Public Domain Photo
The Spanish artist El Greco painted this portrait of the Apostle Peter between 1610 and 1614. The painting is now housed in the Museo de El Greco in Toledo, Spain.
I’m comparing the United Methodist Church (UMC) to Peter—one of the great disciples of Jesus. In some ways that’s good, and in other ways that is not-so-good. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, Peter is the one who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah—the Christ—that’s good! Just a few sentences later when Peter objects to Jesus speaking about the cross, Peter is chastised by Jesus because he “has his mind on things of man and not things of God,”—that’s not-so-good….
In this respect, I think the UMC as a denomination is a lot like Peter. We know who Jesus is, but we prefer the glory of following Jesus to the cross that is on the path where Jesus is leading us. I think we have set our minds on human things, and not the things of God. I think having our minds on the wrong things is causing anxiety in our beloved denomination today. Sometimes our anxiety is subtle, and at other times it paralyzes us. I think we can learn from Peter’s experiences.
Today in the UMC (like several other denominations) we are wringing our hands and there is frenzied activity because we see our numbers shrinking. It seems that we long to retrieve/preserve a golden age of church, when “everyone went to church.” Back then, the way to get the biggest market-share of people was to have excellent facilities and great programs. These facilities and programs were more effective than the competency of ministers and the commitment of congregations. But, retrieving or even preserving this golden age is proving difficult. It seems a great shift has occurred, and “everyone” no longer goes to church. Many things are different now—too many to list—and it doesn’t really matter what is changing. What matters is what we are doing….
What are we doing? It seems that the UMC is doing all the right things—from a human perspective. If you are reading this blog, and you attend a United Methodist church, see if you recognize any of these in your church:
- We seek efficiency—we reorganize, streamline, and do more (or at least as much as we’ve always done) with less.
- We look for information—we study trends and demographics; we attend workshops to learn about generational characteristics/differences.
- We value experts—we hire consultants to tell us how to market our churches to religious consumers.
- We target our audience—we “think young” and we pin our hopes on younger clergy who can relate to our target demographic.
- We market ourselves—we have our successes made into commercials and publish them so that others see our glory.
Ah, our glory—the glory of following Jesus. That’s where Peter comes in…. We’ve gotten so caught up in the glory of following Jesus, that it stuns us—we can hardly believe our ears—when we read this scripture and we hear Jesus chastise us—“you are setting your mind on human things and not the things of God.” I think the UMC, as an institution in America today, must come to grips with the glory of the cross of Christ.
Peter finally came to grips with the cross of Christ. At the end of the gospel of John we see Peter and Jesus again. Jesus asks, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15) The church as an institution is starting to hear Jesus say, “Do you love me—more than your institution; more than prestige/power/advancement; more than the way things were in 1950…?”
There was a time when Peter was just thinking of saving his own skin, and he failed Jesus. He didn’t give up, and on that shoreline with Jesus, he received his restoration. I think the UMC is ready to quit trying to save its own skin, and to receive its restoration from Jesus. I think the UMC is ready to do whatever it does next out of love for Jesus.
What will we do next? Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Here is one of the keys—feeding Jesus’ lambs. This is what Jesus is calling us to do. That is what success is! Some of us are still defining success the same way we did in the last century—by the number of satisfied members, satisfied ministers, satisfied denominational hierarchy. Others of us have envisioned our particular cause/specialty as the destination where Jesus is calling us.
Today we are awakening to the fact that our success is in feeding lambs—whatever that looks like! Today we are just now awakening to the fact that success might not be found in how big our denomination is, but it might be in addictions defeated, families staying together, children at risk being given hope, needs being met because of sacrifice—not because there is glory in it, but because the cross of Jesus demands it!
And, Jesus tells Peter, “Follow me.” (John 21:19). If we are to be like Peter, where will Jesus lead us? Most likely, it will be a place and a way that the UMC in America hasn’t been in a while. Most likely it will be a different path than the one we know so well. I believe that Jesus will guide us if we will listen. But, I think a divine-human communication problem exists when we disregard the calling of Jesus upon our denomination just because it doesn’t lead to institutional preservation, or when we disregard the call of Jesus because he doesn’t affirm our cause/specialty.
Let’s bring this home. Here at Faith UMC we are getting serious about listening to Jesus say to us, “Follow me.” Over the next several months we are going to be discerning the call of Jesus as a group—all of us—through prayer, study, and discussions with each other. In our conversations with each other we will be listening for the word of the Lord. We will listen for Jesus as we pray, study, and have conversations centered around three very important questions—who are we; who is our neighbor; what is Jesus calling us to do?
We will gain a vision of where Jesus is calling us. I guarantee you that if our vision is that of the Lord, then we cannot help but be successful—Jesus will ensure it! Success might include a big institution; it might not. But I am sure it will be filled with transformed lives transforming the world—it will look like the lambs of Jesus being fed.
That is this church—can you see it? This is already a place where it is safe to be who you are; where families that were coming apart are strengthened; where addictions are being overcome; where at-risk children receive hope; where people in need are receiving help through the sacrifice of this family of faith.
That is this church—we must never forget it! We must never fall into the easy way of setting our minds upon human things and not the things of God. We are living, learning, and leading for Jesus!
The Rev. Tony Hoefner serves as pastor of Faith UMC in Orange, TX,