by Ken Loyer
In discussions about the United Methodist Church and its future, one of the most prevalent themes is the language of us or we. Across the spectrum, there is no shortage of commentary, speculation, or prognostication along these lines: this is what we want, this is our preferred outcome, this is what we can (or cannot) accept, this is our vision, others might do this but these are our plans.
The distinct impression is this: it’s about us. Whatever the future looks like, it seems to be understood primarily as a matter of what we plan or hope for, or what others who will likely be doing something different are preparing for or long to see. We might sprinkle in the occasional reference to God (who obviously supports our righteous cause, of course), but we often speak as if the future is basically in our hands—just as it should be, right?
While I’m all in favor of transparency of intentions as well as sharing our hopes and dreams, I can’t help but wonder why we are talking so much about us, or others, and so little about God. Do we believe that there really is one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who is alive and active in the world? Do we dare to consider what the Lord wants? What is the Holy Spirit up to in all this? What is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, saying to us today?
Hope Amidst Collapse
Corporate theological discernment is not a strength of the United Methodist Church as a whole. I think it’s safe to say that for a denomination built on the delicate and drooping philosophy of being a big tent where there’s room for everyone and virtually every conceivable belief as long as you’re nice about it, doctrine never has been much of a priority in any serious, heart-shaping and world-transforming sense. How easily theological language collapses into sociological platitudes—“We are diverse! We are one! We are better together!”—and truncated misunderstandings of our own heritage. Holiness becomes hospitality (hospitality is clearly important, but is scriptural holiness more substantive than simply welcoming those around us?). Love disintegrates into sentimentality and self-determination (is our understanding of love sufficiently biblical and trinitarian?). Vague appeals to unity only add to the confusion (unity of what, on what basis, and for what purpose?).
So, amidst this collapse of language, and the deeper collapse of commitment to a shared understanding of doctrine and mission, if there ever actually was one, we now see the collapse of the famous big tent. And tragically, we are seeing the death of this dream with painful clarity at a time when a divided world acutely needs a united church. But we reap what we sow. Lord, have mercy on us all.
In addition to God’s mercy, if there is a future with hope for us, as I believe there is in the mystery of divine providence and grace, we desperately need deeper roots. We need roots in historic Methodism—a movement of the Holy Spirit—and roots in the apostolic faith (“apostle” derives from the Greek term meaning sent forth), both shaping us and sending us into the world as representatives of Jesus Christ. We need a deeper and richer ecclesiology, reclaiming classical Methodism and the historic Christian faith and practice for today. We need a renewed vision of identity, mission, and sanctification—a theological vision that goes deeper and reaches wider than the reductive alternatives currently on offer from across the UMC in its present configuration.
Jesus gives us the basis for such a disruptive, distinctly theological vision in his metaphor of the vine and branches in John 15, where he declares: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Well, there Jesus goes again, telling us the unvarnished truth and exposing our absolute helplessness. Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know we’re quite content with the façade of self-sufficiency? Surely sweet Jesus will lovingly affirm our habitual preference for doing things on our own terms. Can’t we simply persuade him to bless our plans—isn’t that how this works? We’ve got fruit to bear and we know just what that looks like, so please, Jesus, give us what we want and give it to us now!
But no. Jesus will have none of that self-centered, self-serving nonsense. He puts us in our rightful place: we’re just the branches, and he is the vine. Do we hear what the Lord is saying to us today?
We depend utterly on Jesus. We can’t do anything without Jesus. We can and should hope for, and do our part to work for, much fruit, but that also depends on Jesus. A wide reach can only come about through deep roots.
What are these deep roots? How can we remain in Jesus, the vine? God gives us answers to these questions not just in the Scriptures themselves, but also in our Methodist heritage. There are certain practices that Jesus has consistently used for transformation in, through, and beyond his followers. Among the most significant of such practices are these: prayer, fasting, confession of sin and communal accountability, and forgiveness.
By using these means of grace, we can play our part in realizing a vision for renewal that is genuinely theological (which is to say, focused not on us or even on our world but first and foremost on God, for the sake of the world).
Theology in Practice
Sometimes people criticize theology for being abstract, and sometimes rightfully so, but good theology is intensely practical. In Methodist fashion, here is a method for spiritual growth and a call to action in pursuit of a theological vision for the renewal that, both individually and collectively, we desperately need for such a time as this.
Prayer (daily): From a friend, I learned the value of scheduling set times of prayer throughout the day. Otherwise, even the best of intentions might not actually translate into regular prayer. I suggest setting a phone alarm as a daily call to prayer. My current practice, also borrowed from a friend, is for my phone to ring at 5:17pm based on 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (“Pray without ceasing”). If you’re an early riser, you could go with 5:17am. John Wesley’s practice of starting the day in prayer at 4:00am speaks volumes about how he prioritized prayer, and truly saw its power by the work of the Holy Spirit. Take time to pray each day.
