young adults. The key here is that parents matter most when it comes to shaping the faith of youth. And parents need the church to help them be the very best models for their kids. So yes, it really does take a village.3) Teens lack a theological language with which to express their faith or interpret their experience of the worldRead: If you want to see church people really squirm, ask them to give their testimony. The fact is young people have a hard time articulating their faith with any depth because the rest of us have a hard time doing so. When Christianity is restricted to just a belief system, you lose the sense of language comprehension necessary for identity. Much of who I am requires a language to understand fully appreciate the depth of my identity. When Christian faith is left to surface-level beliefs we never learn the language necessary to see our faith with much depth. If teens are to learn how to talk about their faith in meaningful ways, then the rest of us need to learn to do so as well. This comes only through practice and allowing oneself to be vulnerable to think of their life in new ways.4) A minority of American teens say religious faith is important, and that it makes a difference in their lives. These teens are doing better in life on a number of scales, compared to their less religious peers.Read: The NYSR data showed that 8% of youth consider their faith as very important and big part of their lives. Dean notes that while religious youth don’t avoid the problem behaviors and relationships, they are more likely to do well in school, have positive relationships with their families, etc. But there are 2 important caveats to mention: 1) Participating in any identity-bearing community, religious or not, improves young people’s likeliness to thrive; and 2) Our ideas of “doing better” usually require conforming to social norms that sometimes contravene religious teachings. In teaching our kids to “do better” in life we have to remember the prophetic aspects of the Gospel that might lead us to take risks for the sake love, justice, and faithfulness. Our standard for doing well must always be held in tension with the standard of living a life that daily seeks to take up the cross of Christ.5) Many teens enact and espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from traditional teachings of most world religions — an outlook called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.Read: The goal of this alternative, though seemingly noble, version of Christianity is to helps people be nice, feel good, and leave God in the background to be called upon as needed. This is not the faith of Jesus Christ — God in the flesh, crucified and risen, who calls us to live as the people of God for the sake of God’s creation. Learning the difference between these two versions of faith requires tools for translation (formative ways of teaching and living), testimony (learning how to interpret and use the language of faith in the presence of those outside of the faith), and detachment (becoming counter-cultural through practices that define the Christian faith as different from the rest of society yet always for the sake of all of Creation).
“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.