The Shrinking Center

On March 5, 2023 St. John United Methodist Church took a vote to remain “United Methodist” or to disaffiliate from the United Methodist congregation.  I was there.  I voted.  How I voted does not matter, but I did vote.  I did not abstain.  I had already decided to stay at my church no matter how the vote went.  I joined my church on March 1st, 1998, twenty-five years ago.  I felt a need to be a stabilizing factor in my church through this process.  I knew there would be “rocky days” ahead. 

The needed majority of St. John voted to disaffiliate.

There have been rocky days.  I am pausing my comments on Peter Gomes The Good Book  because right now [thirty-three days after the vote] I have seen what has happened to my church.  I felt I had to write this post after a Wednesday night choir practice.  A very intelligent daughter of a former pastor at St. John got up at the beginning of choir practice and announced to the “dwindling” choir that she was leaving the church over the disaffiliation vote. 

Then she left choir practice…and the church.

The way she did this struck me.  The fact that her father pastored St. John struck me.  It is time for me to comment on my experience with this issue at my church, not focusing my efforts on understanding this concern from a much larger perspective.  I need to be personal.

I taught communication for thirty-six years at a small college in western Kentucky.  My favorite class to teach was interpersonal communication.  I studied this subject at the university, getting a Ph.D.   I accumulated a lot of knowledge which I enjoyed passing along to countless numbers of college students.

I have always fancied myself a peacemaker.  I served as department chair for several years at my college, where I liked the challenge of taking people with “warring” disparate views and finding some middle ground where we could solve problems.  Conflict is an inevitable part of life and to ignore it (not addressing burning issues) is a mistake.  Escalation of conflict is bound to occur.  I loved the role of problem solver.

I never thought I would see such a breach in my church but in 2023, this is where the United Methodist Church is; this is where my church is.

Let’s provide some context:  This is the crux of the argument that is at the forefront of the United Methodist Church today.  Of course it is much more complex than I can describe in a few words.  The guidelines for the UMC are published in what is called The Book of Discipline and in that book, the official stance of the UMC regarding homosexuality is that homosexual marriage is prohibited within the church.   Clergy that officiate a same-sex wedding are performing a punishable offense within the church.  Coming out as an LGBTQ+ minister is prohibited and in 1971, the first UMC minister was defrocked for being openly gay.

The Book of Discipline reads “the United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”   With a statement like that [taken out of context of course] the church has struggled to enforce its own guidelines.  Over the years, clergy performing same-sex marriages have not been disciplined and ministers who have openly declared their homosexuality have not been defrocked.  This has led to increasing calls for more tolerance of LGBTQ+ leadership within the church, especially among United States churches. 

The Methodist church leadership has tried to maneuver through this debate finding some way to keep the denomination united, but now there is a sense that the church must split over this issue.  Some would say that it is a Biblical, theological concern, over passages of Scripture warning that homosexual behavior is condemned by God.  Others may see this schism as a political issue fueled by progressive liberal ideology versus conservative ideology.  Progressives point to increased acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle within American culture.  Conservatives point to Scripture that says in black and white that this lifestyle is not appropriate for God’s people.   Add in the fact that so many Americans today do not seek common ground. Many Americans feel that taking a “side” is the proper way to think. Take a side and use disparaging words toward the “other side.”  We see this in the politics of the day as more and more “role model leaders” would rather assume their extreme positions and hurl epithets at their opponents.   It is a good way to get on television.

In defense of my church, I have not seen much crass behavior.  I have just seen people disappear.  People who have always been sitting in the pew are gone, maybe never to return.  I have tried to be “big,” wishing in my heart that they be at peace with their decision and hoping that they find another church home so they can continue to worship in a community of believers.  I know that is very important in a Christian’s life.  It is important for me.

I have heard some of their reasons for leaving and I pass them along to you.  I have heard impassioned statements that they have wonderful LGBTQ+ coworkers and friends who should not be discriminated against and St. John disaffiliation does just that.  The church is no longer a place for their coworkers and friends [and them].  I have heard parents of LGBTQ+ children say that they support their family members in boycotting St. John.  It is not a welcoming place now for their children so it is not a welcoming place for them.  I have heard a prominent church member liken this schism to the pre-civil war split in the United Methodist Church over the issue of slavery.  Slavery was such a divisive issue but I am not sure the parallel to today’s LGBTQ+ community is a perfect one.  African-Americans would argue that their suffering was much more severe.

Here is what I did not hear.  What do we do with Scripture that strongly discourages homosexual behavior?  There is strong language in Leviticus and strong warnings from Paul in Romans.*   When does one declare those Scriptures null and void?  Seventy percent of Americans support same-sex relationships and it is trending upward. **  Maybe the time to disavow Scripture is dictated by polls? I am not sure.

I don’t presume to know where my church is going in the future.  Mainline churches all over the country are slowly assuming a smaller role in the life of the ordinary American, with churches reporting shrinking membership rolls.  This may exacerbate the decline even further as more and more Americans feel turned off by “church” (look at those Christians; they are not loving the LGBTQ+ community).   Maybe St. John is headed for a slow but certain death.  The partisan divide over this issue proves that our country is a country that does not seek to avoid conflict, find solutions or middle ground.  We are living in a culture that has what could be called a “shrinking center.”

I remain at my church, hoping for the best, hoping that the number of people who are disappearing will stop.  St. John is a church that is seeking to be a beacon of light in our community; rather than a shrinking congregation, we want to be a growing congregation. 

I am there at chuch wanting to worship God, wanting to find a way to be faithful to God’s word and not be bigoted toward any particular group of people.  I seek to extend God’s grace and mercy to all people within the guidelines of God’s word.  Billy Graham says Biblical truth is timeless and does not differ from one age to another.  Adam Hamilton*** says “God’s word is no longer binding on us.  It does not reflect God’s timeless will.”

I sit in my church, hoping to find a place in the shrinking center.

*1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Mark 10:6-9; I Timothy 1:8-11; Jude 1: 5-8; 1 Corinthians 7: 2.

**Newsweek PRRI Poll, 72% of Americans support LGBTQ rights, Pew Research 61 % support same-sex marriage, Gallup Poll shows 70% support for same-sex marriage.

***American Methodist minister, senior pastor to the 25,000 member United Methodist Church of Leawood Kansas, the largest Methodist church in the world. My quote of Hamilton is not extensive and he would probably say not reflective of his views, but he is supportive of LGBTQ+ leadership in the United Methodist Church.

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