Commentary: Two conversations that helped renew my hope

By Richard Hearne, Special Contributor…

As a member of the North Texas Conference delegation to the last three General Conference sessions and an annual conference lay leader from 2008-2012, I have had the opportunity to attend multiple meetings discussing the decline of the United Methodist Church. The most dramatic talks centered on the prediction of a “death tsunami” in the coming years, as so many United Methodists will pass on to become Saints of the Church.

Richard Hearne

This constant reminder of our dire circumstances has really become oppressive, and forces one to consider the wisdom of continuing to devote so much time to the UMC. The futility of the 2012 General Conference (where we accomplished little if anything)—coupled with recent rulings of the Judicial Council that would seem to indicate no significant changes are going to be allowed to how our denomination functions—makes it appear that we’re in a lose-lose situation. It is very difficult to be committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world when we are not sure our denomination will be relevant or even in existence in just a few short decades.

However, this past week I had two conversations that gave me some hope for our future: one at a local church meeting and the other on a golf course.

At the church meeting, staff and laity were discussing the opportunity to provide more discipleship programs for our congregation. Somehow the focus of the meeting turned a little negative.

One of the young clergy in the room made an almost defiant statement that he was tired of all the doom and gloom talk in our denomination. He is in the very early years of his ministry and doesn’t want to believe that he is committed to a dying denomination. He believes in our Wesleyan theology and our polity. He believes, and stated very strongly, that God is not yet finished with the United Methodist Church and that our best years are still ahead of us. He acknowledged that we do have issues that must be addressed, but added that as a denomination, we’re not ready to be put on a life-support system.

His witness was very powerful, leaving me a little embarrassed that I had not spoken up as he did. I left the meeting with a different, improved attitude and decided that I must, at the very least, continue to give my best efforts for the United Methodist Church.

My other encounter was with a very good friend—a man who is one of my accountability partners.  The weather was warm for a January afternoon, and the golf was not focused, so the conversation between shots turned to concerns about the UMC.  We were discussing how many persons are leaving the UMC to go to nondenominational churches. I expressed my disapproval, a feeling that many of those folks are merely following preachers and aren’t committed to a body that has a connection like the UMC.

Then my friend asked me, “Are you more interested in having the gospel of Jesus Christ preached, or in saving an institution?”

What a great question! Am I invested in saving United Methodism because I truly believe that God is alive and leading our denomination? Or is it only because I’ve committed so much of my life to the UMC as an institution? If so, and if that is also true for others, could that be the reason so many people tell us they don’t feel God’s spirit in our worship or in how we treat others?

Have we become—as John Wesley feared—a “dead sect” that values our own comfort more than the needs of the poor? Would we rather battle over social issues (which are important) than deal with the critical issue of preaching the living, saving grace message of Jesus Christ?

Do we heed the admonition in Ephesians 4 to conduct ourselves with humility and gentleness, bearing with each other in love as one body and one spirit? I am not sure that those outside our churches would describe our actions in this way. Do we need to refocus on our mission statement?

One conversation restored my confidence in the institution, and another convinced me that we still have the message to preach—we just need to do it.

So how about you? What do you think our future is, and what is your goal for the United Methodist Church?

Mr. Hearne is director of development for the UMC-affiliated Lydia Patterson Institute and former lay leader of the North Texas Conference. He can be reached at rbhearne@me.com.

 

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Join the conversation....

  1. wesmagruder says:

    Richard, I appreciate your confidence in, and enthusiasm for, the UMC.

    I would simply say that I am a bit bothered by the implication that there is a difference between "social issues" and "the critical issue of preaching the living, saving grace message of Jesus Christ." I know that you value the importance of so-called "social issues," given your work on the General Board of Church and Society. But our Wesleyan theology and understanding of the Kingdom of God does not permit us to separate "social issues" from "religious issues." This is a false dichotomy, leading to the impression that all that matters is that we preach that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and that everything else is just a rung lower on the importance-meter.

    But if Jesus' message is really true — that the Kingdom of God is at hand, here and now — then we ought to live like this is true. This has enormous implications for the way we live, the way we vote, the way we treat our neighbors. This may be at the heart of the problem with our institution — very few of us actually live the Gospel. When the world looks at us, all they see is middle-class Americans, aspiring after the American Dream, bathed in a thin veneer of religion.

    Perhaps what we need is not a refocus on our mission statement, but a rediscovery of a wholistic understanding of our theology of the Kingdom of God …

  2. My wife and I have been United Methodists for about 12 years now. We were raised up in Southern Baptist churches and so some may say my comments to follow reflect our Baptist heritage. However, let me preface what I am about to say with the statement that we are Methodists and fully support our local church even though we are concerned about the future of the UMC and the direction in which it may be headed. That said, to respond to your article/post, we do feel like there is not enough emphasis placed on salvation/conversion/being born again or whatever terminology you wish to use. Sometimes I feel like a lost person could enter our churches and never really hear the message that they need to have a personal relationship with Christ and how that happens. It's as if we assume everyone there is a Christian or knows what they need to do. Now don't get me wrong, I don't like in your face beat you over the head preaching but at the same time I think the UMC has worried too much about offending anyone to the point our message is compromised and watered down and doesn't speak to people as it should. Perhaps we need to go back to the earlier days of Methodism where social issues were very important but the Gospel message of salvation was the primary focus. If we do that and the church returns to its first love (Christ) a natural result will also be a desire to meet physical needs of the poor and the oppressed.

Your thoughts?

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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