by Shane Stanford, Senior Minister
Nearly two years ago, Maxie Dunnam and I were talking about the future of the United Methodist Church. We discussed that for the past 20 years of ministry, our Church has been involved in discussions about highly charged issues such as human sexuality, possible term limits for bishops and the continual need to restructure the growing, confusing bureaucracy of the Church.
Then Maxie reminded me that these are just the 20 years of my ministry. The conversation goes back even further in his own tenure, counting for most of the time the United Methodist Church has been in existence (going back to 1968).
The conclusion for both of us is that the UMC has spent a great deal of time exploring, debating and disagreeing over a wide number of issues that, at the time of this blog post, we are no closer to solving. In fact, we appear headed even further down the path of division and mistrust.
I was not surprised last year to discover that many of my colleagues felt the same way—that the Church wastes a significant amount of time arguing over issues that will not result in any real change in the opinions or principles espoused by either side. By this time in ministry, most of us have reached our opinions on these issues after long meditation and internal study and debate. As a result, it is unlikely I will change anyone or that anyone will change me.
No, we continue to plow the road of our Church as though we are contractual together, and just the right number of votes swaying in their beliefs on either side will cause this surge of unity. It will not—ever. I don’t mean to the be the naysayer here, but the core on either side of the various issues that ring so loudly in the life of our Church are not going to change.
I have given a great deal of thought and prayer to what I believe, crossing over the Wesleyan quadrilateral thousands of times on my journey to make sense of what God’s will is for each of the issues at play.
And, though I believe that so many of our current leaders have meant well with their books, articles and treatises, I see little headway except to stir a bit more this boiling pot of contention.
So back to last year… so many of us saw this coming (and even, I believe, see further down this road… but that is for another article) and realized that what many of our churches DID have in common was a genuine need to be in ministry—to reach the world with the Gospel of Jesus, to march straight ahead into issues of injustice and poverty and to consistently seek to develop and send new voices of hope into the world.
The result of these conversations was the creation of the Wesleyan Covenant Network. This is not a new denomination or even an attempt at a new church. No, quite simply, this is a parking lot for churches that want to focus on those things that churches should care about at the deepest levels of their existence. Issues like:
- Reaching the world with the Good News of hope in Jesus Christ
- Building new congregations that seek to live faithfully and consistently against the backdrop of a broken world
- Raising up new generations of leaders and servants ready to invest themselves into the deepest broken spaces around the globe
- Providing resources that teach the basics of a Gospel that still transforms hearts and lives—including marriages, families, etc.
Our name is not an accident.
We are Wesleyan because we follow the doctrinal principles and standards of John Wesley and the teachings of his movement around the world.
We are Covenantal because we are bound by a deeper bond of grace, forgiveness and love that is not about ‘what you can do for me’ but ‘what can I do for you in the name and teachings of Jesus Christ.’
And, we are a Network because we realize that one congregation is not meant to do this journey alone. We have been created to walk in unity and faithfulness together.
Our doctrinal standards are simple. We follow the current doctrinal and disciplinary standards of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nothing has changed in the Book of Discipline’s doctrines or discipline that we don’t agree with and that we are not prepared to follow faithfully. And, no matter what, we plan to follow these standards as the proper expression of our faith as Wesleyans and Methodists, regardless of any acts of disobedience or resistance by other groups in the Church. We believe the Book of Discipline faithfully follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, the most sacred treatises of Church heritage and tradition, and expresses a reasonable, grace-filled, loving approach to a sinful world in need of transformation and salvation.
Now, true, the Church is struggling like a man struggles to catch his breath. We have divided so many of our issues into a complete ‘yes’ and a complete ‘no.’ Or, even worse, we have made the issues a battle between complete ‘good’ and complete ‘evil.’ Neither is correct.
We are all sinners who have fallen short of the grace of God. And, we are all in need of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That is why His teachings and example are critical not only for who we are, but also for who we are to become with God’s help. Thus, the Church is open to all people regardless of our sin background or our brokenness.
But, we also believe that we must remain faithful to the nearly 2,000 years of teaching, wrapped in very clear statements of moral standards in Scripture. Much like Jesus responded so many times to those farthest from God that He met on his journey… He loved them, welcomed them and then said “sin no more.” To say that Jesus never mentioned a particular issue verifies He has no problem with it… well… that is not Scriptural. Jesus disliked sin and was not afraid to say it. But, He also did not like judgmental, hurtful people who would not allow a person a chance to find and live grace and forgiveness. The Church MUST learn that perspective and lesson as well.
The real issue is that we want Scripture to say something else because we love and care about the people who are caught in the middle of this debate. I am with you in this great conversation. Standing in the gap against sin is not easy when it involves people you love and who love you. But, to base my reading of morality on my personal feelings negates the need for God or God’s Word in the first place. I simply cannot treat God’s Word as my personal excuse for all the things I want to be OK in the world.
The Wesleyan Covenant Network (WCN) is an opportunity for pastors and churches to be about the work of Jesus in their communities, connected and in fellowship with like-minded Christians working in the same direction. Too often, our fellowship and ‘communion’ have become clouded by the many voices speaking in the arena.
Last January, nearly 150 churches gathered in Atlanta for the initial organization of the Network as we seek to encourage churches for fellowship, evangelism, new church development and leadership.
The next annual gathering of the WCN will be at Christ Church in January 2015. Please be in prayer as congregations from around the country join in this important time of fellowship and conversation.
We cannot solve issues that ultimately rest at a place only God can get to in our souls. We can simply be faithful to God’s Word, to God’s people and to the hope that God is “working all things for good for those who love Him.”
To learn more, visit wesleyancovenantnetwork.org.
Many blessings, my friends. Be Salt and Light… You Matter!