It’s one of those “I missed that in history class” historical facts, but the 1918 flu pandemic had a major effect on the how and when of the end of World War I. Soldiers were sick. People couldn’t get to work. Major infrastructure collapse was occurring in many countries. Some historians note that the Treaty of Versailles was rushed through: the American delegation was opposed to German reparations, but the delegation (including President Wilson) was mostly disabled by the flu when negotiations were taking place, so some things were done hastily while other things were not done at all. In short: the war was called (as the insurance companies say) on account of “an act of God.”
We are seeing a repeat of that in the present. While thankfully less lethal than the 1918 Flu, COVID-19 is changing the landscape of everything… including the United Methodist Church.
I’m not a futurist, but I believe that the present pandemic is speeding up what we already knew to be true about denominational/connectional churches: denominations and communions mean less and less to people, and the local church means more and more. Part of this was the reality that most discipleship and mission has always happened at the local church level. But now we are living into a reality few of us “die hard” United Methodists wanted to acknowledge: for 95% of the people who are called United Methodists and sit in the pews, what goes on in the district, annual conference, General Conference, General Agencies, etc… affects very, very little of their lives. It may mean a lot to the clergy and “professional laity," but when compared to the general membership of the UMC, these are less than a thimbleful of the people called United Methodists.
The effect of district, conference, and General Conference activity on local churches is going to make even less of an impact than it ever has before. World travel, with its quarantines, self-isolation requirements, and country-to-country prohibitions and more-stringent visa requirements, all make having a General Conference very unlikely until a vaccine is available. Given the present American environment regarding increased reticence to even TAKING a vaccine if/when it is developed, how many countries are going to even be open to coming to the U.S., much less having US come visit their countries? I am fairly sure General Conference 2021 will not meet, and I don’t know when in the near future another world-wide gathering can and will take place.
Another reality is finances: we were warned at General Conference 2004 by Sandra Lackore, who was the then-treasurer of the General Conference Finance & Administration: “We have a structure that we can no longer afford.” Where the Episcopal Fund was concerned, every jurisdiction was advised to cut one Episcopal Area. No one did. Few general agencies made changes. Annual Conferences had to begin to cut campus ministry and camping ministries. In the years since, most conferences have decreased the numbers of districts and staff. Unlike the U.S. government, the UMC cannot print money. Our own annual conference has drastically cut its budget. Right now, the power, influence, and opportunities for Christianity are going to come primarily from a local church, not a district, conference, or General Conference.
All of this sounds tragic… until you look at things objectively and realize: the local church is moving ahead. We still have church every Sunday, whether in-person or online. We are financially in the black. During the pandemic, we’ve actually had people JOIN the church. We’re moving forward in this crazy season, seizing new opportunities and ministries.
Our present conflict may end with a whimper instead of a bang.
While I still believe Methodists are a connectional church and a connectional people, our “connection” is different in this pandemic season. And, being more local than ever before, we will look more at our local context in how we do ministry and mission. Just as there is truth in the phrase, “All politics is local,” there is also truth in the phrase, “all ministry is local.” To be sure, the world IS our parish, but it starts in our local church and branches out. Disciples are made in local churches, not districts or conferences. We can do MORE as a larger body, but we START in a local church.
What I think this means for the future is this: If I was a person in the pew, I would base more of my understanding, witness, discipleship, and sense of belonging in a local church rather than any annual conference or general conference. We live in a world with more options, opinions, and permutations than ever before, and no two local churches are alike. If we are “waiting to see” what our annual conference or the General Conference is going to do where doctrine and matters of sexuality are concerned, we may be in for a long wait: none of us know how long we will be affected by the pandemic, and all of the issues that confront us as a denomination are not going to be solved by a mass ZOOM conference call in the Spring. I am fairly certain that our denomination will not be in a place to meet and make such decisions in the next four years.
God can use anything – even a pandemic – to speak a word to His people. His word in this season may be one that we don’t want to hear, but nonetheless can’t argue with: wait. For sure, this season is (re)teaching us:
• God has sovereign control over things. Our control is at best an illusion.
• The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. We are not our own.
• We are utterly dependent on God – and God will not be rushed.
• The psalmists and prophets made it clear: sometimes, God slows us down to patience and silence so that we might listen.
• We wait for our salvation – it doesn’t come on our demand.
“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” – Isaiah 40:31
Some will say, "We've waited too long." Unfortunately, God may be reminding us, "You don't know what a long time is."