Archives for January 2014

When the Bureaucracy Gets in the Way

One of the sad stories in today’s United Methodism is the story of growing and vital churches and their pastors leaving the denomination. One recent example is Central Waterside Church of Pensacola Beach, Florida. It’s pastor, Jack Kale, was an elder in the UM Church and the Waterside Church was a campus of the nearby Gulf Breeze UMC, a church of 4,300 members. That campus left the denomination and became a stand-alone congregation.

In an interview with The United Methodist Reporter, Kale mentioned several factors that led to his and the church’s exit from the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference. “Our vision of starting beach-bar type churches up and down the coast was not embraced by the district in which I served. The UMC church planting process is laborious and prohibitive.”

This same complaint was echoed by other pastors who have led their congregations to leave the denomination. Often, these are entrepreneurial type pastors who find the whole United Methodist system too constraining. As Kale put it, “I would say that overall UMC structure is so big that it has lost its ability to adapt and move with the culture. Apportionments are the currency of the UMC, not changed lives.”

Our process of organizing a new church is somewhat cumbersome. It requires the consent of:
1) The bishop
2) The cabinet, including the district superintendent in whose district the church will be located
3) The district board of church location and building
4) The annual conference board/committee in charge of congregational development
5) If the new church is to be planted from an existing congregation, obviously that congregation must consent as well

Annual conferences may place additional requirements on the process for organizing a new church, including establishing the minimum number of members and other criteria. Often, other United Methodist congregations in the area are consulted, which can result in “turf battles” when a new church is seen as a threat.

All of this process is in marked contrast to how churches were planted during the early decades of Methodism in America. Local and itinerant preachers were expected to add preaching points and start Methodist class meetings as part of their regular weekly rounds. All without much supervision, and certainly not the approval of the bishop. John H. Wigger’s book, Taking Heaven By Storm, contains the account of Jacob Young, who in 1802 took on the task of forming a new circuit along the Green River in Kentucky. “Young devised his own strategy for evangelizing the region: ‘I concluded to travel five miles, as nearly as I could guess, then stop, reconnoiter the neighborhood, and find some kind person who would let me preach in his log-cabin, and so on till I had performed the entire round.’ … On most days Young managed to find a place to preach. Several times he found groups already gathered, eagerly awaiting the rumored appearance of a preacher. On other occasions he was aided by local preachers who had settled along his route. Wherever possible, Young established new class meetings to carry on in his absence” (p. 21-22).

Wigger explains, “While itinerants were expected to stay within the bounds of their circuits and to keep the appointments made by their predecessors, the culture of Methodism demanded individual initiative. Ezekiel Cooper’s circuit notebooks reveal that he never made exactly the same circuit twice. Like all Methodist preachers, Cooper exercised a great deal of freedom in choosing where he would preach, omitting places where he met with an unfriendly reception and adding others where prospects were more encouraging” (p. 27).

What a difference between the “culture of Methodism” then and now. Today, pastors are prohibited from “arbitrarily [i.e., on their own initiative with permission] organiz[ing] a pastoral charge” (Discipline, ¶341.3). Indeed, pastors are prohibited from even holding “a religious service within the bounds of a pastoral charge other than the one to which appointed without the consent of the pastor of the charge, or the district superintendent” (¶341.4). Of course, it is often difficult to say what constitutes “the bounds of a pastoral charge.” Especially in a community where there are two or more United Methodist congregations, there is not a geographical boundary that distinguishes a charge. These rules appear to be a relic of a small-town church, where there was only one congregation per community.

What can we do to recover the culture that “demanded individual initiative?” How can we make the UM Church hospitable once again to entrepreneurial personalities?

Do United Methodists Believe in Continuing Revelation?

As we continue to engage in theological controversy over the church’s teachings on human sexuality and other matters, one common refrain that pops up is the claim that God is doing a new thing today. God is revealing new truth, and we are to receive that truth and act upon it as a church.

The questions raised by this claim have to do with what is called “continuing revelation” or “progressive revelation.” The claim is that God’s revelation to humanity did not stop with the book of Revelation, but continues through the centuries, as we gain new insight into God and God’s will for life. In most cases, those who believe in continuing revelation claim that these new insights and new understandings can even contradict the teachings of Scripture. Thus, our new understandings about homosexuality can, in this view, make the Bible’s teachings about homosexual practice obsolete.

It is commonly accepted that there is progressive revelation within Scripture. Genesis 1 doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about God and life. What we see throughout the pages of the Old and New Testaments is an unfolding of spiritual truth, as the biblical writers revealed greater insights and understanding. In most cases, later understandings do not conflict with earlier teachings, but clarify and refine them. So for instance, there are hints at various places in the Old Testament that people will be raised from the dead at the judgment day. But a full understanding of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is set forth in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul and Revelation.

