Via Negativa

I note with dismay that your blog is consistently critical of the church.  It doesn’t seem fair or balanced to continuously pick at flaws while ignoring the good.  While we certainly have problems, there is little benefit in dwelling on them all the time.  I don’t care to be made to feel bad or guilty on a daily basis.  My advice is to make as much of an effort to find what is praiseworthy in the church as you do finding fault.

This person has a point — to a degree.  Honestly, I am critical.  I take what the church says seriously, and for eight of the last ten years it was my job to travel across this denomination to test the veracity of our claims with clergy and laity inside the church, and the non-religious and the spiritual seekers outside the church.  In this blog, I report on what I heard — representing the opinions of a wide variety of people in our modern culture.  Two-thirds to three-quarters of what I have heard in the past decade is critical — much of it negative.  I make no apologies for telling the truth by sharing a non-sugar-coated report of what I have heard.  It doesn’t mean people have to like it or agree with it, but I am not going to lie or pretend that people are more positive than they actually are.

Our denomination makes the claim that it wants to serve new faith audiences.  However, I have spent considerable time with:

  • the poorest of the poor in urban, suburban, and rural areas whose experience of us is that we are not open to them
  • the least educated in our nation who do not feel welcome or comfortable in our churches
  • Hmong, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Central American, South American, Cuban, Haitian, Dominican, Jamaican, African, African American, Caribbean, Native American (of no less than twenty tribal heritages), Eastern Indian, and Middle Eastern groups who report regular acts of racism that they face each and every day in the church
  • those on the fringes of society — in prison, institutions, nursing homes — who feel ignored and abandoned by the church when they need them most
  • physically and mentally challenged individuals who feel unwelcome; who feel their disabilities preclude them from “belonging”
  • the most educated in our nation who do not feel welcome or comfortable in our churches
  • the richest of the rich who have little time or patience for our church
  • college and university students who look at our church and are dismayed by what they perceive as irrelevancy and “lameness”
  • seminary students who are growing disillusioned with the whole institution and question their call to ministry or religious academia
  • professors of both universities and seminaries who have lost faith in the leaders of the church system
  • mainliners who look at the decisions made and the way money is spent who decide to leave the church altogether
  • people working for the church at all levels who are suffering low morale because they no longer believe what they are doing matters
  • retired clergy, including bishops, who lament the path of the current church, identifying the problem as a lack of leadership
  • Conference leaders struggling to “lead” when the demands of the system are on management
  • Government, education, international relations, and economics leaders who cannot fathom the short-sightedness and simplistic approach our church has to social problems
  • Women of all levels of leadership who are appalled at the remnant sexism that undermines their ministries
  • Youth and young adults who want meaning and purpose and find that church provides neither

My list is a LOT longer, but you get the idea.  There are people in our church who want to ignore all these things and only focus on the good.  I actually do a fairly good job of lifting up the good from all my research — it’s simply that there isn’t as much good to report.  Does this make our job bigger and harder?  Probably.  But I’m not sure where the idea came from that it should all be sunshine and roses.  It is not enough for us to say we have “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”  If that is not how we are perceived by the very people we want to reach, we NEED to know that.  If we invite people to “ReThink Church,” but they don’t believe, trust, or respect us — because they don’t think we’re serious — then we have a problem.  If we save a life by purchasing a net, then we need to take some responsibility for that life as it grows through childhood into adulthood.  Just solving one problem (infant/childhood disease and mortality) by creating another (abject poverty, hunger, malnutrition, gang violence, tribal warfare, etc.) is not the kind of witness we really want to make.  Denying the truth of all these criticisms doesn’t solve anything.

