Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reflections on Annual Conference: Asking the Right Questions

The article below appears in the next Together Paper of the New Indiana Conference.

Driving home from Annual Conference, I felt disconnected. I knew something wasn't right, but what was it? Were my expectations too high? Were my expectations different than the expectations of the planners? Was it the business of the church, the many motions and amendments on pensions and health care? Was it the question around why some churches tithe and others don't, or was it sitting in a huge auditorium wondering if this is what Wesley had in mind when Methodism began? Were we even asking the right questions?

To be sure, since the early days of Methodism, the church has undergone change, sometimes necessary, always messy. The denominations that now comprise The United Methodist Church have had many different forms of connection, from corporate to federalist models, to name two. Organizational styles have also varied depending on larger patterns of organization in the culture. Not always have Methodists "conferred" well together.

Perhaps this recognition made me realize the obvious: Regardless of organizational structures, we can never escape our history and need for God's grace. We can never forget we stand line with Christians who sought the Spirit's direction and found ways of offering Christ; such persons also faced challenges not unlike our own, yet discovered God's faithfulness in their midst. They were willing to ask hard questions and test the Spirit's movement.

Like all organizations we in the church can fall into the temptation of focusing solely on the human side of the equation; we can throw up our hands and say, "What's the point?" Or, we can become so critical we slip into cyncism and say, "Why bother"? And yet, deep within, we also know, "There is more"! Perhaps this is where we can learn from the early Methodists.

In June 1744 John Wesley and the societies in London and Bristol that had grown needed a way to confer about the workings of the Holy Spirit and the direction the Methodists needed to go. They needed a means of seeking God's grace amidst the demands of an expanding movement. In short, they needed ways of comforting and strengthening one another. Or, as Wesley himself asserted, they needed the wisdom of others to learn how to save "not only the souls of those who heard us but also our own."

In early Methodism a Conference was meant to seek the leading of the Spirit and to gather those whose spiritual insights Wesley knew he needed. In fact, as the early records indicate, a Conference was to be guided by three basic questions.

1. What to teach;
2. How to teach;
3. What to do; that is how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.

Within these questions other questions would also be addressed. The goal was on seeking clarity and coming to grips with the essentials of the mission. Confering with one another was intended to be a spiritual practice.

Maybe this was the disconnect I was feeling. Was it the yearning for grace amidst the "business" on the floor? Was it the recognition that a Conference in the Wesleyan tradition does not begin with a series of motions and "whereas" clauses, but with a series of questions: What are we teaching and how are we teaching it? How are we practicing our doctrine and holding one another accountable? How are we seeking the Holy Spirit's direction?

Perhaps Wesley's own concerns are still relevant: Unless we are connected to the power of the Spirit that began 2000 years ago in Jerusalem and swept the ends of the earth, we might as well cease to exit (Acts 1:8). The United Methodist Church only matters if it is part of God's redeeming mission in the world. To understand that mission, however, requires prayer and discernment, and true prayer and discernment requires an attentive community, a community willing to ask the right questions as it also seeks to move with the Spirit.

I don't know if others felt the way I did driving home from Conference. It is hard to gauge such a large gathering. And yet, I wonder what it would mean to have our Conference, congregations, and agencies shaped by the above three questions. After all, it may be, as it was for Wesley and the early Methodists that our attention to how we respond to these questions may not only concern the souls of those we seek to save, but our own as well.

1 comment:

  1. I was only at Annual Conference a short time this year (another commitment took me away). My experience this year and the last few years is that there is very little business that takes place on the floor. Mostly there is the giving and receiving of reports. And despite some usual go-rounds on the budget and insurance - there are very few comments and little or no significant engagement on issues that come close either to the three questions you propose - or to anything else that has an impact upon the daily life of the members of my congregation or the other residents of this state. May I just add (parenthetically perhaps) that at the end of your article contains one of my problems with what we do and it is perhaps incredibly insignificant. It is our use (or from my perspective, our misuse)of language. I want to be clear that I don't think that there are souls that "we seek to save." God saves the souls. And all things considered I'm pretty darn happy about that. I do think that a big part of my responsibility is to help people recognize that joyful good news. But the saving itself - it's pretty important that we keep things like that in perspective. I only bring this up because I think that (as my mother would often say to me when I was growing up) "you're biting off more than you can chew" or "your eyes are too big for your stomach." In areas of mission and evangelism - we often think that the work is ours, not God's. I think that is why our notion of mission and ministry has shrunk to the size and the captivity of our buildings. I don't know what came first - the practice or the language. But it's why I think we need to recapture the biblical language - like that found in Matthew 11 -- where Jesus tells John's disciples to go back and tell John (languishing in prison) what they see - "the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news...etc..." Jesus did that. I imagine he could use the help of us acting like that was true - rather than acting like we were the ones doing it.