“Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
The slacker 80s teens Bill and Ted stand amazed in front of the convenience store as they witness the time-travelling sights before them. This is when limp-lidded Ted breaks the movie silence by saying, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”
They don’t quite know what is happening, other than it is important. Some turning point has been reached. An “excellent adventure” awaits them.
We in the broader Wesleyan tradition are seeing something important happen these days as well. Some turning point, perhaps. Someone might as well just come out and say it: “Strange things are afoot at the United Methodist Church.”
Many of our UMC brothers and sisters say their denomination is in crisis, and that it has been for some time. Although they may be reaching a crisis moment; and I suppose that is fitting for the people who talk of a “second work of grace.”
Tim Tennet, president of Asbury Seminary, articulates the situation in his denomination this way:
This crisis has culminated in the current season of questioning and debate within the United Methodist Church, where many are outwardly speculating whether their church should leave the denomination, and where hundreds of ministers are wondering what might be next if their conference does not enforce the Book of Discipline of the church. Not many truly want to leave, but it seems some Waterloo approaches, some new dynamic in how the people called Methodist connect to one another.
John Wesley didn’t want to leave the Church of England either. But the movement he spawned outgrew the fold of the mother church. In writing his Advice to a People Called Methodist Wesley offered his take on their situation, what he called the “peculiar circumstances wherein you stand.” In some ways, the Methodists are in a set of “peculiar circumstances” again.
Back in Wesley’s day, these people had taken on this name, “Methodist,” that was originally meant to be derogatory, a long tradition of branding that Christians have been repeating since Antioch in Acts 11:26. Wesley gave a partial definition to what he meant by the name, when he said, “By Methodists I mean a people who profess to pursue (in whatsoever measure they have attained) holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God.” And these are the sort of things the Methodists continue to struggle through, in whatever measure they’re still pursuing them.
Many have discerned that the United Methodist General Conference in May of 2016 is the crisis moment. Tennent disagrees, saying, “It doesn’t really matter what is ‘decided’ at General Conference in 2016 if ministers are free to ignore it.” He shares that a letter to the leadership of the United Methodist Church was not responded to, and to Tennent this silence is deafening: “Silence means: don’t look to us for leadership.’”
How should those of us in the broader Wesleyan stream outside of the United Methodist Church respond to this situation of public dissension and tension? You might wonder why I am bringing this up in the first place. But when the presidents of approved Methodist seminaries like Asbury are making statements like those Dr Tennent makes, the elephant in the room needs to be talked about. Lay people in supermarkets and pastors at conferences ask us what we think about all this tension among the Methodists. How should we answer their questions? What should be our posture. Perhaps it’s best to start with a few postures that would not be helpful…
The United Methodist Church is the older sister of all the other Wesleyan streams, including my own. Just like most sibling relationships to a much more influential and older sister, our relationship is… complicated. Some of us left in protest. Some of us were kicked out over positions the Methodists later repented of. Others of us grew up from grass roots movements as an alternative to the more-and-more mainline-over-time Methodists. A few of haven’t thought much of The United Methodist Church, because our history doesn’t intersect directly with them—it is only our theological stream that seems to.
All of us could have a bit of a “red-headed step-child” response to the Methodists, saying something akin to “We told ya so.” Because we have had our issues with the church in the past, this is an easy time to kick the sister while she’s down. She’s practically defenseless anyway, right?
Of course that’s not altogether Christian, and certainly not sanctified, behavior. We are not all knowing and did not realize this would happen to the Methodists. We should humbly engage this, without any “told ya so” tone to our conversation. We should not hope for disunity, and continued tension, anymore than we might hope for the church down the street to split.
Instead, our posture can be: “we are praying for you.” We can kneel down and pray that God would move among the people called Methodist and cause another great awakening among those people we have a shared history and way of thinking with.
Unhelpful Posture #2: “We’ll join you in order to fight them?”
Long ago a mentor taught me that it is always dangerous to carry the grievance of another. If I was not sinned against, then it is not my primary fight. Yes, we can fight for justice for the oppressed, but the Methodists that agree with “us” are fine to fight that fight on their own in their own system. We ought not be like the men in the cave with David, who urged him to take down King Saul in 1 Samuel 24.
I’ve noticed that nobody quite knows ecclesiological systems and parliamentary law like a fired-up Methodist at a governing conference. I’m pretty sure they don’t need us as cheerleaders with protest signs at their events.
Instead, our posture can be: “we are here in order to encourage you.” It can be a disheartening thing for our Methodist brothers and sisters these days. Our role is primarily to encourage them so they do not become exasperated or lonely in the process.
Unhelpful Posture #3: “You’re on your own till you want to join us.”
We must not be opportunistic. It would be easy to mostly ignore our Methodist brothers and sisters and just say “Call us when you’re left hanging if you want to join us.” We must allow that there may be something bigger happening than any of us sees now.
Instead, our posture can be: “we will listen to the Holy Spirit.” We need not heed our simplistic and shortsighted motives. It may be that God is forming a new movement out of this crisis that has less to do with structures and authority and more to do with a true awakening of the Spirit toward things that matter most. It would be nice to see unity toward mission in a broader Wesleyan movement after a season of mission-drift and disunity for the Methodists.
Wesley famously said: “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.” As our Methodist friends determine whose heart is as their heart let’s be ready to 1) pray, 2) encourage, and 3) listen to the Holy Spirit for the kingdom of God that is truly coming, and has already come.
Who knows, an “excellent adventure” might even await us all together!
*If this is interesting to you, I suspect you’ll want to head over here to read my 7 Questions for this New Wesleyan Movement posted over at Seedbed.com. It includes questions like: “Will the new Wesleyan movement be a holiness movement?” and “Will the new Wesleyan movement be a lay movement?”