BE A YES! CHURCH
The wandering of the Israelites from captivity to the promised land stands as a metaphor for all religious journeys. Though seemingly unified in identity and blessed as God’s chosen people, they nonetheless experienced hunger, thirst, confusion of purpose, grumbling, exhaustion, and division. An entire generation, once enslaved, lived and died in search of a holy and prosperous place.
No tribe, no nation, no religion has escaped discord. Early Christians found themselves in disagreement over pork and jewelry. What traditions must continue? What traditions must change? A dispute erupted between Peter and Paul, the former anointed directly by Christ and the latter a messenger of Christ who likely had not seen yet believed. Should one have more authority than the other? Roman Catholics excommunicated Galileo and Lutherans excommunicated Kepler, both scientists whose discoveries generated conflicts with long held and incorrect scriptural interpretation and disputes over unitary truth. The Puritans killed women believed to be witches because, “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.” Presbyterians divided in the 1700s over tradition, and in 2009 the Episcopal Church divided over the ordination of women and gender issues.
Methodist denominations were and continue to be no exception. The author of Methodism, John Wesley, strongly opposed the American Revolution, placing colonial Methodists in grave danger of arrest or violence. One Methodist was hanged by revolutionaries. The historic St. George’s Church in Philadelphia, which ordained the first Black minister, nonetheless relegated Black members to the balcony – behind the line – an embarrassment to our history. Methodist segregation propelled Black members to separate and form one of the most influential denominations in American history, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Methodists have divided, segregated, reformed, joined with United Brethren and Evangelicals and to this day find reason to disagree.
Yet there is a distinct enduring strength of The United Methodist Church: We embrace the difficult journey. We embrace complexity. We grow from conflict. We make mistakes and with humility seek God’s grace in assessing and correcting our errors. During this strife, United Methodists are asked to hold one another in love and encourage all to go on toward a prize.This is the report of the YES! Church temporary task team commissioned to help develop an East Ohio Conference narrative that helps embrace our missional identity as a “big tent” conference of The United Methodist Church.
In a five-month period of reflection of laity and clergy, the task team shared both the joy and agony that are beneath that question of purpose. We shared these emotions:
Through prayerful reflection in scripture, respect for the wisdom of those who have gone before us, our own spiritual experiences, and the gift of reason, we recommend the following:
Our Calling: To love God with all our hearts and love others as we love ourselves. On these two commandments all else rests.
The Effect: We embrace the mystery that we are loved unconditionally as we imperfectly journey through life. This love is so stirring that we are compelled to likewise unconditionally love others.
The Experience: There is a timeless yearning for what is good and binds the people who today call themselves United Methodists. We wonder together: What should we believe? For what should we hope? What are the expectations of us? How should we act? And as we engage in those questions, often unanswered, we do not judge but remain steadfast in a call to exude Christ’s love.
The United Methodist Church mission statement states that the work of Christ is best defined and conducted according to the needs of the local community. We see evidence of this in scripture and history.
Tabitha’s ministry in Joppa stands as an outstanding example. Her attention to the women of the community provided opportunities for community fellowship and cohesion. Peter, in what was to be a short visit, found this so compelling that he chose to extend his stay. Likewise, it was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church at the steps of the Alabama capitol that unified the Black community of Montgomery in the 1960s in seeking justice and fairness – a transformative movement started by African Methodist Episcopal Church member Rosa Parks.
To be as successful as these few examples, congregations must be intimately woven into the fabric of their communities in ways that draw and hold people together. What does that look like? Christ told the disciples and the crowds, “let your light shine before others.” By doing so, he said, others see and want to experience for themselves the mystery of God.
The task force asked this question of itself and more than 100 United Methodists: If we were to ask anyone in our community to join us in an event at our church – any kind of an event – and the invitee, without hesitation, said “Yes!”, what would be the attributes of our church? This is an important image to have in our minds, because for this to happen there would need to be foreknowledge that our church is a place of acceptance, love, joy, stimulation, and safety.
