It’s Time to Get Honest

Bishop Gary E. Mueller

One of the most important responsibilities a leader has is to offer her or his best assessment of the way things are. This means being honest – even when that honesty is painful, difficult and disruptive – because we must have as complete an understanding as possible about the way things are or we will be vulnerable to making all kinds of bad choices about our future. And whether we think we are ready or not, the fact of the matter is that we will be making a number of critically important choices in the coming months about who we are going to be.

So, even as I confess my own limitations and the possibility I could be wrong in the analysis that follows, here’s how I honestly see things right now in our beloved United Methodist Church in Arkansas.

Too many congregations reflect our nation’s polarized culture, which means that division and anger have too often replaced passion and love. Many good United Methodists have become so caught up by our secular culture that they think being active in church is no more important than any of the myriad of other activities in which they participate.

Clergy often feel isolated, and many clergy wonder whether there will be churches for them to serve in the coming years. Congregations accept ongoing decline of attendance, baptisms and professions of faith as if it is just the new normal. Almost everyone is experiencing anxiety as we inch closer and closer to next February’s Special Session of General Conference. And perhaps most disturbing of all, far too many of us seem to have lost our hope.

At the same time, however, some congregations are vibrant and growing in worship attendance, professions of faith, small group discipleship groups and outreach in the mission field. Some laity and pastors are passionate about following Jesus Christ and growing as disciples. Some miraculous transformation is occurring in individual lives, communities and the world. And faithful saints in United Methodist congregations in Arkansas are busy sowing seeds of hope in our state and around the world. But here’s the point. While these signs of vibrancy are real and we should celebrate them, they do not begin to measure up to Jesus’ deepest longing for his church.

This kind of assessment is not one I want to offer. It is, however, one I must share. Quite frankly, it has shaken me to the core. So much so, I now wrestle with a question every single day from the time I wake up until the moment I finally fall asleep: “Why have we ended up like this?”
As I have prayed, argued with God and reflected on this question, I find a similar answer emerging time and again. We have lost our energy, passion, clarity of mission, joy and hope because we have forgotten who we are.

I’m not sure exactly how this has happened. But the antidote is obvious. It is time for us to start remembering those things that are at the very core of who we are as Wesleyan Christians at this defining moment of the United Methodist Church in Arkansas. When we remember who we are, we can begin to act like who we are.

It’s Time to Remember Who We Are

We need to remember who we are – not creators of a faith that is comfortable, relevant or acceptable to the culture, but receivers of the historic orthodox Christian faith that has had the ability across the centuries to shape in large and small ways how we understand ourselves, see others, and live day-in and day-out.

We need to remember who we are – ambassadors of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who offers the salvation we absolutely need, but can never get on our own.

We are who we are because of him. We live out our unique identity as the church because of him. We don’t attempt to beat people up with Jesus or act as if we’re superior because of our relationship with him. We simply believe with everything we’ve got that people need Jesus and it’s our responsibility to share him with them.

We need to remember who we are – people who are embraced by the fullness of God’s love. In traditional Wesleyan terms, this means talking about holiness, going on to perfection, and grace that is prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. In more modern language, it might be termed growing in God’s unconditional, invitational and transformational love.

Too often in the past, Christians have failed to share the unconditional love we have received. Too often now, we are convinced unconditional is so important that we fail to realize that the depth of God’s love means God is not content to leave any of us just the way we are.

We need to remember who we are – a church that keeps the main thing the main thing: creating vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.

This is not about being successful, or even getting enough people in Arkansas to help Methodism survive. It is the mission God has given the church. And it means we are serious about investing in growing disciples, creating accountable disciples, evangelizing more disciples, and equipping all disciples to live their faith outside the doors of the church.

We need to remember who we are – disciples who take our faith out the front door of our churches. We reach out to those no one else seems to care about. How we reach out into the mission field that begins right outside the doors of our congregation to get to know people, share Jesus’ love, meet them at their point of need and help them become Jesus’ disciples who, in turn, makes disciples and work to transform lives, communities and the world.

We need to remember who we are – brothers and sister in Christ, especially when that seems most difficult because of all our differences. We choose to live with an attitude of humility, a willingness to repent and a life of service. We choose to make the church a community of acceptance and redemption. We choose to engage in the hard work of actually loving each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, instead of treating one another as adversaries.

It’s Time to Make Some Choices

While absolute honesty is a necessary beginning, and while knowing what steps we need to choose to take in the coming months and years is essential, there’s still one more thing we need to do.
We have to choose to see our future through the hope God has made real in Jesus Christ. This means we see the struggles and challenges, but we them through the lens of Christ. When we do, we see something else.

We see all the faithful disciples in the 660 congregations that comprise the United Methodist Church in Arkansas just waiting to go to work. We see the God-sized possibilities of what God is going to do through these laity, pastors and congregations because God is still God and God is making God’s Kingdom just as real on earth as it already is in heaven.

And perhaps most importantly, we see even before it occurs what the people called United Methodists are going to do during the next six months, the next six years and the next six decades.

Yes, choices matter. And that’s why I want to ask all of us to join together in the coming months as we choose to remember who we are, choose to embrace who we are and choose to live who we are. I am convinced we will make these critical choices. After all, God sent Christ into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world. And that reality has already changed everything about everything!

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

Note: This post originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of the Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith magazine. Read the digital edition of the magazine here.