It seems that many people have ideas for the post-disaffiliated United Methodist Church. What do we do next? Individuals who make more money than me, with more degrees and fancier robes, are huddled around conference tables as I write, thinking about this problem.
A phrase I hear floated in meetings, messages, and memorandums is “remnant congregations.” Have you ever heard a more apocalyptic expression? The remnants, those “left behind” after disaffiliation, need new church homes. Our conference seems bent on shuffling them into online congregations and planting new churches. I’d hoped they’d identify communities like mine where those left without a place to worship could find “sanctuary congregations.” So far, no one is talking about “sanctuary congregations”? We are stuck on “remnants.” That’s part of our problem. We had too many little churches in the first place. I’m not sure the answer is to restart and replant more little churches that cannot financially sustain themselves. It might make more sense to make the churches that didn’t disaffiliate stronger by flinging our doors open to anyone and everyone who needs a home. But what do I know?
As we consider our future, I think the most critical point for our decision-makers, connectional tables, bishops, superintendents, and remaining denominational powerbrokers to consider is: God is not a Christian. Let me take that one step further. Not only is God not a Christian, but God also is not a United Methodist. God has never read the Book of Discipline. God is God. Our attempt to domesticate God into our old, white, upper-middle-class image has failed. We should stop trying to make God fit into the idolatrous notion of an aggrieved American, English-speaking culture warrior. God does not care about the success or failure of our inability as Christians (or Methodist Christians) to get along or agree on 6th BCE Canaanite understandings of human sexuality, 1st-century Roman ideas of marriage, or 18th-century Anglican standards regarding the ordination of men and women, or 21st beliefs concerning LGBTQ equality. This is because God is not a Christian. For this matter, God is neither a Sikh, Muslim, Jew, nor a Hindu.
We are only what we are by accident of birth and geography. We are Methodists because we were born to Methodists (as statistics reveal) living in the southeastern jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. Gravity and family put us here. God had nothing to do with it. Say it with me: God is not a Methodist or Christian. If we think God is one or both, we’ve forgotten this point: God is concerned for all God’s children, regardless of denomination. The more we cling to our team and tribal identity to solve this current dilemma, the more confused, angrier, and further from God we travel.
While God is neither a Christian nor Methodist and is not as invested in our petty squabbles and legal battles as we are, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about us. We’ve forgotten that God doesn’t care about the teams (Methodist, Shiites, Sunni, Baptists, Global Methodists, United Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Judaism) or the supporter’s clubs (Duke University’s Iron Dukes, the University of North Carolina’s Rams Club, or pick your school’s fundraising organization). It is the individual who matters most to God. God is not a Christian. God is not a United Methodist. God is a people person. The teams don’t matter; God is not keeping score. What is this disaffiliation if nothing other than an exercise in keeping score? Who is the holiest, has the most virtue, respects scripture, and who loves tradition the most? We’ll add up the points at the end of the game, and whoever has the most that’s the person big daddy God up in the sky will love, and we’ll be guaranteed a place in heaven. That’s not how it works. Why? God is not a Christian. God is not a United Methodist. It’s not about winning the game.
This experience is about the pleasure of being in the field and community with others. Maybe we should be thinking more about strengthening our existing faith communities instead of acting on that same, tired old mantra: God is a Christian, a Methodist, everyone else is wrong, and we’re the ones who’ve got it all figured out. Less tribalism never hurt anyone.
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