3 Ways the #UMC gets Progressive Methodism shockingly wrong

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~ Not-Einstein

A blog reader sent in a recent Faith Street article entitled “4 Ways Christian Fundamentalists Get Progressive Christianity Shockingly Wrong.” I loved it, and this is my version of it based on my persistent frustration in online conversation about the United Methodist Church.

#1 – Progressivism leads to decline.

Rev. Tom Lambrecht, an occasional commenter on this blog, recently considered the quantitative metrics of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference and concludes:

The numbers show that an agenda of radical sexual permissiveness does not help the church grow, but instead contributes to its decline.

In harmony with the above, Dr. Christopher Ritter, proponent of one of the schism proposals, recently commented in the 4,000 member United Methodist Clergy group on Facebook in this way (no link as he deleted the thread):

Is there any place where [progressive views on human sexuality] don’t also coincide with advanced decline?

As a counterpoint, Rob Rynders, co-founder of a progressive UMC church plant in Arizona, refutes that linkage and points to our own denomination’s report here:

[W]e learned from the Towers Watson report that measured characteristics of church vitality…that theology and/or particular stances on social issues are not the key factors that drive church growth or decline. What the report did find, however, is that “vitality” is increased through a number of organizational factors such as quality of leadership, preaching, diversity of worship styles, numbers and types of small groups offered, missions giving, etc…

It’s past time that we stop using the “my church is bigger than your church because we take a X stance on X social, political, or theological issue” argument, once and for all.
Progressive congregations that are in decline aren’t in decline because they’re progressive. They’re in decline for the same reason that many conservative congregations are in decline: organizational dysfunction/brokenness and general shifts in cultural attitudes/behaviors (a.k.a. the move towards being a “spiritual but not religious” nation).

To compare the growth of a conference right in the middle of the None Zone and a conservative conference in the Bible Belt and claim the difference is because of LGBT inclusion is erroneous and disregards our own denominations’ (very expensive) report on the topic.

Progressivism is often painted as a poison pill for Methodists: if localities adopt progressive stances, they will lose members, unlike the evangelicals. In reality, the numbers show that the evangelicals were merely able to stave off decline longer than progressives: the Southern Baptists are in their third year of decline. I wonder how they’ll get to blame progressivism for that one?

#2 – Progressives can’t sustain themselves.

The Via Media Methodists, a conservative* (edit: see note below) Methodist group blog, recently depicted progressives in this way (main post and selected comments):

For all the pious grandstanding from the far left about how “this is our church, too” I genuinely think they know that [progressives] don’t have the ability to start their own church from scratch.  Where are the progressive megachurches and healthy progressive denominations?

…The progressive strategy for decades has been to agitate and advocate for change from within, rather than take an entrepreneurial approach, because they are quite aware that they have no ability to build something from the ground up.

…I am well aware that the UM left has no interest in creating a new denomination, because they couldn’t do it if they wanted to.

These comments about progressive’s inability in empire-building misunderstand a basic tenet of progressivism: we are about transformation of the world, not just parts of it. Creating a progressive separate-but-equal institution is not the goal or desire of many progressives. While Via Media Methodists say that means we lack an entrepreneurial spirit, ability, or sense in empire-building, the reality is that if you are committed to justice, reconciliation, and sustainable holistic spirituality, many progressives ethically cannot leave entire segments of Christendom in the outer darkness. If you are judging progressives because we have heretofore not been into empire-building, then you are judging progressives on a quality we aren’t seeking to exhibit anyway.

In the best case scenario (to my view), there will not be a progressive denomination because there will not be a need for one. The best institutions absorb the gains of the movement. The power of the United Methodist Church is in its twin arms of evangelical zeal and progressive political theology, and whichever one is the institution at the time should consider how to absorb the movement’s successes, instead of cutting them off.

The important point is that neither side can cede a quality to the other. Conservatives are not the only ones with an entrepreneurial zeal: progressives are too, just in different ways. Likewise, Progressives are not the only ones concerned about justice: conservatives are too, just in different ways. But to label one side as completely lacking in a quality is to fail to recognize that you’ve defined a quality in a way that presupposes the answer.

Side note: Glide Memorial Church is one of the Top 10 United Methodist Churches in the world (by attendance) and they are unapologetically progressive in the heart of San Francisco.

#3 – Progressives don’t do discipleship.

