Prepping for General Conference

By Thomas A. Lambrecht

Every four years, United Methodists gather for what is a cross between a political convention and a revival camp meeting. For almost two weeks, 1,000 delegates and more than 2,000 observers gather to represent a snapshot of United Methodism. At General Conference, we experience uplifting worship in a variety of styles, including U.S. ethnic flavors, as well as customs and traditions from our brothers and sisters in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Bishops and others bring challenging and inspiring preaching. We usually get to experience some aspect of local culture and entertainment in the host city (which rotates each quadrennium from one U.S. jurisdiction to another).

Our primary purpose in gathering, however, is to examine the current state of The United Methodist Church (through hundreds of pages of reports) and set the policies and direction of the church for the next four years (through thousands of petitions, resolutions, and other proposed changes in our Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions). We elect people to serve on the Judicial Council (supreme court) and the University Senate (credentialing body of our educational institutions).

Next April 24-May 5, 2012, the General Conference is coming to Tampa, Florida. This article is the first of several that will address the issues that will face our church in Tampa.

Since 1976, Good News has worked at General Conference to speak on behalf of evangelical concerns. More recently, we have joined with other ministries in the Renewal and Reform Coalition. We help in writing and submitting legislation. We evaluate proposals and communicate our point of view on issues to be dealt with by the General Conference. Many other caucus groups organize to influence General Conference, as well, including those of a more liberal or progressive viewpoint. This is the greatest opportunity we have to impact the church in the direction of spiritual renewal and organizational reform.

And the Lord knows we need renewal and reform! Over the past 40 years, The United Methodist Church in the U.S. has lost 3 million members. We are poised for even greater losses in the decades ahead, due to our aging membership and difficulty in attracting younger people to our churches. For the first time ever, over 50 percent of our active ordained clergy are older than age 50. Churches are closing at an alarming rate, while many others are reducing to part-time pastors or lay pastors. For the first time ever, the proposed budget for the General Church over the next four years is a reduction in amount from the previous four years.

The good news is that our church leaders have finally awakened to the crisis facing our church, and momentum is building to take radical steps to address that crisis. The bad news is that the proposals coming to General Conference deal with only one-half of the problem.

Good News believes that the crisis facing our church is caused by both a spiritual problem and an organizational problem. The organizational problem is that we have failed to adapt our mid-20th century structure to our current 21st century global reality.

But the other half of the problem is a spiritual shortcoming. We have allowed the Gospel message to become diluted by a variety of theologies that are not consistent with our doctrinal identity as United Methodists and sometimes contrary to our doctrinal standards as defined in our Book of Discipline. While giving lip service to our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, many pastors have abandoned their belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior of the world. They no longer hold to the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ. They no longer preach that people must turn in faith to Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness and restoration.

Some of our seminaries now believe that Christianity is just one of many ways to God, and that evangelism is no longer necessary or even advisable for United Methodists (despite Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8). In our desire for the “transformation of the world” via political and social ministry, we have neglected the power of God for personal transformation and holiness that must necessarily precede any impact we are to have on our culture. In fact, in many ways we have surrendered to the culture in an effort to become more “relevant,” rather than living in God’s way counter to our culture at times. And now we have the very real possibility that as many as 5 percent of our clergy will openly disobey our church’s teaching on sexual morality and marriage.

Until we address our spiritual problem as a denomination, we will have at best a half solution. We may slow the decline by changing our structure and our processes, but we will not experience true renewal and growth as a church until we return to our first love, proclaiming the pure Gospel message of salvation and transformation of life through faith and obedience to Jesus Christ alone.

Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president and general manager of Good News.  As a member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, he served 29 years in pastoral ministry before joining Good News. Rev. Lambrecht has worked on renewal efforts at five General Conferences.