This year’s General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon May 10-20 is cause for great joy and great concern for our United Methodist fellowship. For the first time we will gather as a worldwide church representing over 12 million people. Our growth throughout the world has the added benefit of making us a much more diverse church.
The growth in numbers and in diversity that has occurred over just the last 20 years highlights the tremendous movement of the Spirit we are witnessing. In 1996, when General Conference met in Denver, it represented 9.8 million members of the United Methodist Church, 8.6 million from the United States and 1.2 million from the rest of the world. When we gather in Portland, we will celebrate that as of 2014 there were 12.3 million United Methodists of which 7.2 million live in the United States and 5.1 million reside internationally. While we continue to work and pray for renewed growth in the United States, the international growth and the diversity of experience and of thought that it brings are great blessings to our church.
As we celebrate more people following Christ in the United Methodist way than ever before, we also find ourselves facing disagreements, particularly in regard to human sexuality, that have placed a strain on our unity not seen among us since our predecessor the Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Over the next 2 weeks when we face the added complexity of making decisions for an increasingly diverse church and the challenge of working through issues that threaten to divide us, my prayer for us is that we will not shrink from the challenge of the work before us. Scripture reminds me that during the most stressful time of Jesus’ ministry, many of his disciples shrunk from the challenge.
As the guards came to arrest Jesus, Peter abandoned the principles Jesus taught and shrunk to violence by drawing his sword and striking the slave of the high priest. The other disciples abandoned their Lord as they shrunk away in fear.
At this General Conference, it will be easy to turn our words into swords by which we seek to slay those with whom we disagree. Let us not shrink when faced with this temptation. Likewise, it will be no small temptation to throw our hands up in the air and disavow our responsibility to be fully engaged in the conversations regarding where we go from here because a way forward seems so unclear. Human sexuality will be only one of many issues in which will we encounter this more subtle and sinister temptation.
As Methodists we like to talk a lot about what John Wesley called the “Via Media”, the middle way between the two extremes. In the United States, where we are all too familiar with the political polarization that is taking place, I can imagine no greater witness than a big tent denomination willing to find a middle way that allows us to follow Wesley’s guidance to love alike even if we cannot all think alike. However, the middle way as nice as it sounds often does not always appear clearly in the heat of the moment and simply calling the way we already want to go “the middle way” does not make it so.
In the midst of these tough decisions, I think back to the people who found the middle way on Jesus’ last day: the women. They continued to follow Jesus all the way to the cross. All the way to the grave, they followed him. Outsiders would have called their devotion well meaning, but foolish. As it turned out, they were the first to witness the resurrection, the event on which history turns.
As we engage in the work of General Conference and daily ministry in our local contexts, may we find His miraculous resurrection power at work among us once again as we refuse to shrink from the challenges we face.