Methodism Transformed from the Outside In

St. Andrew UMC, Plano Texas

Let’s Talk! Attached below is a pdf copy of the first of three presentations shared at the sessions of the North Texas Annual Conference on June 14, 2021. I have no doubt that many will come to the question of “Does United Methodism Have a Future?” with a set of expectations that will be unsatisfied by these presentations. This is the dilemma of speaking to a situation in flux and an institutions under stress.

For many years, and continuing to this day, some believe there is a formula, a key, a right set of practices or doctrines that will solve the question of the declining influence and relevance of Christendom in our world. However, any fair-minded reading of our context and the complications of modernity, requires an admission that the old domination of Western religious institutions is rapidly passing away. No religious group is immune from this loss of influence and apparent relevance. (The largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists, are in the midst of dramatic decline in membership and attendance.)

Sutter Creek UMC, California 2021

United Methodists congregations come in many shapes and sizes (nearly 30,000 of them in the U.S.). We have multiple hospitals, child care, social service and education facilities across the nation. For example, over one hundred United Methodist institutions of higher education are scattered across the country. They are marks of the vision and commitments of past generations. Even so, United Methodism does not have the influence or cultural reach of the past. United Methodists have been growing in other parts of the world (Philippines, Africa and elsewhere; even in these global places growth is slowing).

For many years the mistaken belief was that the conservative or traditionalists were the growing center of North American Christianity. Some sophisticated social scientists who wrote about this ascendancy of “the Evangelicals,” as an inevitability. Sadly, United Methodism, was too often led to believe that aping the theologies and practices of these conservative groups would be our salvation. United Methodism was often distorted and focused in ways that were not true to our theological DNA. As it turns out now, taking a longer view, it appears that all denominations and theological camps now have declining numbers and influence.

I believe there is a faithful way forward for Christianity and the expression of it known as United Methodism waiting to unfold. These talks are NOT a blueprint for how to rebuild a denomination; rather they are in invitation to other sojourners to walk together acting in ways that would seek to follow the lead of Jesus.

Here is the first presentation. I look forward to dialogue in response to these thoughts.

Saving Soul and Soil

Saving Soul and Soil

Regenerative Imagination: Toward A Sustainable Faith Ecology

The coronavirus came to visit and our nation was not prepared.  Our cultural, religious, political and medical systems were not ready.  Most institutional leaders, (the generals) were, and still are, “fighting the last wars” – wars among themselves and with those beyond.  Writer Anne Lamott put it thusly, “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.”[i] 

kernzatli
Field of Kernza at The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

The battles around COVID-19 were over who would survive and have control in future. Shall we favor efforts to save lives or livelihood?  The irony, of course, is that at the very time we needed to practice new habits of cooperation and imagination, we turned away and sought to blame and shame others.  We are not ready, as yet, to affirm regenerative and sustainable faith understandings. Uniformity has been mistaken for unity when diversity is required for health.  What’s the old line? “There is a love of power rather than a seeking after the power of love.

The same might be said for the struggles going on over the care for our natural environment.  I believe there is a correlation between what has been happening in our faith ecology and our natural world ecology.  Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina Kansas speaks of homo sapiens in the twenty-first century as a “species out of context.”[ii]  A leader of the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson points to our scramble to use energy-rich carbons, produced by ancient sunshine and trapped in the ground, to ease our labors and provide comfort.  He speaks of this as our “carbon imperative” or as his friend and co-author Bill Vitek suggests, rather than our human-nature, we would better speak of our “human-carbon nature.”[iii] 

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and following, starkly reveals that Christians, particularly in North America are a faith group out of context, a forlorn people lacking a sufficiently clear understanding of our “human-spirit nature.”  People of faith have much to learn from the natural systems of our world.  More, we have a contribution to make to reducing the destructive patterns of our overly greedy human-carbon natures.  Might we contribute to offering a sustainable way forward?  This is to suggest there is spiritual dimension that might better assist us in becoming who we were created to be.  Jackson quips “The only way to save our souls is to save our soils.”[iv]  The inverse is also true: “the only way to save our soils is to save our souls.”  Both are required.

