Last week mercifully the General Conference on the United Methodist Church finished its two week meeting. For those who are not familiar with General Conference it is a gathering held every four years for the United Methodist Church. The design is to be a time of worship and community where the delegates define the parameters by which we will live together as Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist tradition. What actually happens, well that is a different story all together.
In my short time with the United Methodist I have followed a handful of General Conference sessions. Each time I have heard with great passion that the world is watching. First, I am not sure that much of society really cares about what we as Methodists decide, could be due to our irrelevance for too long. Second I wonder if the people making the passionate claim of the world watching have processed that in light of the words they are speaking. As I have reflected and prayed about the happenings of General Conference, I wondered what is it the world would see as the people gathered?
My thoughts are tragic in some ways. The casual observer could think the church is all about sex, money and power. Hours were spend in formal and informal settings on the battle around these three things. I do mean battle, as there were sides chosen, a game plan put forward, and a hope there would be winners and losers. There were impassioned speeches saying that unless the church changes the way it relates to people living a homosexual lifestyle we are not being faithful to Jesus. At the same time there are those who say if we change the way the church relates to homosexuals we are not being faithful. What if neither side of the issue is being faithful? Jesus never directly addresses homosexuality, however Jesus does address matters of sex. He has a call for purity, never fully defining what that means. The focus for Jesus is not the sexual relationships, rather it is the purity in our relationship with God and letting that guide all of our earthly relationships.
Nonetheless, from the outside looking in, it might be seen that winning the battle about sex is more important than letting Jesus lead our lives. I wonder what it would be like for the watching world to see Jesus before they see the argument about sexuality? I wonder what would happen if the watching world could see a people who were madly in love with Jesus Christ and still did not agree how that gets lived out?
Sex was not the only hotly debated issue of General Conference. There was a whole lot of discussion about money. Where it comes from and who gets to spend it on what. Just like any other multi-national business the church was seen to be arguing over money that is not theirs, it all belongs to God, while the people of most need are ignored. I wonder about all the money spend on the battle mentioned above regarding sexuality. There were millions of dollars spent to print material, have people present at the write times and to make sure people knew the right way to vote. More of God's money spent on a church squabble. What would happen if the same people who spent all the propaganda money matched it dollar for dollar with fighting malaria? Or taking on the challenges of indigenous people around the world being displaced for economic gain of a few? No, the question is which agency of an inward turned institution would get the money.
So we have covered sex and money, now we move to the root of it all, power. As I tuned in the the slow motion train wreck called General Conference what I witnessed was the battle for power. Who would be the ones who controlled what happened in the church. There were the voting blocks where people we demanded to vote the same, not because it was best for the Church of Jesus Christ, but so those who hold the power could maintain that power. No matter how many times it was proclaimed to the contrary, it was a two week turf war with the extremes looking to claim more ground from the other. Again the losers were not the people present at the meeting, rather the people in the churches across the world and more importantly, the people who desperately need the church to be about the work and mission that is Jesus Christ while we are busy claiming power.
So as the world is watching I think they could see how broken the church is. They could see the focus on sex, money and power. However, this is not what the church really looks like. There are extremes on either end of the spectrum. As is often the case the extremes get the most press and air time. Also no surprise the two extremes tend to talk passed each other in an effort to win the debate. If I had to put a percentage on this I would say each end of the spectrum is 10-15 percent of the church. That means there is 70-80 percent of the church that lives somewhere in the middle trying to keep the focus on being the church of Jesus Christ.
So how do we move past the extremes being the voice of the church? How do we get passed the issues of sex, money and power no longer controlling the efforts of the church? Where is the middle ground? Here is an idea that may seem radical or undesirable to some. What if the extreme ends of the church simple went their own way to have their own denominations? I have become convinced there is no middle ground where the two extremes will sit together in harmony and unity. If the extremes would go do their thing, server God as best they feel they can around their special interests, the rest of us could be about the work of Jesus free of all the rhetoric and propaganda. It is hard enough to journey together as the community of the church, but it might be a little more possible if the extremes allowed for a middle majority to have room to move. This is not about power to the majority or any of that. Simply, I think most people are more interested in following Jesus above the issues of sex, money and power. There are a majority of people who look to live in the state of grace that keeps in proper alignment personal holiness and social holiness. There are a majority of people who want to see scriptural holiness lead to more than arguments about who loves Jesus more.
There is no doubt the world is watching. Further the watching world is only seeing a church that fights over its own self interest. I wonder what might happen if a watching world looked at the church and saw the very face of Jesus? What would happen if the watching world looked at the church and saw the followers of Jesus focus on life more than being right or winning the battle?
So, perhaps it is time for some to go their way and follow Jesus as best they can in other expressions. Perhaps the path of most integrity is to stop trying to get the other extreme to follow Jesus the way we want them to, and get about the business of following Jesus as best we can where God has placed us. I hope, pray and dream of a church that is not so focused on sex, money and power. I hope and dream of a church that is focused on connecting people with Jesus Christ, even when that means we sacrifice ourselves. I believe this dream and hope can be a reality and I invite others to join the prayer and journey.