Stay or Go? Preface

March 1st, 2019

These articles were written over the past six months during what I consider the second most turbulent time in Methodist history, as United Methodists decide how to faithfully divide. (The most turbulent time, in my view, was the period following the Civil War when Methodists decided how to faithfully unite.) They are not intended to instruct Methodist churches and leaders what to decide from conviction. They are intended to coach Methodist churches and leaders how to decide with integrity.

The temptation in such turbulent times is to make reactionary decisions, influenced by emotions, egged on by hotheads, based on single issues, to gain political power. Such decisions are driven by resentment rather than hope. In order to be genuinely hopeful, decisions should be made strategically, shaped reasonably, guided by cool heads and warm hearts, cognizant of multiple issues, for missional influence.

The habitual behavior of the church was once top-down. Councils and conferences would make decisions, and their directions would filter down to local leaders and congregations, who might or might not agree, but who equated faithfulness with obedience. That habit is long gone. The habitual behavior of churches is now bottom-up. Regardless of hierarchical policies, local churches (members, adherents, clergy, and boards) will make their own discoveries and decisions and create their own compromises and conversations.

The era of global centralization is coming to an end. What does this mean for the church? It means that standardization and uniformity can no longer be imposed by a ruling body for every nation or culture. It means that regions must take authority and responsibility to shape the future of ministry in each national or cultural context. It means that policy-making is less important than relationship-building. And it means that partnerships between churches, or between churches and public sectors, cannot be based on complete theological or ideological agreement. They can only be based on good will, shared work, and mutual accountability to the marks of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, constancy and self-control.)

There are three assumptions underlying these articles. I call them the Three Principles of Local Religion. This is religion as it is lived out, not as it is theorized, systematized, dogmatized, or politicized. It is not religion forced into the structures of academic research or denominational policy, but religion as it is pursued locally, in community, by an infinite variety of “ordinary” citizens.


Principle #1: Cultural Diversity + Individual Mobility = Community Flexibility

Global cultures are multiplying exponentially into more and more distinct lifestyle segments. In the secular world, this means different “markets”. In the religious world, this means different ministry expectations. Add to that the extraordinary mobility that allows individuals to travel and interact physically and digitally. The result is that neighborhoods or communities (urban, suburban, rural, and remote) must become more flexible in their relationships for everyone to survive and thrive.

Principle #2: Different people seek God for different reasons, experience grace in different ways, and express their gratitude through different symbols

One size shoe does not fit all feet. The world is a bubbling cauldron of spiritualities as individuals and groups are driven by unique circumstances to yearn for the real presence of God. Some are lonely and lost; others are shamed and angry; others are physically, relationally, or mentally broken; and still others are trapped and dying; and still others are isolated and abandoned. And God is there, as each has need for healing and hope, vindication and justice, companionship and guidance, liberation and new life. Each expresses gratitude through different images and songs, rituals and practices, tattoos and slogans. No need, blessing, or joy is better than another. They’re just different.

Principle #3: My way may be different from your way, and all ways can become part of God’s way, but only God knows how

There are two ways to react to diversity: righteous indignation or profound humility. You can be threatened by it or awed by it. Everyday Religion does not deny that there are absolutes. It only insists that they be adaptable to circumstances. The “my way or the highway” mindset may be noble, but it is not peaceful. Authentic community is based on the principle that I may think I know what is right, but I might be wrong.

These days the church talks a lot about “authentic” community, and all too often falls short in the eyes of the public. This is because “authentic” community does not emerge from prideful confrontation, but from humble conversation. It is not resentful. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. After all, now we only know in part; later we will know fully; even as we are fully known. As St. Paul reminds us, authentic community is not a community of children. It is a community of adults.

Some leaders and boards on the extreme left and right are absolutely certain and radically committed to a course of action. They are willing to stake their careers, relationships, and assets to do it. Most leaders and boards, however, are somewhere in the middle. They may lean to the left or right, but they are tentative and cautious. They want to take their time, count the costs, and manage the risks.

These articles are primarily for those “in the middle” — or perhaps it is better to say “in a muddle” — to help them behave empathically, think strategically, and behave compassionately. But they may also be helpful to those who are absolutely certain and radically committed. The experience of extreme leaders in every denominational split is that they look back and wonder where the people went. This is why, in every church split, the sum of the fragments does not equal the size, credibility, resources, or influences of the whole.

Those in the conservative faction will discover that a Christ-centered, biblically sound theology does not preclude a liberal social agenda. Those in the liberal faction will discover that a Spirit-centered, biblically informed theology does not preclude a classically Christian faith. This is because the Chrisitian movement has always been shaped by the experience of grace among ordinary people in local communities, rather than by institutional controllers in denominational committees or academic experts in theological colleges.

The Three Principles of Local Religion apply equally to liberals and conservatives. They are universal. We may at times be uncomfortable with them, but we cannot avoid them if we want to live at peace, work together, and allow God to be God.

Tom Bandy
May 2019


Stay or Go?
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