Letter to the Michigan Christian Advocate:
"The Real Crisis in the UMC"
TO: The Michigan Christian Advocate
FROM: Dr. Les Longden, Sr. Pastor, Trinity UMC, Lansing
While Bishop Carder (May 4) makes a valid point that "crisis talk" may divert us from real problems confronting the church, he himself falls into the very trap he warns against. He diverts his readers from crises which are internal to the church by focusing on what he considers the "real problems" which are external to the church.
The "real" crises which are worthy of our attention, he says, are poverty, hunger, and racism. But these crises are of a different category than the internal crises which have to do with the integrity and identity of a church.
If a church is in decline, and cannot seem to pass its message on to the next generation, when does it become a crisis worthy of the Bishop's attention? How can the church address the problems of hunger, poverty and racism if it cannot pass on its hope in the good news of the gospel?
If a church is confused about the difference between the leading of the Spirit and the "spirit of the age", if a church adapts its moral teaching to the pressures of the culture, then when does that confusion become an internal crisis worthy of clear theological discussion within the church? If a church does not understand its deep doctrinal foundations, it will not be a church of clear identity or intellectual integrity.
Bishop Carder seems to represent the old division (which I had thought was discredited by now) between doctrine and activism, between evangelism and social action. The Bishop seems confused about the categories which theologians call missiology and ecclesiology; i.e., the mission of the church to the world and its internal communal form as Christ's Body. The first task involves our witness and service to the world. The second task involves our communal identity as people who "conform no longer to the pattern of this present world" (Romans 12:2) but are being transformed into a community of mutual love in the pattern of the Holy Trinity. The church must be simultaneously working at both these tasks, or it will find itself in crisis.
Maybe the real crisis is not "crisis talk" but the evasion of crisis talk, the attempt to proceed as if everything were fine in The United Methodist Church. The recent dialogue sponsored by the General Commission on Church Unity and Interreligious Concerns published a document, "In Search of Unity", which makes it abundantly clear that the internal unity of our denomination is faced with the "danger of explicit disunity or schism." I hope the Bishop and his episcopal colleagues will soon begin to do what all pastors must do: learn that attention to the conflicts within the congregation is necessary to effectiveness in witness and service beyond the congregation.
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