Editorial: The Tale of Two Narratives

Renfroe

Renfroe

There are two competing narratives regarding the future of The United Methodist Church. Both are predicated on what most observers believe is likely to happen at the 2016 General Conference. The most probable scenario is that we will leave Portland with little significant change to the Book of Discipline regarding sexuality. There may be some nibbling around the edges, but our present position will remain intact. We will continue to affirm the worth of all persons and welcome everyone to experience the ministry of the church. We will also maintain that same-sex relations are incompatible with Christian teaching, instruct our pastors not to marry gay couples, and not allow sexually active, self-avowed homosexual persons to be ordained ministers.

So the battle will continue after 2016, I believe in a more intense manner. Progressive pastors will be more open in performing same-sex services and rogue bishops will not hold them accountable. We will have more trials, our divisions will increase and the rancor will rise.

The first narrative, usually held by progressives and some who proclaim themselves to be “centrists,” is that over time the UM Church will embrace a more liberal sexual ethic. The culture is changing, more and more states are allowing gay marriage, and United Methodists will finally see the light. It may take 10 to 20 years. But it will happen. Dinosaurs like me will die off and eventually become extinct. Others, traditionalists but not strongly evangelical, will decide that the battle is no longer worth it. And a younger generation will take over the church – and so will their enlightened views regarding sexuality.

The battle will take many years, lengthened by the resolve of the Africans who will fight to maintain a traditional biblical understanding of sexuality. But eventually even the Africans will see the light or grow weary of the struggle. The UM Church will one day join the other mainline churches and first allow and later require its pastors and churches to marry same-sex couples and its annual conferences to ordain actively gay persons.

The second narrative is most often held by evangelicals – and by some evangelicals at the highest levels. Liberal churches are declining. The entire Western Jurisdiction now has fewer members than the North Georgia Annual Conference. Sunday morning attendance in the churches of the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference declined in 2013 by 8.25 percent. This annual conference is set in one of the most liberal areas of the country and led by one of our most progressive bishops. Recently, a district superintendent performed a wedding for two female UM pastors there without any repercussions. If a progressive UM Church was going to work anywhere, it would be here.

Over time, this scenario holds that liberal churches will become weaker and, as a consequence, will send fewer delegates to General Conference. Most of our annual conferences are not experiencing growth, but more conservative areas of the country are declining less rapidly. So, the relative strength of evangelical churches will increase on a national level.

In addition, this narrative maintains, the African churches are growing and their influence will, as well. The end result is that the UM Church will be the one mainline denomination that refuses to cave to the culture. We won’t know the outcome for a decade or two and we will have to endure greater disobedience by pastors and bishops, but we will maintain our biblically balanced and faithful positions regarding sexuality.

One could make a case for both narratives. In favor of the first is the fact that our culture is changing. After my generation retires or dies off, it could be that the Africans will grow tired of us Americans, especially if there are few U.S. conservatives left in the denomination. Who would blame them for writing “Ichabod” over a thoroughly progressive U.S. church that refuses to obey the Book of Discipline, continues to lobby for a sexual ethic that is nonbiblical, and that creates problems for their witness in Africa? Maybe the progressives will lose the Africans but they will win the church in America.

A purely numerical analysis could give hope to the second narrative where traditionalists come out on top. But I’m not counting on that. We United Methodists in the States are not a particularly theological people. We tend to make decisions based on the deep compassion that resides in our “strangely warm hearts.” As my generation leaves the scene, it’s not unlikely that younger UMs will first adopt a “live and let live” approach to our differences which will soon turn into our denomination’s fully embracing homosexual marriages and pastors. That’s how it has happened in other mainline churches.

I’m also convinced that we will see fewer and fewer evangelicals enter ordained ministry in the UM Church. Would you? If you were a young person who wanted to reach people for Christ, would you join a denomination that might force you to embrace a sexual ethic that you believe to be contrary to God’s word? And even if you thought evangelicals would carry the day, you would have to decide to enter the ministry knowing that you are committing your life to a dysfunctional denomination that will fight this battle for the next ten to twenty years.

You’d know that much of your time and energy would be devoted either to joining the battle or explaining to your parishioners why they should hold on and not leave your congregation and the denomination. Young evangelicals will find other denominations for their ministries where they can devote themselves completely to reaching lost people with the Gospel and there will be fewer orthodox UM pastors in the future left to teach their congregations or argue at General Conference for biblical truth. Who will enter our ordained ministry will be young progressives who believe the UM Church should and can be won. They will pastor traditional churches and over time cause conservatives to leave and influence “centrists” in their congregations to move to a more liberal position.