I hate to point at one group twice in a single blog post, but sometimes the content writes itself. Even when the Via Media Methodists try to include progressive voices, they include ones that parrot their own talking points. Case in point from a token progressive that has recently been exhibited on their website:

Where Progressives fall short is that too often than not conversations on politics and culture tend to crowd out other substantial discussions such as mission, ministry and discipleship.  It’s important to talk about the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, but if we aren’t also talking about how to keep churches healthy, how to make disciples, there may likely be no churches that have opened God’s tables to LGBT folk.

The promotional tagline for this post was “seeking a via media in his own church.” Thus, the “via media” is depicted as between activism and discipleship–as if they are mutually opposed.

The truth is that progressives have a strong theological link between activism and discipleship as they seek ethical living in diverse communities. Rev. Roger Wolsey, a UM campus minister in Colorado, outlines as much in his book Kissing Fish (which is an excellent Facebook page too):

Many progressives believe that Jesus “returns,” and God’s Kingdom is manifest, whenever we feed the poor, heal the sick, stand with the oppressed, seek to end their oppression, and love our neighbor. I might suggest that the return of Christ could be said to have “fully returned” and that the “fully realized Kingdom of God” could be said to have taken place when we eventually come to a place where a critical mass of the world’s population comes around to thinking and acting in these ways.

Living “in Christ” and living in Kingdom ways doesn’t make for an easier life. It is certainly far more challenging than merely making do while passively hoping for Jesus to come down from the clouds. In fact, this way of being Christian, intentional deep discipleship, may seem much more challenging. It creates yet another reason for many people to passively go along with the teachings of conservative Christianity.

I don’t think Wolsey is trying to say that being a conservative Christian is easy. What he is trying to say is that discipleship in the progressive tradition involves much more communal aspects than scripture memory or worship attendance or whatever other false proxies are classically defined as “discipleship.”

Indeed, this very blog holds up a higher articulation of discipleship than many conservative churches. You can find those posts–shockingly–in the Discipleship section of the website. In particular, the BaptismFAIL series (1) (2) (3) shows how cheapening aspects of Baptism is prone to error. If you are looking for a shallow definition of discipleship, you won’t find it here: you’ll find the progressive definition that doesn’t separate the individual from the community.

What should Progressive Methodists Do?

For starters, progressive Methodists should quit yielding the field to the conservative Methodist bloggers as the de facto voice of Christianity. We have an articulation and should promote it.

Secondly, so much of the above is pointing out that the “other side” is using terms that they have defined. It is always better to show how Progressives have defined discipleship, evangelism, entrepreneurial zeal, and other terms and how they are living into those definitions–then contrast the two. That leads to helpful discussion and ceases Progressives being judged on a term they disagree with anyway.

Finally, Progressives would do well to point out that all of the above critiques are about church growth. Whether it is a winnowing of the church ahead of us or a New Great Awakening, there are widely shifting times ahead for the church, and it will take all of our creative efforts to find a way through it. That’s one of the reasons why I’m glad to be in the None Zone now as I want to be part of the great experiments to figure out the church before the creeping secularism hits the Bible Belt and demolishes it.

In these endeavors, progressive Methodist must be humble and seek to find the truth in whatever situation we are in, hand-in-hand with the “other side.”

But we can no longer be timid.

====

Thoughts?

*NOTE* Many people have commented that VMM is not conservative. Part of online discussion is determining if a label is accurate–self-labeled or other-labeled. By labeling them as such, I hope to cause people to ask if VMM actually IS a collision of the best of both sides. The more people see the shortcomings that I do in their treatment of progressives, then the better (I hope) they become aware of them and their writings become more accurate.  (added as an edit after this was posted)

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Comments

  1. says

    I left the UMC about 15 years ago because they just did not get it. While I have seen some positive movement (Roger is a friend) I still see things that bug me. I am open, progressive and very active – and I have had conversations with Bishops and DS’ who have told me that I would not fit – I am “too radical” – which I always found funny :)

  2. says

    Jeremy,
    There is so much I could say in response to this post, but I’ll limit myself to where you call out Via Media Methodists directly. As you know, I am one of the curators of this project, along with Drew McIntyre and Stephen Fife.

    1) No where have we identified as conservative. In fact, in response to one of your comments on a VMM blog post, I clearly explained to you my liberal annual conference affiliation, my involvement in several progressive organizations, etc. If I am somehow a conservative, then Al Sharpton is a Tea-partier. (Perhaps you are confusing a robust orthodoxy with conservatism, but that’s another subject for another day). However, it is quite apparent that these facts are dispensable for you, for they don’t fit with your larger narrative, which appears to be that anyone who pushes against or in any way critiques a liberal/progressive paradigm is a conservative. This inability to nuance between the liberal/conservative spectrum reveals an astounding lack of thoughtfulness and engagement on your part.

