“If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?”
(Lake Woebegon priest in annual birth control homily)
The first edition of this duet offered insight, speculation and probably some hot air regarding the destination of the express train called the Continuing United Methodist Church. The US church will undergo a significant theological and cultural shift, an expansion of boundaries, a more broadly “inclusive” vision of Christianity allowing for increased diversity in matters of doctrine, conduct, and values. It promises to be a ride toward a destination clearly aligned with more progressive Western culture and assumption. It will do good and many riders will be wonderfully surprised and welcome the subtle shift in destination. Other riders may just be ‘surprised’ and perhaps bewildered by some of the unintended consequences of the journey.
This second edition offers insight, speculation and probably some hot air on the destination of the express train called the Global Methodist Church. For some, this train is leaving the station too early. These are those who anticipated departure in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Protocol by General Conference 2020, 2021 or 2022. Now that the GC has been postponed/canceled until shortly prior to the Parousia, the Express departure prior to the Protocol has created anxiety. The win-win parameters of the Protocol have given way to the trench warfare of conference-to-conference standards imposed by the legacy UMC to offer tickets to those wishing to board the GMC Express. This shift promises to be largely unfunny.
Others find the GMC Express leaving later than desired. The golden days of late December 2019, when the Protocol was negotiated under the leadership of Kenneth Feinberg, (that rare and objective expert adult in the room) were to be followed five months later by GC2020, marked by passage of the Protocol and a gracious process of mitosis rather than civil war. When that didn’t happen, thanks to COVID and other factors, a slow but increasing hemorrhage of churches and individuals began. Nearly all might have been preserved in a Wesleyan offspring from the legacy church had the GMC Express departed on time. That didn’t happen. That couldn’t happen. Losses, in the US but as yet not so much elsewhere, were the result.
What advantages will the passengers boarding the GMC Express find in the journey and destination? First will be clarity in definitions, doctrines and destination. Here is an ironic difference between popular stereotype and actual research. According to Clydesdale and Garces-Foley’s work, published by Oxford in 2019 as The Twenty-something Soul, and reaffirmed in Oxford’s publication in 2020 of Back-Pocket God by Denton and Flory, 75-80% of young adults who become seriously active in ‘organized religion’ do not choose a mainline train but an evangelical express, where clarity of doctrine and direction merge with outside-the-box innovation in worship, personal connections and community service. Thus, the notion that progressive politics and morals is the magic bullet that will draw younger US adults is thrown off the train by data. Gospel faith both gracious and convictional retains appeal.
The old hamburger chain commercial of “Have it your way,” while appealing to adherents of what Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean (among others) have labeled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” thrives in the diminishing mainline (with exceptions, of course) but also is rejected by young adults who have a passion for serious faith. The GMC Express is not a train that appeals to those indifferent of ultimate destinations. Jesus really was the incarnate Son of God, really taught with divine authority, really did the miracles, really died an atoning death for the sin of the world, really was resurrected bodily on that first Easter and really is God’s unique and only Way. Pastors and bishops of the GMC, the engineers and conductors of the GMC Express, will be expected to actually believe and live this stuff. The dead orthodoxy against which Wesley railed, bereft of holiness or love, remains a threat, but that affects all passengers of whatever train.
Those looking for simplicity and savings may enjoy the experience. Infrastructure, overhead, and the acculturated foo-foo (or barnacles) of decades of unquestioned tradition mostly will be scraped or otherwise off-loaded. The ancient practice of religious ‘feather-bedding’ that fluffs up cost with no clear improvement in service, likewise will be tossed from the apportionment caboose. Ask a congregation to name specifically how the previous 10 years of apportionments have empowered conversions and discipleship in ways impossible apart from annual conference programs. If the response is a sea of quizzical blank stares, prepare for a sizable number to board the GMC Express.
A diverse ridership comes with the experience. Arguably most ethic congregations (think Korean, Chinese, Hispanic) seek evangelical maps, conductors and destinations. African Methodism is overwhelmingly traditional in theology, with the clear potential to provide most of the riders of the GMC Express by the close of 2024. It is also true that US passengers who really are not interested in sharing the ride or the conductor/engineer team with racial and ethnically “different” folks will need to adjust to the journey with humility and grace.
The ride will come with its own challenges. Many will be tempted to board thinking that it is a discount fare to a journey where everything else remains comfortably unchanged. Those averse to profound change would be wise to consider remaining with the familiar and tweak their passenger status on the Continuing Express. Unrealistic assumptions on the convenience of the ride plus the temptation to focus satisfaction on where the train has left rather than where the train is headed will create ongoing lurches and sudden stops.
Most US theologically traditional congregations are in flatline or decline. The GMC Express calls for massive support for new church starts and conversion/discipleship-based membership. A lean organization that drops the cost of overhead but assumes wide and vigorous engagement by laity to degrees not assumed nor expected since the days of an Asbury or Cartwright comes with the price of the ticket. It is a train where the passengers will not be expected nor allowed simply to sit and enjoy the view. The trade-off for decreasing the heavy apportionment ticket of the CUMC Express will be the reality that all Global Methodist tickets include a discipleship and witness self-service requirement to board.
“Begin with the end in mind.” This wisdom from Stephen Covey offers caution and hope to United Methodists who shortly will begin a several-year process of hopping one express or the other. Central to any wise decision will be awareness of and ownership for the destination. Cliché and stereotype cannot provide that information. Prayer, rigorous engagement with diverse facts, discernment of one’s own grasp of Christ and the gospel, all will play a role. If one knows where the chosen train is headed, and affirms that destination, the right express has been chosen. May it be so for the people, the passengers called “Methodist” in their journey to ‘Minneapolis.’
Robert J. Phillips
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.