Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Living in a Post-Denominational World

You’ve probably heard the word postmodern. While I could give you a definition, it probably wouldn’t do us much good because I believe we are now living in a POST postmodern world. Some call it post-millennialism or metamodernism. For sure: we have become much more intensely fragmented and individualistic as a society than ever before. It interests sociologists because they yearn to know more about (1) who we are, and (2) how we arrived here. It confounds political scientists, politicians, and political parties because the delineation of what a “Democrat” and a “Republican” is no longer easily identifiable and has no steady platform (much to the chagrin of party leaders and politicians). And, more to my context, it frustrates church and denominational leaders because denominational labels may or may not accurately describe the adherents within. While there once used to be a few “rebels” in every denominational crowd, you’d have to work awfully hard to stand out now, because we’re all over the place. 

Because they are the denominations I know the most about, consider: 

·      What is your average Southern Baptist, person-in-the-pew’s beliefs and practices? Well, it depends.

·      What are your average United Methodist beliefs and practices? Well, it depends.

·      What is your average ______________ beliefs and practices? Well… you get the idea.


That’s just in the United States. Consider a wider worldview: I’ve been to Methodist, Church of Ireland/Anglican, and Catholic churches to worship in Ireland and England. They are very different from their counterparts in other parts of the world (and I should point out that there are significant differences between Irish and English churches in each of those traditions).


It might be fair to say that we are of SIMILAR mindset where the Body of Christ is concerned. But we find some mighty differences in places far and near. Often, two United Methodist churches in the same town may find themselves at vast variances with each other in beliefs and practices.


When it comes to denominations, annual conferences, and local churches: how and where will ultimate decisions be made about how a church organizes itself, how it identifies itself, and how it lives out its faith? Like it or not: it won’t be made by clergy, lay leaders, annual or general conferences, synods, or conventions. It will be made by people in the pews. The people who attend from Sunday to Sunday. The people who put themselves and their resources into the church offerings. The people who will vote not by a show of hands or marking a ballot, but by their feet. 


They don’t care what an institution or even a local church votes to do, because we are in a post-postmodern society that values institutions less and local opinion (namely, “me”) more. You don’t like the President, Governor, or member of Congress who is elected, you can simply say, “Not my president,” “I didn’t vote for them,” or “The vote was rigged.” That’s not my conjecture, that’s the present reality.


We American Christians, particularly we Protestant ones, may have to admit something similarly about Christianity: we are living in a post-denominational time. People have more affinity to the people they know in their Sunday School classes and the small groups that they choose to belong to than their church’s doctrine and beliefs. The words conservative and liberal have started to lose their definition and power as some who claim those words to describe themselves are not the definitions we once had for them. Even the words “traditional,” “orthodox,” and “contemporary,” are not helpful or even accurate. 


Institutional, dyed-in-the-wool United Methodists – as well as those who are not – are worrying and strategizing about a schism or split in the church. However, as the world has gotten smaller by improved (and sometimes inaccurate) information, gotten more complicated and political by a pandemic and the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, the impending split means less and less to the most important people in the church: the people in the pew. Their priorities – the people in the pew’s priorities - are not the priorities of the clergy or laity in power. The sooner clergy and laity in power recognize this, the better. Our privilege doth speakest too much.


My unofficial research in this has happened in the area of the Three B’s: Bible studies, Ballgames, and Bars. Most folks love Jesus, but they are suspicious of church and church institutions. They don’t trust conferences or caucuses. The very folks who are in the midst of church conflict, those who are championing whatever cause, are the very same folks that nominal and skeptical Christians view with suspicion and distrust. Even Jesus warned us to be aware of those who practice their piety in front of others.


What would I do in the case of United Methodists? I’d suggest starting local and working our way up instead of starting at the top and working our way down. Institutional mistrust, demonizing of individuals in leadership positions, “cancel culture” and “bumper sticker culture" will not cure what ails the local church nor profoundly affect much less change the beliefs and resolve of the person in the pew. Rightly or wrongly, most local churches are affinity-based. They like each other or they wouldn’t gather together. United Methodists might be better off being a looser connection of churches, since that is the reality already. Forcing the square peg into the round hole is something that just doesn’t work in a post- postmodern society. It certainly doesn’t work in a post denominational church. 


What about the infamous “Protocol” for United Methodists? I think we ditch it in favor of a new one: if a church wants to disaffiliate with the denomination, let them go with a blessing. If there are debts to settle, let them be settled. Some local churches will find themselves at an impasse with 50/50, 60/40 votes and will have to struggle through it… like all other things in life. A “split” in the denomination is not going to fix a conflict in a local church. 


I know that pride and power won’t allow for a “looser” association of United Methodists, and post- postmodern America is quite anti-institutional at the present. While we may be able to use church and secular law to force actions upon congregations, or may be able to entice folks to leave for another denomination, no one can provoke or prevent the vote taken with church members’ feet. Much to the chagrin of those present United Methodists and future Global Methodists, some people are going to choose “none of the above.” There are more than two doors to choose from. The typical person in the pew sees us acting more like Congress than the Church. 


