I am a United Methodist. My denomination recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, remembering how it was formed by a union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. This church has formed me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, has taught me grace, taught me how to sing grace, preach grace, and practice grace. I have given my life’s work to Christ through the United Methodist Church.
United Methodist Church’s Difficult Season
But the United Methodist Church is having a difficult season. To be honest, it’s been having a contentious season for about 40 years. If you are a United Methodist and you’re on social media, you are likely aware of our struggles. If not, let me try to summarize.
The issue is inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. Our denomination has been in the news for holding clergy trials when pastors officiate same-gender weddings, even for their own children; for holding clergy trials and stripping clergy of their credentials when they admit their identity as an LGBTQ person; for having protests and debates at our quadrennial gatherings during which church legislation is considered. We’ve had study commissions, we’ve added language to our Book of Discipline (the text that holds our constitution, our Articles of Religion, our structure and order for ministry), we’ve argued and argued. Most recently, our last General Conference (that once every four year gathering) asked our Council of Bishops (all bishops, active and retired) to form a commission and advise the church how to move forward as a united denomination, despite our continuing and harsh disagreement over LGBTQ inclusion.
And so, the commission has held meetings, prayed and discussed our difficult season. In the end, they recommended three plans to the Council of Bishops – the Traditionalist Plan which would essentially maintain the status quo; the Connectional-Conference Plan, which would allow churches to affiliate with other churches that their perspectives align with, rather than our current geographic structure; and the One Church Plan, which allows decisions about ordaining LGBTQ persons to be made in local areas and removes all restrictive language from the Book of Discipline. The Bishops are recommending the One Church Plan to the special session of General Conference that will meet in February 2019. You can read articles here and here about this recommendation.
And So, Anxiety Reigns
Now, if you’re not United Methodist, this may all seem confusing and tedious. Methodists have a decision making process that isn’t simple. We don’t have a pope and cardinals to make decisions for us. We don’t have a simple majority rules vote. We hold our church buildings and land in trust for the church that will come after we are gone, so we understand that the brick and mortar in which we gather isn’t “ours” but God’s for the work of God’s people.
And it’s exactly at that point – God and the work of God’s people – in which I take great hope for the United Methodist Church.
In the midst of all the debates, clergy trials and commission reports, people have been getting very upset and anxious. At a recent pre-conference meeting (yes, a meeting before our annual meeting, it’s how we do things in the UMC) I heard such anxiety from the people gathered as they discussed what our future may look like. “If this happens, then….” or “if that happens, then…” The proposed resolutions we were voting on were contradictory, as people wanted to be ready for whatever comes next. If things don’t go according to their desire, they want to be able to split the denomination, to take possession of their buildings, to ensure their beliefs and not have to compromise or change.
Such anxiety. Near panic. Judgment and suspicion. The one thing we could agree on is that we disagree.
I was only able to attend the meeting because I had been visiting my parents. When I got back home, I found in my mail a letter from our Board of Pensions, which administers all clergy retirement accounts. The letter opens with “concerns” and “expressed worries…during this time of change.” The whole purpose of the letter was to reassure anxious clergy, who, as the meeting had made obvious, were still anxious.
They Will Know You Are My Disciples By Your Love
I am not anxious about the future of the church. No matter what happens in the United Methodist Church, I have faith in the work of the Holy Spirit to call people into partnership with God in mission. God is always at work in the world, reaching out in mission in, to, and for the world. The church is the Body of Christ, and God uses the church to share God’s grace and love with the world. No church split or union will change the mission of God.
In the book of Acts we read about the early church, and how the Spirit moved people to show love for their neighbors. Chapter 2:44-45 states that Christians were together, collecting funds so that if anyone had a need, it could be taken care of by the group. This care for others is reinforced in chapter 4:34-35, that there was not a single person in need among the believers because the people trusted the apostles to use their funds to care for everyone. By chapter six, the group of believers had grown so large that seven people had to be appointed to manage the funds for common care.
The disciples and the early church were not afraid to care for those who were on the margins. In Acts 8 we read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian treasury official. Despite being a eunuch and barred from entering the temple, he had traveled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship. In his chariot as he rode home, he was reading Isaiah and Philip helped explain how this passage revealed the good news of Jesus Christ, unbothered by the fact that he was with a person who was considered impure. Immediately after this, we read in chapter 9 that Peter healed Tabitha, who ministered to widows in Joppa. Widows led a fragile existence, often on the margins, without the legal protection of spouse or family. In chapter 10, Peter shares the good news of the gospel with Cornelius, despite the fact that it was unlawful for him to visit the house of a Gentile.
These early practices of mission – care for those on the margins in the face of difficulty and/or legal restrictions continued in the early church. Takanori Inoue argues that during a time of plagues and rampant disease in Roman cities, “Christians ministered as a transformative movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the Roman Empire.” The basis for this ministry is love of God and love of neighbor “because it is God’s pleasure that they should share [God’s] generosity with all people.”
In Mission By Grace
The inspiration of the Holy Spirit moves us to love God more deeply and enables us to live out God’s love for and with our neighbors. This participation in God’s mission was a witness to the gospel by the early church – love made visible – and it continues in the church today. I know that people will continue to participate in mission practices – to go on short-term mission trips to offer disaster relief and recovery assistance, to make UMCOR kits to distribute around the world, to make meals to share with those who are food insecure in their communities, to volunteer in free clinics, to sit and listen with humble spirits and open hearts. I know this because people are moved by the Holy Spirit to live out the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment with Great Compassion – and they will not stop loving their neighbors because our denomination is struggling.
We live out the call of Christ to go and make disciples, to love one another and to care for those on the margins because we have heard the call in our local communities. In our local churches we worship, pray and study together. In our local churches we learn about the needs of our neighbors near and far. In our local churches we invite each other to participate in mission practices. I choose to live in a posture of hope, knowing that ordinary United Methodists will continue to practice mission as a witness to the world of their faith in Christ. I choose to live in a posture of hope because the mission work of everyday United Methodists reveals the ongoing call of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in love. I choose to live in a posture of hope because I trust in God’s unfailing grace.
The Early Church's Approach to the Poor in Society and Its Significance to the Church's Social Engagement Today by Takanori Inoue. Quotes from pages 11-13