The latest wave of announcements about our future are dismaying. Not because they are negative, but because they are pedestrian. We are not “rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic,” as some assert; we are strategically planning and designing a Titanic upon which to rearrange deck-chairs. The short-sighted, defensive, U.S.-centric, survival-mentality, institutional preservation teeny-tiny vision being presented is embarrassing in its narcissism. It is all about us, and not in a good way. Couched in rah-rah language, it is about money and property and power and control — not mission, ministry, God and Spirit. I have been in communication with bishops, district superintendents, conference leaders, pastors and laity from over thirty conferences who are reading my blogs and encouraging me to continue raising the kinds of questions I do — but to what end? The majority commend me for doing something they don’t feel comfortable or safe to do themselves. People working on these study reports tell me about their misgivings, but they don’t raise them with those in power. Hundreds of people are uncomfortable with the direction of the church, but we just keep moving down the path to same-old, same-old.
Tinkering is not the same as change. Our need is for a new system, a new ethos, and a new vision. Our hysterical need to hang onto “things” limits our potential to become something better. We chose to become property and building bound, displace worship with performance, evangelism with marketing, and discipleship with membership — and until we decide to rescind these choices we are deluding ourselves. Our assimilation and accommodation of popular cultural values at the cost of Christian spiritual integrity is the issue — not our structure and form. Form follows function — until we decide to be a church again instead of “in the religion business,” not much is likely to change. We can form all the task forces and study groups we want to, but this is symptomatic of our root problems, not a likely solution.
I recently observed an interesting event in microcosm that illustrates for me the larger problem. A member of our Call to Action team presented and defended the report to a room full of United Methodists. As more and more people voiced concerns, displeasure, and thoughtful questions about the report, the presenter got more and more defensive and evasive — actually refusing to answer some questions. I raised the point that the recommendation isn’t even constitutional. The person finally concluded comments with “you don’t understand what the Call to Action is actually proposing. You need to just wait and see what happens and trust that we know what we’re doing.” I came away with a clear message: don’t question, don’t challenge, don’t worry — just trust that those who have created our problems are the right people to solve them, even though the solutions being offered address the wrong problems.
These are merely my opinions — nothing more. I have been told that I have not been invited into any of the studies in the denomination because people simply don’t want to hear what I have to say. My reputation is that I “slow things down” because I am not “a team player.” I can live with that — basically because I am in contact with dozens of people throughout our system who are in positions of influence who are seeking my counsel because they think I am asking the right questions. What a weird situation. I may not be popular with those at the top, but I am not alone in my concerns with what we are saying and where we are going. This gives me hope. Maybe enough of us will ask the right questions in enough places that real change will occur.
I close with an excerpt from an email I received from one of my colleagues at Vanderbilt Divinity School:
Thank you for your assessments of the ministry study, the call to action report, and the report on the global church — I shared them with my classes. You seem to be one of the very few critical thinkers analyzing the long-term implications of the proposals and recommendations. It is encouraging to know that there are people who can cut through all the rhetoric to clarify what really needs to be done. I just wanted to let you know that I am spreading your good work, and teaching my classes not to take at face value the reports from the church. Your critiques are invaluable. Keep up the good work, and keep our feet to the fire.