By Sanford “Sandy” Brown, Special Contributor…
It’s almost always a pleasure to be a United Methodist. Two exceptions are a) when I look at my outdated and geeky photo in the conference journal, and b) when a visiting UMC bishop comes to town and writes about your church—as happened last month.
Leaders of my congregation were dismayed to open the Reporter and read Central Texas UM Bishop Mike Lowry’s recent article (“The Challenge of Focus—Don’t Drift from Mission,” Sept 27) that chronicled his summertime visit to our city. While he was here the good bishop attended a neighboring fundamentalist megachurch where, in the bishop’s glowing description, he found himself in a congregation that “was full of young couples. There was great ethnic and economic diversity. The welcome was gracious and the worship vibrant.”
Then the bishop heard a surprising announcement. The megachurch soon would be renting the building of a historic congregation that had sold its former home.
As the bishop remembers the speaker’s words, the historic church had become “busy with other things and drifted away from offering Christ. . . . Amid many good things, they lost a focus on Christ and slowly the congregation dwindled to a few and then relocated.”
With his pen dripping with drama, the bishop then revealed the name of the church: First United Methodist Church of Seattle. He then used the pastor’s story as the central illustration in a heartfelt and sincere meditation on the fundamentalist pastor’s major point—churches must stay focused on Christ or face decline.
Now, the bishop probably did not intend his implied criticism of our church. In fact, he offered some soothing words about our church later in his piece. So why did it hurt?
It took me a couple of weeks, a few emails and phone calls to Central Texas, and a hurt and angry blog post of my own to figure out the complicated explanation for why the article hit a raw nerve.
Part of the reason is almost certainly that it’s no fun to have a fundamentalist pastor’s untrue story about your church become the central illustration in a nationally distributed episcopal sermonette written and published without your permission.
I know too that I wasn’t super-excited the bishop had named our church in a public forum with only a scant web search as the basis of his review. Still, the gracious part of me recognizes that bishops are busy people and a deadline probably kept him from learning more about us.
Part of my hurt was certainly that he’d been oddly bedazzled by that particular local fundamentalist megachurch. He maybe didn’t know that it is locally infamous—for its hyper-masculine approach to Christianity, its emphasis on the subordination of women, its militant toe-the-line attitude toward church dissent, its homophobia and its brutally literal view of the Bible. These themes are a long way from a United Methodist understanding of the gospel and church life, but I get that denominational leaders are anxious about membership decline and are looking for models of vitality in surprising places.
After much thought and prayerful reflection I finally discovered what actually was disturbing about the bishop’s article. It was the oddly off-putting use of a simple, little pronoun. The bishop called us, “they.”
Maybe it was inter-jurisdictional politics that led him to refer to us in the third person plural. We’re on the “left coast” of the denomination after all. Even so, the word “they” oddly distanced me from an apparently effective United Methodist leader whom I should at least see as a colleague in ministry.
If I could go back in time and edit the bishop’s article about us, I’d definitely axe the inaccurate story of our church told by the fundamentalist pastor. Then I’d approach the story of our UMC with the careful use of the more connectional first-person plural pronoun. I’d then add some accurate information about our congregation.
A revised article would go something like this:
“I give thanks that we United Methodists overcame great odds to retain a vital presence in downtown Seattle. We endured the challenge of suburban flight, the building of a major freeway that cut us off from our neighborhood, the construction of enormous skyscrapers that left our aging facility in an urban canyon, and a 2001 earthquake that nearly toppled our building and left a looming seismic retrofit potentially costing $10 million.”
I’d go on to write, “We United Methodists were faithful and forward-thinking enough to sell the property and build a sparkling, new facility in a dense, residential neighborhood of downtown. We now house a 60-bed shelter for homeless men, we feed 250 meals each Sunday morning to homeless and hungry people and we send tens of thousands of dollars each year to the Advance Special. In fact, our Seattle First UMC undergirds our denominational connection by faithfully paying 100 percent of its apportionments every year. With a clear focus on mission our ministry in downtown Seattle is growing in members and in outreach to the community.”
I might also add, “Who knows if even a megachurch will be able to make it in the old, crumbling building? If a lack of international mission involvement, a lower denominational overhead and an authoritarian approach are what is needed to make it there, then it’s probably best that we United Methodists left the old facility behind.”
Grace abounds, and even well-meaning visiting bishops are forgiven. But before our leaders laud the work of others, I hope we’ll stop the hand-wringing about the end of our glorious past and that we’ll spend a moment learning the truth about faithful and productive ministries like ours where “we” are doing good and productive work as the people called United Methodist.
The Rev. Brown is senior pastor of First UMC in Seattle.