    2) You say: “Thus, the ‘via media’ is depicted as between activism and discipleship–as if they are mutually opposed.” Absolutely. The via media seeks a way between activism and discipleship, but not in the way you mean here. We seek the absolute best of both of them, because it is only with both activism AND discipleship that the way of holiness is best journeyed. The via media is not about adhering to one static set of standards or dogmas; it is a hermenutic, and interpretive lens, that draws from the best of a variety of paradigms (yes, even liberalism/progressivism!) with prayerful discernment. But, again, if you’d actually read our writing, you’d know that we have said this all along.

    I would encourage all readers of Hacking Christianity to follow Jeremy’s links to Via Media Methodists and read the blog posts and comments in full. Snippits of posts and comments miss context, and are easily manipulated to further an agenda.

    • says

      Evan,

      The perils of the group blog is that either you all agree on your posts or your publicly comment when you don’t. I have yet to see (here or there or even now) comments about Drew’s statements about the entrepreneurial ability of Progressives. When you are silent in the face of a mischaracterization, you consent to it. For me to call out a persistent mischaracterization is both authentic and engages the topic in a way not found in the comments to my satisfaction

      And yes everyone should follow the links. It’s always helpful to read the source material.

      • says

        1) I don’t think VMM values the progressive voice as much as it does the conservative voice. While I see each of you individually making some nuance, during the recent A&WGate, such nuance was lost when it came to the progressives. If you are going to bend over backwards to give nuance to conservative positions, while using “all” and “every” language to refer to progressives, then there’s bias that negatively affects an approach towards “the middle way” (and I said as much in the A&WGate thread that was not addressed). Polishing progressive laurels means nothing if the writing is not consistent with exposure.

        And this is the second time that you’ve avoided responding to Drew’s comments about progressives. Don’t like critique?

        2) See, that is clear and helpful. I agree with what you wrote about the purpose of the via media. And in many of VMMs early posts–even the ones I disagreed with–the positions were clearly drawn. Somewhere along the way, the echo chamber started leaving out progressive nuance except as guest content which did not address via media at all.

        I don’t mind progressives, conservatives, third-wayers, and everyone else thrown in the theological gumbo and having it out. That’s fine. But for a group that is trying very hard to walk a third way, or your better framework of “via media,” as a progressive, I am increasingly having a hard time being talked about in a way that I don’t recognize.

        • Evan says

          Jeremy – I have encountered progressive fath groups/churches that have excelled at entrepreneurial excellence/innovation. However, it is important to keep in mind my experience and my colleagues at VMM. I have had close encounters with progressive brothers and sisters and I’ve seen the good work they do. I think it’s fair to say that my annual conference experience has caused me to be surrounded my progressives in a different way than Drew’s has.
          And remember – VMM is not a monolithic voice. The 3 of us have some deeply held common beliefs and core, but we also have difference. It wasn’t birthed as a monolith, and it isn’t intended to be one now.

  3. Gene says

    In point #2 you write: “we are about transformation of the world, not just parts of it” as rationale as to why the Progressives in the UMC would never leave it to start their own denomination.

    This sounds a lot like the married couple where one partner thinks that the goal of the marriage is to change the other one into their likeness. Have I understood you correctly?

    • says

      Gene, thanks for the comment. First, I’m not talking for all Progressives as there’s a sizable group that does want to split and form their own denomination (just as the Conservatives do).

      But to your metaphor, that’s why we are in Covenant together and not in a marriage together. The covenant of marriage is wholly different from the covenant I keep with my fellow clergy. I say similar things in this post here: When Covenants Conflict…

    • says

      Nor should they, but actions speak louder than words. If they can’t bring themselves to accurately reflect Progressivism while bending over backwards to give context to conservatives, then I know who is really being valued in the conversation.

  4. says

    The conservatives would also not agree with the characterization of us as conservative. When I was preparing for the NYAC dialogue in the Ogletree resolution, the conservative UM blogosphere all but referred to me as a stealth progressive. Now I am, apparently, a stealth conservative. Much seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Jeremy, guilt by association seems a bit old-fashioned for you. In point of fact, I actually took your critique seriously and tried to do some work delineating between healthy and unhealthy forms of progressive Christianity here: http://pastormack.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/when-progressive-christianity-nukes-the-fridge/

      • says

        It seems a hardly defensible tactic, on Christian terms, to intentionally mischaracterise one group to show that mischaracterizing is wrong. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll take us up on our offer for you to write a guest blog for us, so that we might find the elusive progressive voice that you don’t insultingly dismiss.