My faith tradition, which I have called “home” for some seven decades, is United Methodism.  We are one of the modern expressions of faith shaped out of a movement begun by John Wesley in the 18th Century.  As the pandemic in 2020 came our way, United Methodists were unprepared.  We were engaged in contentious internecine struggles.  There were impulses to splinter around theological, ideological and cultural differences.  We were distracted from the best of our human-spirit nature work.  We were not ready to be at our best.

BloomingtonFUMC
First United Methodist, Bloomington, IN

I am aware that Methodism is but one instrument in the great faith symphony known as Christianity.  There are other faith traditions that might offer spiritual imagination toward a sustainable human future.  In my perception of this spirit orchestra, I do not think of Methodism as the oboe, nor the timpani.  Nor would we be in the trumpet section, nor the piccolo.  No.  I place United Methodism in the string section, perhaps we are among the cellos or the violins.  Our tradition offers up the soaring beauty of personal experience and the connective music that links belief and action together.  Or, if you prefer country music or Western swing, we are like the fiddle and steel guitar and sometimes sing the harmonies in the contemporary telling the story of Jesus.  In other words, while we are not the whole of the ensemble, Methodism can offer needed harmonies to the witness of contemporary faith.   We might can now prepare for the next pandemic – or other treat to a more convivial and flourishing future for humanity.

In thinking about the future of Christianity and United Methodism in North America, I have seen the links between our natural worlds and faith worlds ever more clearly. I will be sharing many of these insights here and looking forward to listening and learning with others. Some of them will be found in talks I am giving at the North Texas Annual Conference sessions on June 14-15. Watch this space.

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[i] As writer Anne Lamott put it “Our poor country has been torn asunder. I await the rain of frogs.” In Sarah Meyrick’s interview with Lamott, “Anne Lamott on Unflinching Hope in Dark Days,” Church Times, April 16, 2021.

[ii] Jensen, Robert, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability, Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2021, p. 31

[iii] Ibid, pp. 27-28.

[iv] Ibid, p. 2

Does Christianity Have a Future?

The North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is where I will be speaking on June 14-15, 2021. Originally the invitation was for June 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. I have been asked to make three presentations on the future of United Methodism in the United States. In preparing, it became clear the topic was larger than the future of one denomination. There is a loss of relevance for many institutions that has occurred over recent decades – United Methodism is but one example. Mainline Protestantism has lost its formerly dominant place in society.

It is my plan to post the presentations I am making here over several days, beginning on Monday, June 14. There are no easy solutions presented; although there are some examples of places where new imaginative ministry can be seen. We are at a time in the history of this nation and the church when there are no easy answers. I believe that for Christians today, “our work is one hundred year work.” As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute says, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” 

The paragraphs below are from the introduction to these talks. My hope is to encourage some dialogue on this site and in various other venues.

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INTRODUCTION: DOES UNITED METHODISM HAVE A FUTURE?

Recently, a friend on an early morning walk, asked if I believed United Methodism had a future?  I have heard this question often over my ministry, especially recently. This time, however, I heard the question with surprising urgency.

Weaver Chapel United Methodist Church, Lafayette, Indiana

Does United Methodism have a future…or in highfalutin language, “Can United Methodism be Sustainable and Regenerative?” I don’t have a crystal ball. Still, I came all this way, so I am obliged to offer some perspective, some lessons from history and signs of hope. Mostly, I invite us to remember the invitation Jesus makes to the disciples in every age, simply this, “follow me.”  Let’s walk together a bit, and consider the question of United Methodism’s future.

  1. Our Context and Its Complications

As we consider our context, let me begin by sharing with you my answer to my friend. “Yes, I have no doubt that United Methodism has a future.” As to what our mission, witness or structure will be, here is a word of hope – we can choose the pathway forward. I believe our work is 100-year work. Or, as my friend Wes Jackson puts it, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” 

Bishop Grant Hagiya prays at California-Pacific Annual Conference worship, 2019

Researcher David W. Scott notes what is happening in the UMC is part of a larger cultural trend, shared by other denominations; a trend that cuts across race, class and theology. He writes: “U. S. Methodists (and U. S. Christians generally) are fooling themselves if they think that they can solve a cultural problem with organizational solutions.” Scott concludes, “I don’t know what the adaptive solution to the cultural problem of U. S. religious decline is.  I wish I did.  But I am sure that understanding the nature of the problem is the first step in finding the solution.”

