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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fighting for the Soul of the UMC, Part 1

"I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd."
John 10:16

“…I believe in the holy catholic church…”
The Apostles’ Creed

The United Methodist Church is struggling.  Here’s why I think it is critical that pastors and leaders in local churches work hard to revitalize the UMC at the denominational level.  I will offer a second installment with some strategies that may help lead our denomination to be more effective for the Kingdom of God. Read it here.

I have a deep passion for helping people grow closer to God.  It is the passion that drove me to leave a promising career as an engineer and become an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church.  I’ve never regretted my decision.  I’ve been truly blessed.  There’s nothing more important or rewarding for me than serving as a pastor in a local church.

I’ve served as an appointed pastor in the UMC for 18 years.  My ministry has focused mainly on the local congregation because it’s where the bulk of hands on, frontline ministry takes place.  Though I have been faithful to the United Methodist connection and worked some at the district and conference level, my heart has always belonged to the local churches I’ve served. 

I suspect this is the attitude of most UM pastors and congregational leaders who serve in a local church.  We tend to let people in the district and conference offices focus on the denomination.  We stick to ministering to the families in our neighborhoods and communities.  There is more than enough work to keep us busy.  The tremendous pace and scope of our duties in the community is astounding.  We have precious little time to divert to denominational concerns.  We’ve entrusted those matters to others who are more passionate about the institution so we can focus on our local ministry setting.

The problem right now is many denominational leaders in the UMC are pushing ideas that are fundamentally at odds with the biblical values of most pastors and members in the local church.  Even though our special called general conference voted for a traditional plan that reaffirms an orthodox, biblical teaching about human sexuality, many bishops and other denominational leaders have vowed to disregard, disobey, and obstruct the decision.  So even though the elected voice of our denomination has spoken, it seems most of our denominational leaders in the US are vowing not to abide by the decision.  It’s very frustrating.

I have spoken with pastors and church members who are fed up.  Some are ready to throw their hands up and walk away from the denomination.  They say things like, “Who cares about the denomination anyway?  Who needs them?  Let them have the declining mainline institution and we’ll just go do church in our congregation the way we’ve always done it.” 

It would be a big mistake to abandon the denomination to progressive leaders bent on forcing the United Methodist brand to promote unchristian doctrine.  There is way more at stake than you may think—especially if your primary focus has been (like mine) the local ministry setting.  We all need to prayerfully consider why orthodox Christians should stay and work hard to renew the United Methodist Church.

Connectional vs. Congregational
United Methodists are connectional because we believe strongly the Church Jesus Christ established is more than just one congregation.  It includes all faithful Christians in all places throughout all time.  We believe we can be more effective at fulfilling our mission to make disciples of all the nations when we work together. 

United Methodists follow the example of the earliest Christians in the New Testament who were also connectional.  Local congregations worked together for the good of the worldwide Church.  The Apostle Paul collected funds to help the persecuted church in Jerusalem.  Early Christians conferred with each other to determine orthodox Christian doctrine and speak together as one voice throughout the whole world.  At the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, Church leaders had their own “General Conference” and decided Christians throughout the whole world didn't have to be circumciced but should “…abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood.” 

Congregationalism is a different option that some Christians choose (like Baptists).  They believe a congregational governing model is the best way to be faithful Christians.  Each congregation makes their own rules; they are not beholden to any other local church; there are no Baptist general conferences to tell local congregations how to believe or act or what to teach.

However, United Methodist pastors and congregations who consider pulling out of the United Methodist connection aren’t choosing congregationalism for theological reasons. The core value behind their decision is often: “I don’t really care what the Church Universal does as long as I can do things the way I like in my own church.”  So if you are thinking of pulling out of the UMC, ask yourself a very honest question:  “Am I leaving so I can truly further God’s Kingdom or is it really so I can just maintain my own little kingdom in my congregation?” 

