What will General Conference Change?
By Scott Hughes
What will General Conference change? For most United Methodists, General Conference will likely pass without much notice. For UM nerds like me, the pressing questions leading into General Conference (May 10-20) will include whether General Conference will be able to make substantive changes this time and how much change there will be regarding the church’s stance on homosexuality.
As we head into General Conference, anxiety is high around the future of the United Methodist Church as the church continues to struggle with being a global entity. Uncertainty and the desire for change are ingredients that often lead to poor decisions and actions. The apostle Peter desired for his world to change, yet he was disoriented by Jesus’ ministry. Thus Peter often fumbled in his responses. While building on the foundation of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Lord, unfortunately the church also mirrors Peter’s fumbles at times as well.
In To Change the World, author James Davison Hunter offers a critique about the way the church has often tried to enact change. For Americans in general and Christians in particular, Hunter asserts that power politics has become the dominate lens for directing change. An example of our current reality is that even Christian values, such as justice, marriage, morality, and the like have been hijacked by politicians and political ideologies (both right and left). This reality leads the author to observe three ironies about how the church in America relates to politics.
First, he observes that Christian groups (both right and left) are very much to blame for this reality in how they have attempted to use and have been used by candidates and political parties.
Second, while the church has the resources and traditions to be a voice that is independent from politics, too often the result of the current system is that denominations and other religious institutions take postures akin to lobbyists.
Third, the church’s relationship to politics fosters the misguided belief that politics, politicians, and the government will bring the ultimate solution (page 172).
I recount Hunter’s assertions because as we head into General Conference, I cannot help but wonder if the way we relate to one another will look more like power politics than a community called to be light to a dark world. I also wonder if the third of his ironies will be true of how committed United Methodists perceive General Conference - as if that body will be the ultimate solution.
Highlighting our mistaken and misplaced belief that change happens through power politics, Hunter expands on the third irony, observing: “It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirm parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than you are. True responsibility invariably costs” (page 172).
Whatever happens at General Conference, this much will be assured: There will still be the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” There will still be the need for United Methodist disciples to spread scriptural holiness. There will still be our neighbors who are hurting and in need of a gospel that heals, transforms, and brings Resurrection hope. Rest assured, our mission will be best embodied through disciples learning how to listen to God’s voice in others, through allowing the Holy Spirit to bring conviction, and through the difficult, messy work of relating to those closest to us and to our neighbors with compassion. In short, no matter what happens at General Conference, God’s mission will continue.
Whatever changes happen at General Conference, there will still need to be tough, messy conversations — conversations that rely on listening to others and the Holy Spirit and that call us into participation as we discern together God’s will to be active witnesses for God’s kingdom.