DBB Part 1
Disloyal as it may seem, delegates to the 2012 General Conference would do far better to read Diana Butler Bass' latest book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening rather than any of the five "Adaptive Challenge" books put out by the United Methodist Publishing House.
I make this bold claim after hearing the noted religion historian and author present her latest findings during Ministers Week at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. Dr. Butler Bass' work will give delegates a better, broader understanding of why The United Methodist Church and all other Christian denominations are losing members (hint, it's not solely because we haven't invited anyone).
More importantly, the findings she presents in Christianity After Religion will make clear that the Call to Action, Vital Congregations, the Connectional Table proposals, the Ministry Study and everything else in this vein coming before General Conference are going about change in the wrong way.
In reality we're nowhere near solutions yet, folks, and especially not by using technical number-based proposals, as United Methodism's best minds have been telling us for a year now. Political considerations aside, we're in the midst of a global spiritual phenomenon that has not yet completed its journey from what's wrong with today's institutional religion to the creation of new systems. We're a long way from that point, and putting into play any kind of new order, particularly one that focuses on institutional quantitative metrics, is doomed to fail.
As Dr. Butler Bass stressed in her Perkins lectures, moving from the first stage of "something is wrong" directly to the last stage of "let's fix it" drastically short-circuits the process of change. In fact, at this point in human history with global awareness rising every day, the peril of moving straight to fixing what's wrong is as great as a short-circuit in an electrical transformer: the whole thing can blow up on us, leaving nothing but cinder and ash.
The position of the Council of Bishops, as expressed by Bishop Janice Riggle Huie during the Perkins event, is that the Call to Action and Vital Congregations will serve as the framework for the necessary discussions. With all due respect to Bishop Huie and her episcopal colleagues, Dr. Butler Bass' findings show how wrong-headed their approach really is. As previously expressed by many commentators, Call to Action and the Connectional Table structure proposals, including the establishment of the Interim Operations Team, share the same flaws:
- They offer top-down "visionary" edicts, not collective discernment.
- They require results-oriented institutional development, not discernment from shared spiritual experience.
- They centralize authority rather than putting work in the hands of the people.
- They remove the last vestiges of denominational trust by shredding existing clergy covenants.
- They provide no protections for emerging grassroots leaders, either clergy or laity.
- They impose systems from the center, rather than allowing change to arise from the margins.
In fact, many faithful United Methodists will find it hard to value any programmatic solution put forth by General Conference, since the times are moving rapidly toward shared experiential authority rather than extrinsic edicts. As long as The United Methodist Church continues to form its life around law, e.g. the Book of Discipline, rather than the grace of shared spiritual experience, the denomination will not be able to adapt to the world in which it is to function.
It's too much to hope that General Conference will impose a moratorium on any changes to the Book of Discipline in favor of four years of prayer, fasting and spiritual discernment. But is it too much to hope that alongside the quantitative metrics of Vital Congregations an equally important set of qualitative metrics related to living as followers of Jesus Christ be installed? What's more, can delegates have the courage not to impose any radical centralized structure on the denomination while it awaits word from the Lord?
As Diana Butler Bass has discovered, hope and fear now reside in tension across American religion, including The United Methodist Church. Many United Methodists remain convinced that God's future for the church they love will not be found in counting who's in the pews or how much is in the plate. Instead we seek discernment for the future through spiritual practices that bring us all closer to God.
We keep Holy Saturday vigil between Crucifixion and Resurrection.