An earlier blog ("Priorities") dealt with some of the issues that most people in United Methodist pews (not to be confused with UM pundits and caucuses and extreme voices) believe to be most important issues facing our church today. Creating disciples of Jesus Christ was at the top: 39% of those polled. Sexual orientation/same-sex marriage was 11%. I'm glad that most people in the pews think that making disciples is our most important issue - it certainly is where the Gospel is concerned.
I wish everyone could be convinced of that. It seems that, based on energy, fervor, Facebook posts, blogs, and the media, that same-sex marriage and plans of separation/reorganization/schism are the most important issues facing the church.
To be sure, these more recent wrestlings (more recent in the history of Christianity, that is) with sexuality are important. They are especially important to those who feel that they are justice issues, and to be sure all of us should be concerned with sexuality and justice. But in the grand scheme of Christianity, these issues do not take precedence over the emphasis of discipleship and mission - of which sexuality and relationships are certainly a part. And in a season when our denomination is in decline, making topics other than discipleship and mission a priority when the Gospel certainly makes them a priority is to doubly neglect our baptismal call as Christians. It is akin to putting lotion on a skin cancer: you might temporarily ease the skin irritation, but you have not gotten to the root cause that needs healing.
At present, the UMC is hemorrhaging. If it were about having a definitive stance on sexuality or same-sex marriage, the Episcopal Church or the Southern Baptists would gaining members. Yet they are in decline, too.
In this season, it seems clear: The most important issue in the UMC should not be same-sex marriage. It should be about making disciples. That's the Great Commission. That's who we are.
Making disciples of Jesus Christ is primarily about hope. It's about grace. It's about truth. It's about love/ἀγάπη. If we were getting these things right, we might have the conversations we need to have about sexuality, marriage, and relationships. When we don't get discipleship and hope right, we will resort to name calling, accusations, legislation, legal gerrymandering, and other actions of distrust.
And when none of these work, then we'll take someone to court. By God. It's the American way. Others say, "It's time for a divorce." (strange language for Christians to use). In the UMC, both the left and the right have been guilty of such threats. Both sides have been guilty of violating covenant of trust and boundaries. The fact that we even define ourselves, sometimes proudly, by sides makes it difficult to trust, difficult to live together, difficult to talk. We seem to take our cues from our politicians rather than Jesus.
All which dismiss the basics that discipleship instills: hope, grace, truth, unconditional love. It seems to me that if we got discipleship right - that Jesus Christ is the hope of the world - we would get the rest right. That's my hope and dream, and perhaps a hopeful but naive one. But of this I am sure: UNTIL and UNLESS we get discipleship and hope right, we are simply playing Church and not being the Church - the hope of the world.
Some want us to subscribe to plans of separation (more accurately, divorce), schism, or unity (Jeremy Smith has compiled a good list and description of them here). The problem with schism, it seems to me, is that our history of such in Methodism is not just bad, but a recipe for disaster. Southern Methodists drafted a "plan of separation" during the Civil War over slavery (something John Wesley was staunchly opposed to). Partly as a result, despite our church standings on the matter, we are still a very white church in America. Still. Only 6.1% of U.S. United Methodists are African American (compared to 90.1% who are white).
Historically speaking, schism (plan of separation if you prefer) is a very very bad idea. Playing church, and not being the Church, is not something God will bless. The world certainly doesn't need ANOTHER denomination... or two... or three. The fallacy is that people believe if the UMC splits it will be a 50/50 split. Opinions aren't split that evenly and go beyond an either/or stance on "the issue." I share the opinion of others that it will be more like a 30/20/10/20/20 split. Everyone will want to take their piece of the pie. People forget that before the North/South split over slavery, the Methodist Protestants split off in 1830 over the episcopacy.
Politics won't solve what ails the UMC - it will only cause more harm than healing. General Conference won't solve it (which is precisely why some are beginning to give up on General Conference). Our attitudes about discipleship and hope will help solve it. Grace will help solve it. Love/ἀγάπη will help solve it. Playing church will not. Before anyone can say, "We've tried that," it is obvious that we haven't - because we don't have the fruit as a denomination to prove that we've tried it.
What gives me hope is seeing what some individuals, local churches, conferences, and bishops are doing. Despite what our general church is (and isn't) doing, folks are living by and in hope. Many UM's are living by faith and proclaiming hope, and it seems obvious that the 80% in the pews are hungry for it. There are local churches who are making disciples and being generative in doing so. There are districts and conferences doing the hard work of retasking mission and ministry. There are bishops and superintendents developing strategies and enabling lay and clergy leaders instead of just being personnel managers. These are the things that matter, because it looks toward the THINGS that matter: Faith, hope, love.
With apologies to G.K. Chesterton: Discipleship has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. We get discipleship right, we get everything else right.
My prayer is that we'll get it right.