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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How I Destroyed the United Methodist Church

This post was written just a couple of months before the United Methodist Church General Conference in the year, 2020.

As I prepare for the final General Conference of the United Methodist Church, I cannot but reflect on why the United Methodist Church has died. What happened? So far, from the fringe United Methodist groups on the right, I have only heard that I am to blame, or more specifically, my agency, the General Board of Church and Society. One thing I know for sure, you don’t get more peaceful or wise as you near death, you get mean and angry. The voices of blame have only increased in their vitriol and rage.

But as usual, the anger and accusations of blame do not bring about illumination. They just are more examples of bad behavior in a badly behaving society. The frustrations at the impending end of the United Methodist Church have not been eased – the announcement of the dissolution has only exacerbated tensions. All sides are claiming that the other is responsible for the closure, and everyone has a reason for it:
• Too few churches have been planted,
• We have lost sight of orthodoxy,
• We have continued to discriminate against LGBT members by denying them ordination and the right to marry,
• We have done too much mercy and not enough evangelism,
• We have done too much mercy and not enough justice,
• We have done too much justice and not enough discipleship,

The list just goes on and on! The unfortunate part of any analysis as to why the United Methodist Church is ending is that at some point all of the statements have some kernel of truth. We really have not done enough justice, we really have not done enough mercy, we really have not done enough evangelism! But is that why the UMC is now officially dead?

As I reflect I feel overwhelmed by all of the voices of analysis. Instead, I prefer to think about the stories as I think they shed more light than the endless number of opinions.

I think about my friend in Texas who was a campus minister and who has a passion for men coming out of prison. His love for these men is deep and transformative and he longed to start a church with them – to walk with them as they deal with the lack of resources to reenter society, to help strengthen their marriages and friendships for when they return so that they could have a strong support network, and to love and care for the children of those incarcerated so that generational incarceration will end. But sadly, his conference did not share his passion or his vision. They did not see how his vision for a church among the recently released would become economically self-sustainable so there was no support for his vision. My friend now pastors a thriving church among the marginalized and especially among those impacted by the criminal justice system. It just isn’t a United Methodist Church.

I think about my friend in the Midwest who may be the most gifted person for ministry that I have met. She literally oozes love and compassion, patience and friendship, and those to whom she pastors know they are receiving God’s grace and love through her words and actions. I have experienced this firsthand. But sadly, she now pastors outside of the United Methodist Church because solely she is a lesbian and the UMC has deemed gays and lesbians unfit to be communicators of God’s love and grace.

I think about the many United Methodists who wanted to build a movement to fix the broken immigration system. These are people, largely outside of official denominational structures, but who are (were) United Methodists and wanted to manifest their love for immigrants into action. Church leadership was resistant to thinking outside the box and insisted that existing committees and boards within conferences and local churches were meant to be locus of all organizing activity.

The problem is that it is specifically those who are incarnated among immigrant communities who are most passionate about this issue and all too often the actions of boards and committees consisted of email lists and educational events. Email lists and educational events do not give way to building movements however. They give way to more email lists and more educational events. The suffering of immigrants continue, the boards and committees, filled with people detached from that suffering, have done next to nothing, and thus, yet another social issue has arisen with the United Methodist Church saying a lot about it, but doing little to nothing to solve it. And the immigrants and those incarnated among them have gone on to other churches and groups whose actions have matched their rhetoric.

I think about these people – and so many more – whose dreams were so clearly born of the work of manifesting God’s Kingdom on earth. But yet, those dreams came true outside of the United Methodist Church. At the same time, church leaders deemed it necessary to repeatedly restructure the church – each time of restructuring guaranteed to be the key to growth and vitality for the church.

The seven Pathways, the Four Foci, the Call to Action – which was far more about following corporate models for organization than any biblically-based missional engagement – litter past General Conferences with well-intended but terrible mistakes. The result of all of this restructuring? A lot of spinning wheels but little if any ground gained. There is greater confusion in the church and more entrenched battles for institutional control, while the dreams for greater mission continue to walk out of our doors. Rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic will keep you busy, but it won’t keep the boat afloat.

