The tone of this article is greatly subdued compared to the “live” version I was editing in my head over the weekend.
“The Methodists” reference in the title does not refer to the institution of the United Methodist Church, but rather the members of the local congregations which house its youth ministries and in particular the (largely) non-ordained youthworkers that lead them.
There are times where I feel like I’m beating a dead horse about being a Methodist on purpose and there are other times that I feel like being a Methodist on purpose in youth ministry is the dead horse. I took my youth to a conference youth event over the weekend. It’s an annual spiritual life retreat event that (I think) most conferences host in some form or fashion. The usual main idea is to bring as many youth from across the conference together as possible for a time of connectional worship and teaching. Some conferences do it better than others; some have handed the concept off to extra-denominational entities. If you happen to know my local context or which event I attended this weekend, please understand that this is not an effort to throw that event under the bus. On the other hand, I’m not trying to push it from in front of the bus; I’m just trying to draw attention to where such events are often standing.
One of the most difficult things my youth have to process is the variety of approaches to God that they encounter in our community. We don’t live in a particularly diverse community, either. The local high school is literally 96% Caucasian. When we do any local ecumenical effort, the resulting gathering is our group and 14 Southern Baptist churches. So in any conversation at school they are bombarded with language of “getting saved” and “once saved always saved,” both expressions that are not native to the Methodist experience. I work diligently to instill the Wesleyan understanding of grace in our youth–not just to fight off other ways of understanding God’s movement in our lives, but to firmly establish a foundation for their understanding of God with a beginning that emphasizes God first reaching out to them and continues on with that grace working to perfect them as they strive to extend that grace in community toward others. The importance of the “point of decision” fades as we realize that getting whatever our imperfect first step toward God looks like just right isn’t as critical as continuing in the movement of grace. It’s a life’s work, not a certificate program.
So for my group, we’re continually processing and debriefing other approaches to faith. I encourage them to disagree; there are certainly places where I find myself in disagreement with my denomination. But I know why I disagree, an end I’m hopefully leading our kids toward as they develop on their individual journeys. I find it distressing, then, when I attend a conference-hosted retreat and feel the need to go through the same debriefing process. The speaker this weekend came from a theological background that pretty plainly began with a moment of salvation after which life continues in spiritual warfare, with lots of bad guys and good guys. Hard times in life merely represent seasons of testing just before rich blessings that we seem to deserve as children of God pour out over our lives. The main thrust of the weekend was centered around a designed prayer that took a half-sentence of a prayer from scripture (from a single verse) and reworked it into a kind of spiritual self-help & empowerment manifesto. Think Prayer of Jabez with less context and better branding. Missing seemed to be any sense of living in community, other than for the purpose of conversion. Present were painful caricatures of cultural gaps (I watched as a Hispanic youth across the isle from me tried to dissolve into his seat while the speaker worked through her impression of a Spanish-speaking busboy) and an overwhelming & an odd overall sense that hourly employment was beneath God’s design for anyone’s life. At the end of the second session, the Lord apparently interrupted her mid-sentence with the revelation that not all of the several thousand youth present knew Jesus. Her invitation to “come on down and ‘seal the deal’ right now” nearly sent me from the room. I brought my kids to the Methodist event to deepen them, not to find fresh content to rehash. We’ve got truckloads of that at home.
So here’s where I’m at odds with myself. I genuinely believe in interfaith conversation. Not just between denominations–I think the global interfaith conversation is unfathomably important, probably to an extent the local church in America won’t be ready to process for many years. But I think that conversation is weakened if we don’t even know our own background. It doesn’t bother me at all that our speaker this weekend held her particular perspective; it bothered me that it was presented as our own. If the Methodism that we present to our kids comes premixed, what does it matter if our denomination stands apart from others? Does it matter at all? Should we re-homogenize into “the Protestant Church”? Are they supposed to grow up and attend the church that offends them the least? I need more than one hand to count the number of families in our church that would comfortably be Southern Baptist if they’d just ordain women. How many baby dedications does it take to weaken the entire congregation’s understanding of the covenant of infant baptism? Are we just Methodist so that we don’t have to duck-and-cover when we’re seen on the beer aisle? Why do I feel like Methodists are more and more defined in the negative? “No, we don’t believe that… or that.” What do we believe enough to say, “this is what Methodists believe,” and where, if not at a conference event, are we passing that on?
Have at it. What does everyone else think?