Were I to assign one word to American culture circa 2018, it would be manic. Manic derives from a Greek word meaning “inclined to madness.” The adjective refers to “characterizing, denoting or afflicted by mania.” The noun is a person afflicted with mania and synonyms include “anxious, hysterical, worried, demonic, unhinged, unbalanced and feverish.” I think we all feel the manic tide in this age of vitriol, division, deep distrust and “winner take all politics;” kept at a frenzied pitch by a 24 hour media who has discovered there is good money in mania. My concern is that the mania that fuels the media is inflicting continued and perhaps irreparable damage on the United Methodist church. I honestly don’t think we can take much more. We are not united, it is not well with our souls and we are dying. We have digressed into a microcosm of the hostile culture that encapsulates us. If you don’t believe me, read almost any Facebook thread that anyone in our denomination writes about anything concerning our denomination.
Our decade’s long conflict over human sexuality and Biblical authority continue to keep us hemorrhaging and detract time, energy and resources from our collective mission. An April 26, 1988 New York Times article covering the General Conference held in St. Louis that year was entitled, “Methodists Focus on Homosexuality.” So now we return to St. Louis in 2019 to talk about…you guessed it, human sexuality. It certainly feels like déjà vu all over again to me. And the bleeding continues…
I have read dozens of articles, blogs and books attempting to ascertain the single cause of our denominational decline but we know the answer is found in a myriad of factors. For me, four things are clear; 1) Liberal/progressive theology is not the only reason we are in decline 2) A move further toward the liberal/progressive theology will only exacerbate our decline 3) Adopting the One Church Plan without a “Gracious Exit” will trigger an exodus that will throw us into years of litigation over the Trust Clause and 4) There is a whole lot more to turning a denomination around than having orthodox theology.
As a Council Member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and someone unabashedly on the orthodox side of the ball, I am often asked for advice as theologically conservative United Methodist pastors and congregations attempt to navigate these treacherous waters.
Here is the counsel I offer:
- Control Your Impulses Adding more heat to an already raging inferno is not helpful. Invoke the “do no harm” clause here.
- Fast and Pray If you have been delaying a life of prayer and fasting until something really urgent comes our way, I assure you this is it.
- Think Reorganization Everyone is throwing politically loaded words around like schism but I prefer the language of reorganization. Schism smacks of frenzy and knee-jerk reactions. Reorganization feels like a space in which cooler heads and better decisions can prevail.
- Unleash the Mission American Methodism began as a relativistic spring of living water! Our genius was to build an effective irrigation system. Now the spring has slowed to a trickle and many of our energies and resources are spent on maintaining the ever rusting, anachronistic and deteriorating pipes and joints. Our goal can’t be to preserve an institution, it must be to unleash our mission of making disciples.
- Wait to Decide (until there is something to decide) None of us truly know what will come out of the St. Louis General Conference. There is no point spending lots of time, effort and energy making decisions until there is something to decide upon. It will only fuel the mania. When there is something in front of us, we can each make clear headed, faith-filled and conscientious decisions based on facts.
- Refocus on the Local Church In the meantime, let’s refocus our collective energy to the work of the local church. Let’s bring people to Jesus, make disciples of them and send them out to bring people to Jesus. We will not be able to effectively fight the devil and one another.
- Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best (and realize the worst may be the best) We can’t see twenty years down the road but God can. Let’s leave this to our processes and show some faith that things will unfold as they should.
I have some clear ideas concerning the future of the United Methodist church (and so do you). I have a clear idea about which of the options coming before the General Conference I would prefer (and so do you). I also have some clear ideas concerning possible scenarios I can and can’t live with (and so do you) but why not covenant to be prayerful, civil, gracious and above all Christian as we collectively traverse this most difficult stretch of highway?
Let’s turn down the heat, turn up the lights and let this thing play out. I have to believe the God who has brought the United Methodist Church this far will not leave us now.
-Rev. Shane L, Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.