Fasting (weekly): Fasting is a largely forgotten spiritual discipline. Yet throughout the Bible and the history of God’s people, fasting has consistently proven to be a significant catalyst for God’s work of renewal. In my Annual Conference, the Susquehanna Conference (covering central and northeast Pennsylvania, and named after the river that runs through that part of the state), a group of clergy and laity have made a covenant to weekly fasting along with daily prayer. We strongly encourage others to do the same. Fasting reveals the desires of our heart and what our hearts cling to and depend on. The traditional fast involves abstaining from food. Wesley, for example, followed the early church in fasting until 3pm on Wednesdays and Fridays. You can also fast from other things like social media, use of your phone, television, or more. Seek the Lord through fasting. “‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning’” (Joel 2:12).
Confession of sin and communal accountability (regularly, at least monthly): Communal accountability has been a particular emphasis throughout Methodist history, especially among the early Methodists in classes and bands. Wesley described this practice as watching over one another in love. I meet once per month with two others in a Methodist band. (One of my professors, hearing I was in a band, responded incredulously: “Loyer’s in a band? What instrument does he play?” Ironically, he was a professor of Wesley and Methodist Studies, but even he didn’t understand what we meant by “band” at first.) The band I’m part of spans the country: one person lives in Kansas and the other in Seattle. Although we rarely spend time in person these days, these are two of my deepest, most significant friendships because of how we share our struggles and joys with one another. We follow not only historic Methodist practice but also the clear, and often lamentably overlooked, biblical instruction: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
Forgiveness (continually): Finally, this practice may be the most difficult in our current season of dysfunction and distrust. Yet it also has the potential to be the most transformative, as we truly follow God’s call to receive and offer forgiveness in all that it entails: forgiveness from God, of course, and also—crucially—forgiveness toward one another. Within the UMC, we have broken expectations and damaged relationships. The infighting and bitterness hinder our witness to the world. Such behavior also tarnishes our souls. The solution is God’s forgiveness, freely offered to everyone in Jesus Christ. We would do well to take these words to heart and submit ourselves to live under the authority of God’s perfect and perfecting word: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).
No More Waiting
For God’s people, it’s always the right time to be guided by a theological vision. I believe it’s particularly important for this season in the life of the UMC. General Conference is now scheduled to meet from August 29 to September 6, 2022. That’s approximately one year from the time of this writing. What if, in the year leading up to General Conference, we would commit ourselves to the practices of daily prayer, weekly fasting, regular (at least monthly) confession of sin and communal accountability, and continual forgiveness? Can you imagine what God might do?
For the United Methodist Church, the next General Conference will likely be decisive. We can approach that time not in fear but in the confidence of faith, knowing that Jesus is alive and Lord of all. For those who are part of this particular church tradition, and for the sake of those God is calling us to reach for the mission of Jesus in the world today, consider this invitation and call to action. Practice these means of grace in a consistent and disciplined way: daily prayer, weekly fasting, regular (at least monthly) confession of sin and communal accountability, and continual forgiveness. Invite others as well. Form groups as the Holy Spirit leads you. Make covenants, and keep them. I hope you’ll join us in seeking the Lord in these ways.
There’s no power in these acts in and of themselves—apart from Jesus we can’t do anything, as he reminds us. The power comes from the Lord. Wesley implores us to use the means of grace because God promises to meet us here, and the promise of our good and faithful God makes all the difference.
If you like, keep following the unfolding saga of the UMC, the continuing collapse of the big tent, and all the commentary about recent events as well as speculation about the future. Weigh in with your own thoughts if you are so inclined.
But for God’s sake, literally, keep your focus where it should always be. This journey is not ultimately about us (our plans, our hopes, our dreams, our accounts of this vicious cycle of actions and reactions, our frustrations and grievances, our preferred outcome, or even our list of non-negotiables); it’s about Jesus. It’s always about Jesus. He tells us that plainly. He is the vine, and we are the branches. He wants to produce good fruit through us. He calls us to remain in him.
In the providence of God, deep roots lead to a wide reach. It’s what Jesus promises. It’s what Jesus does—in us, through us, beyond us. And, Jesus tells us why: “My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples” (John 15:8).
Ken Loyer is pastor of Spry Church, a United Methodist congregation in York, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Holy Communion: Celebrating God with Us (Abingdon Press). He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Southern Methodist University and an M.Div. from Duke. Ken has taught Theology and Methodist Studies at four seminaries. Ken and his wife, Molly, have two children: Annie and Zeke.