We Don’t Need Another Sermon Series
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that what we United Methodists need isn’t yet another fruitless debate and discussion of the question of the language regarding “homosexual practice”. Rather, it would be far better were we to have a discussion about the nature of our churches, their mission and ministry. All the same, I’m hardly surprised to find our General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has offered yet another study guide focused on the question of human sexuality. The subtitle, “Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” assumes both that there is some vague, as-yet defined “faithful witness” specific to United Methodism that we currently aren’t doing and that our churches don’t know how to include matters of human sexuality in their faithful witness. First of all, to take the two matters in reverse orders, our local churches tend to be wary of delving too much into matters of human sexuality not only because we Americans are embarrassed to talk about sex; they are also, by and large, adults who view matters of human sexuality as highly personal, and not matters about which the church should exercise itself overmuch. As for “faithful witness”, I would argue that our churches by and large are being faithful witnesses to the Gospel by keeping the doors of their churches open to pretty much anyone who walks in. They are being faithful witnesses by their local outreach, whether its local mission projects, Vacation Bible School in the summer, or what have you. Our churches know what they’re about, and to presume they need some kind of guidance from seminary professors on what it means to be a faithful witness both in general and in regards to matters of human sexuality in particular is precisely our problem.
Simply put, I think we’re supersaturated with study guides, books written by successful pastors on everything under the sun, and yet another class meeting some weeknight led by the pastor. Most churches liturgy is overflowing with sermon series’, sometimes based upon Scripture, sometimes on a, yes indeed, study guide. In an effort to coordinate everything from adult Christian education to liturgy to missional focus, ours is a denomination flooded with far too much top-down guidance through select issues.
In the United States, we are a church of thousands of congregations with around 8 million members. Among those members are successful business people, doctors, lawyers, counselors, teachers, non-profit workers and executives, academics, scientists, retired clergy, and based upon our demographics among the best-educated people in America. These are the people who make up our committees, our United Methodist Women groups, our Sunday School teachers, our small group leaders, and our faithful givers, tithers, and members. Rather than tap this ocean of expertise, we turn yet again to the same authors who ask the same questions and offer the same answers time and time again.
How many of our local church members are even aware that General Conference last year was a cock-up of epic proportions? How many know there will be a special called session of General Conference in February, 2019 to address not questions of human sexuality but primarily matters of the larger church’s organization? How many people know there’s an organization of clergy, some in their own conference, who are part of a group actively encouraging schism? How many of our local churches understand now is the time to speak up and act, to demand we focus our attention on our core mission of discipleship formation for the transformation of our world?
Why are we afraid of being open and honest about what’s going to happen over the next 18 months or so? Why are we ignoring the wealth of experience, of understanding, of specialized knowledge, of all the gifts and grace of our local churches, turning yet again to a study guide written by a committee, rather than coming to a consensus among the members of each local church after ad hoc conversations among themselves? Why is faithful witness something that is not assumed? Why? WHY? WHY???
We are facing grace matters yet there is little effort to harness the people called Methodists to shape and inform the discussions. We are looking to our usual ways of working with our usual problems: a study guide, taught in a class, usually by clergy. Not that there’s anything wrong per se with the current study guide; rather, it’s the lack of imagination that seeks to tell our local churches rather than listen to them.
Rather than talk about what others insist we must talk about, wouldn’t it be great for once if we listened to what our local churches had to say on matters of faithfulness, of in what each local church’s witness consists, its mission experience and goals? Wouldn’t it be nice if matters of human sexuality could be set within the context not of a 45 year old undefined formula (“practice of homosexuality”) that is really quite meaningless, considering what we know about human sexuality, and instead talked about the fact that sexuality might well be of little to no concern when it comes to the actual goings-on in our local churches? Wouldn’t it be nice if our delegations to the special General Conference went carrying not just the endorsements of their fellow Annual Conference members, but carrying the messages from our local churches regarding matters of church mission and ministry, the place and role of human sexuality, and what this should mean for our church structure?
In her latest column at Patheos.com, the Rev. Christy Thomas highlights what she sees as one of our major structural weaknesses inhibiting our growth:
[O]ur bureaucratic structure is just about to kill us. We are incapable of making quick decisions. There are times when it appears that every single detail of every single proposal has to be debated by every single delegate at outrageously expensive conferences.
Rather than a weakness, I for one see this as one of our great strengths. While not always perfect, and with some voices silenced either by cacophony or official proclamation, we are a denomination that insists that all voices are of value, all persons should be heard. I cannot imagine a church as large and diverse as ours operating in a way that limited discussions or sought to make quick decisions based upon matters of financial expense. This is who we are, and we should be proud of the occasional near-anarchy of our large meetings. Democracy is the least efficient way to do anything; we should seek faithfulness through consensus over efficiency every time.
By all means, we should be using the above study guide (and all those that are sure to follow). They should never replace the need we have to allow our congregations to speak for themselves, to tell their stories of faithful witness and mission. Let them tell their stories of their sense of place within the larger church. Let them talk about their understanding of the place of human sexuality within the life and mission of the church, an understanding that comes from years of faithful work at the heart of all church work – the local congregation. Not everyone is going to come out in the same place, and that’s OK. At least our church might actually be heard from, rather than told afterward what’s happening.