If history is any indicator, it is much easier to divide the church than to multiply it. Unfortunately in the United States, the division is all taking place amidst subtraction that was already present in Christianity as a whole. The causes may seem just to the fighters, but the math is very bad. If we’re to live in a post denominational church, those who are fighting the hardest for the United Methodist or Global Methodist Church will have the worst time adjusting to the new reality.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Baptismal Vows? Obviously Optional.

We live in a country now ruled by tribalism. We are not ruled by a republic, we are not ruled by any specific religious belief: we are ruled by tribalism. We are guided by individualism, which runs contrary to the spirit of a republican democracy and is the antithesis of Judeo/Christian core beliefs.

From Founding Father John Dickinson’s 1768 “The Liberty Song.”:

Come, join hand in hand, brave Americans all, 
And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty's call; 
No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim, 
Or stain with dishonour America's name.

From the Old Testament:

I will be your God. - Genesis 17:7-8
You will be My people. - Exodus 4:22; 6:7
I will dwell among you. - Exodus 29:43-46

From the New Testament:

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. - Romans 12:4-5

So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:24-28

But these words from the Word have been largely ignored. People have and can justify anything if it helps their cause, since Satan can quote scripture too! Racism was (is) defended. Not allowing women to vote was once justified. As I shared in Sunday’s sermon, more recent major strides in acceptance and grace have not come from the brave actions of the Church; they came from secular political expediency and the loyalty of friendship. When did the stigma of divorce become lessened? When Ronald Reagan (a former divorcée) became a candidate for president. When did AIDS research begin to be federally funded? When President Reagan’s good friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS.

What institution has treated divorcées and AIDS patients like lepers? The Church. When did change happen? When a beloved politician (and those wanting to elect him) had us confront change and acceptance. In these cases change was good. It was past due. It was ethically and morally right. The people who loved Reagan and wanted him to be president had to swallow some pride and prejudice to elect and support him.

When did my friend's white grandfather begin to soften his views on other races? When his great-grandson brought his African-American fiancé to meet him. 

Well. We're not so big without our Facebook and Twitter page, are we?

Today, we find ourselves in more factions and tribes than ever before. I don’t know an institution in America free of it. Even those who claim unity under the labels “Democrat,” “Republican,” and in my circles of “United Methodist,” and “WCA/Global Methodist Church” find themselves with warring factions from within. Democrats are not united in their support of Joe Biden anymore than Republicans find unity in being Donald Trump supporters. Many who are leaving the United Methodist Church are not leaving to go to the Global Methodist Church but becoming independent/non-denominational. Why? Many reasons, but the guiding principle is, "I want what I want." 

It's my observation that the Church prefers majoring in the minors as opposed to living out the Great Commandment and Great Commission. We value individualism more than we do unity because unity means that there IS something bigger, more important, more overriding than what “I” think. “WE” is the first word of the U.S. Constitution. The Lord’s Prayer begins, “OUR Father,” (and not "My Father."). If you’re going to be American, and you’re going to be Christian, “I” isn’t the priority. “WE” is the priority. Those aren't my words, but the words of the Constitution and the Scriptures. 

In order to embrace “WE” and “OUR,” we have to take a dose of humility. Humility that our limited intellect cannot always grasp all of the wisdom in the world and most certainly cannot grasp much at all of God’s wisdom and truth. Over the years, we’ve realized that epileptics are not possessed by a demon, because someone’s child or grandchild was an epileptic, and helped us to understand that it is a biological anomaly, not an evil spirit. We realized that divorcees are not evil or “fallen people,” because someone’s child or parent was a divorcee, and helped us realize that they were part of a fallen relationship. We are starting to realize that LGBTQ+ folks do not choose who they are, because someone’s child or parent is LGBTQ+, and helped us realize that they didn't choose to be who they are, but that they have always been that way as long as they can remember. 

Self portrait by Sarah McCracken Weekes

I’m not an epileptic. I’m not a divorcée. I don’t know what those things are like, but I’ve dealt with people who have or who have children who have, and I have learned to be compassionate - not judgmental - because of their witness to me. I do understand LGBTQ+ folks don’t choose who they are, because I have a child who is such.  She can’t explain why she is who she is, but she knows that she can’t “change” it. She also knows who and Whose she is, though the church she grew up in has been slow to say that. (When she chose to get a tattoo, it was the word "Agape," in Greek letters.) The cynic in me suspects those attitudes will probably not change dramatically until we have a president (probably a Republican one) who has a gay child. Then it will be "more acceptable."

Why do we give our politicians more power than church leaders, or more importantly, Jesus? The answer is simple: where our treasure is, that is where we will find our heart. Jesus is much too radical for us who love “I” and “ME” more than “OUR” and “WE.” Until we truly accept that, and accept our baptismal vows as having priority over any other vow, oath, or pledge that we could take, we will render more to Caesar than we will to God.