Introduction: Change Has Come
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” - John Wesley
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all
of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united
in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Leaders in The United Methodist Church are talking about splitting our denomination over the issues of human sexuality and biblical interpretation. Sadly, it is quite possible that First United Methodist Church, Oak Ridge will be asked in the coming years to make a decision regarding our denominational affiliation. While we are tempted to jump ahead and debate where FUMCOR should align itself when that day comes, our congregational leaders feel it is critical that we spend time in prayer, study, and discussion prior to any such decision or vote.
The goal of this daily study is to help focus the conversation currently taking place at First United Methodist Church, Oak Ridge about who we are and who we are called to be as a community which follows Jesus Christ.
Although the question of our denominational affiliation has arisen as a result of the 2019
General Conference, the place of the LGBTQ community, which is driving the Church’s debate, is a conversation occurring in the broader culture. That topic is one of many issues that have exposed different world views among the faithful, including but not limited to how we interpret scripture, differences in Christian practices around the world, the role of denominations in the post-Christendom world, restorative vs. retributive justice, balancing freedom in Christ with communal accountability, the relationship between Church and culture, etc. This is an important moment in the life of our church. If we desire to make faithful decisions about these matters, we need to focus less on our denominational struggle for a time and pause to study, share, and pray together about who God is calling us to be in the future. Out of such conversations, our decisions will naturally arise — and hopefully the love and respect found in our sharing will result in decisions more in alignment with God’s desires. As Proverbs 27:17 states, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of
bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs
were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in
common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to
all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they
broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God
and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their
number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Let us acknowledge that this is not the first time that disagreements about where God is
leading have arisen among followers of Jesus. Beginning with Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, Christians have struggled with differing ideas on how best to offer a faithful witness to Christ. Theological, biblical, and ethical controversies in the past led to the creation of the hundreds of Christian denominations which exist today. Maintaining community is hard! Our own Wesleyan heritage reflects this struggle, as well. Ironically, the phrase “unity, constancy, and peace” is taken from the prayer offered before Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church — which is part of the denomination from which Methodists broke away! Episcopal priests pray, “sanctify us that we may serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.” A similar emphasis is found in the UMC’s Great Thanksgiving: “make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”
Unity, constancy, and peace are not the only descriptors of “community,” but these three concepts offer a good beginning point for our congregation’s conversations about remaining faithful in our witness to Christ in the future.
We share a great deal theologically with the Episcopal Church and its mother organization, the Church of England. But we must not forget The Methodist Episcopal Church (a forerunner of today’s UMC) was founded by those who left that denomination. There are no pristine denominations who have never experienced schism and splits in their history. Again, maintaining community is hard! In one sense, this study’s emphasis is an attempt to reclaim part of our Wesleyan heritage. John Wesley, founder of the Wesleyan movement within the Church of England, emphasized the importance of Christians belonging to a smaller accountability group as well as the larger denomination. We are formed as disciples at the local church level. United Methodist Churches around the world may be connected through The Book of Discipline and connectional structures, but local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciplemaking occurs. In order for us to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (the UMC’s mission), we must become the most faithful, healthy local church we can be.
The Catalyst of the Current Dilemma
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Obviously, many people experience community without stepping into a church. Many around the world without church homes belong to groups and fellowship with peers. Until recently, people in all such communities shared one thing in common: close physical proximity. Whether at the church, pub, or ballpark, being part of a community meant sharing a physical space. The internet changed all that. What does “community” look like in the internet age? College students today have a completely different perspective on community than those born just 50 years ago. They have always had access to the astronomical amount of data and connections provided by the internet. Social media, online multiplayer games, and a variety of shared communication platforms make it possible for an individual in Oak Ridge to build relationships with people around the world. “Community” no longer assumes physical proximity. You can be friends with someone and never be physically in the same room. The internet has provided so many positives, they are difficult to list. However, among those positives are some serious negatives. Too often, technology offers us a false sense of connection. Internet communities are filled with acquaintances who have no deeply rooted sense of responsibility for one another. Online companions can’t offer us rides when we are stranded on the side of the road. When I am sick or depressed, social media “friends” can’t take me out to lunch or give a pat on the back. We are social creatures; being physically present with people matters. Not surprisingly, studies show our culture has increasing issues with anxiety and loneliness. We feel isolated without face-to-face encounters with others. The opposite is true as well! In a world filled with acquaintances, discovering a real community full of genuinely caring people changes our life! The Church has a wonderful opportunity to reclaim the power and joy of being community for each other!
The Changing Landscape of Church
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have
another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm
alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A
threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
The rise of the internet brought changes to the Church as well. No longer do people assume they need to sit together to discuss faith and spirituality. Today, people have access to documents, representatives, and friends from all the world’s religions. Such exploration can be a wonderful blessing to our spirituality. However, let’s be honest. It is always easier to read about spirituality than to embody it. Many people know a great deal about Buddhism, but few bind themselves to an active Buddhist community, who — like the Christian Church — expect practitioners to exhibit the principles of love, compassion, and grace with others. Spirituality that is divorced from real life may be interesting, but it doesn’t transform our lives. People in our culture are hungry for real community where they can be themselves, find purpose, be transformed, and make a difference. And so, when we acknowledge the current landscape of the Church in the world by saying change has come, and more changes are on the way, there is no need to despair or feel defeated. We can look to the future with hope. This is an incredible time to be a Christian! Unlike fifty years ago, people today do not attend Sunday services or affiliate with a church community in order to fulfill some vague cultural expectation. We come to worship and go forth to serve because we want to be here.
A FUMCOR Focus
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which
you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one
another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of
peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your
calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all
and through all and in all. (Ephesian 4:1-6)
FUMCOR desires to embody the good news of Jesus Christ for this community! We choose to respond to the changes around us in a healthy and spiritually-mature way. We ask God to transform us and deepen our commitment to our community of faith so we can be on the forefront of sharing the story of God’s grace with future generations in Oak Ridge. It is time to discuss what community means for our congregation. While our conversations will certainly include events taking place in our denomination, our primary goal needs to be deciding who we are and who we will be as First United Methodist Church, Oak Ridge.
What does Christian community mean to us?