Tampa Convention Center — they get an A+ for hospitality and organization. They are ready for the hoard of United Methodists. And the UMC is ready as well. It is impossible not to be impressed by the pageantry and preparation. But it is also a little depressing. I just walked through the Cokesbury and General Agency display areas. As always, the dog and pony show has been upgraded to elephant and stallion levels. You cannot believe the mountains of crap that have been produced and stamped with the General Conference logo. Stewardship be damned. This is a marketing event, a media circus.
One of the General Agency staff people commented, “A few years ago it was tables and chairs, but now it’s like, ‘If you’re going to get rid of us, we want you to know about everything we do.” And it shows. This looks and feels a lot more like a trade show than a religious gathering. BIG displays, BIG ideas, and BIG money have been lavished on this GC. Be careful not to ask where the money came from to pay for all this — just consume and enjoy, sipping your water from the official GC2012 water bottle, while resting in your GC2012 hoodie sweatshirt, while leafing through your commemorative GC2012 CEV Bible… And we justify all this how?
I know, I know, get over myself. Why do I have to spoil everything? Could I be any more of a buzz kill? Did I come here just looking for things to be unhappy about? You know, I get tired of it myself sometimes. I want to enter into our denominational celebrations and feel elation and joy. But it is just my nature to resist and resent the circus-like aspects. I hunger for authentic opportunities to celebrate the faith with my brothers and sisters. I cannot wait for the worship and learning opportunities to commence. But all the consumeristic, self-serving, promotional/trivial junk leaves me cold.
At a time where our credibility and relevancy are front-burner concerns, I wonder if we do ourselves more harm than good investing our time, energy and money in a conference that provides and promotes the same-old, same-old? Truly, this is a spiritual stewardship issue, and I personally cannot proudly defend the way my church is using its money. Extravagance and waste are in evidence everywhere I look. I want to believe we are better than this. (Yeah, I know, lighten up…)
There is a real integrity in making the mission of the UMC our General Conference theme, but we must guard this integrity by what we say and do. So far, our restructuring proposals are not proposals for effective disciple-making that equips, empowers and enables our churches and conferences to transform the world; they are all institutional preservation proposals that will allow us to survive for another generation. If we can somehow shift our attention from maintenance to mission and to truly explore the implications of a church committed to discipleship instead of numbers, this could be a pivotal General Conference. But like me personally, collectively we need to get over ourselves, and understand this is big, important stuff we are dealing with. This is more than hats and T-shirts, magnets and coffee-mugs; this is life and death, eternal life big, and we need to act like it. The world doesn’t need us, it needs God, and we are only relevant and pertinent to the extent that we provide a bridge between God and God’s creation. The world — and the church — doesn’t need all this “stuff.” It needs to focus on relationships that help us to become “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”