Tag Archives: United Methodism

One Painfully Tough Decision

Disclaimer: This post is almost certain to offend some folks on both sides of the LGBT issue. So, I ask for some latitude and respect on any comments you leave here or anywhere else you might interact with me. I love each of you and mean no harm or disrespect. Thank you!

As a spiritual leader, I’m asked to make tough, consequential decisions that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers while possibly send me away tar and feathered. But that’s the nature of the job. Effective leadership doesn’t allow anyone to play it safe by remaining in a cozy alcove of indecision or inaction. Inevitably, the leader must step up and show the way, regardless of the cost.

Late last week my office administrator forward me an unsolicited e-mail entitled “Church Question” that said the following:

Hi!
My name is ————- and I am working with www.gaychurch.org to find Christian churches that provide a welcoming and affirming atmosphere to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians.
I found your church email online posted by you and I was wondering if your church would like to be listed in our directory with over 5,000 other churches that have been a welcoming and loving Christ-like communities to GLBT Christians and their families?
Listing your church will help GLBT Christians know they are in a safe place where they can be full participants in the life of the congregation – just as persons who are heterosexual, married, divorced, single, remarried and so on.
If you are interested in being listed please reply to this email with:
(1) Church name
(2) Denomination
(3) Address including state
(4) Contact information
(5) Website address if you have one

At the top of the forward, my office administrator said, “Thought you should handle this one.”

Now for some pastors, answering this e-mail would be a cut and dry decision. Some would either click the delete button, or some would enthusiastically reply with their church’s information. But for me, it was the beginning of much thought, prayer, and conversation with the person who sent me the e-mail.

I work hard to make our congregation the kind of people who will willingly embrace, love, and disciple any person we meet, either in the neighborhood or in our house of worship. I strive to get our congregational heart beating in rhythm with Jesus’ who would go to any length to find, carry, and heal even one lost sheep, no matter who they are, how they live, or what they believe (Luke 15:1-7). Our reasons have nothing to do with growing our membership roles, impressing our denominational leaders, or proving our vitality. I lead us to fulfill Jesus’ command to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

With that kind of vision, one would assume that a church would want to get its name on every list, advertised in any possible publication, and be in as many different places and spaceschurch_gay_connector as we could, just so that we could demonstrate both by word and action our willingness to include anyone in the shared journey of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. So what is my hesitancy to sign up my congregation on Gay Church’s website?

To include my church’s information on Gay Church’s website, we must be a welcoming congregation with a specific understanding of the word “welcoming”. They state:

“Welcoming” means that the church does not view homosexuality in and of itself as a sin and therefore they would welcome and treat a homosexual person no differently than any other person who walked through their church doors seeking Christ.

It all boils down to the meaning of the words welcoming or inclusive. In the Church, speaking at least for my own United Methodist tribe, that is the practical side of the larger debate swirling around LGBT sexuality. There seem to be two different meanings of inclusive. For some, being inclusive of LGBT persons implies that we include both the LGBT person and their sexuality as normative and blessed by God. For others, being inclusive implies the welcome and participation of all people in church life while being clear to identify any sin, including homosexuality, as incompatible with biblical Christian teaching, requiring repentance, accountability, and loving support into a new way of life.

Personally, I feel hemmed in by the debate around inclusiveness, and I’m desperately looking for a really good set of Holy Spirit shears to cut myself free. I passionately love people, all people and want them in my life and ministry. I think my church only grows stronger with our capacity to love and disciple anyone. One of our strengths and challenges is our widening diversity.

At the same time, I love people enough to share the truth with them, sometimes with sensitive articulation, other times with a heavy hammer, all depending on the issue and the people I’m caring for. Having spent untold hours reading the Scriptures, praying, and dialoguing with a wide diversity of people, I practice the second form of inclusion mentioned above– welcoming all people into our church life while being clear to carefully, compassionately teach what is inside and outside of Christian teaching, including my firm conviction that homosexuality remains outside of biblical Christian discipleship. It’s not self-righteousness vindication. I find no particular joy in teaching this. I know it pains some people to hear it, but at the end of the day, I must remain loyal to what I know is true. Then, the next morning, I rise up determined to love my LGBT family members and friends even more than the day before, shunning any hint of judgment or condemnation of them as people made in the image of God. Jesus died for my LGBT neighbors and friends just as intentionally as he died for me. How could I love them and accept them any less as my own sisters and brothers, even in our disagreements?

So, I would have loved to include my church on Gay Church’s website, but it appears impossible, and that greatly pains me. On the one hand, because of my church’s understanding of human sexuality, we are not invited to include our church as “gay friendly.” On the other hand, some of my conservative members and leaders would be up in arms about our church’s listing because it would appear that we would be “condoning homosexuality.” Really? That sounds like the grumbling of the Pharisees and tax collectors. Was Jesus ever condoning anything except the sacred worth of all people by simply being in ministry with them?

Given the circumstances it looks like the decision to include my church on Gay Church’s website was made for us, at least by the website itself. Again, that was a deep disappointment to me. But as a pastor, I will not stop there.

I will make the hard decision to press our church towards actively pursuing, inviting, welcoming, and discipling all people, regardless their sexuality or gender identifications. Loving people isn’t easy. Living in the truth and sharing the truth can be more painful still. But if I’m going to lead an authenticly Christ-centered congregation that lives by the love and grace of God, then we must break down the barriers we’ve errected between marginalized people and the Christ who died to save them. That’s exactly what Jesus did and is doing even now.

20 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Human Sexuality

Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…

11 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, The United Methodist Church