Friday, September 23, 2011

Reform and Maintenance: Part 1

Bold. Inclusive. Relevant.

There is a United Methodist congregation in Chicago that opens almost every worship service that I've attended there with an explanation of how those words guide its mission. Bold because the folks actually believe in Jesus Christ and seek to share that belief and lifestyle with others. Inclusive most notably because it accepts and affirms the LGBTQ community. Relevant because...well, it just has to be somehow relevant in 21st century Chicago, right?

I have a tendency to recoil at the use of these words. They are indeed very catchy, and the congregation is very hip, possibly hip-ster. But I see these words as the catchiest of the catch-phrases, and thus I get a bad taste in my mouth.

However, the United Methodist Church does have issues with these things. Perhaps the UMC is best at being a least theologically inclusive, which is why we will see some very interesting fireworks at General Conference next spring. Yet the American conferences are 90% white. So--maybe we try to be inclusive, but boy we are not diverse.

That speaks to the other two catchphrases. Where is the United Methodist Church bold? Where is the United Methodist Church relevant?
When I had my interview to be a US-2 missionary, I was asked what I thought we should do to reverse the trend of declining membership. I remember that I mentioned something about being active in social justice, which was very vague, and I couldn't help but think about how my "home" church back in Pennsylvania would deal with such a thing.

My thought is that if the church were truly bold to "to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (paraphrase of Luke 4:18), then we would truly be relevant. We would also look very, very different. Rather than idolizing middle class prosperity, we would live for and with and among the poor. It is likely that we would become poor ourselves.

See, folks have wised up to the obvious hypocrisy of claiming a gospel that actually changes things when the people claiming that gospel have a stake in keeping things exactly the way they are. While much of the popular evangelical narrative hinges on a metanoia that only touches a personal holiness--from drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll to "Ozzie & Harriet" stability—we are much more implicated in sin than that. Our various social systems—from food to transportation to marriage to labor—help to ensure that those of us at the top stay above everyone else. Our gospel obviously is not good news, and it’s not news at all. Surprise! Nothing has changed!
It is no wonder that we in the United Methodist Church are not particularly relevant to 21st century folks, whatever class, race, gender, sexuality they may identify with. 

So what must we do to become relevant again? To help answer this question, I will draw heavily from Theodore W. Jennings’ Good News to the Poor: Wesley’s Evangelical Economics, and I will answer it in my next post. However, just to whet your appetite, consider this passage: 

“The success or failure of this project depended not on increase in numbers and influence, but on an increase in faithfulness … By Wesley’s own standard, the Methodist movement must be reckoned a failure.”

Luckily, God enjoys using those the world considers failures.

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