As I write this and as I prepare for the last General Conference, I write as a confession more than an analysis or commentary. I confess I became distracted, I lost my focus. I became too engrossed in the grand debate between left and right and I missed the way forward; the way of deeper missional engagement. My friends with Kingdom dreams were not just left by the rest of the church, my friends were left by me.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot my calling to come alongside the Body of Christ, to empower and to exhort, to equip and unleash, into God’s incarnational mission alongside those oppressed and marginalized. And in getting swept away by the endless debate between left and right I failed to see that those I debated hardly if ever engaged in the ministries of evangelism or biblical fidelity they so eagerly criticized for others not having. We were two entrenched sides howling at the moon.

Sadly, while I threw stones I watched so many others in the church walk away. It is a sad and lonely feeling to look back at your past and see what you could have done and didn’t do. Being filled with regrets is something I have heard others say, but it doesn’t quite capture the biting emptiness I feel. It is more of a feeling of unfaithfulness. I have been unfaithful to the church – to the Body of Christ.

If we had been faithful, we would have thrown off structural adjustments as the assured way to growth and vitality and would have focused every last bit of our resources on missional engagement: incarnationally standing by the most vulnerable in society and working for justice and shared liberation. If we had been faithful as a Church, then those of us in leadership positions would have led by venturing out into mission instead of spending our time and resources bureaucratically protecting our institutional turf. For those outside of church bureaucracies and who cast themselves as holding those bureaucracies in check, faithfulness would have meant actually practicing what they preached as well as loving and exhorting rather than demonizing and dividing.

But more than anything, if I had been faithful, I would not have allowed myself to be distracted or enticed by the endless debate that ultimately obstructed my calling to build missional movements among those crushed by the broken systems in our society. If I had been faithful, I would have spent my time building leaders who build leaders who build leaders who build leaders so that our movements are long-term and sustainable. If I had been faithful. Kind of pathetic, huh?

I used to think faithfulness to the United Methodist Church was essentially refusing to leave; standing side by side with United Methodist churches through thick and thin. But in looking at my friends who have left the UMC to pursue Kingdom dreams, I realize what faithfulness really is. Faithfulness means I should have walked away with them to help them realize their Kingdom dreams. I spent far too much of my time distracted by the endless debate with the fringe right groups, silent about the institutional protection of those in power, and paralyzed by the purging of true leaders with Kingdom dreams. I spent far too little of my time building long-term, sustainable movements among United Methodists who are incarnated among people directly impacted by broken systems.

Through distractions, silence and paralysis, I spent far too little of my time building long-term, sustainable movements among United Methodists who are incarnated among people directly impacted by broken systems. Thus, I helped destroy the United Methodist Church.

My only solace is that God graciously reminds me that his Kingdom does not begin and end with the United Methodist Church. My focus on building movements therefore is not an idea of the past but a commitment to the future. Let the Kingdom of God come on earth as it is in Heaven with or without the United Methodist Church. Just let us be faithful.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Will Real Men Stand Up (Or Better Yet, Kneel Down)?

The first time I heard about Promise Keepers, a movement for Christian men led by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, was when I was a Youth Pastor in a small town in West Texas in the early 90s. I was fully absorbed in the evangelical culture at the time and was intrigued by the Promise Keepers, at least until I attended an event in Lubbock. I was, frankly, more than a little put off by the assumptions made.

As I sat there listening to speaker after speaker talk about what "us guys" want in a relationship with God, with other guys, and especially, with women, I kept wondering who he was talking about. It certainly wasn't me. There was laughter from the crowd though, at all of the snide remarks and very clean innuendos and so I could see it resonated with at least a majority of those present.

But it didn't resonate with me, and I wondered if there might have been a few others like me. I didn't stay the entire time - I was ready to go after the first 10 minutes to be honest.

One memory I have from this event was that the Promise Keepers believed that church had become too woman-oriented and the main reason why men did not go to church is because church is too feminine. As a Youth Pastor in a small church, I could easily attest to the fact that men scarcely attended church services or events. If men did show up, all but a small minority usually were there to watch their kids perform in some church play, or they did manual labor of some kind. Things such as mission trips or worship services or Bible studies were usually reserved for women and the very few men "called" to focus on those things.

As the 90s continued, I kept hearing a growing critique from conservative friends and the groups they were part of, of the Church and of US culture in general, as being too feminine. Men were being emasculated in the media, on TV and in the movies, and especially in church, so the critique went. I remember it became overt for me when a close friend of mine recommended that a small group I am apart of that meets annually for accountability, read a book called, "Wild at Heart" by John Eldredge.

