Tuesday, June 4, 2013

because bigger is not always better

I come from a long line of early adopters.  My grandpa brought home a television set before the tower was even up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  WGAL went on the air in 1949, the fourth tv station in Pennsylvania and the first outside of Philadelphia.  What's even more interesting is that my grandfather was the 6th generation to live on the family farm just down the road from Lancaster.  A farmstead that has now been in the family for over 250 years.

My dad was into livestock genetics before it was cool.  Back in the 70's he switched from raising purebred Angus cows to swine because it was faster to see results from selective breeding.  Now my dad has a small herd of Angus cattle and he does DNA testing on every calf soon after birth! Here's a segment from I Am Angus on RFD TV about my dad and step-moms farm and their livestock breeding program.  Can you tell how proud I am of them?

When I think about my family with their long standing history (250 years of working the same 160 acres of clay bottom land in Pennsylvania) and yet at the same time their drive to be early adopters I can't help but think about how this relates to what the institutional Church, and the United Methodist denomination in particular, is facing today.

There are some of us who are eager to set out in new directions, but at the same time we desire to be part of a mainline denomination.  The United Methodist Church is unique in its ethos.  We are the church of the early adopters, there were circuit riders out criss crossing the homesteads of rural America well in advance of the train lines and before cities could organize Methodist societies sprouted up in cabins and under shade trees from coast to coast.

But then, as my United Methodist history prof reminded us in seminary, the circuit riders got domesticated.  These cabin based communities of faith wanted to build churches like the other guys and focus went from conversion to building projects.  Still, there was a Methodist (or Evangelical or United Brethren) church in every village.

What is uniquely Methodist isn't our buildings, our choirs (although we do love to sing), or the vast number of outposts (churches), what is uniquely United Methodist is our focus on piety (loving God through study, prayer and worship) and action (loving God through our engagement in and with the world).  Oh, and another thing - we like grace - a lot.  God's grace poured out, overflowing and abundant...oh, and assurance...the ability to know that God's love is for me, even me and for you too!  This is good stuff.  This is stuff that needs to be told and heard by people all people...but some times, we may not be able to use words...given the new realities of the world in which we live, our actions do speak louder than words that to many ears sounds like clanging cymbals.

The sad reality is that we are bogged down by buildings and institutional structures that often keep us from engaging with our broken and hurting world.  We have professionalized ministry to such a degree that we have a very well educated clergy, but a un-formed laity...our best resource (the people called United Methodist) is under utilized and so we are floundering, just a bit.

If you have any doubts, take a look at this video made by the General Board of Finance and Administration: (click here)  It's titled United Methodist realities.

I am not a prognosticator, there are some who say that time is running out.  I am not so sure about the timing of any of this, but I do believe that we need to have these types of conversations beyond denominational meetings.  We can talk a good game - but are we actually willing to DO something new/different/with courage?!

We need to confess to our congregations that things are not going to return to the way things were and the future is uncertain for some of our sacred spaces.  We need to own the ambiguity and lean into change.  We need to stop messing with numbers and really be about radical hospitality, building relationships beyond our walls and transformed lives.

Change is hard.

Some things are going to have to be approached in new ways, some things may need to be let go.

Not everything that will go away is bad.

We just can't do it all.

While the statistics are sobering, there are also some exciting realities.  This is OUR time.  We DO have everything that we need to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to a broken and hurting world.  We just may have to work a little harder, pray a bit more and actually step outside of our positions of comfort and taste and see these times of change as times of great possibility.

It's time to own this and turn folks loose for ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ!
John Ira Coble family (1976) at Coble family homestead

in Christ, together,


  1. AMEN! I'm not sure that I have thought about UM's as early adopters before... it would be nice to reclaim that and really and truly do something different!

    A pastor friend from another denomination and I were having coffee yesterday and we thought about the church in 40 years. She asked - do you think the church in the future will even have committees and I almost shouted out "O dear God, I hope not!"

    There is so much possibility for what it means to be church out there... I pray we are just crazy enough to embrace it!

  2. Yes!! If we would just get out of our own way amazing things are possible. Fopr some reason the institutionalized "way we have always done it" continues to rear its ugly head. We area an Easter people and when things die resurection is possible ... It just may look, sound and even feel different. There is a "tipping point" on the horizon we can either be in front of the change and propelled forward by it, or we can be swamped under and destroyed in the process.

    Keep up the good work, see you Friday.

  3. thank you, Katie and Ron - two of my fellow early adopters! It's a scary place to be some times - but I do believe we are on to something... keep on swimmin' - I'm looking forward to seeing you on Friday!