So, being the geek that I am, one of my favorite movies is Star Wars: A New Hope. It’s the story of Luke Skywalker and the beginning of his journey to be the hope to an oppressed people. It’s a story of hope and it’s power; it’s story of a leader coming along that will lead the people who are fighting for what’s right on to victory.
Hope is a powerful thing. Leaders are powerful things.
And that’s what I have come to find out. This may sound like a very arrogant statement, but I think I’ve come to understand part of what can bring hope to our Annual Conference and to the United Methodist Church in general. And ironically, it’s not what I used to think that it was.
I’m not going to recount the ways that our Annual Conference and denomination have seen troubles in the past four decades. We’ve seen loss of membership, status in society, and influence in culture. We’ve seen our ability to spread scriptural holiness across the land decrease. It’s been a long time in the wilderness for us.
So, then the question is asked, what will be our way out of the wilderness? What or who will be our Moses? What will lead us to the promised land of new growth? Of building and strengthening the kingdom? Of relevance to our communities?
We must first, though, answer the big picture question of who are we? What do we do? How do we stop the decline within our Annual Conference and our Denomination? What do we do to go about doing great things for Jesus in our state and our world again?
It’s in the hard work of figuring out who we are that much conflict starts. It’s in the hard work of baring our soul; of reflection; of examination and conversation that conflict can arise. I think that is what has brought forth so much conflict in our Annual Conference the past few weeks.
Our conflict does not come out of an isolated incident. It does not come out of a witness given at an Annual Conference worship service. It does not come out of debates over constitutional amendments. This conflict comes as we examine who we are, and who we are called to be.
So, the question is posed, how do we move from here? How do we enable our church to grow now, and in the coming years?
One option is theological purity. If the Annual Conference, or everyone within the Annual Conference held the exact theology, or close to it, that I held to, then everything would be great.
In short, the problem with our church is those who have a different theology than we do. Regardless of what our theology is. It’s those that are not willing to take the same stand that we think is an essential stand. They are the problem within our Annual Conference. And, if we can outmaneuver them, or out vote them, or drag our Conference and denomination back to where we think we ought to be, then surly things will turn around we will grow.
That’s how I used to feel. That’s what I used to believe. I love my church. I love the United Methodist Church. It’s where I was baptized, confirmed and converted. It’s where I was called to ministry. Its theology is my theology; its polity is my polity.
I love my church.
And, for a time, I thought theological purity was the way to ensure that our church would grow and build the kingdom in our mist. I knew this was right. I felt like it was the way for relevance and the way to make sure that our church would grow.
I felt like if the right delegates were elected, the right votes were cast, the right speeches made, the right conversations had, then my theology would win, and our church would be restored.
And then something happened. I began to meet other pastors. Some of which were “conservative.” Some of which were “liberal.” Some of which were “moderate.” And all of them were doing great things for the kingdom in their midst. They were leading their congregations in exciting ways to be relevant within in the community. People were coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ through their ministries.
Across the spectrum. Liberal to conservative. These persons “got it.” They were leaders. They we focused on the kingdom. They were focused on their community. They were focused on doing whatever they could do to help build the kingdom in their midst. And God was blessing them.
And I shifted my thinking. It’s not about “theological purity.” It’s not about maintaining the old and keeping things as they are. If that were so, why aren’t the other churches all around us exploding? Why is there a decline in the influence in relevence of the church, not just the United Methodist Church, here in out state and across the nation? Have ALL churches fallen away from correct theology and that is why the overall church is declining? Or could it be something else?
So, going back to my original Star Wars reference, that hope that we seek is found not in a theological purity test or in closed doors or in condescending words, but rather our hope is found in Christ and in understanding that we have been called by Christ to take His grace to all that are hurting and needful. And that grace is for all. As John Wesley said in his sermon “Free Grace,”
How freely does God love the world! While we were yet sinners, "Christ died for the ungodly." While we were "dead in our sin," God "spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all." And how freely with him does he "give us all things!" Verily, FREE GRACE is all in all!
The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL.”
Grace, free, and for all. That is what John Wesley believed, taught, and preached. That is who we are as United Methodists.
It’s about being relevant. It’s about following where Jesus is leading; to the heart of the communities where we live. The issues we fight over have very little to do with what matters in our communities. They are means to divide us and keep us fussing with each other. They are things that keep our eyes off of Jesus and off the great things He wants to do here.
All the time and effort that we spend fighting amongst ourselves is time and effort that we are not using to build the kingdom. That’s what matters. That’s what is most important.
It comes down to relevance and to meeting the needs of communities, to heal the wounds of the places we live with the love and mercy of Christ.
It’s not theological purity that leads to relevance. It’s leadership that loves and cares for their communities and leads their churches to care for their communities. And when our passion for the Gospel and freeing power of Jesus Christ compels us to leave behind the walls of our churches and build relationships, friendships, and connections with our communities, the kingdom springs forth. We see lives, families and communities change. When we become more than the churches on the corner or churches down the road. When we become part of the community.
Now, theological purity is easier. Theological purity is a checklist that can be completed and checked. Relevance for the sake of Jesus, that’s hard. But, that’s what the Lord demands of us. This is hard work. But it’s necessary work
This is our way. This is our new hope. But it’s same hope that compelled Wesley. It’s our way back. Leaders that will help us embrace our communities and build the kingdom. In this, God does amazing things.