  5. says

    Jeremy, after reading this article I’m not really convinced that you’re right on any of the three main areas you address. Rather, I think I’m just hearing you say, “I don’t want for these critiques to be leveled at my side any more.” I don’t think that’s a reasonable request at this point, nor do I think you address deeply enough the concerns mentioned. They all sorta revolve around church growth and vitality in ministry, don’t you think? And you alternate between saying in places, “look we do it well in this way or over in this area,” but then you step aside from that and say, “progressives reject these categories as admirable,” at one point even equating vital ministry with ‘empire-building.’ It’s almost as if you forget that Christ came to plant an empire of God on earth. You seem to characterize the Kingdom of God as somehow evil or misguided.

    I also think your characterization of Drew and the VMM is mean-spirited, Jeremy. And dishonest. Rather than addressing Drew’s critiques of your said, you simply say, “I don’t have to argue with you because I disagree with the terms on which you level these critiques.” Which I guess you can do. But you can’t say that your article here that one side is “shockingly wrong” in making a statement when you can’t even address the statement in any other way than, “I don’t like this statement.” And throwing someone in with a camp they don’t identify with so as to caricature them is wrong and you know it. That’s no way to participate in dialogue. At some point it’s important that progressives can actually point to places where they are bearing sustainable fruit. Glide Memorial is an awful example for reasons you’re already aware of, Jeremy. They are not sustainable, and their status as a megachurch is not long for this world. You should be able to point somewhere else. But you can’t because there aren’t any churches that are flourishing in your camp. You can blame it on the “Bible Belt vs. None Zone” schtick, but in a world where Mars Hill can be located in Portland, there should be some outliers in the other direction. There aren’t because progressives lack a robust notion of discipleship that they can “empire-build” across a connection. And, as you’ve been writing about this lately, the lack of belief in hell/condemnation takes away the desire to save others. That’s why progressive Christianity is not helping churches to thrive and grow. You can say that progressives are more communally-minded than conservatives, but science on religion and other data-gathering organization have been able to show that conservatives are actually more communally-engaged in their time and energy than progressives, and that they give more of their incomes to benevolent causes.

    What I’m saying is that I would ask for your articles to actually address the topics raised in a more generous and honest fashion. If you are going to continue to speak for progressive Christianity, as you do overtly in this article, I think you need to hold your articles to a higher standard.

  6. Drew Hellams says

    The problem with VMM and conservatives is that they make assumptions about progressives that aren’t true. I am beyond progressive and believe that liturgy is the most crucial part of worship–particularly as it pertains to Eucharist and baptism. I was also chided this week by a new attendee who wished to transfer membership because I requested that a 10-week membership class be taken. I call that discipleship. Some stereotypes are roughly true. I have found recent writings about progressives from another perspective to not even be close in describing me. I simply don’t fall into your categorization. Nor will I ever because I am changing, unlike those who stand firm in their faith. As a postmodern-millennial, I cannot fit into your small box about progressivism. Neither do my friends. I think very highly of Drew Mac, and we think similarly, but the attempt to classify me on a pole of liberal and conservative is laughable. I’m simply not on the chart and take offense to mischaracterizations of progressives in general.

  7. David Winfrey says

    Maybe it would help if you found something other than “progressive” to call yourselves — some new, clear, specific, descriptive name whose main purpose isn’t to imply “… and those other people aren’t.”

  8. Dennis Sanders says

    Jeremy,

    Hi, I’m Dennis Sanders, the so-called “token progressive” voice on Via Media Methodists. You should know that what I shared on their blog are my own thoughts. Also, I don’t like the use of the word “token.” I’m not their token. I was asked to write something and I did, sharing my own views.

    My own concerns about Progressive Christianity come from my own experience. I would love to see more integration of discipleship and activism, but too often I’ve seen a lot of activism and little discipleship. That doesn’t describe every progressive, but I’ve seen that happen more often than not. Maybe that’s not an issue in your context, but it is in mine.

    I have been critical of Progressives over the years, not because I don’t like them, but because I am in some way a part of them. Progressive Christians could be much more than they are, but what I’ve seen over the years is a church not energized to do things such as church planting or discipleship. Yes, activism is necessary; but I feel too often there is not a foundation to base that activism on.

