Church Or Society

I am currently attending my first board meeting with the General Board of Church and Society.  Up front, let me say that I think this is one of the most important, most valuable of our general church agencies.  I understand that this view is not shared by all.  In fact, some vehemently oppose Church and Society, and it ALWAYS surprises me.  I have written in the past that I feel United Methodism suffers today by a lack of institutional memory and an abdication of our core identity.  If your tradition is the Evangelical Association, the Methodist church, or the United Brethren in Jesus Christ, then you are part of a biblically and theologically grounded tradition that elevated missions, evangelistic witness, and a commitment to social justice — in other words, a church that isn’t all about us, but a church that exists for the purpose of serving in the community and world.  You may disagree that these things are important, but you can’t change history — this is who we are based on who we have historically been.

In preparation for my first term on the board, I began receiving letters almost as soon as jurisdictional conference ended — all of them highly critical, negative and derogatory about the work of Church & Society.  The comments boil down to three essential ideas:

  1. Christians should not get involved in politics.
  2. Social justice is communism/socialism/liberal, and therefore to be avoided by good Christians.
  3. We should not spend money on sinners; i.e., the poor, immigrants, single mothers, homosexuals, foreigners, scientists, political advocacy (these were just the specific things named in the letters/emails I received).

I disagree with a lot of people about a lot of things — and a lot of people disagree with me, but this is one of those issues that truly stymies me.  Hebrew scripture — history, poetry, prophecy — makes it clear that peace, mercy, justice, care of the poor, the marginalized, the stranger, the alien are not options, and that they are required of both individuals as well as communities, tribes, households and nation.  These things are even clearer in the gospels, the writings of Paul, James, and other writers of the early church (both in and beyond the accepted canon).  This reading doesn’t require much in the way of interpretation — it is clear, concise, constant, and consistent.  In our culture and age, Matthew 25 is a complete impossibility apart from political and social engagement.  Of all our general boards and agencies, Global Ministries and Church & Society are the two that actually live out our biblical, theological, and denominational mandates.  We can ascribe all kinds of negative labels to living the gospel — socialism, communism, etc. — but caring for God’s creation by realizing that we are all one creation, never in ministry “to” or doing ministry “for” but living into the realm and reality of God “with” each other is simply awakening to the will of God.  To eliminate the false, destructive, and indefensible dividing walls of hostility of “us” and “them”, is to live with integrity as the body of Christ.  It is so amazing to be part of an agency of the bureaucratic institution of “the Church” that actually gets it — that puts faith into action and activates disciples of Jesus Christ to engage in work that God actually uses to transform the world.

United Methodists can be proud of the vision and commitment of the General Board of Church & Society.  Not everything C&S does will please everyone, and there will be some things that we choose to politicize and castigate based on personal biases, but in the main, Church and Society is doing excellent work that allows us to fulfill our scriptural mission, honor our theological heritage, and strive toward our denominational values and priorities.

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30 replies

  1. Thank you for serving, Dan, and for reminding us of the biblical foundations and grounding for the work of our agencies. I am spending this week with UMCom as I get trained as a field coordinator for Imagine No Malaria and I am reminded over and over again that the work we do together is God’s work… it might not always look the way we want it to or we might not always agree, but I hope and pray we can at least agree on that.

  2. A different take from a disillusioned Methodist:

    I agree that reaching out to the poor, the widows, the orphans is part of who we are as Christians and Wesleyans. However, discussions about the GBCS is a distraction. The UMC is not in trouble because as a denomination it failed to reach the poor, the widows, the orphans. It is in trouble because it lost its primary focus, and that is enabling people to grow in their love of God and Jesus and equip peple to share that love in doable and realistic ways–in words and action.

    Yes, I can get all fired up about supporting the wonderful work of the GBCS, but then I remember why I’m disillusioned: I crashed and burned because no one ever stopped and explained Jesus to me in deed or word; I spent a lifetime “being Methodist”. And that is what I needed first before I started “sending money up the pike” to support the widows, and the poor and the orphans.

