By Rowland S. Buck, Holston WCA Board Chair
There will be no General Conference this year, unless the Council of Bishops decides to do the right thing and call for a special General Conference to be held late this year or early 2023. I don’t think anyone really expects that to happen. Some are tired and just want to be done.
Some still hope that “The Protocol” will be acted upon in 2024. But all of us are living in limbo. The Global Methodist Church will launch May 1, 2022. While that is exciting news, the looming question is: How will we get there? Without “The Protocol” being approved by the General Conference, there is no clear way applicable to every church.
So we are in limbo, stuck between the exciting prospect of a new Methodist movement and the current stalemate in the United Methodist Church. For now, all we can do is wait to see what develops. Can I offer some guidance as to how to live in our denominational limbo?
First, pray. Prayer should never be our last resort, but always our first engagement. Prayer brings us into union with God. Prayer purifies our motives. Prayer challenges us to seek the way of Christ. Prayer tempers our anger. Prayer leads us to discover the heart of God. Prayer leads us to the mind of Christ. So pray.
Gather others in your church to pray. Pray for your pastors, regardless of which side of the issues they may fall. This is no easy time to pastor God’s church. Pray for their preaching, pray for their spiritual renewal, pray for the quality of their spiritual leadership. Pray for their spouses and families.
If you want a better pastor, preacher and leader, pray rather than criticize. Pray for our bishop. Pray for conference leadership. Pray for the Council of Bishops and the leaders of other annual conferences. Pray
for churches in Ukraine and Russia. Pray for churches in Africa.
Let this moment of uncertainty in our world and in our denomination be the catalyst to make God’s church a church of prayer.
Hear Brother Wesley: “ Whether we think of, or speak to, God, whether we act or suffer for him, all is prayer, when we have no other object than his love, and the desire of pleasing him. Proceed with much prayer, and your way will be made plain.”
Second, this is a great time to remember the primary reason there is a Methodist movement: entire sanctification—holiness of heart and life. Again, hear Mr. Wesley: “This doctrine (entire sanctification or Christian Perfection) is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”
Wesley wrote this the year before he died. He never wavered from this pursuit of holiness from the days of “The Holy Club” at Oxford to his death bed. If you are planning to leave the United Methodist Church because you are disgruntled with the way things have turned out, and do not move into the future with anything but your disgruntlement, you will end up being disgruntled wherever you land. But this moment is the perfect time to reassess why you are a Methodist! Is it for the hope of entire sanctification?
If not, then to what end are you a Methodist? I don’t even remember hearing the concept of “entire sanctification” or “Christian perfection” until I was in seminary! We stopped talking about it long ago, which is probably one of the reasons we are in this mess. But now is the time to take up Methodism in its fullest, original form.
Third, begin to have spiritual conversations with others in your congregation. This will not be easy, but it is time to talk about these things because truth matters. There is no reason to argue or purposefully agitate others. There is no need to be condemning or unkind. But there is a need for Christians to talk with each other about matters of faith.
Our current schism in The United Methodist Church has been caused by a slow drift from our doctrinal standards and from a diluted understanding of the primacy of Holy Scripture. As a group, we have failed to teach the doctrines of our faith and to help new and mature Christians alike develop a worldview shaped by those doctrines.
During my ministry, I have been constantly surprised at how difficult it is for church members to have spiritual conversations with each other. We can share prayer requests and we might even ask each other if we are “saved.” But we find it rather difficult to talk about what Jesus has done for us, how we have experienced justification, or what God is doing in our lives to sanctify us.
Part of that is a lack of vocabulary to talk about such things and the desire to not talk in “church speak.” Another reason is that we view these as personal and private issues and many of us develop personal theologies that we don’t want to see challenged. Can we see where that approach has gotten us?
Our denomination and the church in North America is in theological crisis. We say we are people of faith but we have neglected the discipline of how to articulate that faith in winsome and non-threatening ways.
We have become biblically illiterate so that Scripture rarely informs our personal theology. We know this about ourselves, so we are reluctant to articulate our beliefs with others and be challenged, fearing we will be proven silly. So we refrain in silence.
It need not be this way. Take a friend out for coffee and broach the subject of doctrine. If you don’t know where to begin, start with the Articles of Religion. Let the shared “I-don’t-knows” become the fodder for future discussions and even Bible study together. Let the conversations focus on learning together rather than correcting each other. Let Scripture inform your experience, rather than your experience determine your interpretation of Scripture.
In other words, when Scripture points to something that is unfamiliar in your experience, let it lead you to a longing for the experience. I have never spoken in tongues, but the Bible clearly describes such an experience. I have friends who have. I have family members who do. But it is not my experience. I do not doubt that Scripture speaks of such a thing, nor do I deny its reality or truth. Since I have not experienced it, I was never sure what to do about it. But I can long for it, since the Bible says it is a gift God gives to His children.
And if God wants me to have it, why would I reject it? Would I reject forgiveness? Or healing? Or the gift of administration? Of course not. So let Scripture lead us to desiring any and all that God wants to give.
There is plenty to do in this time of limbo. We can’t control how long this will last. We can’t control what others do. But we can spend the time productively. As Paul says in Colossians 4:5, “Make the most of every opportunity.” This is an opportunity—a moment to decide what kind of Christ-followers we will be. We can languish in limbo or we can pray; we can open ourselves to God’s sanctifying grace; we can begin to have spiritual conversations that are seasoned with grace.
And in the meantime, we will trust that God is at work.