The future of the church starts here, now, with us

May 02, 2019

The question I have heard repeatedly since February is: What is the future of The United Methodist Church? My answer: I don’t know. What I do know is that the denominational and organizational structure that had its heyday with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches is breaking apart. Have you ever seen the clip of the General Conference at our 1968 merger in Dallas? A sanctuary full of predominantly white men in white shirts with black ties and black suits. The world doesn’t look like that anymore. That church does not fit today’s world.

Last week’s Judicial Council ruling (see a list of FAQs for more on the rulings and what they mean) re-opened many of the raw feelings from the 2019 Special Called Session of the General Conference held in St. Louis. We walked away from St. Louis seeing how divided our church is, and how little capacity we have to find a way forward together. That saddens me, as I believe in Minnesota we are finding our way forward in being a church that is centered on Jesus, committed to our shared mission, respectful of each other, and trusting one another to do ministry in a way that is consistent with our United Methodist beliefs and heritage and yet relevant to our unique contexts. I believe our theological diversity has strengthened our collective work and witness and given us an opportunity to learn from and love each other even though we don’t all think alike or interpret scripture the same way.

As you probably know, there are efforts underway across the country to significantly change the structure of the denomination and to form one or more new expressions of the church. It’s clear that God is doing something new—and I join you in waiting and watching to see what unfolds. But at the same time, I don’t spend a lot of energy worrying about whether we will be one church or two, or whether there will be general agencies or jurisdictions or even annual conferences. That is interesting speculation, but what I care about most and where I invest my energy is in the clergy and congregations here in Minnesota. Why? Because it is the pastors and people in our congregations who helped me see Jesus and changed my life, not the denominational structure out there.

It was Pastor Richard Harper and the people of Bethany UMC in Rochester who gave me my first Bible, introduced me to this savior named Jesus, and taught me I was welcome at the Lord’s table and I belong.

It was Pastor Rick Ireland, Bob Zeimes, Gordon Richards, and the people of Cleveland Avenue UMC in St. Paul who helped me not only say “yes” to Jesus, but saw in me gifts for pastoral ministry and planted and nurtured that call in my heart at a time when that congregation had not seen or experienced a woman pastor.

And it was the people of the churches in Anoka, Balaton, Lake Benton, and Buffalo who trusted me to be their pastor—where I found my voice as a preacher, where I grew and developed as a leader, where I learned what it means to be the body of Christ together, rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ and willing to adapt and grow in order to continue to be relevant to a changing culture.

Here is what I want for The United Methodist Church: Whatever happens to the form of our church, we will have a renewed commitment to the heart of what it means to be church. I pray that we will always love children and help them to know that they are beloved. That we will teach them about a God who loves them no matter what. That we will continue to help people believe in themselves, claim their gifts, and send them out to embrace their call because that is how we fundamentally change the world. That we will feed hungry people. That we will hold them in the hard times and rejoice with them in the good times, and remind them that life is worth living when they are not so sure. That we don’t just talk a good talk about being the beloved community where all are welcomed and loved, but that we are the beloved community.

I dream that in the midst of our messy, broken, and imperfect reality, we will commit to love first. That people who see us will want to join this community that boldly loves God, one another, and the world. I dream that we will live in the grace of another day, with full and grateful hearts, and share that joy with everyone around us.

In this post-resurrection season, you might remember that after Jesus is risen, Peter and some of the disciples decide to go fishing. They catch nothing. And the risen Christ calls out to them, “Try the other side.” They do, and their nets become full to overflowing. Then Peter, after seeing Jesus, jumps out of the boat to go and be with him and they have a breakfast feast on the shore. After being fed, Peter is called all over again, and this time it’s to do more than follow Jesus—it’s to take on Jesus’ mission: Feed my lambs…tend my sheep.

I believe that Jesus is still calling us today: Try the other side. Get out of the boat! Don’t miss that I am here and what I am doing right now. Bring your fish, and let’s cook some breakfast—and if you love me, really love me, then carry out my mission. Love my people. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.   

I believe Jesus wants us to be God’s church, here, now. Because people are hungry, and we have the bread of life.

I don’t know the future of The United Methodist Church. But I do know this: This is not the end of the story. God is doing something more, and nothing can stop it—not the cultural forces at work all around us, not our own internal divisions, and not our individual fears and anxieties. That’s the power of resurrection.

I ended my recent sermon to the people at UMC of Anoka with these words, and now I say them to you: Whatever The United Methodist Church becomes, we will create it here, in our state, in our communities, in our churches, in our hearts and through our actions. It starts now. It starts with us.

Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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