Keeping the Faith
I’m not sure exactly what year it was.
What I do know is that it was some time in the early 1980s…and it was a Sunday.
I remember walking back into the nursery and letting go of my mother’s hand so that I could examine my shirt. I remember there were dark spots on my little yellow sweatshirt. I was wet. My hair was wet. It was almost the kind of wet that reminded of times I had walked through a short sprinkle like we sometimes get here in Oklahoma.
That is all I remember from my baptism.
I was baptized as a young child at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Tulsa, at a time in the life of the church where it was experiencing incredible vibrancy and growth. While I only remember a little from the day I was baptized, I have hundreds of memories throughout my childhood and youth growing up there. And the memories of that church are a cherished part of my past that helped me grow in my faith throughout my whole life. The faith I found at St. Mark’s came as a result of the love poured into me by pastors, youth ministry workers, volunteers, Sunday school teachers, VBS leaders, and the people my family sat with in the pews.
When I was growing up, St. Mark’s was the place where my best friends were. The place where I learned to play the hand bells. The place where I heard the stories of Jesus for the first time. Where I got the best hugs and sang my favorite hymns. It was the place where my parents served and the place where they were the best version of themselves. Lives were changed in that church. And I am thankful that mine was one of them.
The foundational faith that I grew into at St. Mark’s became a part of who I am. And as God began to call me into ministry, it was there at St. Mark’s that I began my journey to answer God’s call on my life. That United Methodist church was my home away from home until I moved to Oklahoma City to begin my training in ministry at OCU. I was there nearly every time the doors were opened, and I was glad to be there.
St. Mark’s, like many other United Methodist churches around our conference and our world, has been in the ministry of life change and the making of disciples since the church doors were first opened. Through our churches, millions of people around the world have become the very hands and feet of Jesus, active in bringing about societal change since long before our denomination was formed in 1968. Our history is steeped in the unique perspective of John Wesley’s ideas on prevenient grace, radical inclusion, unlimited freewill, our assurance of salvation, and that Christ’s ministry is for ALL people.
As a lifelong United Methodist who has served United Methodist congregations in Oklahoma City and Broken Arrow as a youth minister for 17 incredible years, and now 6 years into serving as a pastor in Tulsa, the denomination I love is struggling. The church that drew me in and loved me into a committed relationship with Jesus is fracturing for reasons that are becoming increasingly less clear.
And as a result, along with many other long-standing United Methodists throughout our conference and denomination, my heart aches.
The issues we are facing now don’t seem to be issues of division exclusively between conservatives or liberals. It now seems that many local congregations are leaving the UMC as a way of keeping control of local church property and a grasp for their first true taste of autonomy. And this now seems to be happening on all sides of the political spectrum within United Methodism.
The issues that made the headlines in 2019 are no longer the only issues that divide us. Instead, it seems to me, that the ability for a church to choose its own destiny has been made the main object of our current divide. The millions upon millions of dollars of property and assets that are being relinquished to local churches for pennies on the dollar are the only incentive needed for a local congregation to start a church down a discernment path toward disaffiliation. And in the midst of this firestorm of disaffiliations, there is fear being instilled in those who wish to remain United Methodist.
Disinformation, rumors, and outright lies have been spread in an attempt to scare United Methodists into leaving the denomination they love. Accusations of heterodoxy and a leaving behind of ancient Christian creeds and doctrines are some of the talking points I have heard from pulpits and disaffiliation information meetings around our conference. Accusations are being made that our Book of Discipline will be changed so drastically at our next General Conference that the church these dedicated Methodists love and cherish will become unrecognizable. And these accusations are patently false.
One of the greatest things about our United Methodist Church is our system of checks and balances. Our General Conference is a check on any extremist voices that might arise within our denomination. It guarantees that a minority voice could never undermine the ministry of our church as a whole. All decisions made to move our denomination in any direction come through committees which have discerned and debated and finally, after much time and prayer, come to an agreeable place as one.
Our United Methodist Constitution can never be frivolously changed to appease a theological fad or momentary issue. A single group’s agenda will never rule over the whole of our church. Vast agreement must be obtained to make changes to our most treasured beliefs. And the Book of Discipline guards itself against any unwanted or unmerited changes by writing into our very constitution protections against any such changes. (See BOD 2016, CONSTITUTION, Section III. ¶ 17-18.)
So, there is nothing for us to fear.
United Methodism has been a strong voice for change in our world since 1968 and will continue to speak out for justice all around the world for generations to come. We, as United Methodists, have a church that we can be proud of. A church that makes a difference in our world and that seeks to bring about God’s Kingdom here and now! As United Methodists, we can celebrate our history of making disciples for the transformation of the world! We can celebrate our heritage of racial justice and our fight against social ills. We can see the difference our churches, schools, universities, seminaries, hospitals, homes for children, and senior living centers make in our world.
We have the ability to recognize where our apportionment dollars have been spent to heal broken communities, to recover after floods and earthquakes, and even to fight against modern day slavery. Our United Methodist church is a church we can all be proud of, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be a church that will make a difference in the lives of others for the sake of Jesus Christ no matter who seeks to divide us.
My prayer for our denomination is that in this time of uncertainty, we do not lose hope!
And as brothers and sisters in our baptism, whether we fully remember the exact moments of that baptism or not, may we remember that this church is not our own, but the church of Jesus Christ. May we each love like Jesus, even amid our disagreements. And may we stand firm in the knowledge that our United Methodist Church needs us now more than ever. So, let us continue to be the people of Jesus everywhere we find ourselves. And may this challenging time in our history become for us a time of revival and renewal within our churches.
I am hopeful that the church I serve now will become a church where lives are changed, just as mine was so long ago. That other United Methodists will look back on the times they spent in church with the same fondness that I remember while growing up among the pews of St. Mark’s. I am also hopeful that the next generation of pastors, church leaders, and laity that we are raising now will learn from the mistakes we are making in this time and will be made better in spite of us.
There is still much for us to be thankful for in this time. Brothers and sister, remain hopeful! Jesus is still the King of our United Methodist Church. Let’s continue to serve him every day that we live.
May it be so.