Like many Methodist pastors, last week, I followed from a distance the activities of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore. I am not a delegate or an observer of the deliberations that will determine our structure, mission, and purpose for the coming four years and beyond. I am observing the activities through technology and social media trying to grab hold of the latest news and tidbits coming out of Portland.
What I have witnessed, thus far, has made me sad as a pastor, as a lifelong Methodist, but, more importantly, as a follower of God. I have seen the anger of division in our comments towards one another. I have seen the discord of bitterness reflected towards those who do not share the same viewpoint as we may have. I have seen the negativity of ridicule spoken towards those who may share another side of the discussion.
So far, General Conference has become the conference for the angry and the bitter. It has become the conference of the either/or. Our General Conference, which should reflect the best of who we are in our discernment as a community of faith, has become a reflection of the same polarization and disagreement we have witnessed in the public square of the political process.
This should not be a surprise to those who have paid attention to both society and the church in recent years. Society, especially in the United States, has become splintered along ideological and soci-economic lines. Anyone who does not share the same exact – and often extreme view of the world – is seen has the problem and should be defeated and disregarded. This has created the polarization of today. What this does is it pushes the sides further apart and creates a situation where the things we hold in common are less important than where we disagree.
In this, the voices of those who find truth in the middle are silenced. There is little room for moderating voices in our society today who seek to find truth in both positions and find a workable way forward. They are denounced as part of the problem.
I fear this same scenario is happening in the church, today, especially in The United Methodist Church. For several General Conference seasons now, groups representing all theological viewpoints have created a dividing line between “their” side and the “other” side. Only “their” side is true to the movement of the Holy Spirit, to the church, and the people we are called to walk with. It is the “other” side who are harming the mission of the church, its people, and are not hearing from God. Through this, much like society at larger, what we find in common with one another is silenced in the face of what we hold in disagreement.
There is not much room, in this current make-up of the church, for those who believe that the church and society should not be an either/or, but a both/and. Our theology and practice of ministry is at its best when we do not initially seek out polarizing responses, but responses that captures the heart of Scripture and God’s love for all. We are at our best when we hold together the truth of holiness and the call to justice.
The church should never be a place of the extreme. It should be a place that sits where Jesus comfortably sat. We often ascribe to Jesus as being on “our side,” yet Jesus often found himself in the middle of the conversations willing to challenge the extremes and to bring both sides together towards a deeper engagement of what it means to follow the Lord. We see this in how Jesus held firm on the importance of the law while holding to its deeper, and more difficult rendering, while also honoring the importance for seeking justice and caring for the least of these.
Jesus never called us to one side or another. He called us to a faith that is both/and and not either/or. Jesus calls us to honor both the need to be “holy as your heavenly Father is holy” while also seeking to care for others in the name of Jesus. When we try to say that the church has to be one or the other, and only that which is defined by our own viewpoint, we miss the depths of what Jesus calls us to be about as a church and a people who seek to follow the Lord.
There is no path forward for a church, so long as it seeks to be defined by the same either/or tendencies of our polarized society. There is a pathway forward to honoring God, reaching people, and sharing the same love of God that Jesus calls us to have on our hearts, if we seek to be the church of both/and, of both Scriptural holiness and the call to justice and mercy.
That is my prayer and hope for this General Conference as the second week commences today.