A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's Four Years Later-- Will It Be the Same Old Thing?

UM pastor, Theresa Coleman (Reverend Mommy) offers guarded concern after the first morning of proceedings at General Conference:
I've been told this is an historic General Conference that it's the most significant General Conference. That we can redefine our denomination, that we can restructure, that we can become Vital Congregations.
It's not that I'm cynical, but I do believe this morning's debates about rules is a signpost. There were power plays, there was debate, there were conversations on the floor, off the floor, on the internet, Twittered, Facebooked, Video Chatted and so forth and what was the result? We (they, actually b/c I'm not there!) accepted the rules as written.
I hope this is not a sign of things to come. If this is really a conference to change our denomination from an institution to a missional movement, this debate about the rules does not bode well. I hope and pray for real and substantive change, grassroots change, radical change - change that goes to our roots as Methodists.
I'll be watching and praying. May God have mercy on our denomination!
Theresa may not be cynical, but if I am honest, I will tell you that I am.

That is probably reason enough for me not to be a delegate to GC. But frankly, if past GCs are any indicator, this one in Tampa will look like one more two week gathering of special interest politics at work. It's not that those gathered are people with nefarious motives. That's not true at all. The delegates I know from my East Ohio Conference are wonderful, spiritual people and I have no doubt that is true of most of the delegates there. It's just that I have no idea how we school ourselves out of what has become ingrained in us as United Methodists. We operate no differently than Congress, except that our prayers might be more articulate. And that should not be a surprise; after all, we have structured ourselves after the ways of Washington. Now some might suggest that is not at all bad; it is after all, democratic.

But even if that's true, I have no idea how such an institution can be transformed into a movement. If we think we can restructure ourselves into a movement, we are of all people most to be pitied. A movement does not start at the top. It cannot be instituted and it cannot be legislated. We can rethink church all we want, but until the local churches attend to the all-significant practices of discipleship, nothing will change. And we cannot be a missional church without attending to such practices.

I am not suggesting that the General Conference can do nothing to assist the local church in being discipled and in being missional. But, it can only do so much. And frankly, I think too many United Methodists expect too much from our national four year gathering. And even if we restructure ourselves into something preferable and more effective, it is still up to individual pastors and individual congregations to do whatever it takes to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The local church is where the action is. The General Conference can only be as strong and effective as the strength and effectiveness of the local church.

What Jesus has in mind for his church is still, after two thousand years, wonderfully exciting. What an adventure is the gospel! Unfortunately, it seems that all we have time for is special interest politics. And that reveals problems deeper than structure.

Perhaps we need to do more than rethink church. Perhaps we need to redo church as well. Eventually, we will be redoing church because we will no longer have a choice. Apparently, for the moment, the pain of staying the same is still not as bad as the pain of change.

We will see.


Kevin Baker said...

I didn't get a chance to hear about the rules debate, but I have to admit that the most interesting theological discussions I have ever heard at an Annual Conference all came up around rules - namely - how do we conference together, what should it look like, and does Robert's Rules best facilitate such Christian conversation.

As for the institution vs. movement language, I am not sure it is always helpful. To paraphrase Neuhaus in his book Freedom for Ministry: "I have never understood those who want to be rid of the institutional church. There is no other church of spiritual or social significance."

Having said that, I totally agree with you that what happens at local church - that is where the real disciple-making-pedal hits the real-life-metal.

Is it saying too much to say I want an institution (ie. enduring community of faith that stands the test of time) that retains our sense of movement - radically engaging our communities with the life, love, and teachings of Jesus?

Allan R. Bevere said...


I agree with you on the institution vs. movement dichotomy. When people speak about the institutional church, I always respond and ask, How is that different from church? But what troubles me is the idea that some have is that we can affect this thing at the General Conference level. And while I like your definition of institution in the last paragraph, I wonder how we UMs measure up. to that.

Thanks for your insights.