Taking a razor to the Book of Discipline

Tom Lambrecht has written a series of posts in response to the resolution of the complaint against retired bishop Melvin Talbert. Here are links to Lambrecht’s posts: 1, 2, 3.

Near the end of the third post, he writes this:

The supreme law of the church is no longer the Discipline or General Conference; it is individual conscience. Personal judgment is now the ultimate arbiter of our faith and practice. We are no longer a connectional church, nor even a congregational one, but an individualistic one. Every person is now clamoring to do “what is right in his/her own eyes.”

I wonder what would happen if the Council of Bishops got together like a group of Thomas Jeffersons with razor blades and cut out of the Book of Discipline every line and paragraph that they would be unwilling to enforce or insist upon.

I wonder what the resulting book would look like.

I wonder if it would not be a more honest and more effective book than the one we have.

Education for our mission

Our Book of Discipline outlines the process of carrying our our mission in ¶122.

  • proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome, and gather persons into the body of Christ
  • lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ
  • nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace such as Wesley’s Christian conferencing
  • send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel
  • continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ

I was reviewing this list as I was working on plans for adult Christian education for the two little churches I serve. What I notice is how little these steps explicitly include knowledge acquisition. You can see some need for learning in order to nurture people in Christian living, but by and large the mission here is not transmitting a lot of knowledge.

Of course, this is not the only paragraph in the Book of Discipline, but I am struck by the paragraph that is self-consciously explaining how to accomplish our mission how little images of traditional Sunday School or Bible Study come to my mind.

It has me thinking about what kind of Christian education is necessary to support this process, and how I might offer that.

Does this sound familiar to us?

collins.bookcoverJim Collins’ newest book looks like a must-read for all of us in the UMC or local churches that struggle with decline.

I have not read it yet, but his previous book, Good to Great, is brilliant and well-grounded, so I expect no less from this one.

Here’s a summary of the five-step process of decline that is included in the Amazon.com page for the book:

Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril

Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation

Stage 5: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death

Can long-time UMC folks see these steps playing out over the last 40+ years? Where are we now?

Cross or windsock?

Orange_WindsockIs our symbol the cross or a windsock?

The United Methodist Church has never had the uniformity in its teaching and doctrine that more hierarchical bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church. There are good reasons not to seek to be that way. But, I do wonder if our church can be said to have any “teaching” at all.

What are the issues that inflame us as United Methodists? Homosexuality and to a lesser extent abortion. Yes?

Would you be surprised to find out that the nation as a whole is fairly evenly divided on these issues?

A Gallup poll this week found that the country is split 51%-42% on the issue, with Pro-Lifers for the first time in the majority after being a 50%-44% minority last year.

A Gallup poll last year found the country equally divided at 48%-48% on the morality of homosexual relationships.

In other words, the church is little more than a mirror of the society around us. The issues that surround us, set the agenda for the church. This may seem natural and beyond controversy, but the Gallup survey last year included data that I found telling.

The United Methodist Church has a clear teaching in its Social Principles about gambling. I will quote: “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government.” Not a lot of the mushy and equivocal language you find straddling the divide in our social teaching on abortion and homosexuality.

So, given this strong and clear position, why is the United Methodist Church such an anemic voice on gambling? Can anyone deny that gambling is widespread and growing in its influence. Just this week the state of Delaware voted overwhelmingly to expand sports gambling in the state.

The Gallup poll may suggest one answer. It turns out Americans have little problem with gambling. By a 63% to 32% spread they say gambling in morally acceptable. In the face of such popularity – even within our own pews – is there any doubt that the church is weak on gambling because the society is so strongly in favor of it?

Or look at the death penalty. The Social Principles say the church opposes capital punishment because it denies the power of Christ to redeem human beings. How vigorous is the church in teaching this? How often do we even talk about it at General Conference or Annual Conferences? Could it be because 62% of Americans reject the church’s position on the death penalty?

Let us not even discuss divorce. In a church ripped apart by debates about what marriage is there is barely a squeak about divorce or pre-marital sex. Society has spoken. We dare not quibble.

The overwhelming impression I get is that the church is little more than mirror of the society around it. The issues that are on the public agenda are reflected inside the church. Where Americans are divided, the church is divided. Where America is not divided, the church is silent, even if the majority swings in direct opposition to the supposed position of the church.

I am not holding myself up as a paragon of courage on these issues. My own preaching and teaching have not heavily engaged any of these issues. I am a coward, too. But I wonder whether anyone finds this situation troubling. Or are all these “teachings” just fluff and nonsense anyway?

Growing from 90 to 60

After Talbot Davis told me that Michael Slaughter was one of the most influential pastors in the UMC, I thought I should find out who he was. I’d heard of the church he serves, but not him.

Doing the standard Google search, I found this interesting interview he did in 2000. In it, he talks about being assigned to this little country church with 90 members as his first full-time appointment.

So, when I came in 1979, I was the first full-time pastor. We had an annual budget of $27,000, 90 people, and I, in my 27 year-old naivete, I was determined that I didn’t have time to play church, but that my life had to be given to true Kingdom work. That’s winning the lost and setting the oppressed free. I believed that everyone who named the name of Jesus was a minister. I was not going to be a chaplain, to come and serve and take care of the church. I was going to equip the church for the sake of ministry. That’s all I knew. I had been in Campus Crusade for Christ in college and the whole idea was the multiplication of cycles. I came out of a kind of a very “First Church of Frigidare” United Methodist upbringing where I didn’t have any kind of relationship with Jesus. But I had a really transforming experience at the University of Cinncinnati as a college student. At CCC, I discovered that we were here to make disciples. That became my ministry paradigm. So our church quickly grew from 90 to 60. And I think that anyone who understands the revolutionary movement of Christianity knows that you’ve got to get smaller before you get bigger. I think that’s a constant. In the 21 years I’ve been at Ginghamsburg, we’re constantly losing people.

I find this a striking example and model. It reminds as well of a story Will Willimon tells about a pastor who preached his church down to about a half-dozen members before it started to grow up again. I find Slaughter’s story helpful because – like so many pastors – he is not starting a church from scratch, but coming to a long-standing church and figuring out how to start doing actual kingdom work there.

Read the whole interview. It is quite interesting and gives you a real feel for Slaughter’s personality. Here is one more snippet about how he found a committed core who helped him build up a church within a church.

In the first three months while I was preaching, I begin to look for people whose hearts were strangely warmed. And I began to talk about the radical nature of being a follower of Jesus and God’s intentions for the community of Christ, preaching out of the book of Acts. What is this community supposed to be, what does it mean to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, what does it mean to have a missionary mindset versus a consumer/customer? Because, man, our members get confused on that- they think they are the consumer/customer versus the missionary. So, you can spot those people out in the congregation who are getting it and hearing the voice of God. You see them taking notes. So I went to about nine or ten people and I said, “Carolyn and I are going to start a group in our home on Wednesday nights.” This was going to be revolutionary because the godfathers and mothers of this church didn’t want the church to be changed.