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The successful failure of United Methodist renewal

by James Gibson

In 1966, Charles Keysorís groundbreaking article, "Methodismís Silent Minority," appeared in the Christian Advocate, heralding the beginning of a new era for renewal ministries in The [United] Methodist Church. Today, some 35 years later, those of us who have invested so much time and energy trying to breathe new life into a dying denomination can say, "Mission accomplished."

The magnitude of our success is plainly seen in the continued proliferation of heresy and apostasy in denominational institutions of higher learning, rampant acts of "ecclesiastical disobedience" by clergy performing "same sex" unions, and the embarrassing absence of prophetic leadership among the Council of Bishops. Despite consistent legislative victories at General Conference, there appears to be no resolve to ensure that the will of Methodismís highest law-making body is carried out. Despite the claim that United Methodism is a "connectional church," clergy, laity, annual conferences, boards and agencies do what is right in their own eyes.

We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in failing to meet one single objective. The United Methodist Church, which was only slightly ill when we first began, is now on life support and begging for Dr. Kevorkian. The antics of media-hungry mavericks like Jimmy Creech and Gregory Dell no longer shock or infuriate us. Invitations to "dialogues on diversity" and "theological conversations" are greeted with a collective yawn. The hokum has become ho-hum.

Someone recently quipped that any further efforts to renew The United Methodist Church would be the equivalent of attempting to give CPR to an elephant. There is more truth in that statement than we care to admit. What else can be tried that has not already been tried several times over? What "strategy" can be devised that has not already been devised? What "statement" can be made that has not already been made? What can be added to The Book of Discipline that has not already been added? What charge can be filed that has not already been filed? What coalition can be formed that has not already been formed?

Any objective observer would have to conclude that there has never been a more complete failure in the history of the Christian Church. Yet, it is precisely because our failure has been so complete that history will one day remember it as a success if, and only if, we come to terms with one humbling reality.

Success in any endeavor of ministry is never a sure thing. We can never assume the mission we feel called to embark upon will yield the results we hope for. In fact, God may have ordained failure in one small area of ministry in order to open our eyes to the big picture of his overall plan.

United Methodist renewal has failed because God has in mind for us a mission of much greater magnitude. Our vision up to now has been limited and parochial. We want a denomination that is relatively unchanged in its basic structure, yet somehow renewed in its commitment to such lofty principles as "doctrinal integrity," "discipline" and "accountability." We want to be the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), doctrinally pure but spiritually dead. God has other plans.

United Methodist renewal has failed because it has become an end in itself. God would have us share the gift of spiritual renewal across denominational lines to be a blessing to the whole Church. But we have become obsessed with doctrinal renewal within our own denomination. Doctrinal purity is essential, but it naturally flourishes within a church guided by the Spirit and firmly anchored to the Word. Doctrine is the essence of the Churchís proclamation as it proactively confronts the world. But we have made it a defensive measure to maintain order within the Churchís own walls. God is calling us to step outside those walls.

United Methodist renewal has failed because we have given the Devil far more than his due. It is reasonable to suggest that many of the heresies and apostasies which have arisen over the past four decades have enjoyed an extended life-span largely because of our insistence on fighting them. We have dared the heretics in our midst to take the next step over the line and, time after time, they have been more than willing to oblige. Now, they have reached such outlandish extremes that even the world is beginning to see them for who they really are: self-absorbed publicity hounds who have found the Church a willing foil for their shenanigans. God will expose their foolishness in due time. He has given us a much more serious task.

The story of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32) is an apt metaphor for our present situation. Jacob would not let go until God blessed him. But God would not grant the blessing until Jacob gave him his name, signifying surrender. Then, and only then, did God give Jacob a new name, Israel, which was to be a blessing not only to Jacob, but to his family, his descendants and, ultimately, to all the nations of the world.

For years, our "opponents" have had names: Creech, Dell, Sprague, Talbert, Wogaman. We have tenaciously held on to our name, "United Methodist," in the vain hope that God would bless us because of our tireless efforts. But, as we cross the river into a new century, we come to the humbling realization that, for some time now, our real "opponent" has been God himself. We dishonor his Name by holding on to ours. He now asks us to let go of our name. Then, and only then, will we truly know the blessing of renewal, indeed of reformation. God wants us to experience true revival, which will be a blessing to all his people, not just the incidental blessing of denominational resuscitation.

The mission of United Methodist renewal has been accomplished. We have successfully failed to achieve our goal. So be it. Broken, discouraged and disillusioned, we are now precisely the type of people God wants to carry out his mission on his terms.

James Gibson is the pastor of Marshallville United Methodist Church, South Georgia Annual Conference.

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