Pentecost or Corporate Control?
Wednesday’s most dramatic moment came in the evening with the presentation on the Call to Action by Adam Hamilton, pastor of a megachurch in the suburbs of Kansas City. It took place in the massive convention center where we are meeting for General Conference here in Tampa and it was one of the slickest presentations that I have ever seen. It was perfectly timed between in-person presentations with adjoining videos and music, building to a crescendo meant to urge us to leave the quite pathetic present of the United Methodist Church in favor of a glorious future where our churches are filled, our clergy are young and everyone lives with meaning and purpose. One thing I could not help noticing is that the presentation was designed to have speakers from every major voting block attending General Conference in it. Smart. It felt like a video you will see at the Democratic or Republican conventions. It was expertly done.
But I was most troubled (and I have to admit, I was troubled by a lot of things in this presentation) by the pictures Rev. Hamilton showed of boats in the water to signify where we are as a church and where we should go. One picture showed several boats going in random directions, each making a big splash of water but not seeming to go anywhere. It was comical. The other picture was of a sleek crew boat, which requires many people to row in the same direction, with the same exact speed and in perfect timing. The water was hardly disturbed with the boat smoothly gliding ahead. The image of course is the need for all to have the same mission rather than be disjointed and scattered.
But it felt to me much more than that. It felt dangerous. With the huge screens and the music building and carrying us all along, I felt stifled just watching it, because as one who tends to disturb the waters (calm waters usually means a lack of justice), as one who tends to not immediately jump in the boat along with everyone else, as one who resists the message of “grab an oar and row!”, as one who tends to prefer the energy that seems like chaos, but is in reality, creativity unleashed, I felt marginalized by Rev. Hamilton’s vision, not inspired. I felt imprisoned, not unleashed.
As I have reflected on this image tonight I see there are some incredibly troubling biblical images that come to mind that frankly make Hamilton’s crafted Call to Action dangerous to the life and mission, and yes, vitality of the church.
As I strained to think about all of the biblical stories that might fit into Hamilton’s vision – a picture of everyone in the same boat going into the same direction, rowing with perfect timing, the corporate whole replacing the uniqueness of the individual – the only story that kept coming to me was the story of the Egyptian subjugation of Israel under the leadership of the Pharaoh. There is no other picture I can think of that shows a body working with such conformity and precision. No, I do not think Hamilton is trying to enslave the church, but I do think the analogy does fit. Forcing everyone into the same sleek crew boat, all rowing in one direction with precise timing and speed, will naturally stifle and repress the gifts that actually, everywhere else in the Bible, create meaningful and necessary tension, conflict, and missional motion. Though the Body of Christ is equipped and meant to move quite differently with various responsibilities and purposes, this image of the sleek crew boat puts that body into a straight jacket.
The power of this presentation – the amount of money it took to put it all together, the number of people – including Episcopal leadership – that had to come together to pull this off made this more than powerful. It was stifling in and of itself – for those of us who do not fit into that sleek crew boat designed not to include the dramatic variances of the gifts of the Body, but instead, designed to be a one-size-fits-all church structure. It was overwhelming because it felt to many of us who sat in the hall that this had been pre-decided. The fix was in – we are going to fit into that boat or we will get left on the side, we will get left behind. Moving in the same direction and rowing in the same exact fashion to make the boat go, is all that seemed to matter through the sheer size, cost, time, and magnitude of the presentation.
And at the same time, the biblical image of Pentecost kept coming to my mind. Pentecost seemed to people standing and watching from the sidelines, like the random boats in the first picture, splashing around, chaotic looking, but yet filled with motion and even excitement. People could not help but gather to watch and perhaps even jump in and participate. Pentecost was like that. The Holy Spirit fills the disciples and they speak in tongues they likely do not understand themselves. It is an uncontrolled public witness – uncontrolled by human agendas – as well as a transformative movement of God. The Church is birthed here! Should not this image be the one we want to follow simply for that reason alone?
There is no doubt about which picture I resonated with and which one I felt the freedom to be who God has called me to be. It honestly feels like choosing between someone’s corporate controlled image of a smooth, efficient machine and the somewhat chaotic, yet entirely creative, dynamic movement-making frenzy produced by the Holy Spirit’s uncontrolled presence in the lives of a group of believers willing to risk it all for the Kingdom. I’ll take the latter any day of the week.
After the presentation Tuesday night I could not wait to get out of the hall, just to breathe. I must admit, I am afraid for the future of the United Methodist Church if Hamilton’s vision, the Call to Action, is adopted. The sleek crew boat and the incredibly powerful and expensive presentation, endorsed by all the powers that be seems quite attractive. Clean, efficiency is always attractive. But I do not see life coming out of that model. I do not see the New Testament Church birthed out of the Call to Action. I see centralized-control and a sleek new model that makes us feel good, asks us to do very little and meets our every whim and desire. But that ain’t the church I want to be a part of. I will take frenzy over precision, motion over calmness, and the control of the Holy Spirit over the control of a small group of church elites – a cabal if you will – any day of the week.
So, I am praying for Pentecost. I hope you will pray for Pentecost too.