Okay, this is just weird. Holding a Jurisdictional Conference (JC) with no bishop to elect and only 25 nominations to general church boards and agencies is bizarre. The rhythm, drama, and impact of JC is greatly diminished — and there’s virtually nothing to do (unless you serve on Nominations or the Episcopacy Committee). Yes, we will learn who our new bishop will be in Wisconsin, but exactly how long does that need to take? We are investing a lot of time and resources in a meeting that should only take a day/day-and-a-half tops. Oh, sure, we could have had a bishop retire or ascend, and then an election would have been necessary, but that didn’t happen. We are here (in Akron, in the North Central Jurisdiction) looking a little dazed and confused.
And that makes this an apt metaphor for our denomination as a whole at the moment: knowing that we have some vitally important work to do, but not being clear about what it is, how to do it, who needs to be involved, and what outcomes we must produce. As I have said many times before — our current problem is not one of structure, polity, economics, or membership — we are suffering an identity crisis.
Methodism and its compatriot antecedents share a fundamental core — missions, evangelism, and social justice/reform. These three “legs” support the stool of our faith, but in the past century we broke the stool, pulling off the legs and brandishing them at one another as weapons. Evangelism as a tool builds Christian community and spreads the faith. Evangelism as a weapon is an irrational bent toward “church growth” and getting more and more of “them” to want to become more and more of “us.” Missions as a tools is a core value of Christian service engaged in by all disciples as they grow into their place in the body of Christ. Missions are our outward and visible signs of our inward nurture and development. As a weapon, missions is institutional empire building through projects and initiatives that allow a few to do for the many, and that redefine mission “work” as what we do for and to other people instead of with them. This is the basest form of works righteousness. Social reform as a tool is the way Christian community transforms the world for the better; bringing hope and purpose to the poor, marginalized, oppressed, abused, dismissed and discarded in our world. As a tool, it is the gospel brought to life, but as a weapon it is reduced to ideology and gets criticized as Socialism at best and Communism at worst. In the world of weaponry, it becomes positions and platforms and issues for debate. It dehumanizes people into labels and categories and turns everything into a win/lose fight.
The dis-integration of these big three — Evangelism, Missions, Social Justice — forces us to choose sides and preference one aspect over the other. Regardless of your place on the theological spectrum, fragmented Methodism allows you to forget living the fruit of the Spirit in order to do battle with your brothers and sisters. Instead of cultivating loving and compassionate community that heals a broken world, we can debase ourselves by fighting in hateful and destructive ways about human sexuality. Instead of reaching a broken and suffering world, we can build bigger buildings and augment them with sophisticated alarm systems to keep “sinners” out. Instead of equipping our existing membership to be authentic servants of Christ we can collect masses of inert customers seeking to be served and satisfied. Instead of getting over ourselves and serving a higher purpose we spend millions to strategize our survival for another few years. And then we scratch our heads wondering why the world sees us as irrelevant.
People want solutions to these problems — a prescription to follow to make things better. Well, we have to stop looking for someone else to solve this. Our denomination is about institutional preservation at all costs, and the simplistic, knee-jerk response is to get more people and launch more churches into a system that can’t keep the people it has and doesn’t do very well with the churches its got.
So, it is up to laity and clergy leaders to say no to the next “healthy church whatever” that pretends to be about vitality and is about nothing but numbers. It is up to clergy and laity to establish core standards of participation in a community of faith that holds every person accountable to prayer, service, spiritual formation, faith sharing, and stewardship. It is up to the clergy and laity leadership to lead, not to blindly follow. Doing what others have already done is not innovative leadership; it is sheepish lemmingship. The time has come for leaders in the church to teach people how to BE the church — equipping every person to share his or her faith, to use his or her gifts to serve those outside the church, to make sure every person has a foundational knowledge of scripture and theology, to cultivate personal and shared spiritual discipline as a baseline expectation for calling oneself a Christian.
In other words, we need to stop paying lip-service to the Christian faith and we need to take it seriously. We need to reintegrate evangelism, missional service, and social justice as the minimum standards of our faith life together. And no one will do this for us — we have to do it for ourselves. We need to lead instead of waiting for someone to come along whom we can follow. We cannot afford to live so focused on a future we wish we could have at the cost of a present God has already given us. We need to make the most of now. Otherwise our faith resembles a jurisdictional conference where most participants wander around asking, “So, what are we doing here?”