The church member response to this question is reflected in the following word cloud, with the largest words representing the most frequent responses:
“Welcoming,” “friendly,” “caring” and "loving” are repeated most often. Analyzing the next tier of words suggests The United Methodist Church embraces engagement, inclusivity, and vibrancy, and a complex idea: “authentic.” This is the glue that holds United Methodism together. “Authentic” suggests that we are part of the community, we are doing, we are fallible, we don’t pretend to have answers to all of life’s complicated questions, and we care.
As the task force discussed these adjectives, or attributes, of the YES! Church, we concluded that these are not prescribed goals for a congregation, but they are the fruits of a United Methodist congregation that is intimately woven into the fabric of the community as members love God with all their hearts, and others as themselves.
We are fresh, sparkling, nutritious fruit – albeit with a little roughage. Humble. Complicated. Enthusiastic. Compassionate. Engaged. Fun. Missional. And all driven by a Spirit – a light – to which people are drawn. Is anyone, then, able to join this church? Is anyone able to serve and love others through this church? The answer is “Yes!”
A shocking discovery occurred when people who are not United Methodists were asked the same question: What would allow you to emphatically say “Yes!” to an invitation to a UM church? We learned that it’s what we don’t know about people in our community that can be most meaningful to understanding the reasons they don’t join us – and to which we must be aware.
While they listed “friendly” and “welcoming” as their top words, these new ideas surfaced:
And this observation was made as the “YES! Church task team was doing its work: A sign in front of a suburban church said, “Join us in worshipping the living God.” That raised two questions:
The task team discussed at great length our purpose in the community and how to best present ourselves to people wherever they are on their journeys – especially those whose path purposely avoids organized religion. In other words, how can God’s love, or “light,” best penetrate? And what are impediments?
What then do we make of The United Methodist Church mission statement that we are to “make disciples?”
The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.
The task team concluded that this statement, while scripturally accurate, is likely problematic, perhaps a result of the evolving meaning of words in a contentious culture. For example, 90 years ago, “stay woke” was a cautionary statement in a Huddie Ledbetter song urging Blacks to be aware of dangers in white America. That was an effective cautionary statement until it was appropriated in the past decade.
First, “wokeness” became a widespread call to action by social-justice advocates, and now it is used as a pejorative by white political figures who say whites are the victims of racism. Likewise, in today’s charged climate, to “make disciples” may feel imposing. That causes us to revisit what is behind the non-United Methodist person who expressed reservation about joining us when he asked, “What will you try to tell me?” Moreover, it feels contrary to the humility that is the essence of United Methodism. We don’t portend to have the exclusive lesson plans for discipleship. To do so might limit our own ideas of who is a worthy witness. Yet, we believe that United Methodism nonetheless produces spirit-driven disciples who have the wisdom and grace to reveal Christ to others in ways that we cannot imagine.
Moreover, we expressed concern that viewing ourselves as disciples – perhaps in a context of seed planters – carries risk. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis warns that a feeling of stature, of pride, is the greatest sin because it prevents us from receiving. Tabitha was described by Luke as a “disciple.” What were her qualifications that he called her a disciple? Would she have called herself such? She shared highly coveted cloth with widows – women who likely had no stature in the political sphere. Did they meet often to make clothing? To talk? To support and test one another? As one local pastor said, “The gospel flourishes where all are equals, where there are no barriers.”
This opens discipleship to a blurry definition perhaps left best to the work of the Holy Spirit, which, as we learned on the Day of Pentecost, can be full of surprises. People who were never thought to be preachers suddenly were speaking. How often have we gained new knowledge or felt our hearts strangely warmed by simply being with others? Again, strengths that set The United Methodist Church apart – mystery, awe, humility – allow us to step back from planting seeds in “them” – the imagery of us vs. them – to ALL people, including us, being fertile ground for seeds planted by Christ through each other! Engagement with people in our community opens all of us to learning, respecting, loving, helping, and growing with one another.