What about the Africans? First, thank God for them; they are (humanly speaking) the main reason we have been able to maintain a biblical sexual ethic. But their numbers at General Conference will not grow as quickly as some think. The number of delegates attending the 2016 General Conference has already been set. The percentage of increase for the African delegates is a mere 1.7 percent. The convoluted formula for determining the number of delegates sent by each annual conference is based partially on the number of ordained clergy within that conference. The Africans have a much lower ratio of clergy to laypersons than we do in the U.S. That’s not likely to change significantly any time soon.

Furthermore, African participation at General Conference is vulnerable to the vagaries of world conditions. A travel ban due to an epidemic like Ebola or to a terrorist attack could limit the number of Africans able to participate in General Conference.

So which narrative will become the story of the UM Church? It’s an intriguing question. But I don’t think it’s the right question.

The better question is: Why set up either narrative? Both scenarios project another 10 to 20 years of bitter fighting between two irreconcilable views. That’s three to five more painful, harmful General Conferences. That’s untold resources spent trying to gain control of a denomination that, when one side finally proves its dominance, will be greatly weakened and diminished. Many progressives will have left because they will not be able to stay in a church that in their view is not open to all people and is way behind the times. Many evangelicals will have shaken the dust off their sandals because they will not understand how the church can continue to debate what they believe the Bible makes very clear. Already we are seeing a conservative exodus in annual conferences where the leadership and the bishop are thoroughly progressive.

The end result in both narratives is that one side will “win” a hurting, broken and weakened church that is a shell of what it is now. Setting our particular ideologies aside, does it really seem the way of Christ that we should be willing to “destroy the hill to save the hill”?

God must have a better way for the people called Methodist – a way where there are no winners and losers; a way where both sides can be true to their convictions; a way where the totality of our efforts are spent working to save and care for a lost world instead of fighting and hurting each other for the next 20 years in hopes of being the last man standing who inherits a greatly diminished church.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.

 

Comments

  1. Rob, what is the better way you are referring to? Is it amicable separation? That, I believe, is where we are headed if we do not take action, starting with our bishops, and enforce the Discipline by exercising Biblical church discipline according to Mt 18:15-18. Only I doubt separation will be amicable, if recent events are any indication.

    One thing seems certain to me: We need to quit talking, quit the conversations and dialogues and endless debates, and act. May the Holy Spirit be our guide according to the Scriptures He inspired.

    • Victor,

      Yes, stop talking. Save your breath for those that want to hear the Good News! I Cor 1 tells us “For the preaching of the cross is foolishness to them that perish” and “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” “Progressives” need the message of the cross, but all you can do is offer them Christ. Then move on. Better not to listen to their confused reasons that immorality is now acceptable to God. Christ offers so much more than the world!

      Our leadership especially needs to stop talking and take action.

    • The parable of the four kinds of soil in Mark 4 (and Matthew 13) are a guide in where we should focus our ministry. Our Good News should be planted where there is “good soil”, which will bear “much fruit” (John 15:16). It is our calling, and that should be our ministry focus.

  2. Pat Glazener-Cooney says

    It might be helpful to remember a thought from John Wesley: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” As we fight to save the institution, let us not forget that being obedient to the One who created the institution in the first place should be our first and foremost priority! Seems to me that we are well on our way to fulfilling Wesley’s fear! Holy Father, help us to be what you call us to be.

  3. Pat, you are right, unfortunately. The United Methodist denomination is dying, at least in America. We will soon be on hospice care if we can’t turn things around. Instead of being a force to change the culture as Methodists did in Wesley’s days and in the revivals in the 1800’s, the Methodist Church is being transformed into the culture. Unless we begin to stand against the sexual depravity that has become more acceptable in society, we will be a dead sect. It is so sad watching this happen. There are still some good things to witness in the UMC, but they cannot compensate for the downward spiral caused by the destruction of marriage as God designed.

  4. Rob I presume from your comment that it is within the realm of the imaginable that at 2016GC, a specific , joint group be assigned the task of coming up with an amicable separation proposal, to be presented in 2020 and voted on and 2024. It’s a simple plan amicable divorce. Surely I’m not the only one who is thinking this shouldn’t be difficult at all?

  5. Brian Allen says

    Rob, as always I appreciate your insights and support you and Good News.

    My view is that the left will win because they are hungrier, hard working and more strategic than us evangelicals. We seem to be more likely to “move on”, leaving behind our assets to fund a non-Biblical ministry that occupies the buildings left.

    The left’s plan to gain the “indifferents” of the UMC on board with “A Way Forward” was a stroke of genius. Where is our plan to appeal to those who simply desire the “comforts” of the church at the time of Wesley.

    Might I suggest we make a submit a plan in 2016 to offer a buildings and a % of the pastoral pension funds to leave, should they find what they have vowed to for over 40 years so reprehensible?

    Who cares if it dies in some legal mubo jumbo, at least it shows we are trying to be reasonable, in the minds of the “luke warmers” who ONLY want to avoid conflict.

