Uniting Methodist Conference - Alternative to Purity

The Uniting Methodist Conference in early November 2017 was filled with a great number of teachings and fellowship opportunities. I heard once again the ways the Church is following and not following the three rules of the Church (Do no harm, Do good, Stay in love with God). I am thankful to have been there. 

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplas

Like all movements there are those who feel the movement is not what it should be. Some feel the movement is too bold and others feel it is not bold enough. At the heart of this tension seems not so much a desire to do what is Right, but rather to do what is Pure. Traditionalists desire that there be a purity of standards and Progressives desire there to be a purity of justice. The striving for a "purer" expression of Church is one of the most illusive and sometimes most destructive endeavors we embark upon. In our pursuit of purity we can really do some great harm to others and our own selves. 

It is clear to me the "incompatablists" on the left and right are trapped by the same desire for purity. As one who upholds unity as a core value, I find the movements to embrace purity to be misguided and unhelpful. Frankly, purity hurts. It is why Jesus was less concerned about purity than about healing. 

Purists would desire a church that is free from whatever it is they find less than pure. And if there is a blemish in the church then the blemish is to be removed. The efforts to create a pure Church ultimately lead to a Church that is the whitewashed tombs Jesus spoke against. A charge against the Uniting Methodist Movement is that centrists do not stand for anything, that they are lukewarm.

So let me be clear, centrists in the Uniting Methodist movement stand for mercy over purity (Matthew 9:13). 

The pursuit of purity in the church reminds me of the great work of Carlo Carretto. Specifically how, without calling it purity, he calls out the idolatry of a Church where purity is promoted:

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms. No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go? Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ. I am old enough to know that I am no better than anyone else. - 

I invite anyone who understands that a pure church is less a church of Christ and more a church of ego, to join the Uniting Methodist Movement.

Uniting Methodist Conference - Not Letting Ourselves off the Hook


Among the many wonderful experiences at the Uniting Methodist Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia (November 13-14, 2017), I submit this post to share a few highlights. 

First, it has become a lazy argument that Unity and institutional survivability are interchangeable. Put another way, it is argued that if you desire for Unity then you really are driven by your fear of loosing pension, health care and salary. This misrepresents the Uniting Methodists in the same way it is said that the traditionalists hate LGBTQI+ community and that the progressives believe traditionalists are racist and homophobic. All of these lazy arguments are caricatures that do not represent reality. To continue to speak to one another as caricatures is not only un-Christ like but it is mean.

Rather, the Uniting Methodist feel God is calling the Church to uphold Jesus' great prayer in John 17:

"‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

Jesus is not praying for an institution or a pension. He is upholding and elevating the value of unity in the face of pressure to easily dismiss and divide. Yes, centrists understand that those on the left see inclusion as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also understand that those on the right see the lack of following the Discipline as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also know that the both sides do not view these two justice issues as morally equivalent. Both sides view their justice issue as higher and thus morally more important. 

Just as the right and left each have a rooting in the Biblical text, so to do centrists. Everyone places a premium on the authority of scripture. To say your side values scripture more than the other side(s) is the church version of the kid saying his dad is stronger than your dad. Can we all grow up? The Uniting Methodists movement is standing up to stop dealing in absolutes

This leads me to say that one of the most heart stopping speeches that I heard at the Uniting Conference came from Rev. Vance Ross. Rev. Ross rose and stated that as an African American, he has witnessed years of systemic racism in the UMC. He cited two specific examples of how the structure of the UMC had been set up and continues to disenfranchise people of color.  Rev. Ross was quick to point out that he is not trying to equate the African American experience with the LGBTQI+ experience only to point out that he has seen how the Church has worked (intentionally and otherwise) to keep people of color in the margins of the Church. He then said that the people of color have chosen to remain in the broken Church in order to bear witness to Love.

I interpreted his comments in a few ways. First to leave the church is a position of privilege. If you can leave because you have another place to go, then you are privileged. People of color cannot even go to the store without being met with suspicion, and so their local church is a safe haven (even in a systemically racist church). Second, if people of color left then it lets us anglos off the hook to face our failures. If we don't see people of color then we can ignore them even more than we do now. To stay and bear witness to Love is to be a presence even if the system says you are unwanted. Bearing this loving witness is a position of strength that just knocked me to the floor.

Rev. Ross' comments not only deeply resonated with me but convicted me. It resonated in that his witness of Love speaks to the Jesus I know who continued to be in relationship with the ones who doubt, dismiss and abandon him. He bore witness to love in the face of accusations from those who could kill him by standing silent before them. Rev. Ross and people of color are not Jesus. However, Rev. Ross' comment hit a bass note of God in me. To break apart from others I disagree with mean that I will always be blind to large portions of my sin. And, if I separate from those I feel are doing wrong then I will not have opportunities to practice forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Rev. Ross reminded me once again of all that I need to learn and better understand in my own self. In order to become more like Christ, then I need to be in communion and relationship with those who expose in my the very things that I cannot see. Therefore, unity for the sake of unity is a shame, unity for the sake of Christ is the Church. But maybe I am remembering the song differently: 

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!

The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.

