Youth Questions: Why Doesn’t the Methodist Church Modernize its Thinking?


 Question: Why Doesn’t the Methodist Church Modernize its Thinking?

    I’m not exactly sure what the questioner had in mind when they wrote this, but the short answer is that we do, regularly, change the way that our church works.  The longer answer will take a little while.
    First, there are some things that we can’t change.  If we believe that the Bible is true and was given to us by God, then we must be formed and shaped by what it says and it is not for us to rewrite the Bible so that it says what we think it should.
    Second, as United Methodists, our organization, structure and doctrine all flow out of “The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.”  It is not the Bishops who speak for us, nor the Council of Bishops (we don’t have a Pope), but the Book of Discipline.  This book is revised every four years during our General Conference.  The General Conference is a democratic body of delegates who are elected by each geographical area (called Annual Conferences) and each area sends a delegation based on the number of church members in that area, much like we, in the United States, elect members to the House of Representatives.  Because The United Methodist Church is a global church, representatives come from around the globe from every continent except Antarctica. 
    Almost everything is up for grabs when the General Conference meets.  Nearly every page of the Book of Discipline may be amended or even completely replaced with only a small section that is unchanging.  In the beginning of the Discipline is a set of Restrictive Rules that specify those sections that cannot be amended.  These sections include the fundamental doctrine of our church that defines who we are, our basic confession of faith, a few rules regarding bishops, the right of clergy to trial by committee, and how we are able to spend the money earned by through publishing.  In all, from a book with nearly 900 pages, less than twenty are unchanging.  The rest are available for revision every four years.
    Who can suggest or propose a change?  You can.  Any member, or clergyperson, from any United Methodist Church, can write a proposal to the General Conference to amend or replace any section of the Discipline.  And to be sure that your opinion matters, the Discipline requires that the General Conference consider every single proposal that is submitted.  Many of these will be similar or propose changes to the same sections, and these will be read, and incorporated into a single proposal by working groups of conference delegates.  Every delegate belongs to one of these working groups and each group is responsible for a working out the proposed changes to a particular section.  Once the working groups are done, these proposals go before the entire General Conference for a vote.  The exception to this are those changes that are editorial or are so totally uncontroversial, that no one feels the need to vote on them, these are passed, as a group, by the consent of the conference.  But if any delegate feels that any particular proposal should be voted on individually, they can ask that that proposal be moved off of the “consent calendar” and brought to the floor for a vote.
    So, while we maintain core beliefs that are unchanging, there is much of our “thinking” that is being “modernized” on a regular basis.  Among these things that are being revised is the Social Principles, which is a separate publication from the Book of Discipline, but which contains the official position of the church on social issues from abortion and adoption, to the rights of women and youth and everything in between.  It is here, in the Social Principles, that you will find the official church position on divorce, the death penalty, population control, racial and ethnic rights, collective bargaining, sustainable agriculture and a great many other things. 
    Keep in mind that The United Methodist Church is a church made up of individuals that are very different, who come from very different places and different cultures.  Our church has members from nearly every political affiliation you can imagine and we don’t always agree.  Although I admit that politics are sometimes played in the writing of changes to the Discipline and the Social Principles, I appreciate that we are trying to do theology together.   
    We are not a North American church that is writing “rules” that must be followed by people thousands of miles away, but we are one, global, church that is trying to discern, together, what God is saying, and where he is leading us.   
That process can be a little messy, but we are working it out, together.
 Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

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Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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An Accidental Ministry: Passing 50,000


    Last month, Scribd, the webpage where I post sermons online, indicated that I had surpassed 50,000 ‘reads’ on the 187 documents that I have posted.  One sermon a week, times about 50 weeks each year (I do take time off once in a while) and we can see that I have been posting there for a little less than four years.  In fact, as I dig back through the records, I find that the first file was uploaded in September 2009.  Since then, people from around the world have found their way, by a variety of means, often through Google or other search engines, to read the words that I have written.  And it was all an accident.