Saving the Lost
Even if you plan to leave the UMC for a different connection, the stakes are still very, very high.  Millions of souls hang in the balance.  The UMC is a global denomination with some 12 million members.  That’s not an abstract number.  It represents 12 million living people that God loves so much He sent His only begotten son to die for them.  The United Methodist denomination has tremendous influence over the 12 million souls in our care.  If the denomination as a whole abandons orthodox Christian teaching, it will mislead millions of people in this generation alone.  And that doesn’t even account for the damage it will do to future generations across the globe who will be influenced by a corrupted UMC.

If evangelicals are serious about saving souls according to Christ’s command, we need to do all we can to save the denomination.  I understand the passion for the local churches that leads pastors and members to think the local congregation is the only thing we need to worry about.  However, we need to check our attitude whenever we are tempted to turn our backs on 12 million people just because we are more interested in the hundred or so members of our local congregation.  God’s Kingdom transcends our little flock.  It includes millions across the globe who rely on the United Methodist Church to be a trustworthy, biblical witness for Jesus Christ.

Weariness is No Excuse
Many people are tired of fighting.  I’m tired of fighting too.  However, I find new strength whenever I consider what I’m fighting for.  Jesus never said the Christian journey would be easy.  However, He did say in Matthew 10:22, “And all nations will hate you because you are my followers. But everyone who endures to the end will be saved.” 

Few find it hard to fight for something they really care about.  If an intruder was trying to break into my house and harm my family, I would fight to my last breath to defend the people I love.  Well, the Church is our family and the denomination is our house.  In fact, UM elders and deacons are members of an annual conference, not a local congregation.  If we are to be faithful to the Church, we must be faithful to the denomination, not just the local church. 

Conservatives are often frustrated when progressives don’t uphold the Book of Discipline.  However, conservative elders are also guilty of breaking their vows when they leave the UMC.  At ordination, elders promise to “…be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting and upholding its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline,” and “defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word…”  Conservative members of local United Methodist congregations promise to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church” when they join the church.  It would be one thing if the denomination fundamentally changed our doctrines to be contrary to God’s Word.  Then, perhaps, we might be justified to leave.  However, General Conference has affirmed our long standing orthodox Christian teaching about human sexuality.  We have no justification to leave.  

But people say they are tired.  What have we endured that is so wearisome?  Perhaps Americans have grown too soft.  Christians in the past were tortured and burned at the stake for their faithfulness to Christ.  Hebrews 11:36-37 says, “Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword…”  Faithful United Methodists outside the US face similar persecution today.  And yet, it was our brothers and sisters from Africa and Asia who fought so hard to make sure the UMC passed the Traditional Plan.  Has our faith grown so weak in America that we can’t even endure a little scorn from a fallen world?

Our brothers and sisters around the globe helped US conservatives win the 2019 tug-o-war at General Conference.  Are conservatives in America now going to be cowards who walk away leaving those same faithful Africans and Asians holding the rope by themselves to be dragged away by US progressives in 2020 and beyond?  God forbid.

Conservative evangelicals in American need to pray hard that God would help us “run and not grow weary”.   There are still many miles ahead and many battles left to fight.  Jesus never promised it would be easy, but the struggle is worth it.  For the sake of God’s Kingdom, we need to “press on” and “fight the good fight of faith”.

A Vision for the Future
We also need a clear strategy to renew our denomination.  While pastors and congregations have been focused on the local church, others have been working to reshape our denomination into something that doesn’t represent what we believe.  It’s time to wake up.  It’s time to work hard at the denominational level to ensure the UMC offers sound biblical teaching and godly leadership.  It will be an uphill battle, but the reward will be a denomination that truly reflects God’s Kingdom values and supports local congregations on the front lines of the Christian faith.

Imagine a denomination truly united in our beliefs and doctrines that has a clear vision about what it means to make disciples of Jesus Christ and how to do it.  Imagine a denomination full of variety and diversity, but truly united about foundational doctrines that are non-negotiable.  Imagine a denomination where you don’t have to secretly wonder if your colleagues in ministry really have a heart like yours as you take their hand for the shared work of God’s Kingdom.  This dream can become a reality if we are willing to work for it.  

It’s time for a gut check.  Are you willing to be faithful to the vows you made?  Do you have the courage to work openly to renew our denomination so we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  Are you willing to work for the glory of God where He called you, in the United Methodist Church? 

I am.

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