We're many kinds of people,
with many kinds of faces,
all colours and all ages, too
from all times and places.

Sometimes the church is marching;
sometimes it's bravely burning,
sometimes it's riding, sometimes hiding;
always it's learning.

And when the people gather,
there's singing and there's praying;
there's laughing and there's crying sometimes,
all of it saying:

At Pentecost some people
received the Holy Spirit
and told the Good News through the world
to all who would hear it.

Simple Insight from Economics Dramatically Changes the Church

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Noble Prize in Economics. He is the credited as one of the grandfather of the field known as Behavioral Economics. As I understand it, standard economics assumes that people act as rational beings. That is to say that if given the proper information, people will choose to act in their best interests. It assumes that if a person does not act rationally, then that person is either ignorant, inept or a jerk. Behavioral economics argues that human beings are not rational beings, because all humans often act irrationally. For instance:



  • We do not save enough money for the future
  • We will watch the whole movie even if after 15 minutes we know we will not enjoy the movie
  • We chose more often when there are fewer options than if there are more options
  • We don't go to a doctor because we don't want to know what is wrong

According to standard economics these are irrational actions.

Kahneman shared that there are two forces that drive human behavior: driving forces and restraining forces. This is rather intuitive, we do things because of our driving forces but we understand that there are sometimes restraining forces that keep us from taking action. For instance, we know we should work out more often (the driving force is that it is good for our health). However, for many the strong restraining force of children waking up at 5am demanding attention keeps many from working out. We know it is important to save money for the future, but we also have bills today to pay.

The Church, like standard economics, pay a lot of attention to the driving forces in our lives. For much of the Church the underlying question is, “How can we get people to do (insert action here)?” The Church uses tools such as preaching, teaching, begging, inspiring, as well as fear, guilt and social norms to drive people to action.

Additionally, the Church, like standard economics, has been less attentive to the restraining forces in our world.

The great irony is that the Church is in a good position to address the restraining forces because the Church has an entire language dedicated to these forces. The restraining force of sin is a powerful force that restrains us from acting from the better angels of our nature. While the Church needs to take seriously the question of driving forces, the Church also needs to take just as seriously the question. Rather than focusing on how can we get people to act, we ought to consider “why are people not already doing the desired action?”

If the Church focuses only the driving forces in our lives, then the Church will miss the mark on helping Christ in the world. The Church needs to address the restraining forces in the world and in the lives of people.

We need to address the reality that many people want to come to church, but are just too busy and tired. Many people love Jesus and want to follow him, but find biblical literalism laughable. Many people desire to have a place to belong but are turned off by checking their mind at the door. Many people want to attend a collective gathering where they are moved by music and the transcendent but cannot get on board with the concert of worship leaders.

Working with the driving forces is rational and easy, but humans are often irrational and difficult.

Difficult and irrational is the wheelhouse of the Kingdom of God

Sermons, Sermons everywhere and all the Churches did shrink

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a wonderful poem about the experiences of the "ancient mariner." Of the memorable lines there is this one:

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

Here the crew of the ship is stranded and without fresh water. They find themselves in the ironic position that they are dying of thirst while being surrounded by water. 

This poem came into my head when I came across preacher Skye Jethani's post entitled "Is it time for another reformation?" in which he examines preaching through a economic supply/demand lens. It was an interesting little read and I hope you can take the time to read it in full here.

Jethani opens by reminding that massive changes in the church were preceded by a massive change in communication technology. For instance, Luther's ideas would not have taken off as he did if not for the printing press. Likewise, the church is seeing a massive change on the heels of the advent of the internet. Specifically Jethani points out, prior to the internet, most Bible teaching required you to go to a worshiping community. Thus the Church had the "supply" of Biblical teaching and there was a demand that was met when people attend a worshiping community. 

Even if we assume that the demand for Biblical teaching has remanded constant, there is a glut of supply. Each week I listen to four different preachers through my smart phone, I read two daily email devotionals and am notified every three hours to prayer via my watch alarm. This does not count the physical books, in person interactions and other "analog" access to my spiritual practices. Jethani puts it this way:

This low demand and high supply means the market for Bible instruction has reduced the cost to virtually zero. That’s a good thing, right? Yes, unless you are a church that still expects people to pay the high cost demanded by the old model. Most institutional churches continue to make the preaching act the centerpiece of Sunday worship, and Sunday worship is the centerpiece of most church structures. An audit of virtually any Protestant church will reveal a massive percentage of the institution’s resources (space, funds, leadership) is devoted to the Sunday preaching event and its related activities and facilities. In other words, most churches have inherited a sixteenth century model that is increasingly out of step with twenty-first century realities. 

Prior to asking very poignant questions, Jethani states:

Pastors carry a Reformation mindset that sees Bible teaching as a scarcity which makes their sermons valuable, while Millennials with a digital mindset recognize the abundance of Bible teaching making most pastor's sermons, and therefore Sunday attendance, unnecessary.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem concludes with the hearer waking up "sadder and wiser" for hearing the tale of the Ancient Mariner. It is possible for us to become sadder, but may we also be wiser. 

Source: http://mailchi.mp/skyejethani/q-talk-2017-...