    Ten years ago when I first began in ministry, I was more of an engineer than a pastor.  I knew that I could not simply open a Bible and preach without notes, or even preach from a stack of 3×5 cards.  If I was going to talk for 20 minutes and sound even remotely coherent, I knew that I would have to prepare better than that.  And so, each week, I would type my entire sermon, word for word, and then, on Sunday, deliver it from the pulpit.  I had enough experience in High School Theater and in other dramatic productions that I don’t think I ever just stood there and read to people in a monotone voice, although there have been a few folks who accused of something close to that.  I’m sure I could have done better with more training and experience, which is what happened (I hope) over my years as a student pastor, a seminary student and as a full-time pastor.
    After some time had passed, someone suggested that since the sermon was already typed up, that we could make copies and provide them outside the sanctuary for those who had missed the previous week.  From there this thing grew.  People started asking for copies to take to our shut-ins, and then email copies to college students and others, and then, finally, a friend suggested that we might launch a discussion forum on Facebook for folks to ask questions.  When we launched the discussion forum (which never really caught on) we needed a place to post copies of the sermons online and so I searched the Internet for a service that was similar to YouTube, but for text instead of video.  That is how I found Scribd.com. 
    On Scribd, I discovered an online community of readers and writers.  There, people could subscribe to what I was writing, and I could subscribe to theirs.  I had intended to create a place for the people of our community to read and discuss the weekly message but, within weeks discovered that I had subscribers from China to Africa to Pakistan.  There were people who were reading the sermon of a little country church in Ohio because there was no local church near them that spoke English, or because the message of Jesus Christ was considered subversive in the places that they lived.  Now, nearly four years later, nearly 60 people read one of these messages every day.
    I have no illusions that each of those 50,000 mouse-clicks means someone read all the way through something, but I continue to be amazed and humbled by what God is doing with the words that he has given to me. 
    I have never believed that people were reading these things because I was a great writer, nor do I think that Billy Graham or Bill Hybels have need to fear from my speaking ability.  Every time I look at these numbers I remember God’s words in Isaiah 55:10-11:
 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
And Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
God took my weaknesses and is using them to reveal his message to the world.   
I am simply amazed and humbled at what he is doing.

A Dream So Big



    My wife, Patti, and another member of our church first met Steve Peifer during a trip to visit Keith and Jamie Weaver, missionaries sent by our church to the people of Kenya.  There, Patti met Steve and worked with this beautiful wife Nancy in the library at Rift Valley Academy.  I first met Steve at my home church when we invited him to come and tell us about his efforts to feed hungry school children that he describes in A Dream So Big.  Since then Patti and I have answered a call to pastoral ministry and have not only followed Steve’s adventures through his regular emails, but have, on several occasions, invited him to speak in the churches where we were serving.  I don’t think that his story has ever failed to astound his listeners. 

     
    Steve is an average, middle class guy whose life was turned upside down and who, through no particular plan of his own, ended up in Kenya, Africa seeing things that most of us cannot imagine, and doing things that we would be afraid to do.  Throughout this story, Steve insists that he is not an amazing man, just a man through whom, God is doing amazing things. 
 
    In A Dream So Big, we meet Steve, Nancy, and their family before the adventure began, at home, in Texas.  We walk with them through one of the most difficult times that a parent can imagine, the loss of their child, Steven, and then follow them as they head to Africa.  At first, their African adventure is intended to be just a year away to sort things out and to process the pain and the trauma of losing a child, a time for their family to be together and to heal.  But, as Steve often points out, Africa changes a person.  After a year in Kenya, the Peifers feel called, if not compelled, to return on a more permanent basis, and it is then that the real adventure begins.  
    Not content to see children lying in the dirt at school because they are weak from hunger, Steve sets out to change the world, or at least his little corner of it.  Steve asks, and with the help of his friends and supporters in the United States, begins to provide lunches for two schools nearby.  Two schools become four, and then ten, and by the end of the book become a truly extraordinary number.  Providing food not only allows the children to be free from hunger, but gives them the strength to get an education and an incentive to stay in school.  Even with these successes, Steve is not content.  Building on the feeding program, Steve and his friends begin to build solar powered computer centers.
    Just because I said the word computer, do not be tempted to think that this is just another story about wealthy, white Americans swooping in to “rescue” Africa.  Those stories are old and they often are the picture of “Ugly Americans” with all the cultural insensitivity that you might expect.  That is not Steve’s story.  Steve builds a program in which the villages take ownership of their schools and their computer centers.  The parents know that when these children finish school and head into the city to find work, as most of them do, that they will find good paying, skilled jobs instead of living in the slums fighting with untold thousands of others for a handful of unskilled jobs.  The school children, their parents, and many others have seen Steve’s vision, and it is a vision that can break the back of poverty in Africa.  It is a vision that can change the world.
    I highly recommend A Dream So Big.  As you follow Steve, Nancy and their family on this amazing adventure, you will laugh out loud at the ridiculous situations in which Steve finds himself.  But you will also weep at the poverty and hopelessness that he sees all around him.  A Dream So Big invites you, not only to follow along, but to be a part of this incredible adventure.  I have no doubt that Steve Peifer is changing the world, one child at a time.  When you read this book, you will discover that you can too.
Steve’s book, A Dream So Big will be released next week and can be found on Amazon here: A Dream So Big.