An Integrity of Faith and a Clarity of Witness: Can the U.S. Church Rediscover its Voice and Honor its Lord?*

The summer has been a long one for the church, a parched wilderness in which we have experienced not showers of blessings but the relentless heat and light shining upon our sins and failures.

+In our United Methodist Church, we continue the slow journey toward a special called General Conference to discern and debate our impasse over understandings of human sexuality in the church. This impasse creates anxiety about the future, fuels judgment about others across ideological lines, strains relationships and perpetuates a sense among some of being excluded and among others of being stereotyped.

+In the Roman Catholic Church, wrenching new discoveries of the abuse of children and youth by the clergy in the U.S. and other nations has shaken this tradition to its core. Added to this pain is the documented knowledge of these practices by those in spiritual authority. Many United Methodists in Florida trace their spiritual journeys to beginnings in the Catholic Church.

+In the seeker-oriented and highly visible Willow Creek Community Church, a decades-long pattern of predatory sexual behavior by their founder, Bill Hybels, has diminished a legacy of leadership and influence and left a trail of betrayal and harm. Many Florida United Methodists have invested significantly in learning about the Willow Creek model of ministry. Of course, this has taken place within the larger #MeToo movement.

+And in one stream of the evangelical church in the U.S., a political alliance with President Donald Trump has been strained by the government’s seizure and incarceration of immigrant children at our borders and separation from their families and the President’s affair with a pornographic actress during his third marriage. How U.S. citizens vote for president is a private matter, although Trump did carry the state of Florida in the 2016 election.

What do these events of the summer teach us?

+We need healthier relationships between clergy and laity; and, yes, we need to resist placing spiritual leaders on a pedestal. This is true for Popes and Bishops and Mega-Church Pastors. And it is true for anyone who stands in a pulpit and speaks for God.

+We need clearer lines of authority. Churches do not need leadership structures of five to seven people. The purpose in our polity of distinct staff-parish and finance committees and boards of trustees is to differentiate these areas of administrative work and to place the laity in positions of shared oversight with the clergy.

+We need to spend more time in relationships with a few others who will hold us spiritually accountable. This was the heritage of the band meetings and class meetings in early Methodism. This happens in many of our covenant groups across the Florida Conference. I wonder if our current climate for life, church and ministry almost requires this practice.

+In a culture that is divided in toxic and severe ways, we need to discover what we share in common within the church and beyond it. Within the church, we need to refocus on what is our core—to keep the main thing the main thing. The core is in the Creeds, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, our General Rules (do no harm, do all the good we can, stay in love with God), the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. We can often quickly describe how we differ from other churches and followers of Jesus. Can we invest time in discovering what we share in common with them? And beyond the church, how can we model the life of Jesus, who is the world’s peace, amongst other religious traditions, in a secular culture, and across political parties?

+The church must acknowledge its complicity in the harm done to women by their spiritual leaders, colleagues and congregants. We can develop a culture that trusts the voices of women in pulpits, around cabinet tables and in complaint processes and local church leadership. We can also deepen our reading of the experiences and scholarship of women who teach us about scripture and tradition, our journey inward towards God and our engagement with the world’s suffering and injustice.

+We believe in separation of church and state but not a “naked public square.” The church is called to help form the conscience of society. We are given spiritual gifts for the common good, and we are called to be a voice for those who have no advocates or lobbyists to plead on their behalf. Of course, our witness is compromised by our own moral failure and apathy. Yet, in humility we name the threats to the democracy in which we live, which makes rights possible for those who dream for safety, education, food and health for their children, just as we do for ours. And, more positively, the church can call and equip women and men from its own membership who will use the power of political office to serve the most vulnerable in our society.

Where is our hope?

There is one Lord, Jesus Christ. In obedience to Him we place all other leaders under His name, in the church and in the nation. We are in need of His forgiveness and grace. We rejoice in His salvation and healing. We are made a part of His body in baptism and become more like Him through discipleship. God loves the world so much that He sends Jesus into the world. We cannot escape, abandon or ignore the world. Yes, the church often reflects the sin of the world. Yet, the world is in need of people whose light shines in the darkest places. Many Methodists across Florida offer this witness in their everyday lives. In a time of very real discouragement, God is never without the witness of whose lives display the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

This is the integrity of our faith and the clarity of our witness, even in an anxious and discouraging season. Jesus Christ is Lord. We are His disciples, His servants, His church. And, when the people of the world see Jesus in the church—in us—they experience this as good news. And, in response we bear witness, with our lives and with our words, and usually in that order, that we belong to Him, that we depend on Him, that we give any glory or credit for any good we contribute to the world to Him.

Prayer:

O God,
You are our judge and our hope.
In Jesus You have come to live among us, full of grace and truth.

Give us a faith that has integrity
and a witness that has clarity,
so that all may know You
and Your love, and the abundant life
You have come to give us,
and that Your will may become a reality on earth, as it is in heaven.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

(*Note: I encourage the reading and circulation of this reflection across the Florida Conference in the following settings, as clergy and lay leaders discern: adult classes, sharing and covenant groups, in sermons and worship services, via email and social media, in staff-parish relations committees, in church council and leadership team meetings, in conversations about church and society and the status and role of women, in intercessory prayer groups and in residency in ordained ministry cohorts. I trust the people of God, laity and clergy, to have the courageous and prayerful conversations that can build up the body of Christ and broaden the influence of scriptural holiness in our witness.)



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