The Challenge Before Us All —
By JJ Mannschreck —
I had a conversation a few years ago with an elderly member of my congregation. “I think I agree with you on your interpretation of the Bible, and I don’t really want them to change the policies of our church,” she said, “but I have a grand-daughter who is a lesbian, and I really don’t want her to be mad at me for coming to this church.”
I’ve heard this same basic concept over and over from various people when the topic of disaffiliation comes up. Beyond the actual facts of the situation, people are very concerned with the perception. Whether it’s factual or not, there has been a massive disinformation campaign launched against the Global Methodist Church (GMC) as it emerges from The United Methodist Church.
It takes me back to the very first time I attended the Detroit Annual Conference at Adrian College in Michigan. I’ll never forget when we walked into the auditorium that they used for the big plenary meetings. My mentor pastor showed me the ropes. We stood in the back of the room and he said, “Down there on the left side is the angry progressive crowd. They’re a bit exclusive and they don’t really let anybody else sit with them.” Then he pointed up over his shoulder into the right back corner, “and up there in that section is where the angry conservative crowd sits. They usually say the worst things you’ll hear from a microphone this weekend, and they’re not much fun to sit with either.” And then he pointed to the bulk of the seating in the middle of the room and said, “and this is where all the normies sit. Let’s see if we can find a seat.”
That was my introduction to church politics in 2013. I didn’t actually know much about those groups, but I knew that the vast majority of clergy would prefer to sit in the middle and not really interact with those two angry extremes.
As time went on, the drama of the church began to suck more and more air out of the room and I realized that I needed to learn more about these conservatives. As a young clergy who is theologically conservative, I needed to figure out where I was headed long term. I decided to attend the lunch put on by those “angry conservatives” (which I had found out was a group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the “WCA” for short). But I was nervous. I might be a conservative in my interpretation of Scripture, but boy I wasn’t sure I wanted to be seen in the same room as those with such a negative reputation. I sat in the back, near the door – ready to bolt if I heard anything terrible.
After we ate lunch, the speaker addressed racism. Her name was the Rev. Dr. Joy Moore and she is fiery speaker with a heart full of Jesus. She spoke out strongly against evil and called us to do better. It was convicting and heartfelt, and I was shocked. I thought to myself, Wait, aren’t these guys supposed to be the horrible racists?! After her speech, I met Dr. Moore and we struck up a friendship that led to my (predominantly white) church partnering with her (predominantly black) church in the city of Flint. For a summer, we had volunteers come together to hand out water in Flint every single week because of the contaminated water crisis.
After that lunch, I realized that I may have jumped to conclusions. I may have made assumptions about a group of people without actually meeting them and talking to them and knowing them. I had lumped the WCA together in my mind with the worst sort of human beings my imagination could come up with – but my real world experience completely shattered that picture!
Fast forward two years to 2021. I had continued to exist as a theological conservative, but largely under the radar. I wasn’t shy about my position, but I also wasn’t broadcasting it loudly.
The Global Methodist Church had been announced, and I had written an article with five reasons I wanted to go to the Global Methodist Church but I didn’t turn it in. I sat on it for a little bit. If the article got published, suddenly my name would be out there in a big way as one of those “angry conservatives.” Again, I hesitated. I had been wrong about the WCA folks, but what if the GMC turned out to be filled with horrible hateful people? I wasn’t sure I wanted to connect myself to that group.
Then I was invited to participate in one of the Global Methodist Church’s big initiatives called the “Multipliers Cohort” through the Exponential conference. It was a brilliant class on how to do disciple-making in the modern world, and I learned a ton. But on my first day of the class, I was sitting in a room with a bunch of people who were heading to the Global Methodist Church and it felt the same way it had when I was attending my first WCA luncheon.
Tentatively, I was trying to get a feel for the room. At the lunch on the first day, the conversation shifted to the Global Methodist Church, and who would be joining it when it finally launched. There was a young woman sitting across from me who said it very bluntly, “Look, I am not interested in joining the anti-gay church. I want to join a church where they actually make disciples of Jesus Christ.” My eyebrows shot straight up.
All around the lunch table, every single person strongly affirmed that sentiment. Not a single clergy in the group of two dozen had any interest in being a part of an “anti-gay” church. But all of them wanted to be a part of a church that was truly united around the core purpose of spreading the gospel and transforming lives. That night, after our first day of the class, I clicked “submit” on the article, sent it in to Good News magazine, and the rest is history.
A lot of people are in the exact same conundrum that I was in. I was born and raised in The United Methodist Church, and I will always have a love for the people who introduced me to Jesus Christ. But there is an element inside the denomination that has been working overtime to smear the image of the emerging church.
Rather than Paul and Barnabas blessing one another and sending them on their different paths, it has looked more like mud-slinging politicians. Beyond the cost of disaffiliation, the price tag for the creation of the Global Methodist Church contains an uphill PR battle in an already hostile social moment.
One of the reasons for writing this article is to reiterate that you cannot argue someone out of a first impression. If someone accuses you of being hateful, it will never be enough to simply yell back, “No, I’m not!” Our counter-argument must go deeper than the statements we sign or the things that we say. It must be steeped in the lives we live. Our example must be drenched in grace and overflowing with kindness. We must hold ourselves to such a standard and conduct ourselves in such a way that nasty rumors don’t stick because they don’t match anyone’s actual experience.
If our church is to be accused of sexism, then we must become warriors for women – strongly standing up for their right to preach and administer the sacraments. If our church is to be accused of racism, then we need to work across the colors of God’s creation to listen, to love, and to share the gospel of Jesus to every nation, and every community. If our church is to be accused of homophobia and hatred, then we must show more love to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters than anyone would expect.
I have heard it said over and over that it is possible to disagree with someone and still love them. If that is true, then our churches should be an abundant source of that love. For example, if someone in your community struggles with same-sex attraction, ask yourself how can you provide them with love and support? How can we walk alongside our brothers and sisters with both compassion and conviction? We have made it clear that we will not compromise our convictions, and now it time to show the world that we are still people of compassion.
If you stand up for anything, there will always be people who hate you. Our challenge as Methodists is to live our lives in such a way that when someone tries to spread stories of your hatred, the people who know you will respond and ask the accuser, “Wait, are you sure? Have you actually met them?”
When I started out in ministry, I believed what I heard about the WCA and their “hateful ways” until I actually met them. When I took a class with the GMC, I was tentative because I believed the rumors. Only later did I sit in the room and hear who they really were. We can’t stop people from spreading lies or jumping to assumptions and judging us. We are not always in control of the first impression. But we can, as followers of Jesus, live a life so full of love and compassion and conviction that when people finally do meet us, they will experience the counterargument before they ever hear it.
JJ Mannschreck is the campus pastor at the Cardinal Square campus of Aldersgate Church, a newly minted Global Methodist Church in the Midland-Saginaw area of Michigan. He transferred his ordination from The United Methodist Church to the Global Methodist Church. You can read more about him at thesimpleton.org. Artwork: Shutterfly.