Haynes: Who says Elephants can’t dance?

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

In 1992 a book entitled Computer Wars quoted Bill Gates as saying, “IBM will fold in seven years.” “Big Blue” was behind the curve in every new computer technology that had been introduced in the past twelve years. That same year, The Wall Street Journal’s “computer beat reporter” concurred as he chronicled IBM’s descent, concluding, “The world will look very differently by the time IBM pulls itself together—assuming it can pull itself together and it will never again hold sway in the computer industry.” The magazine Economist opined, “In an industry swarming with smaller, nimbler firms, can a company of IBM’s size, however organized, react quickly enough to compete? The answer is, ‘no’” That reliable magazine concluded, “IBM’s humiliation is already being viewed by some as a defeat for America.” IBM stock was $13 a share. All assumed that “Big Blue” was an aging elephant and elephants can’t dance.

The rest of the story is that IBM came back! Today it is not the same company it was in the day when “mainframe” computers ruled frontier of the technological world, but Lou Gerstner and his successors, proved that “corporate elephants can dance.”

How is that corporate language from a quarter century ago meaningful for the UMC today? I love the “Shaker” hymn, “Lord of the Dance” that uses the same metaphor as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. In town and after town, inner city after inner city, and rural communities ad infinitum; United Methodism is no longer the church that it once was.

In his 1986 book, And Are We Yet Alive? Bishop Richard Wilke compared our beloved United Methodism to the man lying by the poor near Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate at Bethsaida. The man had lain there for thirty-eight years, immobilized and infirm. For a generation of time, he had either refused help or no one had spoken with the combination of compassion and authority. The man responded to Jesus’ words, “Rise up and walk.” He probably danced!   St. Francis was once shown the gold and glitter of the Vatican and the guide said, “Brother Francis, no longer does the church have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ Francis answered, “But, young man, can the church still say, ‘Rise up and walk?”

Like IBM, United Methodism and one of its predecessor churches, The Methodist Church, has been known as “big since the 1840’s .” Even with our sad and unnecessary divisions in 1816, 1820, 1828, 1843, and 1844, The Methodist Episcopal Church and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South were still the largest denominations in many parts of American Christianity.

But since 1968 “the elephant has not danced.” The United Methodist Church in the U.S. has been in constant decline in membership, attendance, influence, and cultural “muscle.” Bishop Wilke’s opening lines in And Are We Yet Alive? were, “Our sickness is more serious than we at first suspected. We are in trouble, you and I and our United Methodist Church. We thought we were just drifting like a sailboat on a dreamy day. Instead we are wasting away like a leukemia victim when the blood transfusions no longer work.” He was castigated by many and ignored by most. Had he stuck with his opening metaphor, he might well after written, “we are taking water fast and the boat is listing dangerously.”

For decades our decline was either rationalized or denied. Our major surviving ethos was that we were “united” in some dimension of Wesley’s “catholic spirit.” Now we cannot even agree on the semantics of “holy conferencing” vs. “Christian conferencing” since it seems that the Holy Spirit is empowering neither nomenclature. Can we survive the impending crisis or will we become a house divided?  The late Lyle Schaller wrote an important little volume entitled, Is the Ice Cube Melting? His analysis suggested that it was.

Of course, the divisive issue that we face now is whether to change the language of the Book of Discipline as related to homosexuality. In many local churches divisions over our acceptance or rejection of homosexuals could become a crippling blow. The General Conference’s discernment on the issue of sexuality has serious implications for our continued life together. Of all the possible options, a decision in either direction could easily result in a massive split, catastrophic membership losses, and abiding hurt throughout the connection. It is a social justice question with immense evangelistic import.

As I’ve written before, a life changing experience of biblical interpretation for me was hearing Dr. E. Stanley Jones in 1955 when I was twenty years old. I knew his Conservative credentials as a graduate of Asbury and a career missionary with the Hindus.   I can still see his white shock of hair, his raised open hand and the tattered Bible he held as he said, “The Word did not become printer’s ink; it became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Since then I have increasingly believed that doctrine, social justice conscience, and church polity are not ways to “make the elephant dance.” Only Jesus enables us to dance! Only when the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is internalized as saving grace for forgiven sinners will any church “dance.”

I did not sleep that night in 1955 and I never saw the Bible the same again. This year, as the UMC which I love headed toward another season of discernment, I spent scores of hours reading, researching, and praying over my Bible, asking God to show me what he had in mind with certain controversial texts. While I respect those who read their Bibles and come to a different conclusion, I was surprised when I concluded that holistic principle holds precedence over proof texts. I can find no biblical reference to same sex marriages so I have “no leg to stand on” regarding marriages.

With regard to homosexual, covenantal relationships, I cannot get past Jesus’ quotation of Leviticus 19:18 that we are not to hold grudges and are to love our neighbor as our self. He said that this and the first commandment to love God with soul, mind, and strength are the spiritual principles “on which hang all the law and the prophets.”

I also am amazed that the early Christians abandoned the Jewish requirement that all male Gentile male converts be circumcised. Circumcision was a fundamental foundation to the Hebrew covenant with God.

Sunday after Sunday we worship, and have loving fellowship together with persons of differing convictions about biblical literalism, re-marriage after divorce, abortion, ethnic and racial intermarriages, living together before marriage, and many other issues that once were divisive. Now there is hardly a church without diversity on each of these moral/ethical issues.

My hope and prayer is that before a vote is taken at General Conference, someone will ask the body to vote “yea” or “no” to a covenant of unity. Namely they would commit to remaining loyal to The United Methodist Church and ask the same of their constituents “back home” without regard for the plurality when the vote is cast. I believe that we would prefer to remain together as a faith family rather than to divide over an issue that might, either way, be seen differently a generation hence.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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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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Each day thousands of children are aborted and Christians are silent. Each day millions of people are taught that we evolved, that there is no God and Christians are silent. Today, Christians are witnessing the disintegration of God’s plan for the family and ‘educated’ Christians are justifying it in the name of ‘love’. God “… created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: …” (Gen 1:27-28) They disobeyed.… Read more »

Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

UMs have been watlzing with the elephants in the room for decades. Even today few have the guts to name those elephants in the UM room – pride, self-seeking, centralized command and control by an increasingly smaller cadre of elites. Elephants not only dance! Someone has to clean the floor after the music stops. Volunteers? Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

John Wesley Leek

Dr. Haynes, I respect you and your work. Your writing over the years have at times encouraged me or at least spurred me to think. This column follows that pattern of being written well. I also appreciate your honest struggle and your insistence to find answers in the scriptures given to us by God and by the Word that is Christ Jesus. At the center of your argument is Jesus’ second commandment, though you do mention the first. My question(s): Do you believe that God cares what we do with our bodies; the bodies our Creator has gifted us? If… Read more »


The world has changed so much beyond our imaginations, it has advanced our living as well as our thinking. Things we had rejected in the name of God or culture we now embrace because we have learned that what we had done was wrong. Because faith is about living the gospel in the world not in heaven. I have been taught that ‘love and grace’ must define how we think and believe in God. But historically speaking we Christians have done a lot of bad things in the name of God. Our decline is not just because we are anti-homosexual… Read more »

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