General Conference begins tomorrow in Tampa. This is the quadrennial gathering of United Methodist from across the world that sets the agenda and mission for the church.
It is an important General Conference and perhaps the most crucial that I can remember in some time. Major issues such as reorganization and clergy appointments will be discussed. There will also be time for debate on other hotly-contested issues, such as the denomination’s views on homosexuality. From the outset it appears that much rides on the outcomes and decisions at General Conference.
As we approach the start of General Conference, I have been thinking through some of the issues and want to articulate some of them. My purpose is not to take sides on any one discussion, but to express my thoughts as I have studied some of the issues that will face General Conference.
My thoughts center entirely on my asking this question: “What does it mean for us to be Methodist and Christian?”
Many of the discussions entering General Conference have focussed on our vitality as a movement. The Call to Action report and its legislative findings have come as a result of denominational decline in membership and worship attendance. In response, the United Methodist Church has taken a deep look within itself and asked if the way we are doing church can continue. Some have argued that we need to complete reorganize our structure so that growth can happen.
I applaud the work and service of those who have developed reorganization plans, whether it is Call to Action, Plan B, or the plan submitted by the Methodists for Social Action. One thing is for certain and that is there is a deep love for the church that extends beyond the United Methodist denomination, but all corners of God’s kingdom. No one should doubt the heart or the desire in these plans to seek the best response to create a place for vital congregations in our worshiping community.
My concern is that none of these plans address the core issues that faces the church.
We are not losing members and worship attendance because of how many organizations we have, the numbers on their boards, or even their responsibilities. There is a greater and deeper issue and that is we’ve lost our defining mission. We’ve lost our focus on Matthew 28:19 to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit ” (NLT). The mission of the church is that we are servants and proclaimers of the message of Jesus Christ. Our calling is to make disciples, to equip our laity to be in ministry, and in all ways proclaim the name of Jesus Christ. As Methodists, we have to get back to our focus on Jesus and allowing Jesus to be at the center of our discussions and faith.
There are some who argue we need to get back to our Wesleyan roots and doctrinal heritage as United Methodists. I agree with that, but we must go deeper. As Alan Hirsch pointed out in a discussion at Asbury University last week, we need to get back to our Christology and understanding of who Christ is, his mission, and his purposes for our lives. I believe when we do that we will find our roots in Christ, which will help to expand on our heritage as Wesleyans and Methodists.
Reorganization is necessary as we meet the challenges that face us today, but it is not the entire answer. What we need most is a revival of the Holy Spirit to direct, guide, and lead us in what it means to be followers of Christ known as United Methodists.