By Thomas Lambrecht —
As The United Methodist Church goes through this season of disaffiliation, there is much change ahead. Many disaffiliating congregations are uniting with the Global Methodist Church, forming a new Methodist expression that continues our historic Wesleyan, orthodox understanding of Christianity. A much smaller number of disaffiliating congregations are remaining independent or joining networks of churches that are forming. Those remaining United Methodist also anticipate much change in both how the church is governed and the message that the church promotes.
In this time of change, it is important to grasp the reality that God is working in all of these situations to do something new. While some may want to pass judgment on the “new thing” that God may or may not be doing in someone else’s church, God’s verdict is the one that counts, and we may not know that verdict for decades or until we get to heaven.
In the meantime, how can we ourselves participate in the new thing that God is doing? Isaiah has some suggestions.
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland,
To give drink to my people, my chosen,
The people I formed for myself, that they may proclaim my praise”
We can begin by releasing our focus on the past. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” Whether we are forming something new or renewing something currently in existence, we can certainly learn lessons from what happened in the past. It will be important to apply those lessons to the new thing that is forming.
However, we cannot live in the past or focus on the past. We cannot dwell on what happened in the past. Many have experienced painful circumstances during this season of disaffiliation. Relationships have been harmed or even broken. People and congregations have been treated unfairly. The process of disaffiliation has been costly, both in financial resources and in emotional and spiritual resources.
But if we bear a grudge over how we were treated in the past, we will never be able to move forward into the new thing God is doing in and through us. The word “forgive” in Greek means “to release or let go.” We can move into a spirit of forgiveness toward those who have hurt us, releasing them – and ourselves – to move forward unencumbered into a new reality. Why would we want to carry with us into a new season the baggage of a hurtful past?
We can focus on the new thing God is doing. “See, I am doing a new thing! … Do you not perceive it?” The exhortation that Henry Blackaby put forward in Experiencing God rings true to our current situation: Find out what God is doing and join him in his work.
Some are part of starting a whole new congregation. Others are revitalizing an existing congregation with new mission or programs or priorities. Some are even forming new annual conferences, districts, and a whole new denomination. Wherever we find ourselves, where can we see God working? What is God doing in the arena where we serve?
A focus on the new thing God is doing can provide the momentum and guidance we need to carry us forward and recover from the trauma of recent experience. The important question is, “How can I join in to what God is doing, joining him in his work?” It will take every person putting in our time, resources, and abilities to participate in the Body of Christ to form or reform the new thing God is doing. Sitting on the sidelines or, worse yet, taking potshots of criticism at those doing the work will not help God’s new thing to come into fruition. We can focus on what God is doing and join in.
We can rely on the promises of God’s provision. God is making a way for us, even when it seems like there is no way. God is the way-maker and promise keeper. We just need to keep looking and asking him to show us the way forward. For each of us, the way may be a bit different, depending upon our unique circumstances. The way may not be easy (through the desert or wasteland?), but by God’s grace it will be doable.
Furthermore, God promises to provide for us on that way. “I am making … streams in the wasteland to give drink to my people.” Water brings refreshment and new life. And don’t we need that refreshment and new life right now, as we begin to come out of this very difficult season? That refreshment is mostly spiritual, as we sense God working in new ways in and through us.
Water is also symbolic of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God with us now. “’Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this [Jesus] meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:38-39). We can count on God’s presence with us, as we travel the way God makes for us into a new reality. As Moses said, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16).
God promises to be with us, to never leave or forsake us. He will help us get where we need to go, as he creates a way for us through difficult circumstances and sustains us on the journey.
We can acknowledge who we are as God’s people. The point behind the new thing that God was doing in Isaiah’s time – and in ours – is to form a people for himself. We are God’s people, belonging to him. There is no higher status than that!
Knowing who we are and whose we are gives our lives and ministry purpose and meaning. We are not calling the shots. We are responding to God’s working in our lives through his Spirit. We are attempting to live our lives the Jesus way, informed and formed by God’s Word. We have a unique identity, different from how the world sees us or sees itself.
Our identity first and foremost is as God’s chosen people. Within that awareness, we have a sub-identity as part of the Wesleyan/Methodist family. And within that family, we have individual identities as denominations and congregations. In our focus on the smaller identity, we must never lose focus on the overarching one. Everything we do is in service to being part of God’s people.
This identity is something God is forming in us. Through his individual formation of each one of us as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we become formed into a group, a congregation, a denomination. We are not “holy solitaries,” as John Wesley put it. We are formed into a people of God, a community of faith. The attraction of being part of a denomination is that it helps us understand ourselves as part of something larger than our individual selves or our individual congregation. It helps us visualize ourselves as part of the larger people of God, working and serving together around the world.
Acknowledging ourselves as God’s people enables us to fearlessly grasp the new thing God is doing among us.
Finally, our ultimate purpose is to proclaim God’s praise. We are not building our own kingdoms, but Christ’s. We are not exalting ourselves, but Jesus. We are pointing, not at what we have done, but what God has done.
Keeping the focus on the praise of God and the proclamation of his glory helps us keep our priorities straight. It helps us know our place in the universe. And it puts the new thing that God is doing in proper perspective.
God’s new thing is not primarily for us, although we do benefit. His new thing is for the sake of a broken and needy world. And primarily, his new thing is “for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:12).
Let us by God’s grace and in his time put the past behind us and strive to bring to fruition the new thing that God is doing in Methodism today, that we might exalt our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim the praise of our glorious God!
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.