The scriptural warrant for progressive revelation within the Bible is found in John 14:25-26, “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Usually, this is interpreted as a promise to the eleven apostles that the Holy Spirit will work through them to remember and record the teachings of Jesus and to reveal the truth that is needed. It was this promise to the apostles that guided the early church in designating only those writings believed to come from the apostles as Holy Scripture. (Paul got in on the promise late because he saw the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and during the time he spent in the wilderness before his ministry began – see Galatians 1:16-17.)

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 3.10.35 PMThe church believed that, when the last apostle died, the canon of Scripture was closed. In other words, there would be no more writings bearing God’s authority equal to Scripture after that time. The book of Revelation was placed last in the New Testament, concluding with these words, “If anyone adds anything to [the words of the prophecy of this book], God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life …” (Revelation 22:18-19). Although these words relate specifically to the Book of Revelation, the church applied them to the entire Bible, believing that nothing should be added or subtracted from the Biblical revelation as it was found and codified at that point.

The claim today, however, is that the Holy Spirit can teach and reveal new truths that go beyond and even contradict the teachings of the Bible. We must recognize that such a claim is not in accord with United Methodist beliefs. Our Confession of Faith puts it well when it says, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Article IV). The Articles of Religion contain almost identical language in Article V. These articles leave room for theological speculation and greater understanding of the teachings of Scripture and how they apply to contemporary contexts. But they specifically rule out any doctrine or understanding that is not revealed or established in the Bible as being something that United Methodists must believe.

Our doctrinal standards thus rule out the claim that, although the Bible teaches that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will, we have a new understanding today that means we can disregard the teachings of Scripture. One of the marks of the true church is where “the pure Word of God is preached,” (Articles of Religion, Article XIII)—not where theological speculations are taken as God’s revelation or where “modern” understandings supplant ancient doctrines.

The Bible is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). We must base our beliefs and teachings on the solid foundation of Scripture or risk being cast adrift on the ever-changing currents of human culture.

A Conflict of Worldviews

We continue to see an escalating conflict in The United Methodist Church over the issue of homosexuality. However, as many have noted, our church’s teaching on homosexuality is just the presenting issue. The divisions in our church go much deeper, affecting many of the core issues of our doctrine (deity of Christ, atonement, resurrection of Christ, authority of Scripture, etc.).

I have had an interesting window into those deeper issues lately, as a number of Wisconsin clergy have been exchanging opinions on our annual conference clergy email list. I would like to quote a number of the comments there, not to indict individuals, but to illustrate the deeper divisions that exist.

“’I identify as Christian and reserve the right to define that as it applies to me,’ that is how I speak of myself these days, if needed.”

In other words, there is no objective definition or description about what it means to be a Christian. Anyone can define that any way they please, and anyone can call themselves a Christian. In the same vein, anyone can call themselves a United Methodist and define that however they like. We have no objective shared identity.

“It seems to me that Anselm’s theory of atonement theology has made God a blood thirsty, punitive, child abuser who decided to kill his first son to forgive his other children’s sins and then sends people who don’t buy this flawed doctrine to hell.

“I agree with Albert Einstein when he said, ‘I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation.’” (emphasis original)

These remarks hearken back to the “Re-Imagining” controversy that rocked the church in the early 1990’s. One of the doctrines explicitly rejected there was the doctrine of atonement. “Re-Imagining” theology is alive and well today in United Methodism.

“I also agree with Thomas Jefferson when he said, ‘St. Paul was the first corruptor of Jesus’s religion.’ Perhaps it is because St. Paul made the religion OF Jesus religion ABOUT Jesus.”

“Philip Gulley said, ‘I argue against the deification of Jesus because of my admiration of him. I believe his promotion to divine status contradicts the Jewish faith of Jesus and ultimately encourages behavior inconsistent with the ethic of Jesus.’”

In other words, Christianity isn’t about Jesus. I think the early church would be shocked to know that. And the “deification” of Jesus contradicted his own self-understanding. Never mind what the Gospels report Jesus as saying about himself, as well as his miracles. (Oh, wait! Those didn’t really happen.)

“Thomas Jefferson said, ‘The clergy converted the simple teachings of Jesus into an engine for enslaving mankind and adulterated by artificial constructions into a contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves…these clergy, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ.’”

I don’t know when Thomas Jefferson became our doctrinal authority. After all, he is the one who cut out of his Bible all the verses relating to miracles or the divinity of Jesus Christ. I guess he knew better than the biblical writers who Jesus was/is and what true Christianity entails. What floors me is the attitude of the clergyperson who would quote Jefferson as attributing to the clergy (including himself?) the motivation of enslaving others and gathering wealth and power unto themselves. How could anyone with that view of the church possibly remain in the church, much less serve as an ordained pastor?