And, sure, I could be more positive and spend a little more time saying what I think is right with the church.  Recently, a director from UMCom said to me, “Why do you always pick on us, and not CF&A or Pensions?”  My response was, “I think they’re doing a fantastic job, and I don’t hear nearly as many criticisms and negative responses to what they do.”  Same could be said of UMCOR.  I think UMCOR does a fabulous job — and I have said so on the blog, and will continue to do so.  I think the mission awareness work that Global Ministries is doing is fantastic, but I have said that here, too.  Most of my criticisms of UMCom and The General Board of Discipleship come from the interviews I have done with people across the denomination.  Sometimes they align with my own opinions, sometimes not.  But when I talk to fifty people about something like ReThink Church or Burning Bush or Romans 12 and forty of them offer complaints, criticisms, mockery, or downright contempt, that’s what I report.  Sorry, but people have a right to their opinion, and it was my job for a long time to find out what those opinions are and to share them.  I have never quite understood why people responsible for these projects try to censor me — if I were them, I would want to know that people dislike the product or service I’m offering.

I had friends who grew up in a household where it was not allowed to criticize or argue.  Any attempt to voice a negative opinion was clamped down upon immediately.  The mother in the family wanted to preserve peace and harmony at all costs, and she simply wouldn’t allow a cross word or discussion of anything unpleasant.  Today, all four of the children who grew up in that house are troubled and in therapy.  To those who wish for nothing but moonbeams and buttercups in The United Methodist Church, beware.  No problem gets solved by ignoring it.  If we want to reach new people for Christ, we need to listen to them — even when they tell us things we don’t want to hear.  Our goal cannot be to change everyone else while we stay the same.  We have things to work on — and enough people to work on just about everything!  There is nothing wrong with pointing out areas for improvement.  The only real problem we have is pretending we don’t have problems.

And while my motives may not be clear, I can only say — if I didn’t love and believe in this church, I wouldn’t even bother.  I hear the criticisms of thousands of people, and each one breaks my heart a little more.  I want the church not just to be acceptable or good — I want us to be great.  I want our witness to the world to be so powerful that people beat a path to our doors to be a part of something beautiful.  I share the opinions and criticisms of the thousands of interviews I did while at the General Board of Discipleship in hopes that we might see ourselves as we are seen by so many, and what to do something about it.

15 replies

  1. Speaking the truth in love is our duty as Christians. What i think some may find problematic with the criticism is something that I also dislike when it comes to those who criticize often: those who criticize without offering solutions or volunteering to find a solution. This is a crucial aspect of “speaking the truth in love.” Without it, there is no love, just pure discontent or what some might call “sour grapes.” I do believe you want to find solutions to your criticisms, and you do offer them at times. Some times they are a little more subtle than others.

    In my opinion, criticism is destructive when it misses this element. As a church staffer, when I hear criticism about something within the church or the Church, my question is, “What are you doing about it?” If I get little in response, then we have an issue. Too often we criticize and do not think of solutions. When you participate in this latter activity, you begin to consider what were the causes of the aspect being criticized. What are the challenges/obstacles that need to be overcome? This puts the dialogue in a much better place.

  2. I check your blog regularly from my home in a sister denomination in Canada because your writing is relevant and refreshingly honest. Blogging is an unforgiving medium, all I need to do is stop clicking my index finger on the mouse and your voice goes away, but today you even provoked me to write a few lines myself! Perhaps I can read with a little less sensitivity because I have some “distance” but, quite candidly, I think these times call for a kick in the butt not a pat on the head! There are plenty of cheerleaders willfully ignoring the signs of the times, and there are plenty of bitter people sniping from outside the church too hurt to come back and try to build something positive. Every honest, critical, but loving voice from within the church is precious. Keep it up.

  3. Thank you for sharing some of the thoughts of people you have met. I am saddened, but I do have hope for the denomination. I think there are churches doing an excellent job of rethinking church and being a welcoming congregation. Unfortunately, it’s not all the churches.

    I think the agencies are doing good work, but I don’t think you can compare the work of all the agencies. They each have a special role and the audiences are considerably different.

