Red Herrings and Other Things that Don’t Smell Quite Right


I love a good mystery.

In my humble opinion, the best movies and series for that right now are on BBC (don’t worry this isn’t an advert). There have been a few good American series (Homicide: Life on the Streets comes to mind) but generally, the Brits have us beat when it comes to writing, acting, cinematography, and most everything else to do with detective shows whether it’s Luther or Maigret or Father Brown. My favorite, hands down though, has to be Wallander. Kenneth Branagh’s moody turn as the morose, alcoholic, but brilliant investigator is one of the best overall series I have seen.

Most of these shows, even the best of them, have a general formula and in that formula is an element known as the red herring. It is usually a character, a clue, or some element of the mystery that leads the detective in the wrong direction, away from the actual perpetrators of the crime. The detective’s job is to look over, past, around, the red herring and get back on the right track. Some are easier to dismiss than others, but usually, the sleuth can sort it out.

We have been bad sleuths.

Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, the general population began losing its faith in the church. Whether it was social upheaval, internal bickering, modern philosophy, or some other reason, people began to withdraw their connections to the church. Since 1970, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has lost three million members and fallen from 5.3 to 2.5 percent of the U. S. population overall.[1] There have been studies, surveys, a push for programs, panic attacks, and old-fashioned hissy-fits over this loss.

There has also been a red herring inserted into the mix. It’s a line of inquiry that we as religious investigators just can’t let go of – the culture war. This was a socio-religious-political divide that began with theological and institutional disputes in the early 1920s but really ramped up with the Religious Right in the 1970s.[2] It proves an axiom developed by novelist Umberto Eco,

Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.[3]

Eco’s idea shows up in lots of ways and phrases, things like defending orthodoxy and resisting, evil, injustice, and oppression. Neither of these things is necessarily bad in context but they create an “us-versus-them” definition of the world around us. That’s the red herring, the idea of the enemy at the gates that must be fought off at all costs, whether you are protecting the church from liberalism or fighting others for the rights of the oppressed. We’ve created armies to fight enemies that don’t exist.

Some people would say, “Of course they exist!” “They are denying us our rights and the rights of others!” “They are trampling on our beliefs and breaking the rules we created!” All of these are extensions of the red herring created in the Culture Wars fought over the past hundred years. But again, we are fighting an enemy that exists only ideologically and, in the process, the real case has gone cold.

The issue at hand is that we have become a church that is not a church. I say that because the purpose of being a follower of Jesus is to make more followers of Jesus; we even say so in one of our nifty little mission statement – The people of The United Methodist Church are putting our faith in action by making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, which is our church’s mission.[4] But for several reasons, the great red herring if you will, we have not been about that business.

The business: we are called to make disciples. We are not called to make megachurches, not called to make denominations, not called to spout social proclamations, not called to form advocacy groups. We are called to make disciples.

And. We. Have. Failed.

We have been busy shooting each other over red herrings and failed to offer the world around us anything that resembles an authentic expression of Jesus’s teachings and ministry. If we follow through with any of the Way Forward plans to be considered at the special called General Conference in St. Louis, Mo., we will be back to square one again within a decade. That’s because the root problem with the UMC is that we are a denomination, not a church. We are making organizations, not disciples, and we are focused on protecting and preserving the institution, not on the mission that the institution purportedly represents. So, what to do, what to do?


A long time ago, I heard someone ask a hypothetical question: What if all the soldiers stopped fighting? What if the leaders had to fight each other and only each other? I think it’s an interesting question that leads to an interesting question: What if the clergy and laity caught up in the current culture war of the incredibly vocal minorities within the UMC stopped fighting the war and got back to the business of being the church, instead of waiting around for someone to define church? Our leaders have failed in their definition of what the church is and how it should function, so why don’t we define ministry for ourselves, in our context, and get back to work:

Stop waiting for people to define who to love and how to love and start loving everyone, all our neighbors, without defining or labeling them first.

Stop waiting for people to give permission to care for certain neighbors and start caring for every neighbor, everywhere.

Stop waiting for someone to tell you who Jesus is and start meeting him for yourself.

In the words of the late, great theologian Fred Rogers, “Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in this world.”[5]



[3] Eco, Umberto. Inventing the Enemy. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, p.2


[5] Rogers, Fred. The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. Family Communications, Inc. © 2003, p.63

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: