Having recently returned from the 2016 Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, I found myself asking the same questions I asked during my first conference, just four years ago: Why do we do this? What does this have to do with the church’s stated and primary mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world? How much does this cost? Why is that person allowed to have a mic? Has anyone else’s butt gone completely numb from sitting so dang long?
Because really, there has got to be a more efficient and God-honoring way to conduct our church business, especially during a time when resources are shrinking, morale is low, and attendance at many of our local churches is on a steady downward trend into oblivion.
Time and again throughout conference I found myself wondering if we fill our time together at conference with reports on less important matters and discuss less important things because they are simply easier to navigate than the issues below the surface, the ones that really matter, and the ones that will determine whether we live or die.
All relationships, to include our relationship with our church and our conference are living, breathing entities. These entities will either flourish with proper nourishment and care, stagnate when conditions allow, or wither up and die when they have been neglected, misunderstood, or mistreated for far too long.
As someone who is currently in the ordination process, it pains me to admit that I think our denomination may be in that last category. I wake up many days and silently ask myself, “Where is this road heading? Will someone will be bold enough to make the necessary changes to ensure we survive?” I love our theology and truly believe we offer something that the world needs. In theory, we are grace-based and practical; we are individual and communal; we are head and heart. In reality, as an institution, we are confused and off track, and we desperately need visionary leaders who can not only turn this ship around, but quite possibly sink this massive and unsustainable ship intentionally, or just dock and dismantle it, in order to create a more flexible, adaptive, and responsive lifeboat model that can take the gospel where it needs to go quickly and contextually.
If we believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is not only relevant, but necessary for true life, and will be around until Christ returns and brings his redemptive work to completion for all of Creation, then what must that also be saying about the institutional church we have created, one that many consider irrelevant and unnecessary? A church where people don’t even want to show up, yet alone think about giving up their life for. A church that tries to get people in Asia, Africa, and Arlington to believe in behave in the same way? An institution that is sadly hurting churches that are living out their mission by increasing their share of required apportionment taxes to the mother ship.
More so, if we believe that something needs to change in our institution, as I do, in order be able to effectively share the gospel with a society that not only increasingly pushes back against organized religion but also rejects the packaging that many of our churches are presenting the gospel in, why don’t we spend our time together dealing with this reality, as hard as that may be? Why don’t we spend our time together admitting that what we are currently doing is failing, in so many ways, so that we can then recommit ourselves to the only purpose for which we exist: to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Rather than talking about colored badges or voting cheats, what if our conference was designed around creating the necessary changes that could sustain our local churches into the next millennial, and funding was redirected to support organizational change at all levels?
I know that the United Methodist Church is big on tradition, and that love of tradition is deeply embedded in how we conduct our church business. When tradition helps ground us in our past’s foundational and essential beliefs while also allowing us to thrive into the future, it serves a purpose. But I’ve been wondering if tradition has become an idol; quite possibly the biggest idol that is holding back the church back from achieving her purpose. The word most commonly used in the New Testament for tradition is paradosis. It’s a noun and literally means a handing down, or a handing over. It describes how beliefs and practices get passed from one generation to the next. Paradosis is related to another Greek word, the verb, paradidómi, which means to hand over or betray. It’s the word used in the gospel narratives to describe what Judas did to Christ. Is it possible that we, as an institutional church, have ironically been handed over to, betrayed even, by the very tradition to which many cling so dearly? The irony in all of this is that if we, as an institution, continue on this trajectory, we will have no one to hand over our tradition to.
One of my favorite parts of annual conference is the service for the ordering of ministry. It’s where pastors get licensed, commissioned, and ordained. It’s a powerful service and an emotional and hopeful time; a kairos moment when many dreams and much hard work come together in prayerful and holy celebration. During the sermon preached at this service, the bishop jokingly remarked that he doesn’t really have original thoughts. And while I know he was joking and speaking mainly about his sermon material, the comment struck me and has stayed with me ever since. We need original thoughts. We need innovative thoughts. We need bold thoughts that translate into bold actions. Like, yesterday. Otherwise, as Rev. Tom Berlin said on Sunday morning, “If you don’t think it matters that less and less people are worshiping Christ, why would you come here and sit on folding chairs for three days?”
I believe it matters and I am so ready to quit majoring in the minors and get on with this important, life-losing, life-gaining work to which we have all been called. Lord, help us see the way forward, step toward it, and for the love of all things simple, help us jettison every last thing holds your church back. And, God, if you could help us get the Book of Discipline down to a 2 page document, max, I think that would be helpful for all.
But hey, what do I really know anyway? After all, I only have the salmon colored badge. 😉