  4. “I have never quite understood why people responsible for these projects try to censor me — if I were them, I would want to know that people dislike the product or service I’m offering.”

    I believe this is a key issue across the board in our denomination from the local church to the Council of Bishops. When we realize that something we are doing is not effective or well received, rather than ask some simple questions of the people we are trying but failing to be in ministry with, we become defensive. I am not sure if it is because we really blindly believe that our approach was flawless and the people who failed to appreciate it are idiots, or if we are too lazy to ask the questions and make the changes that will allow our ministry to flourish. Obviously, on an institutional level we undervalue the task of asking the questions enough that we let you go from your previous position.

  5. I, for one, would hate to have responsibility for crafting any kind of unified message for our denomination. We are not large – let’s face it 8 million is not much out of 300 million – but we are a rambling and disconnected blob of a denomination.

    What one thing would you say that applies well to all United Methodism. Same goes for our discipleship programming. I’m taking a Bible study on Romans right now that is done by Disiciple. It is basically an attack on Augustine/Luther and an exultation of Origen and Pelagius. It borders on non-Trinitarian. As you can tell, I am not a big fan. But there are several folks in the group who really like it. That’s one congregation. Try coming up with resources that work/fit for the whole denomination.

    Which may be to say that Dan’s critique of these folks is accurate but in a sense unfair. When the denomination is a big, sprawling mess that can’t even figure out why it is a denomination, it is tough to offer a coherent and focussed media message or set of teaching resources.

    All that said, I’ve never heard of an organization yet that did well over any length of time without honest criticism. Not everyone has to agree with it or draw the same conclusions, but we would be worse off to shut people up who are making an honest effort to be constructive.

    • My only response is that maybe we don’t need a unified message, but to allow for the differences of opinion and to take seriously that everyone who disagrees with us isn’t necessarily and unenlightened crank. A system is designed to produce the results it is getting. If The United Methodist Church is reaching new audiences with a message of hope, building credibility by its witness in the world, drawing new people into a life of Christian discipleship, holding its membership accountable to their vows to God and the Christian community, great. If these are not the fruits of our efforts, perhaps they need to change — and we might just learn something about changing them from those we seek to reach. But this is just my own opinion. Maybe everything IS a lot more rosy and happy than I — and many others — think it is.

  6. My only response is that maybe we don’t need a unified message, but to allow for the differences of opinion and to take seriously that everyone who disagrees with us isn’t necessarily and unenlightened crank.

    Amen.

    My only point is that UCom has what I consider to be a near impossible task given the inability of our denomination to actually agree what its identity is. That assumes its task is to present a unified message.

    If, as you say, we give that up, then I think we would do much better – or at least stand a better chance of doing better.

    • And I would agree that most of our general agencies and annual conferences have been given almost impossible tasks. We have downsized at every level to a point where almost all our tasks are too large for the individuals we cast into their key roles. I really don’t want to point fingers at people, but to shine the light of critical reason on our dysfunctional systems. UMCom is in a no-win situation, as is Path One. Jobs that cannot be done, given to people with an expectation to do them…

  7. Dear Dan, I continue to enjoy your posts and appreciate how you inspire us to think. I can say that about most of those who comment as well.

    I left the business world in 1992 and have volunteered full-time since then, all of it through the UMC. What I remember of the “business” days in management would make me ask our current official leaders, “How are we doing with the process by which we go about our mission?”

    This process is given to us in one of the books approved by our leadership. It looks like a good process to follow and against which to critique ourselves. When I see remarks of any nature about the UMC, I consider them against that process. It helps.

    Now I see the Connectional Table has or will have 7 proposals about the 4 Foci. This may be a chance to contribute. I believe comments would be welcomed by this group.

    I suppose I am one of those who believe that the process to go about our mission, the one given to us in the Book of Discipline, is a good one to follow. And if we follow it wisely, some of the measurements people make to describe a successful denomination will be seen.

    Paz a todos,larry

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