A Struggling Quest for Identity #GC2012
I thought about writing my reflections on the General Conference of the United Methodist Church 2012 here. I actually did write my reflections on it, for a class. Below are not those reflections. I figured that anyone reading this likely read my tweets and Facebook status updates throughout the conference’s ongoings and is also likely unwilling to listen to me rant about something that to them seems trivial. So, instead, I thought I’d present what I see to be an overarching problem with the United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church, as it stands today, has one large problem: it doesn’t know who it is.
The UMC (then the many forms of the methodist movement and the Methodist church) was both fortunate and unfortunate to have grown up around the birth of America. This means that values based on personal rights and liberties were, from the beginning of American Methodism, engrained into who the church was. To this day, this influence can be seen. The UMC still practices ways of democracy. The UMC constantly bickers about fairness and control of leading ecclesial (church) authorities. Let’s face it: the UMC is a post-Enlightenment church heavily influenced by both the good and bad of American Christendom. It is not the Catholic or Anglican church and, to a very certain extent, is very proud of this reality.
The Methodist church in America has been through trial after tribulation after trial after crisis. Methodism in America has dealt with slavery. It has dealt with civil rights. It has dealt with feminism. It has dealt, and is dealing, with homosexuality. In fact with the exception of homosexuality, the UMC has been a leading charge in America, seeking to bring personal liberties and rights to all. It’s as if ‘all means all’ has been written into a little bit of Methodism throughout America’s narrative.
But, recently, Methodism has lost its cultural footing. As a church that once pressed the westward American movement, it struggles now to gain or maintain a foothold in what it used to have significant influence on: culture.
Simply put, the United Methodist Church is not culturally relevant anymore. It’s not even, as a whole, socially relevant anymore. My diagnosis, again: it doesn’t know who it is.
We’ve seen this before. After Steve Jobs left Apple (mid 1980’s), the company began a downward spiral. It produced tons of products. It ventured into commercial areas it had never been. It tried new things without worrying about quality. It forgot the mission the Steves had set out for it since the beginning: make good products. Jobs used to tell this story about when he got back to Apple (late 1990’s) where he asked the employees that had stayed why they had done so. Their response? “I bleed in six colors.” (A harkening to the old Apple logo) They, evidently in the minority, could still sort of remember who Apple was.
Jobs used to tell this story alongside one about how he preached the future of Apple to his employees once he returned. He said that it became clear that if it was a zero-sum game and for Apple to win, Microsoft had to lose, it was clear that Apple was going to lose. “Apple didn’t have to win!” Steve preached. “Apple had to remember who Apple was!” Jobs always said that the only thing Apple focused on was “making great products.” That’s it. If Apple was under Jobs’ leadership, they would be about making great products and little else. Their identity was found inside of making great products. That’s who Apple was.
To say that the UMC is not in the same place would be an effort to evade the truth. Little is wrong with the Wesleyan theological heritage of the UMC. Little is wrong with the connectional heritage of the UMC.
What’s wrong with the UMC? It doesn’t remember who it used to be. It has, because of its love for tradition and unwillingness to move and groove, forgotten that it used to write the American narrative before other groups. It has forgotten that it used to write the culture instead of the culture writing it. It has forgotten that it used to be full of innovation. It has forgotten that it used to be evangelical. It has forgotten that it used to be vital.
The UMC struggled at General Conference over the last two weeks to make any progress toward the future. It chose (because of a host of reasons) to maintain a structural format based off coroporate models that are now half a century old. It chose, in large part, to ignore the essential part of its future: young clergy. With the strange exception of ‘guaranteed appointments’ for elders, the UMC made very little progress in reshaping who it is and, because of this, must suffer the consequences over the next four years until issues can be brought forth once again.
News flash: four years is too long in today’s world. Change was needed and it was needed fast. And it failed, motion after motion, amendment after amendment.
The UMC used to find its identity in strong Wesleyan theology that pushed the culture and innovated before it could. It was able to articulate new, sometimes controversial, ideas better so that the culture understood them in light of Christ rather than in pure Enlightened thought. Somehow, as a church, we have managed to live more into the Americanized version of who we are rather than the Christian version.
The church has simply forgotten who she is.
I fear it will get worse, too, as we become a more global church. As our surrounding culture begins to deal with what it means to have a global economy, it is faced with ways to run the economy. It chooses the easiest, cheapest route almost every time. What a time for the church to lead the way! Perhaps then we wouldn’t struggle with the ethical violations! But, the church, forgetting that it used to shape the way, does not. And instead of the world realizing who the world is, the world simply thinks its way is normative. How sad a day.
I feared that change would not come at General Conference 2012. I feared the the church would be stuck in a rut because of its inability to remember who it is. I had little idea however about how bad it would actually be.
‘Where’s God in this?’ you might ask. God’s here. Have no fear. The Spirit is moving somewhere. But I don’t believe United Methodism to be any sort of sacred thing. It can die. The Gospel will continue on. The Spirit will continue to carry it. The travesty is that the UMC actually has some interesting things to say about the Gospel.
If only it could remember how to say them.