To put it mildly, "Wild at Heart" and the "Wild" franchise Eldredge has started (with other books following this hugely successful one, of course with "Wild" in each title), is focused on feeding a testosterone-heavy spirituality where real men meet a real manly Jesus who teaches them to win their ladies through reclaiming their God-given manhood, and reclaim their rightful leadership in the home and in US society.

It has been some time since I read it (and no, I did not keep a copy), but I do recall that at first, I just thought it was an incredibly stupid book, written by someone with disturbingly deep feelings of insecurity about his own manhood. The writer repeatedly stressed the differences between men and women and how men naturally are more drawn to competition, war (he repeatedly talked admiringly of guns and the valor of battle, though I do not believe he has ever personally been involved in any real battles), and romancing one's "woman" through "winning" her and showing her what a true man is.

With so much talk about competition and war, I kept asking myself as I painfully made my way through his book , "isn't this why we as men need individually to be redeemed? Corporately, isn't such a current emphasis on competition and war why society is so distant from the Kingdom that God calls into reality through the person of Jesus?"

When the group finally got together to discuss the book, my thoughts of the book as simply stupid gave way to seeing the actual danger inherent in this kind of chest-pumping, iron-fisted, male-dominance-once-lost-now-found individualistic spirituality and social ethic. For this was not just about personal discovery by men (something I strongly wish would happen far more often without all of the guns and patriarchy).

There was and is a distinct and very powerful social and ethical component to what the Promise Keepers and people like Eldredge espouse. We (men) are supposed to reclaim our God-given manhood because we have allowed society and those in the church (liberals mainly) to steal that masculinity away. Men have steadily, especially since the 60s, been emasculated.

The proof of male emasculation in a corporate sense is the presence of chaos in the world and a lack of order. More precisely, men have not assumed their place of leadership and in failing to do so, divorces are up, youth rebellion against their parents goes largely unabated, men have given in to temptations, and on and on it goes. Society is falling apart and US culture is going to hell, mainly because men have not taken leadership of their homes and in the public square.

Before I get to marital relationships between men and women, I think it is fair to ask Eldredge, if men have not assumed their rightful place in leadership, then who the heck has been running the country and all of the corporations all these years? I see mostly if not entirely, men. Men (who, like Eldredge never experienced the actual reality of battle) sent us into baseless invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Men ran Enron, Goldman Sachs, and the other corporations that have wrecked the economy and forced thousands of people out of work (which largely came as a result of men [Reagan and Clinton] deregulating these corporations and industries) so that the other men could run them into the ground.

So, we need more men taking their rightful place in charge of corporations and government? Where has Eldredge been?

The lack of appropriate leadership among men is certainly something I can agree on, but arguing that what we need is a greater emphasis on competition and war seems laughable if it wasn't so dangerous. I believe we must challenge this kind of thinking, this kind of theology, and these kinds of social and relational arrangements.

Now, in regards to marriage, I must say from the outset that I do not find overwhelming biblical support for one side over the other when it comes to whether marriage, or male/female relationships should be ordered by patriarchy or in a more egalitarian fashion. But the fact that one side cannot entirely dismiss the other biblically actually makes my point here.

The order for relationships as taught in Scripture within the family, I believe, is contextual. In other words, there is no ONE absolute way for men to act or be in relationship with other men, women, or with God. We must therefore be pluralistic when it comes to teaching what the family order should look like.

And those of us parents who have sons must be careful to teach our sons to be counter-cultural. When the culture (and sadly, the church) teaches our sons to gain their value through defeating others in competition, we must teach our sons to opt for cooperation and shared participation. When the culture and church teaches our sons to assume their position in society and the family as automatically being the head, we must teach our sons that any leadership role comes first and only through humbly serving others.

Wars will not be averted through proving our manhood is greater than the manhood of others we oppose. Order in society or in our homes will not be achieved through forced submission of women under masculine leadership. That is not order - that is repression! As God’s Kingdom breaks into human history the result is always freedom – liberation – from oppression and the opportunity for the fullness of who God has created us to be to be fully expressed.

I want my sons to be men who are secure in who they are and someone others can look up to. But I can’t abide that that must happen through defeating and trampling on others to reach that position. I want my sons to serve, to show compassion and empathy, to come alongside the hurting and vulnerable, and simply, I want my sons to love. More than anything, I want my sons to be like the poor and humble Jesus who has shown all of us what a real man is. I want that for me as well.