I have attended the last two days of the past four church’s General Conference gatherings. This global gathering of United Methodist occurs one every four years. One of the distinct methods of our denomination is that the official spokespersons and decision makers are a collective group of elected delegates, which are spiritual supported by a council of bishops and corrected by a judicial council. These three branches are similar to the structure of the government in the United States. One main difference is that our central person that is head of the church continues to be Jesus Christ.
Every General Conference receives petitions, written suggestions, to make our work and witness relevant to the needs of the world as we continue to work making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So that our mission is eternal, but our methods change as the world changes.
The General Conference heard voices of those who do not have clean water, who live in fear of violence, who experience oppression, and others voices to which the church can respond by sharing the love, witness and justice Christ models and commands.
General Conference 2016 celebrated a few notable milestones:
- 250th anniversary of John Street Church in New York City
- 200th anniversary of Francis Asbury’s death
- 150th anniversary of the United Methodist Women
- 60th anniversary of the Methodist Church granting full clergy rights to women
- 40th anniversary of members of the Oklahoma Indian Conference being granted voting rights
- 30th anniversary of DISCIPLE Bible Study
- 25th anniversary of Africa University
United Methodists forged new relationships with the Moravian Church and the Uniting Church in Sweden join the United Methodist Church in ‘full communion.” The United Methodist Church sent new missionaries from 11 countries to serve in 16 lands. The liturgy of commissioning was believed to be the first at a United Methodist General Conference.
One of the key methods of teaching and worshiping is through our music. The denomination was about eight years overdue to update our hymnal. The new one will be Internet cloud-based and print-on-demand — the first high-tech hymnal for a mainline denomination. The need for a new hymnal is to include ever growing resources to inspire worship and to ensure that our music complements our United Methodist doctrines and theology.
The General Conference of 2016 tried with words to hold on to the “United” part of the church in a time that is evident we are already splitting. The divide is a wedge of competing values between scriptural authority and ministries of justice and mercy. Just as the news of our nation’s politics is split over differing values and methods, this schism is also apparent in the heart of our church. People ask, “Do you think the United Methodist Church will split up?” At the core, we have already split.
It would seem that the discussion has been focused on the volatile debate over marriage and human sexuality, but the root questions point to the core of our understand of our role as the church, our guiding theology, and ministry with the world. The global United Methodist Church includes cultures and contexts that look at the world in opposite ways. Most southern United Methodist Churches have more members who have formerly been Baptist and other denominations than those who have been Methodist since birth. Whether liberal or conservative the church has become united in its diversity. The drama lived out in the debates might be on marriage and sexuality, but the church fighting over our identity.
The polarized assumptions are that we have one of two choices: either look back to what Jesus and John Wesley said at the start and return to our foundation or to see where the winds of the Holy Spirit are blowing in the current contexts, where our foundational principles outweigh historical limitations.There is a better way.
The fight over gender identity, God intention or self-identity, is current news in the church and the nation. But what is the role and responsibility of the church now: To correct and restore or to create and explore?
I have invest hours and hours of prayer, study and reflection and see this as a time to honestly state where we are: Sinful, separated, clouded, confused and powerless. Not the traits of the church, the present body of Christ, for our day or any day.
The healing of the church comes when we cling to Jesus instead of principles about Jesus. The wholeness our hurting world community seeks is where we are able to sit in the presence of our enemies by the grace of God and named ourselves as both sinful and grace-filled.
Renewal begins when we look at the log in our eye before we point to speck in our neighbor’s eye. As long as we focus on being ‘right’ or ‘progressive’ will we continue to be destroying one another. But when we deny ourselves and give ourselves to Christ is the ‘correctness’ we are called to become.
This past two weeks our church spent over ten million dollars to celebrate our accomplishments, fight over issues of self-identity and acknowledge the blame of sinfulness is the other guys fault. It is no wonder the church is broken. When Jesus died for our sins, the curtain in the temple separating the Holy of Holies from the people was torn and split into pieces. God works through the brokenness and invites us to cling to God first. God is where we are whole. God work is uniting.
When we busy ourselves with doing God’s work, we leave no time to do our work in God. Yes, the church is split, but the Holy Spirit is every present. I do not know what the church will do about weddings, sexuality, and political correctness, but I do know Christ is calling us to his heart. Join me in clinging to Jesus, confessing our sins and seeking the heart of God. All the rest will fall into place.