By Rob Renfroe –
Which is more important: what you think or how you think? Don’t spend too much time working on an answer. Both are critical. As orthodox Christians we rightly emphasize that what we believe is essential. But people can believe all the right doctrines and still not live a joyful life that makes a difference in the world. That’s because how we think makes a difference in our marriages, at our work, in difficult times, and in all our relationships.
How we think will also make a difference in finding a faithful way forward for evangelicals within The United Methodist Church.
It’s normal for many people to think pessimistically. “Things are bad and they’re going to get worse. My problems are big and they’ll only get bigger. Everyone’s against us. Why try? There’s nothing we can do to change things.”
Other people tend to think judgmentally. They see a problem and their first reaction is to find someone to blame – their spouse, their boss, politicians, the bishops. They spend their emotional energy looking back to fix the blame instead of looking forward to fix the problem.
Still others think naively. “It’ll work out. Things always do.” No, they do not. Kids do not always get off drugs. They need parents who will pray and fight for them. Marriages do not always get better. They need two people who will do the hard work of making a troubled relationship good again. Finances do not always work themselves out. People must make a plan and be disciplined. It’s naïve to think otherwise.
I hear these ways of thinking in the conversations with people about the future of the UM Church. Some of us are pessimistic about our future and what we can do to change it – some of us have even given up. Others are judgmental and angry, consumed with blaming whoever they see as the villain. And still others are naïve – like an ostrich with its head in the sand, they refuse to acknowledge the deep trouble we are in and do not feel a need to try to make things better.
What we believe may be right. But if how we think is wrong, we will never be part of the solution. How do we need to think to make a difference and be used by God – whether it’s in the lives of others or in bringing about the exciting future God has for faithful Wesleyan Christians?
First, we must think bottom line. More people know what they don’t want out of life than know what they do want. They cannot tell you their bottom line. They cannot tell you what their purpose is, what their goals are, or what they believe they are on earth to accomplish. What happens when we do not have a bottom line? Not much. We have no direction, no purpose, no passion, and no power.
One reason Paul was so effective in spreading the Gospel in the first century is that he knew his bottom line: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Bottom line, Paul said he was here to grow closer to Jesus, to open his life to the power of God so that souls would be saved and lives would be changed, and to spend his life for the Gospel – even if it required sacrifice and suffering.
Paul’s bottom line gave him a purpose which birthed a passion that generated a power to keep going in spite of persecution and suffering – and the world did not change him; he changed the world.
When thinking about our denomination’s future, what’s your bottom line for a way forward for evangelical Wesleyans? For me, it’s being united with others who love Jesus, trust the Scriptures, have a missional passion for the lost and the poor, and want to embrace all people without letting go of the church’s historical sexual ethic. My bottom line does not care about proving I’m right or villainizing those who see things differently. I have no desire to control or prosecute others. My primary concern is not that we evangelicals receive every last penny of the denominational assets we deserve. My bottom line is to end the fighting and get on with being a church that changes the world.
Second, we need to think positively. Here I am not referring to “the power of positive thinking” but to the faith-filled way of thinking that characterized Paul when he wrote, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
Do you remember how David responded when Saul said he was too young to fight and defeat the Philistine giant Goliath? “When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep, I went after it, struck it, and rescued the sheep. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear, and this Philistine will be like one of them” (1 Samuel 17:34-36). David told Saul he knew he could defeat Goliath because he had faced the lion and the bear and he had won.
When your life becomes difficult, you need to remember the lion and the bear. You have faced huge problems and overwhelming challenges before. You have undergone terrible trials and you have been filled with fear in the past. And you overcame. Do not underestimate your own strength or resourcefulness.
Shifting our thinking to United Methodism, evangelicals within our denomination have been struggling against the influence of liberal and progressive theologies for decades. Most of our seminaries, many of our bishops, and leaders of our boards and agencies have tried to belittle, undercut, or misrepresent a traditional theology and intimidate those who promote it. The full force of the institutional church came against us in St. Louis. But for 50 years we have stood together, and we are still here. Those who have gone before us have been faithful and courageous in the face of the lion and the bear. That’s our heritage, and that’s who we are.
But there was more to David’s answer to Saul than self-confidence. Here’s the rest of his answer to Saul. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17.37). David had a deep confidence in God – he believed that the God who had fought for him in the past would fight for him in the future.
I do not know what the outcome of General Conference 2020 will be. But I do know that God wants a church that is faithful to his word, committed to his Son, and unashamedly proclaims the Good News of salvation. Will God keep the UM Church together, will he birth two or three new entities, or will he do something different? We will see. But we can be confident and positive that the same God who has kept our global denomination from caving to the culture in the past will be our deliverer and our defender in the future.
Finally, we need to think simply – not simplistically, but simply. It’s easy to obsess over every possibility, plan out complicated strategies to counteract what others might or might not do, or get lost in the details of the challenge we are facing. When we do, our problems become overwhelming. The internal conversation that goes on in the minds of people who get stuck in life is full of statements that begin with “what about,” “but if this happens,” and “here’s why that will never work.” It’s a complicated and confusing world inside their heads and they often get stuck inside their own thinking.
What’s needed is a mentality that says, “Even if I don’t have it all figured out, I will take a simple step forward in the direction of my bottom line.” Nothing great will ever be accomplished if every possible objection must first be solved and every theoretical eventuality must be addressed before we move forward. That’s true of the challenges we face as individuals and as a denomination.
Take a simple step forward – and you are moving. Take a simple step forward – and you are closer to your goal. Put enough simple steps in the right direction together and a solution will appear and you will overcome.
Our plan for a faithful UM Church is simple. Find nonevangelical partners who want to stop the fighting, who do not want to repeat the ugliness of St. Louis, and create legislation together that leads to an amicable parting of the ways.
Simple is not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard work and often there are real challenges. But it’s not complicated. If there are enough progressives and centrists of good will who want the best for the church, we will find them and we will work with them and there will be respectful separation. It is that simple. Not easy, but not complicated, either.
Thinking about the bottom line, we should know what we want. We need to think positively and act in faith, simply taking the next faithful step forward. That’s how we move forward.