I live in a red state. When I say a red state, I mean that during the presidential election in 2016 when the polls closed at 7:00 pm local time, the pundits and talking heads on the various cable news networks immediately declared it won for the current president before there was even one percent of the vote counted. Only seven times in the last one hundred years has my state voted something other Republican and the last time was for Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
It is not the only such state with this kind of record, others across this land have similar voting records and predilections. Contrary to this trend in my state, other states have become or have pretty much always been blue states, their records reflecting the opposite voting pattern and being equally consistent. On either side of the aisle, the consistency of leaning one way or the other leads to states and regions following certain predictable patterns, easily allowing a pundit to say with relative certainty how they will vote.
This applies to the denomination I am a part of as well. Look at the voting record of the people in a state or region and generally, you can say how they will respond to theological and social issues in the church. At the moment, the issue of LGBTQ marriage and ordination dominates the discussion at conference level meetings, citing social justice and hermeneutics and loving neighbor and adherence to vows taken. In the past, the issue was civil rights for African Americans and others of color (still is for that matter), women clergy, baptism practices, slavery, and a host of other distractions to argue with one another.
I used the word distractions intentionally in the last sentence because I see them being used, unconsciously perhaps, as distractions. Not that they are not worthy causes or issues that need to be addressed, but I feel that these are being addressed to the exclusion of something very important: the mission. According to the Book of Discipline, the UMC.org website, and practically every piece of United Methodist literature in existence says that the UMC exists to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. According to an article on umc.org published in 2015, “For the last 10 years, General Council on Finance and Administration statistics show, United Methodist worship attendance in the United States has decreased on average 52,383 per year…Between 1974 and 2012, the U.S. church lost 18 percent in worship attendance. During the same period, House noted, the number of U.S. churches shrank by 16 percent, the number of conferences by 19 percent and the number of districts by 21 percent.”
Currently, we are spending a great deal of time and money transporting people from all across the globe to meet as part of the Commission on a Way Forward while people in various caucuses (WCA, Good News, Uniting Methodists, RMN, etc.) dig in to wait for the outcome. While we are digging in, so to speak, I hope we might consider a few things that have crossed my mind of late.
First, why are we panicking? It may sound naïve to some or down right ostrich-like to others (I promise I am not sticking my head in the sand), but I believe that regardless of the outcome, the average parish church will continue being the average parish church. Sure, the outcome might affect a few people in congregations who have a particularly strong reaction to such things, but churches by and large are organized around the idea of community and those communities stay intact for the most part, through pastoral changes, denominational rulings, and politic shenanigans. The community is the core of the local church to focus on the community itself, lean into activities within and without that build connection between the congregation members and those outside the church walls.
Second, what is the mission? If we believe that our goal is to make disciples for the transformation of the world, then we make disciples. Too often, I believe, the political and social world we live in has greater weight on our mission than the words of Jesus himself. If we can simply get back to finding ways of loving God and loving neighbor in selfless acts of communal love and kindness, I believe we can find a better expression of Christian community. People who are hungry and naked and without shelter do not care what party you voted for when you are feeding them, clothing them, and sheltering them. People who are lonely, isolated, and imprisoned do not care if you are trying to Make America Great Again or see us as Stronger Together when you are spending time with them and meeting their emotional needs.
Finally, render where rendering is due. When Jesus speaks of taxes saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”, I think you can apply it beyond taxes to church and state issues in general. I’m not saying we should live one way as Christians and one way as citizens of the country, far from it. The religious supersedes and influences the political. What I am saying is as Christians, I believe the separation between the two should place greater weight and importance in the Christian life lived out first. Living out the mission should be the priority and if and when it leads us to political action, we take action but not the other way around.
Is this my answer / an answer to what is going on in the UMC and the church in general? Some of it (some of it may even be a stream of conscious rambling). What I hope is that greater minds than my own will read this and engage in conversation about what it means to get back to the local parish as the focus of our efforts. Does that mean political action? Maybe. Does it mean isolation as a church? No, that’s antithetical to the mission. It does mean, I think, that the focus needs to be back on the parish and the needs of the people, not the politics of the land.
Please comment. I’d love to have some conversation on the topic.