Tony Jones addressed the United Methodist Church as “scholar in residence” at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria. He was given the topic, “Why is the United Methodist Church so Screwed Up?”. Sounds like a very emergent sounding title. Jones is the pastor of Solomon’s Porch and one of the key figures with Brian McLaren in the increasingly irrelevant emergent church movement.
Despite evidence a weak grasp of church history, he made some observations as an outsider. The article summarizes the problems as follows (he may have made other, more significant observations than these):
- People seeking ordination have to “jump through hoops of burning fire”.
- Younger pastors are frustrated because the older leaders “won’t relinquish control.”
- Church bureaucracies don’t rely on the Holy Spirit and don’t value initiative.
- They are hindered by their doctrinal distinctions which many lay people do not hold to at this time.
- In light of the broken relationships they need to focus on reconciliation.
- They may need to “euthanize some things to make room for the gospel.”
An Episcopalian author, Diane Butler Bass, was present and noted that the UMC is not the only denomination in trouble. “Institutional Christianity” is in trouble.
Let’s consider some of these. I don’t know what hoops their candidates for ordination need to go through. I do know that candidates many Presbyterian and Reformed denominations complain about the hoops they have to jump through. It is the way of the flesh. Frontier ordinations help spread the church faster, but not necessarily better. Bad theology kills the church and Christian living. Paul makes this clear in 1 Timothy 1.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Bad theology also comes into a denomination thru seminaries. It then begins to be taught to the people, and becomes the norm on the denominational level. What is funny to me is that Jones is not very far off from many in the UMC today. What differs is the “institutionalization” found their. So Jones sees the issues not really as gospel issues, as I would, but as institutional and practical issues.
The UMC holds to an episcopal form of church government, in light with their origins in the Church of England. By nature the older people are supposed to hold control. It is a top-down from of government. He doesn’t realize that their frustrations are inherent in the system. That isn’t necessarily bad. When I was younger I lacked wisdom when I thought others lacked it. Don’t interpret this as endorsing the episcopal form of government. I don’t. I’m Presbyterian and glad about it! But young pastors tend to be arrogant! We do not become humble in a vacuum, but church government is one way in which God humbles us and instructs us. I gained wisdom from older, more experienced men. The problem may not be with the old guard but with the young pups.
Institutions don’t have the market on relying on anything but the Spirit. Self-starters and entrepreneurs often rely on the flesh too. Just because you are a church planter doesn’t mean you rely on the Spirit. Such a ridiculous statement. That’s like saying planning worship ahead of time leaves no room for the Spirit. Does the Spirit only show up during the worship service and not the planning?
If doctrinal distinctions are removed, what is the purpose of the UMC? Why should they be united? This is part of the emergent church attack on historical theology.
I can agree that any church’s, denominational and non-denominational, practices can obscure the gospel. Sometimes we do need to get rid of those things that obscure the gospel. Our patterns of life should be gospel-formed. We do things a certain way to great an atmosphere where the gospel can be heard, seen and lived. Every church that has lasted for longer than years wrestles with this, some more than others. But it is so vague as to be less than helpful.
I am not sure what he means about reconciliation. It is not accomplished by changing the seating to have a conversation. It is gospel work, not about Fung Shui. And many of their conflicts arise because of pride and distortions of the gospel. The answer is for them to get back to understanding the gospel and its implications for ministry and life. A coup will not fix the UMC, or any religious organization. A return to the Scriptures to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, and defending those doctrines that are necessary for the gospel to exist (like creation, the fall and sin, substitutionary atonement etc.) and those doctrines that are necessary gospel implications (sanctification, marriage, etc.). His assessment is shallow, and so are his suggested solutions. I’m glad the PCA hasn’t invited him to address us. And if we do, I’ll finally have something to say on the floor.