Nearly two years ago, a friend and I began discussing the future of the United Methodist Church. For the past twenty years of ministry, our church has been involved in discussions over highly charged issues such as human sexuality, possible term limits for bishops, and the continued need to restructure the growing, confusing bureaucracy of the church.
My friend, who has been in ministry nearly 60 years, reminded me that these are just the twenty years of my ministry. The conversation goes back even further in his own tenure, counting for most of the time the United Methodist Church has been in existence (going back to 1968).
The conclusion for both of us is that the UMC has spent too much time exploring, debating, and disagreeing over a wide number of issues that, as of the time of this blog article, we are no closer to solving. In fact, we appear headed even further down the path of division and mistrust.
No, we continue to plow the road as though we live contractually together, believing that just the right number of votes swaying beliefs on either side will cause a surge of unity. It will not….ever. I don’t mean to the be the naysayer here but the core on either side of the various issues that ring so loudly in the life of our church are not going to change.
I for one have given a great deal of thought and prayer to what I believe, crossing over the Wesleyan quadrilateral thousands of times on my journey to make sense of what God’s will is for each of the issues at play.
And, though I believe that so many of our current leaders have meant well with their books, articles and treatises, I see little headway except to stir a bit more this boiling pot of contention.
So back to last year… so many of us saw this coming (and even, I believe, see further down this road… but that is for another article) and realized that what so many of our churches DID have in common was a genuine need to be in ministry—to reach the world for the gospel of Jesus, to march straight ahead into issues of injustice and poverty, and to consistently seek to develop and send new voices of hope into the world.
The result of these conversations was the creation of the Wesleyan Covenant Network. This is not a new denomination or even an attempt at a new church. No, quite simply, this is a parking lot for churches who want to focus on those things that churches should care about at the deepest levels of their existence. Issues like:
n Reaching the world with the Good News of hope in Jesus Christ
n Building new congregations that seek to live faithfully and consistently against the backdrop of a broken world
n Raising up new generations of leaders and servants ready to invest themselves into the deepest, broken spaces around the globe
n Providing resources that teach the basics of a Gospel that still transforms hearts and lives—including marriages, families, etc.
Our name is not an accident. We are Wesleyan because we follow the doctrinal principles and standards of John Wesley and the teachings of his movement around the world.
We are Covenantal because we are bound by a deeper bond of grace, forgiveness and love that is not about ‘what you can do for me’ but ‘what can I do for you in the name of Jesus Christ’.
And, we are a Network because we realize that one congregation is not enough to do this journey alone. We have been created to walk in unity and faithfulness together.
Our doctrinal standards are simple. We follow the current doctrinal and disciplinary standards of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nothing has changed in the Book of Discipline’s doctrines or discipline that we don’t agree with and that we are not prepared to follow faithfully. And, no matter what, we plan to follow these standards as the proper expression of our faith as Wesleyans and Methodists, regardless of any acts of disobedience or resistance by other groups in the Church. WE believe the Book of Discipline faithfully follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, the most sacred treatises of church heritage and tradition, and express a reasonable, grace-filled approach to a broken world in need of transformation and salvation.
Now, true, the Church is struggling like a man struggles to catch his breath. We have divided so many of our issues into a complete ‘yes’ and a complete ‘no’. Or, even worse, we have made the issues a battle between complete ‘good’ and complete ‘evil’. Neither is correct.
We are all sinners who have fallen short of the grace of God. And, we are all in need of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That is why his teachings and example are critical not only for whom we are but for who we are to become with God’s help. Thus, the church is open to all people regardless of our background or our brokenness.
But, we also believe that we must remain faithful to the nearly 2,000 years of teaching, wrapped in very clear statements of Scripture. Much like Jesus responded to those farthest from God that he met on his journey… he loved them, welcomed them, and then said ‘sin no more’. Jesus disliked sin and was not afraid to say it. But, he also did not like judgmental, hurtful people who would not allow a person the chance to find grace and forgiveness. The Church MUST learn that perspective and lesson as well.
I believe the bigger issue is that, many times, we really want Scripture to say something other than what it says because we love and care about the people who are caught in the middle of whatever debate on whatever issue we are having at the moment. Standing in the gap against sin is not easy when it involves people you love. But, to base my reading of morality on my personal feelings negates my need for God or God’s Word in the first place. I simply cannot treat God’s Word as my personal excuse or barometer only for all the things I want to be ‘ok’ in the world.
And, yet, I believe even this dynamic is NOT the real issue of our brokenness as Methodists. No, what I believe we have lost most is the respect for and the ability to articulate the authority of Scripture to the Church and world beyond. I see so many of our young people swept away by such movements as the neo-Calvinist ideologies of a strict, no- nonsense message of God’s word. As I have talked with many of our up and coming clergy and laity, the movement away from our church is more a reaction to the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (borrowed from John Piper) that has been too long preached in the vast majority of our pulpits. I happen to begrudgingly agree with this sentiment.
Now, please know that I am a Wesleyan through and through, and our theological tradition holds both the strength of a solid theological core and the hope of life bound together by love, grace and justice. The problem is that we no longer know how to preach both parts of the message “from our toes” as one pastor friend likes to say. Instead, we preach passively, touching only on what we think will win us our latest popularity contest, at least favor for the next week until we have to do it all over again.
This is not our pulpit heritage as Wesleyans anymore than it our theological one. We must recapture the grass roots nature of what it means to be Wesleyans, proclaiming both the authority of Scripture and the practice of Scripture for personal and social holiness. Methodist pastors must raise the bar on their preaching; faithfully develop our place as competent and articulate theologians; stand firm in advocating for our doctrinal expression, and boldly charge forward in our practical theology to change the world one life and community at a time.
Nothing explains the need and the purpose of the Wesleyan Covenant Network better.
The Wesleyan Covenant Network is an opportunity for pastors and churches to proclaim an uninhibited, straightforward, Good News, to be about the work of Jesus as his ‘hands and feet’ in their community, and live connected in fellowship with like minded Christians doing life together. Too often, our fellowship and ‘communion’ have become clouded by the many voices speaking in the arena. Yes, it is time for our voices to be bold, but also clear and meaningful.
In January, nearly 150 churches gathered in Atlanta for the initial organization of the Network. Again, our goal is to encourage churches for fellowship, evangelism, new church development and leadership. If you are interested or need more information about the Wesleyan Covenant Network, go to http://www.wesleyancovenantnetwork.org
The next annual gathering of the WCN will be held at Christ UMC in Memphis, TN. Please be in prayer as congregations for around the country join in this important time of fellowship and conversation.
We can not solve issues that ultimately rest at a place only God can get to in our souls. We can simply be faithful to God’s Word, to God’s people, and to the hope that God is ‘working all things for good for those who love him’.
Many blessings, my friends.
Be Salt and Light… You Matter!
Mt. 5: 13-16
Shane Stanford is a pastor, teacher and author committed to sharing the hope of Jesus Christ with the world.