    You have every right to disagree with me. But I’m not a token. I’m not a parrot.

    • says

      Hi Dennis,

      We don’t know each other, so I’m sorry we met under seemingly adversarial terms. It was frustrating to me that–having had several conversations before with VMM about discipleship and progressivism–the first time they have a bonafide progressive like yourself talking about progressives…and you make the same comment I’ve seen before. I’ll take you at your word that such a thing is a coincidence. The rest of your article was well-written and clear, so thanks for contributing it.

      Blessings, ~Jeremy

  9. says

    Something else occurs to me: this blog is mis-titled. It isn’t the whole UMC that gets progressive Methodists wrong, if your evidence is correct, it’s a selected group of bloggers and writers with whom you disagree. You actually haven’t made the case that the whole UMC gets progressive Methodists wrong (which is a difficult case to make, since progressive Annual Conferences are disproportionately represented on critical church bodies like the Connectional Table).

  10. says

    Hey, Jeremy. It was interesting to find a question I asked in a Facebook thread used as evidence that evangelical/conservatives in the UMC associate progressivism with church decline. As I recall, my question was in response to a colleague that was trumpeting the United Church in Australia’s “advanced” views of human sexuality. My question was addressing the hubris of inferring that progressive views are more “advanced” and that the views held by me and others (including the African churches) are, by extension, less advanced. I am not sure my question was used fairly in your post. I also take exception to the claim that the Jurisdictional Solution is a plan for schism. I see it as a centrist path toward amicable unity in our church. I currently have as many progressive supporters as conservatives. If you are writing a post that criticizes painting with a broad brush, you have an extra burden, it seems to me, to model a better way for us to speak of each other. I enjoy reading your blog. Blessings.

  11. Creed Pogue says

    As is too often the case, you ignore anything that doesn’t fit into your pre-existing narrative. You commented on the VMM blog and didn’t engage there either.

    The Western Jurisdiction has acted as a separate denomination within the denomination for many years. Are they growing or shrinking? The whole Western Jurisdiction is smaller than the North Georgia Annual Conference which grew again in 2013. Attendance is declining. Professions of faith for the whole jurisdiction appear to continue to decline.

    Is the Western Jurisdiction sustainable? It is the only jurisdiction that expects the rest of us to pay for their bishops and contributes NOTHING toward the retirees and the central conference bishops.

    When Wolsey tells us of situations where we can say that Jesus “returns” that seems to be saying that he does not believe in a Second Coming. If you are helping people to be comfortable with saying they are Christians while having none of the basic beliefs, that isn’t growing disciples of Jesus Christ.

  12. Brian says

    Is there a chart where I can keep up with who I’m supposed to disagree with this week? Progressives, conservatives, VMM, conservative VMM, progressive VMM, MFSA, Good News, Confessing, Aldersgate, etc. The fact is that I know a lot of good people who don’t fit neatly into any of these and we can do better than to take shots across the bow at each other. But since that isn’t going to happen, because this is the internet, a chart would be helpful. Just post it here. Thanks.

  13. Larry Collins says

    Just one man’s view from 6 feet (as opposed to 6,000 feet):

    1. When too much time is spent arguing over SOCIAL issues, the GOSPEL suffers, EVANGELISM declines and THAT is what causes membership to decline. If you are not winning new, young converts to replace the older members who are dying, your church will die too

    2. Progressives are seldom evangelistic in the traditional sense. They want to win you over to their particular social issue of the day, more than they want to win you over to Christ through salvation and grace.

    3. Chasing after the LGBTXYZ “vote” will never sustain a church. Most of the LGBT I know are not “church-goers” anyway, and trying to make the Church “more inclusive” only drives away the traditional members, leaving vacuum that isn’t going to be filled by those you are trying to ‘include.’ It’s a false hope.

    4. We all have to decide how we view the Bible. You either have a Biblical-world view or you do not. The Bible doesn’t suddenly say things it has never said before. Flaunting centuries of church teaching that has been consistent across ALL flavors of Christendom until the last 20 years is a pretty good indication that Paul’s prediction in 2 Tim 4:3 is upon us.

    5. Joel Olsteen isn’t the only person preaching a ‘feel good Gospel.’ So are progressives. When is the last time you hear a sermon on sin, repentance, salvation, redemption, the need for grace, the efficacy of Christ, the power of prayer, the work of the Holy Spirit, or the uniqueness of Jesus?

    OK those 5 statements should create enough of a fire-storm so I’ll stop there

    Jesus IS Lord.

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