By Bill Mefford
I have long believed that the center of God’s desire for change and transformation in the world is through local bands of believers, or local churches. I spent ten years of my life working at the general church level of the United Methodist Church and that belief was only further strengthened through that time. I saw time after time that God does not change the world through bishops or agencies, but rather, through local groups of people, incarnated among people directly impacted by injustice and who share a passion to bring about concrete change. I spent most of my time in DC wishing I was back in the local church. I still do.
When I read Scripture I am continually drawn to passages like Luke 3:1-3, which Luke lists the great rulers of the day and the mighty cities in which they live in and then, in a subtle yet profound contrast, he states that the “word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” John the Baptist had no impressive title and did not live in a mighty city, but instead lived in a wilderness. His place in the world was so obscure, his wilderness doesn’t even have a name! Yet, the word of God came to him. He is called, above all of the other well-known names of powerful men in the world, to set the stage for the Messiah of the world from utter obscurity and without title or status.
I am also continually drawn to John 4 when Jesus intentionally goes where he is not supposed to go - Samaria - and he meets the woman at the well. The Samaritan woman is so estranged from her community that she comes to the well at the hottest part of the day to draw water just to avoid the others in her town. Yet, this woman is called to be the first evangelist in all of the gospels as Jesus sends her to proclaim the good news of his arrival to their community. Kind of a unique way to ordain people, huh?
Or I think about the birthing of the church in Acts when, on the day of Pentecost, Peter stands up and quotes the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
This new community, this beloved community, will be characterized not by hierarchy, but by egalitarianism. It will not be led by the same tired old men, but by women, young people, and people who are economically marginalized. The entirety of Acts, when read against the backdrop of Peter’s sermon drawing upon Joel, can be seen as a constant struggle between wanting to follow God’s unprecedented counter-cultural movement from the outside in and the option to follow what they have been taught by society, established religion, and their own instincts to build from the most powerful and popular center to the fringes. This struggle continues to this day.
So, before I critique the New Testament leaders too harshly I am reminded of my own life and my own dissonance between what I all too often loudly proclaim and where I have worked and where I have lived, both of which have been centers of ecclesial and political power.
I am also reminded of the United Methodist Church and the recent gatherings of mostly clergy who are deciding what the next iteration of Methodism will look like. Some gatherings are led by megachurch pastors and bishops and I find myself asking why the hell would a church that is in decline turn to the same people who have led that church for years to find revitalization and new life? Doesn’t new wine need new wineskins?
Or I look at the gatherings led by LGBTQ clergy and people of color and I am encouraged that those whom the church has ostracized will likely be the ones to lead a new birthing of Methodism, but yet I have to ask why we are so dependent on clergy and not lay people? And does a new birthing of Methodism require more than inclusion? Does a new birthing necessitate a completely new restructuring of the way we relate with and network one another? Do lay people not have fresh and vital dreams for the future of the Methodist movement or does this new birthing only come through the leadership of the clergy class?
And then this bigger question has constantly dogged me from the earliest days of walking with Jesus: if we as followers of Jesus are called through, prayer, Bible study, and participation in other means of grace and spiritual disciplines to center ourselves in God, and if we believe that God truly has a preference for the poor and vulnerable and, through Jesus, was and is incarnated among those on the margins of society, then why do we continually try and position ourselves in the center of power and the places that reinforce our prior perceptions and judgments?
Could it be that wherever we find our greatest comfort is the very place that God is calling us out of? If there is to be a new birthing of Methodism then how can we hope for a new vitalization of Methodism when we are using the same old mechanisms for building the same old structures that has led us to the same old decrepit institution that the Spirit seems to be shedding? Could it be, as God continually has showed God’s creation in all of Scripture, that God is not found in those spaces where we like to build for ourselves our own power and means of comfort? Instead, is God exactly where we are not and then bidding us, wooing us to come and follow God to a place we have never been?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but these are the questions that I can’t shake.