    I don’t have the exact quote with me, but Wesely viewed the church as a a gathering of persons whose first duty was to save their own souls, secondly to help others within the church do the same and thirdly, after this was being accomplished, save others. If I’ve got this right, for Wesley, saving/helping others was a direct result of putting people’s feet on the path of discipleship–that is what came first: offering up salvation in Jesus Christ to the people. That is what he did first–that was his primary focus. I’m reading his journal–he wasn’t going around urging people to do good works–that came later as part of the process of growing in the love of God.

    Right now, Methodism and Christianity are in desperate need of people who are passionate about their faith and live it out in realistic and doable ways 24/7 and have a reasonable and realistic vocabulary to talk about it with others. When that happens, then the rest will follow.

    This discussion of the GBCS is putting the cart before the horse.

    • Betsy, I could not disagree more. The either/or compartmentalization of action from belief is what brought us to our current sorry state. Indeed, the young Welsey put personal salvation first; however the mature Wesley offered a much more balanceduniversal vision where works of piety and works of mercy were equal and essential. The more we put ourselves first, the less we feel any connection to the larger body. Getting ourselves right with Jesus has done more to make us view others as perhaps less important than almost anything else. The 20th century revision of “personal salvation” was a huge step in the wrong direction from the gospel message (where most generally Jesus spoke in the plural — “you” meaning “all of you,” not you as individual). Indeed, faith without works is dead — hence the state of modern Methodism. It was heartbreaking at General Conference to listen to leaders from across our denomination get up to the microphone and talk about who isn’t a child of God and who doesn’t belong at the table — all because their measuring stick is personal salvation as the prime metric for who to allow in and who to keep out. It cannot be either/or for much longer or our days truly will be numbered. Authentic discipleship is as much about those we serve as it is all about us.

      • I don’t think Betsy was saying it had to be personal salvation or nothing. You’re taking what she said to mean we should focus only on us and not on others. The problem with the balanced talk that you mention is that we are terrible at living it out and we don’t want to live in tension.

        Again, I’m not Methodist but Disciple, but in my own tradition I really don’t think the reason we are declining is because we are all focused on personal salvation. I’m around way too many churches that are involved socially to see that as the problem. Yes, there are some that are involved in that approach, but I think the bigger problem is that we are focused on the political aspect and giving short shrift to the spiritual. Yes, churches have to be involved outside of their doors. But I think part of the issue is that mainline churches have become lax in becoming disciples of Jesus. People want to help their fellow sister and brother, but I think they also want to know what life is all about, and if there is anything beyond our daily being. They want to know what Jesus is all about. And that’s is where we stumble. We don’t do as well when it comes to teaching people to grow in the faith. Christian Education has kind of fallen by the wayside. And when we don’t really focus on those basics and focus on the latest issue du jour, people realize that they don’t need to church anymore.

        If the focus is that we should just care for the poor, then I really don’t need to waste my time at church. I could just join the latest political movement to do that. But we need to ask why we care for the poor and teach that to others. What I see too often is that Christian talk basically covers over all the political talk.

        Justice matters, on that there is no question. I’m not saying we should not care (I’m a mission pastor at a church). But we have to be rooted in something and mainline churches do a poor job of focusing on the interior life of people as much as the exterior. If Evangelicals spend too much time navel gazing and not enough looking outward, I think Mainline folk spend too much time looking outward and fearful of looking inward and making God personal (not private). The first isn’t great, but the latter has been disasterous for mainline churches.

      • Thanks, Dennis, your reminder that to be a Disciple means to live the tension constantly and to understand that the cost of our discipleship is the risk-taking servant role that Jesus took himself. There is no safe Christianity, there is no private Christianity (though it may be deeply personal), and there is no Christianity that does not risk a cross.

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