Thursday, April 19, 2012

Holy conferencing, Batman!

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.” 
John Wesley, How To Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer

I often feel that I am out of the loop when it comes to matters United Methodist. Yes, I have been (and continue to be) a member of a United Methodist church since I was confirmed at age 11. Yes, I am a certified candidate for United Methodist ministry. And yes, I am a commissioned young adult missionary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.

And yet I have had so much trouble understanding the conflicts that have been brewing in the run-up to the 2012 General Conference. I’d like to blame this confusion on how I currently attend a Lutheran church and work for an interfaith organization. I’d like to think that because of the vast amount of time I spend outside of the auspices of United Methodist influence, I am an outsider and so am confused about General Conference.

I don't know how to say this, but it's kind of a big deal.
However, if my logic is that if I am confused about General Conference, I must therefore be an outsider, frankly, I estimate 95% of United Methodists are outsiders. Ouch.

Many other people can talk better about the specific issues that General Conference will consider. I suggest the official United Methodist website for one perspective and the Methodist Federation for Social Action for another. But I want to talk about a concept I’ve been hearing a lot as I educate myself about General Conference.

That is vital congregations.

Many of the dramatic restructuring proposals claim to encourage the growth of vital congregations. The logic is to let local congregations and annual conferences make their own decisions without so much bureaucratic oversight, and congregations will be able to do what they do best. Which is…well, I guess that differs parish to parish. Parishes that are shrinking and disappearing.

Well, shoot.

What makes a vital congregation? How can we possibly measure vitality? It’s the conundrum that large, quasi-federalist churches have struggled with for generations. Speaking as young person from what I’ll call the Millennial generation (I was 11 when we entered the 21st century), it’s really, really hard to see vitality from the outside. And unlike past generations, when we see ethical and moral rot by people within the church, we have other places to go. My generation is awfully jaded and impatient, and we’re not afraid to leave if we smell a hint of hypocrisy.

However, because of that, when we find authentic community, where people are comfortable enough with themselves and each other that they willingly share their hurt and brokenness, we stay. When we can share our own doubts and suffering at the hands of supposedly Christian people and we get empathy in return, we stay. When we can share our ideas that seem so crazy and out-of-sync with tradition and get the opportunity to try it out, we will definitely stay. I might like it so much that I’ll even take off my cap during service because you asked me nicely.

This is vitality. The congregation not only praises God for how wonderfully she made the earth but also shares in the sharp pains of how we’ve messed that earth up. Vitality isn’t all smiles and confidence; it’s also tears and doubts. Vital congregations make space for that.

So great. How do get there? I argue that while any social change must occur at a grassroots level (i.e. local parishes), that space is shaped and limited by the grass-tops decisions (i.e. General Conference). In order to be truly vital, while congregations do the very, very hard work of self-reflection, they must also look outward for opportunities live out the revelations God gives them through tradition, scripture, reason, and personal experience. This is where agencies like the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and other general boards and commissions have a very, very important place.

As United Methodists, while we seek authenticity in our communities, we need challenges. In community organizing, we call this agitation. Vital congregations will embrace these challenges, and outsiders will take notice. General Conference will shape how congregations embrace the challenges inside the parish and outside of it.

I pray that my sisters and brother who will be engagin “holy conferencing” next week also embrace these challenges.

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