There are critics of The United Methodist Church who suggest that the church today stands for nothing. This task force strongly disagrees.
God’s creations – the common sparrow, the human brain, the ebbing tides, the circling moon, the humming black hole – comprise the pulsating cosmos that is beyond comprehension. Likewise, The UMC is a flourishing branch in a thriving ecosystem of religions that honor a supreme being who is beyond description.
There are those who ask whether the church must be redefined and discard its past. The task force argues that remembering our past should redefine the future. It can be painfully instructive. Black United Methodists already are asking whether the new church will remember the history of segregating Black members to the balcony and forcing Blacks to create their own denomination that in many ways defined American freedom. Will the church recall the embarrassment of Methodist pastors appealing to Martin Luther King Jr. to slow down, be patient, and “adhere to law and order?” Will the church remember that Blacks were segregated into their own conference? Will the church acknowledge that the closing of Black churches creates United Methodist deserts, just as there are food deserts? Will Black churches be heard in the new United Methodist Church? Acknowledging history brings us closer to God’s grace.
For those who ask, “Must I leave?” the answer is “No.” Ours is a “both-and” ministry of diverse people. All are welcome. It is only in a human-directed “either-or-else” situation that people might find their joys and hopes limited.
There remain questions about the impact of denominational leadership on local churches once The United Methodist Church is realigned. Those questions include: “Will the UMC send us a pastor who is theologically at odds with the missional statement and beliefs of our congregation?” “Or send a pastor who introduces changes in religious tradition that our congregation does not accept?” “Or will The UMC demand changes in our beliefs?” “Must I change?”
There are two answers to these questions.
Susanna Wesley defied her husband by preaching while he was gone, leaving an indelible mark on son John’s appreciation for the vitality of women’s voices. When John opposed laity as preachers, Susanna insisted that he listen to determine whether God might still be at work. He changed his thinking. In other words, John and Susanna Wesley, each on their own journey, recognized the power of the Holy Spirit when unfettered by their own arbitrary regulation. Yet, churches still build walls that grieve the Holy Spirit.
Frances Willard was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the late 1800s. She was a founder and long-time president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose mission was to end domestic violence. She also was an early leader of the women’s suffrage and social justice movements, often breaking local rules on women speaking in public. When she was elected in 1888 by her local conference to be a delegate to Methodist general conference, she and four other women were refused seats – by men.
What did the Methodist Episcopal Church lose by blocking women’s voices? Perhaps it failed to hear a call to save women and children from domestic violence? By opening ourselves to the whispers of the Holy Spirit from people unlike us, might we be more likely to welcome and help rather than harm “the least of these?” The Rev. Alfred T. Day III, General Commission on Archives and History said: “Frances Willard embodies that Wesleyan sense of practical divinity; that you just don’t go to church to hear a religious message but the religious message you hear, changes not only your life, but changes the life of the world around you.”
Our vibrant congregations quietly feed, provide clothing, offer time-outs for challenged parents, build and distribute beds, operate preschools, support community causes, and are warm, glowing places where all are welcome to communion – and to serve communion.
A story was told in our task force of a young man studying to become a UMC pastor. His heritage – native of India and not raised as a Christian – raised the question: Why did you choose United Methodism from among all the possibilities? His answer: Methodists don’t talk, they do.
A local pastor in the East Ohio Conference embraces our complicated heritage with a monthly “messy church” in which children and adults join their Sunday School classes to paint, compete, and play. At first, there is doubt and stress about the inevitable chaos, but she encourages new relationships. Energy, fun and excitement prevail. Kids and adults laugh with one another. There are high-fives. Deep conversations and aha moments ensue.
The youngest member of our task team refreshed our hearts with this personal experience. She helps organize an evening out with youth and adults for lively, fun conversation about scripture and issues. Restaurants are called ahead to make space for 30-40 people. Others in the restaurant are moved to ask: “Who are you people and what are you doing that is so fun?” The lively yet deep conversation is infectious. They are “YES!” people, embracing the wilderness.
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