Seriously Talking Back: Response to Dr. Hunter

By Joy J. Moore

I share George Hunter’s gratitude for the conversations resultant from the “Call to Action!” It is important as we move into the second decade of the third millennium, to remember ourselves as United Methodists by considering what ways this 18th century movement can be reality-transforming in this downloadable-media-saturated 21st century world. The vision, passion, and courage historically represented as the movement called Methodism certainly resonates with the fervor stirring publically through social media and politically through worldwide protests.

United Methodism should be more of a culture than an institution to be preserved within culture. The culture of early Methodism is described again, here by Hunter as a movement across the country. A movement that resulted in persons claiming the God of Jesus Christ dramatically intruded in their lives and a change is evident. They gathered in local communities to be accountable to holding to it. In this gathering, they learned the content of their religion and the competencies to deploy persons in service to the gospel. The report of our failing institution is in effect a clarion call announcing the church has ceased operation, charitably described here as a lack of vitality.

Religious life seems to have shifted from rituals of prayer, fasting, and studying Scripture to programs aimed at increasing attendance. This generation is not sympathetic to religiosity. However, outside the church we find so-called humanitarian activities rescuing those perishing from hurricanes, heartache, and hopelessness. The greatest evidence of the lack of vitality in the United Methodist Church might not be survey results but our commercials. Consider the tag line of the insurance company that speaks of vitality as intentional responsibility to care for others while our tagline is “open.” Absent is a simple use of expressions of a called out community demonstrating the biblical values of justice, community, and peace. Our acts of charity, justice, and even community have not been submitted to the reign of God evident in Jesus Christ.

Hunter seems willing to suggest, that in order to change the world, the United Methodist Church might begin with herself, maybe as a means of example. He dares to acknowledge that it may be our version of faith that needs examining, and not merely our vital statistics. What Hunter calls for requires the church to take seriously telling her particular story in a way that testifies to the presence of the Creator God calming chaos and covenanting to be with us always.

Now that, as Hunter notes, we are moving beyond denial (I think the term might be “confession”) might not it be possible to testify again not to attendance but rather reporting those events in the life of our congregations (large or small) that cause somebody to ask about the Spirit of the God made known in Jesus. Only then can worship be more than a local entertainment event.

I am encouraged by Hunter’s suggestion that this document might represent an opening to a long needed conversation. While in no way a final statement, it serves us well to enter this dialogue. As I read both the document and Hunter’s response, it might be worth considering that documents in and of themselves record what is past. Even a tweet recounts what is—or shortly will be—over and done.

I therefore suggest we shouldn’t expect too much from the document. The document will not be change. It will not even represent change. It may, perhaps, serve to do what it claims—call to action a people of faith whose distinctive Wesleyan version of Christianity is so evidently Scriptural, the world is changed as individuals become followers of Jesus.

Church attendance is not a goal, but a by-product of the gathering of persons seeking and finding a community that names habits and practices that demonstrate the reality of God—both God’s existence and of a justice practicing community that exposes God’s intention of good. Only then will United Methodism recover the vitality Hunter describes as the power to reach communities, and rescue the perishing, and advance justice, and produce people who devote their lives to the will of God.

Joy J. Moore is Associate Dean for Black Church Studies and Church Relations at The Divinity School at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she teaches homiletics. She is an ordained elder in the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church. Dr. Moore has contributed a chapter in the forthcoming book Generation Rising: A Future with Hope for the United Methodist Church, edited by Andrew C. Thompson (Abingdon).