I have been dismayed by the recent “unanimous support” claims for our Call to Action report — since I have had personal conversations with people directly involved who are anything but fully on board. Oh, I understand the act of solidarity and presenting a unified public face and the potential promotional value. What troubles me is the level of dishonesty and surrender involved — people I respect telling me that disagreeing won’t do any good anyway because we’re “in too deep.” I heard that same logic in one place I worked when I discovered that a major research project was flawed, inaccurate, and just plain bad, but was told that we’d invested too much in it not to go ahead and use it. Integrity be damned, we’ve got to keep moving — even if it’s in the wrong direction.
Let me repeat — I don’t disagree with the findings of the Call to Action report. It says exactly what we’ve discovered at least three times before over the past thirty years. Confirmation is a good thing. However, as in each prior instance, we are claiming that this time we’re serious about changing, but all we are doing is identify a number of symptoms to treat instead of root causes to change. The identity and purpose questions are ignored — we assume that we know who we are and that we know why we exist. These, my friends, are the very questions that we cannot take for granted, and they are the questions that must be faced before we decide what tactical changes to make. We are not a “united” Methodist Church at the moment and focusing on program and structure when the relationships are damaged and the connection is broken promises nothing but disaster. The problem is, were we to use our General Conference time to clarify what it means to be United Methodist in the 21st century, to reframe and clarify our theological task in contemporary culture, to codify and commit to our Social Principles, and to recover the missional/evangelical foundation that defined our heritage, it would draw a line in the sand and every living, breathing United Methodist would be forced to answer the key question: do I want to be a United Methodist or not. And, being perfectly honest, we would probably lose a third to a half of our membership no matter which way we turn.
Our ambiguity, wishy-washiness, lack of conviction, and inability to take clear stands leave us in a nice, comfy, mushy place. We can appease everyone, even when we can’t please them. We can claim that everyone can find a place in our family — as long as they don’t rub up too close to those who disagree with or dislike them. We can do just about anything and justify that it is worth doing, for somebody. We can offer 10,000 doors, as if each threshold is equal and will lead us all to the same place. We create this illusion of tranquility when what we actually have is comfort disguised as tolerance and love. Baloney (or bologna, should you prefer)! The absence of discord is not the same as harmony and unity — and by the way, we don’t even have an absence of discord.
We need open, honest dialogue about who “we” are. The “united” in United Methodist needs severe scrutiny. It is a witness to the world that beggars our credibility. We are not “one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” We are a poster child of dysfunction and we tolerate egregious bad behavior. We communicate poorly — both in content and style — and use information as a weapon more often than as a tool.
A favorite metaphor of mine is to compare the congregational system to a wood-chipper. Wood-chippers grind things up. They don’t build things or create things or fix things. They make wood chips. If you wish to get a different output, you can’t use the wood-chipper to get it. Putting something else in the wood-chipper won’t change the wood-chipper; the wood-chipper will destroy whatever is put through it. Putting fine china in the chipper won’t raise the quality of the chipper; it just destroys the china. If you want different results, you change the system. We have been a service-provider church for so long that the concept of becoming a disciple-making church is overwhelming. We think that if we dump disciple-focused resources in our service provider system, it will change the system. It’s not working out that way. Our system provider church is simply chewing up and spitting out our best disciple-making efforts. Rethink church? It will take a little more than thinking.
At the very least, our system will not even be willing to change as long as we find ourselves in the political situation where our leaders privately despair our best efforts then publicly applaud them. A house divided against itself cannot stand — even when it pretends it isn’t divided. We need desperately to decide what it means to be “United” Methodists, and we need to decide soon.