A Reflective Thought for United Methodists on the 2016 General Conference
The United Methodist Church highest governing body is known as General Conference. This conference meets every four years. While the United Methodist General Conference was taking place in Portland, Oregon on May 10th-20th, 2016, United Methodist Pastor Paul Lawler was leading a conference for a consortium of pastor’s in Asia. These pastors are leading one of the most rapid disciple-making movements in history. Hence, you are invited to hear a rendering of The Tale of Two Conferences.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
She was once considered one of the great movements. Transcending an ocean in the midst of the 18th century, her preachers fearlessly proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ among the unreached people of multiple nations. Persevering through cold and exposure, Circuit Riders sacrificially proclaimed the good news, producing new church plants in almost every county throughout the U.S.
Her originating impulses, rooted in the saving power of Jesus Christ, brought forth a powerful movement transforming thousands upon thousands. As throngs responded to the Wesleyan invitation to, “Flee from the coming wrath and be saved from your sins,” God birthed a fresh expression of church rooted in deep rhythms of discipleship. Out of depth, came breadth. Out of breath, the movement thrived.
In the coming decades, the church enjoyed great success. She prospered. Large sanctuaries were eventually built and filled to the brim. Vibrant institutions were created: hospitals with cutting edge technology, mission stations, orphanages, retirement homes, some of the finest colleges and universities in the world.
Then, in the midst of her glowing success and prosperity, her effectiveness began to wane.
The 2016 United Methodist General Conference gathered in Portland May 10th-20th. This gathering of delegates cost over ten-million dollars. While the United Methodist Church planted over 100 new churches per year for the past several years; she has still lost over 100,000 members.
She is deeply divided. Her divisions are deeper than the debates over sexuality. The sexuality debate is merely one of many ongoing symptoms of her abandoning the originating impulses that once fueled her primal expressions of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She has muted her prophetic voice because she has forsaken her prophetic moorings. For much of the United Methodist Church, the culture now converts the church, rather than the church serving to convert the culture.
In the midst of her plight, there are intriguing contrasts.
On the other side of the world, on dates falling eerily similar to the dates for General Conference, church delegates gathered for a conference in Asia. This gathering of delegates costs twenty-thousand dollars.
These delegates, made up of a band of church planters not unlike the early Methodist Circuit Riders, celebrated the planting of 10,143 new churches. They celebrated over two-hundred thousand new disciples made for Jesus Christ. These pastors are experiencing what early Methodists knew when they were a part of a primal movement for Christ. Fueled by the originating impulses of the gospel, wed with a commitment to orthodoxy which unites them in heart and mind, they are a part of writing an extraordinary history.
They do not have an easy task. Operating in a hostile atmosphere permeated by Islam, animism, Buddhism and Hinduism; the gospel of Jesus Christ is going forth in transforming power. Disciples of Jesus Christ are being made. The church is growing. The world is not converting the church; the church is converting the world.
They are the epitome of Wesley’s declaration. “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”
This is the tale of two conferences. One is a gathering of eight hundred. The other is a gathering of one hundred. One, with a proud history, is in decline. The other, with little history, is on the move. One spent ten million dollars. The other spent twenty-thousand dollars. One no longer agrees on what the gospel is. The other propagates the gospel as it is. One lost one hundred thousand people. The other reached two hundred thousand people. One, with great material resources, planted a few hundred churches. The other, with few material resources, planted over ten-thousand churches.
Not too many years ago the President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary was lecturing pastors in Asia. During his lecture, a pastor raised his hand and asked, “How can you tell us how to revitalize our churches when the churches in your own country are declining? Should we learn from you, or should you learn from us?”i
Good question, as we reflect together on A Tale of Two Conferences.
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC, and founder of The Immersion School, a discipleship training center in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman, Patrick Lawler, founded the Patricia B. Hammonds Girl’s Home for 60 orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The home is operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the North Alabama Conference Discipleship Team. You can follow him on Twitter @plawler111