Perhaps the situation is best summed up by this comment:

“We know what the other side believes and why. We still disagree. That is not due to a lack of logic by one side or the other. It is due to the fact that we operate out of different assumptions of how the world works, and ought to work. We have different worldviews. This means different definitions of God, Church, justice, sexuality, Biblical authority, grace, moral foundations, etc. We logically reach different conclusions (positions) because we start out in different places (assumptions). “

It is no wonder that we have such deep and irreconcilable differences in The United Methodist Church. We are operating from different worldviews, using the same words but with completely different definitions. If we were to wave a magic wand and resolve the dispute over the church’s teaching on human sexuality, we would soon find that other doctrinal issues would come to the fore. Right now, those other differences are camouflaged by all the “noise” of the argument of sexuality.

These comments make one wonder where the Board of Ordained Ministry was when these people were accepted into ministry. On the other hand, how could candidates take the vows of ordination, while disagreeing so deeply with the church’s doctrine? And if a clergyperson’s beliefs have “evolved” into something different than what our United Methodist doctrinal standards teach, where is their integrity to acknowledge that fact and withdraw from our church? Unfortunately, many boards of ordained ministry are controlled by persons of more “progressive” (and sometimes even non-Methodist or non-Christian) theology. They allow others who believe this into the church because they themselves believe this way.

Those who think we should give up fighting over the biblical teaching on sexuality by “agreeing to disagree” are fooling themselves. Such a “resolution” would not bring peace in the church.

What do you think?

Where We Stand Today: Quadrennial Membership Changes in the Central Conferences

In my last post, I surveyed the membership changes in the United States over the last quadrennium, compared to the previous quadrennium. We saw that membership decline in the North stayed the same from one quadrennium to the next. However, the rate of membership decline in the South and Western United States worsened in this last quadrennium.

What is the situation in the Central Conferences—those areas of United Methodism outside the United States?

Africa

The most obvious fact about membership numbers in Africa is that they are not reported in a timely fashion. Some of the annual conferences go four or eight years or even longer before updating their membership numbers. The chart below illustrates the problem.

Central Conference

Number of Annual Conferences

Number Updating their Membership 2009

Number Updating their Membership 2012

Africa

9

1

9 (includes 4 new conferences)

Congo

14

13 (includes 1 new conference)

6 (includes 1 new conference)

West Africa

4

2

0

This spotty reporting makes comparison of growth rates impossible from one quadrennium to the next. It would be helpful if church leaders understood what factors keep annual conferences from reporting their membership numbers and devised strategies to facilitate that reporting. It must be remembered that some of the countries where we have members have previously or are currently experiencing civil war, which affects both the growth/decline of the church there and the ability to report membership numbers.

It is possible to compare the growth rate at the central conference level, with awareness that the figures are most likely skewed by whether or not annual conferences report their membership numbers.

Central Conference

Growth Rate

2005-09

Growth Rate

2009-12

Africa

4.8%

18.4%

Congo

16.4%

5.2%

West Africa

– 2.0%

0.0%

So because the Africa Central Conference had more conferences reporting in 2012, their membership growth rate was much higher. Congo and West Africa, by contrast, had fewer conferences reporting in 2012, making for a lower growth rate. This is the explanation for why the projected growth in the number of African delegates at General Conference did not materialize for 2016.

Philippines

The United Methodist Church in the Philippines has experienced a healthy turnaround since 2009. For the quadrennium 2005-09, they lost more than 55,000 members, for an annual rate of -7.8%. For the quadrennium 2009-12, however, the Philippines gained over 70,000 members, for an annual growth rate of 14.1%. The church in the Philippines is now larger by 15,000 members than it was in 2005. That is good news indeed!

Of the 25 Philippine annual conferences, eight reported growth, two reported decline, and 14 did not report updated membership numbers in 2012. One annual conference was new in 2012. Here again, it would be helpful to devise strategies for facilitating annual conference reporting of membership.

Europe and Eurasia

Central Conference

Growth Rate

2005-09

Growth Rate

2009-12

Central and Southern Europe

-3.2%

-1.7%

Germany

-1.9%

-0.2%

Northern Europe and Eurasia

-0.7%

-9.1%

Both Germany and Central and Southern Europe decreased their rate of membership loss. In Central and Southern Europe, four of the seven annual conferences grew between 2009 and 2012. Two of the three annual conferences in Germany grew from 2009 to 20012.

A main reason for the high rate of loss for the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference was that the Sweden Annual Conference (20 percent of the central conference membership) withdrew from the UM Church to join another denomination. In addition, five of the ten other annual conferences did not report updated membership numbers. (This was not a problem in the other European central conferences.)

Conclusion

Because most of the annual conferences outside the U.S. are so small, they tend to get ignored. It is heartening to see so many of them experiencing growth in numbers. And the growth in Africa was much less than anticipated, due to the lack of reporting. As we continue to live into what it means to be a global church, the investment of resources in training and materials for the central conference churches can only yield greater dividends of growth in both numbers and spiritual maturity.