Box-cutting Thoughts

A while back we had expensive stone work done on our church building. Water was getting into the decorative block and causing the face of each stone to flake off. The word for that is ‘spalling’ and I’ve applied it to the church ever since. Over the last century, the United Methodist Church institutional structure (conference boards, general agencies, and general conference actions) has aligned itself with other mainline churches, specifically the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. If we were to time traveled back to the 1900’s, we would note that those denominations tended to be have better educated clergy, be more socially progressive in politics, and more liberal theology, than the mainstream of the Methodist Church. In spite of the educational emphasis of the church, the Social Creed adopted at General Conference and progressive nature of our Book of Resolutions, and the recent shift of popular culture away from conservative theology, the majority of United Methodist pastors, congregations, and parishioners consider themselves more evangelical than our mainline colleagues. This has led to a continuous spalling off of clergy and lay people who claim that the UMC has become too liberal. 


This spalling is often sited as the reason for our membership loss since 1968. I don’t find any evidence that our denomination as a whole is more liberal now than the either of our predecessors were at merger. Further, our church is doing only slightly statistically better than other mainline churches, even though we remain significantly more theologically conservative. The real cause of our membership loss is the swing of popular culture in the postmodern era away from church attendance. Recent statistics show fewer than 18% of Americans in church on any given Sunday. It’s raining and everyone, liberal and conservative, is getting wet. 


The bigger concern for our church structure is the loss of whole congregations to splits over social issues, such as, gay marriage. Unlike the other mainline denominations, the UMC has a strict trustee clause and a connectional culture which prevents the congregations who spall off from taking their buildings. Pastors and people who feel that the UMC has become too liberal, leave in small chunks. So local churches, especially in rural areas, are left weakened. Conference trustees inherit a half dozen abandoned church buildings a year. Over the last decade, I watched the Episcopalian and Presbyterian denominational leaders in Western Pennsylvania sell off church buildings, often at a reasonable discount, to the congregations that no longer feel comfortable with their social stance. This has allowed many of their congregational splits to progress without unnecessary grief. I’ve come to the conclusion that our reluctance to allow congregations to vote to leave the UMC has become part of our current mess. What was a good policy 40 years ago, has become an albatross preventing our institution from progressing in the direction that it needs to go.


There is another lesson, however, that we need to learn from the other mainline denominations. The Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, have kept pace with popular culture in acceptance of gay marriage and the ordination of openly practicing homosexuals. The United Methodist Church remains stuck with its current retro-policy until at least 2016. This means that in the 15 states expected to permit gay marriage, pastors and congregations will be be forced to deny rituals to their own people. However one feels about this issue, one has to admit that the United Methodist Church has not developed clear and compelling theological reasons to exclude people from full participation in the church because of their sexual orientation. The capriciousness of our current stance has become a social embarrassment. Until recently, I thought it was a good thing that we were taking our time on this issue. I watched the other mainline denominations take their lumps as conservative members and congregations spalled off. As with most social change, however, this is an issue in which it would have been better to pay early rather than to muddle aimlessly.


The danger now, is that we will spall, not just little conservative chunks off the outside of our institution, but that that we will spall a whole generation, as well as substantial congregations, off of the inside of our foundation. The Wesleyan movement began as an inclusive reformation of the church to meet the challenges of the modern era. Our passion and process allowed us to expand with the American frontier and incorporate rural people into the church. No other denomination had our willingness to accept people where they were. Our love of mission and social action pushed us to form congregations in marginalized communities. Now at the beginning of the postmodern era, the young adults who remain in the church are calling upon us to rethink church in more inclusive ways. Popular culture is already shifting towards full acceptance of the LGBT community. This in itself would not concern me, if I thought there was a theological argument to be made for our current position. 


Unlike the fundamentalists who slowly left over the course of the last century, the pastors and congregations who wish to display full acceptance of LGBT community will spall off in increasingly dramatic ways. There isn’t a middle ground that will allow us to make everybody happy. We can, however, abandon our law for the sake of our spirit. If we permit reconciling congregations to follow their heart, and clergy who marry gay couples to be unpunished, then we have a chance to keep in our fold the younger clergy and early adopters of postmodern culture that the United Methodist Church needs to be vital in the future.


I find myself thinking of Jesus’ story of the man who finds a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:47).  The pearl that is in our grasp, is to develop a witness to the emerging culture of America. We can only do this by being willing to sell off the structures and organizational idols that keep us locked in last century’s way of thinking. We can’t help spalling and becoming a smaller church. We can, however, choose who we will invite inside.

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