August 30, 2013

United Methodist Discipleship Agency Is Potentially Great Force for Good… or Ill

At the last board of directors meeting of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Discipleship (GBOD), they discussed the centrality of the local church in disciple-making and many of the resources offered by GBOD “to support UMC Christians in their discipling journey and in their leadership responsibilities.”

Director Gail Grossman of Washington State helpfully noted that it is not good for Christians to only talk about the mission field without first dealing with the foundation of one’s own following of Jesus.

So how should churches shape their members in following Jesus?

Obviously, GBOD does not have a monopoly on the print, digital, training, and other resources used for ministry in United Methodist congregations. But with its official status as one of our denomination’s largest agencies, dozens of staffers, nearly $10 million in annual income from offering-plate apportionments (on top of additional donations), and an overwhelming array of programming, GBOD is undeniably one powerful influence upon the theology and discipleship of contemporary United Methodism.

To be sure, a great deal of what happens under GBOD’s umbrella deserves enthusiastic cheers from evangelical, traditional believers in the United Methodist Church. One example highlighted at the directors meeting was the Upper Room’s Living Prayer Center, which offers live telephone prayer support from volunteers screened to ensure that they are “Bible-believing followers of Jesus,” in good standing with their local church, and will pray only in the name of Jesus.  Another (not highlighted at the meeting) is GBOD’s Covenant Discipleship program, which helps United Methodist congregations and campus ministries launch accountability-focused small groups envisioned as modern-day adaptations of the early Methodist class meetings.  While not everything about this program is perfect, when our denominational officials make such a sincere, thoughtful, and sustained effort to re-introduce Wesleyan spirituality and sanctification-promoting small groups to contemporary United Methodists, those of us in our denomination’s renewal movement should respond with encouragement rather than impossible-to-please naysaying.

On the other hand, several major GBOD initiatives, like the entire agency, may sound generally positive at first, but whether or not they truly are cheer-worthy depends on more details being revealed.

For example, it was reported at the directors meeting that GBOD is producing a middle-school sexual education curriculum, with plans to later produce sex ed curricula for high schoolers and young adults.

In response to several questions from me, a relevant GBOD staffer responded that this middle-school curriculum “is specifically designed to help United Methodist young people develop a Wesleyan understanding of God’s good gift of sexuality.” Furthermore, he told me that this curriculum “reflects the official stances of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church” and that “[t]he Wesley Quadrilateral ­ Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience ­ are interwoven throughout the resource to provide a basis for faithful decision-making in this important area of a young person’s life.”

Obviously, there is much that initially sounds reassuring from the GBOD staffer. But as sadly seen elsewhere, professed commitment to following the UMC Social Principles is not reliable in the UMC general agency world.

Furthermore, if any UMC general agency sincerely wants to be trusted as a reliably faithful Christian source for youth sex ed, it needs to make a conscious effort to come clean on and turn decisively away from our troubled recent past in this area. As the Rev. Karen Booth, a member of the Advisory Committee for IRD’s UMAction program, details in Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution, much of our denominationally supported sex ed curriculum in the latter half of the twentieth century was shaped by secularizing, value-neutral, Kinseyan, anti-traditional, anti-absolute-boundaries, and humanist influences, while sometimes offering only cursory and easy-to-overlook acknowledgement of our church’s moral standards. Will GBOD’s new endeavor be any different from earlier UMC sex ed curricula that treated Scripture as merely one of several resources (as is often suggested by references to Albert Outler’s oft-distorted “quadrilateral”), in such a way that, in Booth’s words, “[a]ny young person seeking permission to disobey the clear guidelines of Scripture could have found plenty of wiggle room”?

We will have to see after the curriculum is publicly released.

Another program highlighted at this board meeting was Path 1, which promotes United Methodist church-planting, based on the understanding that new congregations “reach more people, more young people, and more diverse people.” This now includes a growing project of year-long, fully funded “residencies” for church-planters-in-training, hosted by different congregations across the country.

Obviously, new churches that effectively evangelize non-Christians and help Christians to grow in biblically grounded Christian discipleship are worth celebrating. And this surely applies to some of the new churches supported by Path 1.

But the sadly inescapable fact is that we cannot trust that all new United Methodist congregations are faithfully doing such work. Anecdotally, a new United Methodist congregation in my urban neighborhood repeatedly goes out of its way to tout its opposition to biblical teaching and UMC church law on important matters of sexual morality. More directly reflecting on Path 1 is the fact that one of its key staffers, Paul Nixon, leads a group which convenes a “Network of Progressive Church Planters” and is personally forming a new congregation which touts its adherence to “progressive theology” (i.e., elevated view of humanity and demoted view of God) and support for the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), an unofficial caucus known for its stridently combative tactics in promoting church acceptance of varieties of sex outside of marriage, including but not limited to homosexual practice. Furthermore, one of the three congregations which, along with its annual conference, has already received a matching grant for a church-planter residency is Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection in eastern Kansas. While Hamilton is no John-Shelby-Spong-style radical, he has recently strayed significantly from his earlier evangelical reputation on several points, most notably taking a rather “black and white” stance in calling the church to embrace same-sex unions while uncharitably likening Christians to antebellum slavery defenders if they adhere what he admits is contrary Scriptural teaching.

What is there to celebrate in new churches if they serve to lead people away from biblical Christian faith, bear false witness against God, and promote an anti-Golden-Rule ethos?

GBOD will continue to be well-funded and influential within United Methodism for at least the near future. But choosing to pander to a small, secularized, destructive faction which largely rejects core United Methodist doctrine will only serve to further erode trust within our denomination and in the long run will ultimately make GBOD little more than a missionally ineffective, unaffordable, and wasteful drain on ever-dwindling denominational finances. On the other hand, to the extent that GBOD chooses to remain responsive to grassroots United Methodism and faithful to God and His will as revealed in Scripture, the agency should have a bright future, Lord willing, of partnering with local ministries to be agents of His Kingdom, helping to bring non-believers to repentance and faith while effectively promoting deeper discipleship, and even entire sanctification, among believers.

One Response to United Methodist Discipleship Agency Is Potentially Great Force for Good… or Ill

  1. Chet Klinger says:

    Loved your article. I’ll be sending you a check in the mail.

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