What’s after the crossroads?

What happens when the Council of Bishops does not act?

That was my first question upon reading the Methodist Crossroads web site with its call for for the following actions at and after the Council of Bishops’ fall meeting:

  • The Council’s commitment to promote, defend and uphold the church’s biblical teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman;
  •  A commitment from all active bishops that they will fully enforce the Discipline with respect to those clergy members who disregard church teaching and choose to preside at same sex services;
  •  A strongly worded directive to all annual conferences and jurisdictions not to circumvent the Discipline’s teachings regarding same sex services or the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals;
  •  A public statement noting that those bishops who have stated they will use their influence to prevent trials as a means of just resolution for clergy who preside at same sex services have been censured by the council; and,
  •  A commitment from all bishops that when trials occur they will appoint as counsel for the church individuals fully supportive of the church’s teachings and the necessity for organizational accountability.

Given the membership of the Council of Bishops, I cannot imagine the body will satisfy the desires of those who wrote and endorse the Integrity and Unity statement.

In the FAQ on the website, the authors propose the following if the Council of Bishops fails to act on its request:

If the Council is not able to restore unity with integrity, then we believe the healthy and mature response is to admit we are so deeply divided we are no longer one church. And the church would do well to seriously explore the option of amicable separation. Again, we hope it does not come to this. But no one believes it would be productive to continue an unresolvable debate that hurts feelings, damages persons made in the image of God, and fosters cynicism throughout the church. It would be better for us to honestly admit we are no longer united. Remaining together would only sow confusion and undermine our witness and ministry to the world.

Lambrecht: We have seen the future

Tom Lambrecht, vice president of the United Methodist renewal group Good News, argues that the places where United Methodism is dying the fastest are precisely those places at the forefront in disobedience to church discipline and doctrine regarding sex. This, he writes, gives us a glimpse of the future that progressives would create for the denomination.

Since the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Annual Conference appears to be at the forefront of advocating new moral teachings by the church, according to the hypothesis that this represents the Methodism of the future, the conference should be showing remarkable growth and vitality.  Instead, we see a stunning drop in membership and worship attendance.

In 2003, the PNW reported 60,495 members.  Ten years later in 2013, they report 46,209, a decrease of over 23%.  The membership loss in 2013 was 2,465 alone, nearly double the yearly average over the last ten years.  So the membership loss is getting worse, not better, even in light of the church’s permissive stance regarding sexuality.

Worship attendance was even worse.  In 2003, the PNW reported 26,421 in average worship attendance.  Now that number is 18,505, a decline of 30%.  In 2013 alone, worship attendance declined 1,663, an 8.2% drop!  The decrease in worship attendance in 2013 alone was more than double the average annual decrease over the last ten years, so again, the loss is getting worse.

This kind of argument, of course, does not address the justice arguments made by United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the connection. Also, I think a fair reading of the progressive argument is that the denomination is doomed to lose younger generations if it maintains its historic doctrine, so it would be interesting to see if there is any evidence to support that claim. Eroding membership in progressive conferences and jurisdictions may be older generations, which while nothing to cheer does not directly address what I take to be the progressive argument.

Nonetheless, the numbers Lambrecht reports are sobering and certainly give us cause to wonder about the best road forward for a denomination that strives to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Hauerwas: Care vs. discipline

The church seems caught in an irresolvable tension today. Insofar as we are able to maintain any presence in modern society we do so by being communities of care. Pastors become primarily people who care. In attempt in such a context for the church to be a disciplined and disciplining community seems antithetical to being a community of care. As a result the care the church gives, while often quite impressive and compassionate, lacks the rationale to build the church as a community capable of standing against the powers we confront.

– Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom

Learning to talk about God

One of the things I have noticed while taking Clinical Pastoral Education is how difficult it is for so many people talk about their faith and about God.

I’m not sure if people lack the vocabulary, the experience, or the comfort needed to converse about matters of the spirit, but for so many people the awkwardness of it all is profound.

Ask them about family and the words come easily. As them about work, and no problem. Ask them about their illness and they can give you details about their symptoms, their diagnosis, their treatment, and their hopes.

Ask about God, and most people are reduced to babbling cliches or sitting in silence.

It makes me see the value of those class meetings where people not only were invited each week to talk about their spiritual life but were able to hear others do the same. It must have built up a vocabulary. It meant that people could answer the question, “Do you know Jesus?” without stammering.

Recovering this ability to talk about the life of the spirit without empty cliches or stammering silence would help bring life to the church.

What are some ways we can do that?

Whitefield or Spong?

A pastoral colleague made this observation in passing recently. He noted that more entrepreneurial and risk-taking congregations tended to be ones with more “conservative” theology, by which he meant theology that looked a lot more like John Wesley and George Whitefield than John Shelby Spong.

I’m sure this is not a universal truth. I’m sure there are some Spong-loving congregations that do all kinds of new and risky things to reach new people. But I do wonder how true the the observation might be.

It does seem logical that a group of people who share a mission that places a strong emphasis on evangelism — as most “conservative” churches do — would be more likely to say results matter more than the methods by which those results are achieved. You could expect that to foster a spirit that favors more risk-taking.

What has your experience been? Do congregations that make evangelism a center piece of their mission tend to be more open to risk-taking?