Let me propose that our most hopeful options involve stepping away from long held assumptions about power and influence within the dominant culture. Douglass John Hall [Slide 5] speaking about Ecumenical Protestantism in North America, wrote: “Christianity has arrived at the end of its sojourn as the official, or established, religion in the Western worldThe end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.”  By stepping away from the easy assumptions and practiced patterns of the dominant culture, a new beginning for Christianity and Methodism is possible.  It can surprise, and perhaps, even delight us.

An overview for the three talks: 1) We consider what it means to be Rooted and Grounded in Love – our core identity as United Methodists. 2) We will consider being: “Connected to Bear Good Fruit,” and 3) “Communities of Restoration and Joy.”  Our scripture focus will be on Ephesians 3 and John 15.


The text for these talks, including citations will be provided beginning on June 14th.

A Necessity of Democracy: Listening

Listening: This morning, having coffee with a friend, we reflected on the challenges faced by institutions in our nation just now. In government, education and religion — just to name three — old patterns of participation or civic engagement seem threatened. The former taken-for-granted connective tissues are frayed or seem to have disappeared. My friend reminded me of the comment made by television host Larry King who said, “I never learned anything while I was talking.”

It occurred to me then that I had done a lot of talking already on this morning — not to mention all the talking I had done over these seventy-five years. It is the occupational hazard of being a preacher, I guess. I remembered the time I preached a sermon during Holy Week on “Silence” that lasted for 25 minutes! However, I am not alone. Too much talking and too little listening is a national malady. Much of the talk these days seems to be done in “ideological bubbles of agreement” which are dangerous to our body politic.

Years ago I mused about the importance of parking lot conversations after church or meetings of the city council or school board. I don’t romanticize these, I have seen angry disagreements unfold among the pickup trucks and hybrid cars. On occasion, I have even seen small physical altercations — nothing serious, but troubling none-the-less. I guess this is better than such incidents occurring in the sanctuary or city council chambers. Mostly, parking lot conversations I have witnessed have been done in good humor — like the teasing between Indiana University and Purdue University supporters. Okay, that’s not a good illustration, but you know what I mean. What’s the old saw, “Can we disagree without being disagreeable?”

Our ability to listen, even when we disagree, is perhaps more important than our ability to speak — although the freedom of speech and legal protest is also essential. My point is that we seem to have lost an appreciation for all three; and more specifically, when we don’t listen our words and actions often miss the mark necessary for true communication. I recall with both sadness and a chuckle the denominational gathering of United Methodist clergy for what is referred to as a “clergy session” when a microphone was requested so that a concern could be expressed. The bishop and other leaders seemed surprised, nonplussed really, they had not planned on needing to listen to anyone in the gathering. Only a generation prior, in such gatherings it was normal to have dialogue and disagreements expressed at such gatherings. Something was lost over a period of a little more than a decade. That something was “listening.” Listening so that participation and faith in the institution might be stronger.

My spouse and I have participated on many boards, nonprofit and otherwise, over the years. We have noticed that in such meetings, there has been a loss in understanding some basic elements of healthy listening and decision making. While Roberts Rule of Order is not the only way, or perhaps the best way, fair-minded decision making can occur, it is often the case that today many meetings of boards occur without the basics of an agenda, knowledge of how to make a motion or call for a vote. Sadly, we are out of practice at the local level whether in civic board meetings, the church or in politics.

In our nation and world, listening seems undervalued, even ridiculed. Witness the criticism of President Biden for his willingness to take time to listen and try for a bipartisan approach to certain challenges we face. I admit, it has seemed like a fool’s errand, even naive, to think that Mitch McConnell who has made his reputation on blocking any and all things that he can’t control. I don’t deny that the filibuster in the Senate, as it is currently practiced, is harmful and I do think that, after listening, it is time for some tough votes to support voting rights or infrastructure improvements. The listening has been done and action needs to come… but it is important that listening was done!

So, two basic suggestions: 1) pick up the phone and call that person with whom you disagree and listen. Perhaps there is too much of a divide just now. Perhaps, if appropriate, you might still say something like “I appreciate you.” 2) Next meeting you attend where decisions are made, listen to see how you can in small ways improve the democratic process. It might be as simple as saying, “Could take a moment to set out an agenda, maybe set one now or plan on it next meeting?”

Retooling our listening abilities are a necessity if our democracy is to survive in any and all of our institutions, large and small.