    Just a thought. Again, God Bless you and Good News. 2016 needs to be about offense. Defense is getting old and eventually wears out

  6. Isn’t it time make the decision to separate our beloved church and go our own ways? Is it impossible
    to accomplish that arduous and difficult task? I think it is time to just DO it !!!!!!!

  7. Rob, I hear your frustration. I believe our best years are together inthe future. God is a god of the impossible. Our church is bigger than this issue of sexuality. Our mission is bigger than this issue of sexuality. I see churches growing in almost every conference( not enough). I see the gospel changing lives across the country in traditional and liberal UMCs. I believe we can reach the world for Christ together.

  8. It’s not just those who are entering into the pastorate who are hesitant about the Methodist denomination, I’ve chosen to not become a member because the denomination doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that I exist. I’m someone who has struggled with same-sex attraction from a young age, and in my early 20’s found a ministry that helped me in seeing change through Jesus. (Harvest USA, a non-denominational ministry based in Philadelphia.) You can read more of the story on my blog: sswh.wordpress.com, but after many years I did experience change and I’m so thankful for those who have offered their friendship and support. I am trying to encourage the pastoral staff at the UMC church I currently attend to help others like myself in seeing repentance and redemption…just as they should for every other person who comes through the doors, regardless of the sin we happen to be struggling with.
    I’m thankful for the good writing here at Good News Magazine – please keep up your continued good work!

  9. remember the necessity of constitutional changes

  10. Steven H. Zinser says

    A better way is to both divide and stay united. View it as a corporation with different companies under one banner, each company independent except for things like pensions, health, insurance, publishing, endowments, etc. Allow individual churches to join the ‘business’ that best expresses their church beliefs. Allow them their own districts, bishops, property, and discipline. Put the admin details under one name, but give the businesses separate names. Share endowment proceeds by some fair formula, or use them to fund the corporate functions.

    Amicable bifurcation.

  11. It is quite surprising when we hear some sect in Christendom who call themselves “Christians” or
    ‘ministers of God” of God advancing the agenda of Satan. Whoever supports same-sex marriage is a total disgrace to Christianity. To those who are arguing for homosexuality we would like to ask them the same question the apostles asked the Pharisees and the Scribes:
    “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge

  12. Todd Noland says

    My experience is progressives react to this issue based on personal relationships with those who have been rejected or ignored by the church over the years. They become sympathetic, trying to show love and understanding but make this relationship their primary concern and relationship instead of the Holy Spirit. My daughter has a female partner who had a child 7 months ago. In my daughters youth she loved the Lord and was opposed to homosexuality. For me and what I see in the churches are the more we talk about it the more satin wins and the Church is divided. We are not faithful to God when we do so. What boggles my mind is we allow intellectual ignorance and manipulation to trump even simple textual statements in scripture. I understand some will disagree. Bottom line satin wins each time we bring this subject to the public forefront. This issue is a very personal intimate issue and should be treated as such. As a pastor I would never, and will never allow, the desires and influence of my daughter, whom I desperately love, influence my faith and relationship with God (no marriage)
    My daughter, her partner, and child live with me because they need a safe place, a home. I love and respect all the good and Godly things they do, and tell them so. Besides their relationship they have other sinful habits that, at times, I mention and other times keep silent. I give grace and judge as little as I can, relying on God’s judgement. We need to stop talking about it and make it a non issue, this is between them and God and that is where it should stay.

  13. There have been many entities that have advocated for dealing with the upcoming GC- 2016. From the posts that I have read on several sites, since the GC of 2012, none have emerged to be a dominate leader. The Clergy (Current Leaders) are basically opposed to the views of the people in the pew; who are mainly uninformed. A divided house cannot stand. One other Denomination has dealt with the issues by giving up traditional buildings, etc. and started Spiritual growth in vacant strip mall buildings. Incremental decay of the system (loss of membership and first time conversion baptisms) will eventually win out unless the GC-2016 can take a bold step for an equitable solution by a dominant majority of votes.

  14. Rob: Good News Mag. And everyone associated with it have done a splendid job keeping the average United Methodist layperson inform on important church dealings. However I have been a member for 60 years and I see our church slowly slipping to the Darkside. It is my believe that very few gays care at all about the teachings of Christ. Unfortunately they can’t just leave us alone they have to put another notch in the belt. So I think it’s time to split they can worship as they want within the next 15 years their side of the church will cease to exist. Like the old saying says you must change your lifestyle to fit the word of God you can’t change the word of God to fix your lifestyle. I can’t understand why they do it that sort of lifestyle must to be as miserable as anyone can imagine. So let’s get the split done and if it doesn’t work out I can always join the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Privacy Policy
Refund Policy
Terms and Conditions