What Happens when a Church Splits
by Nathan Decker
“The history of the Church of Rome is a constant leakage of members into such breakaway cults,
which go on splitting.” Mary Douglas
I’ve been here before. I watched while I was in college as the Southern Baptist Church split and fractured into an alphabet soup of CBF, SBC, Alliance and all sorts of brands. Dying and grief are processes. There is a process the United Methodist Church is entering which feels all too familiar, as if someone has started music we have to dance to, even though we don’t like the steps it is making us take.
At first there is an attempt at reconciling the differing views (and yes, I get the irony of my use of that word). When this fails, we begin making each other out to be the enemy. Like children on a playground sorting who is on who’s side, we grieve the loss of longtime friends to the other side and question each other about our motives, faithfulness, and views. Tragically, this has already started with the statements by people about the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Reconciling Movement. This is messy because there is something about being human that wants it to be a simple left or right, yet we are complex. There is a lot of space between on the spectrum of any question.
There is only so much energy and institutional loyalty and patience. When the side who has the votes refuses again and again to compromise for the good of unity, eventually the minority recognizes that they are not only unwelcomed but also are being systematically disenfranchised. It starts small, a position here and there. Then because those in power need to know who is faithful, they will create a creedal litmus test like the Baptist Faith and Message which all must take an oath to uphold and follow. For us in the United Methodist Church, we already have this in the oath all clergy take regarding the Book of Discipline. The General Conference created accountability with teeth and a spirit of division instead an accountability of love and grace. There was no interest in compromise.
Unless God intervenes to stop the music we keep playing, the next step in our dance will be a split. Try as we might to be dignified and respectful, this step is painful for all involved. There will be a fight about who is the ‘historic United Methodists’ who represent the core values of the denomination. Progressives/Centrists will accuse Traditionalists of stealing their church from them while Traditionalists will accuse Progressives/Centrists of watering down the Gospel to be more like the culture.
Those who stay in the denomination will find they suddenly have power to finally ‘fix’ the church, and they will shoot themselves in the foot trying to keep their coalition together once the so called enemy they named is no longer with them. They will have the option to step aside and let new leadership rise from within the ranks, or they will try to find a new enemy to keep their shrinking gathering together. The most difficult problem will be that infused in the DNA of the church now is a strong belief of ‘Us vs. Them.” The church will always see the world as the enemy who must be conquered.
Those who leave to create a new denomination will have an even harder task. There will be an old guard who want to create what they just left with only the one change to be inclusive. But they will have to face a growling beast of differing opinions who want to create something brand new. There will be so many suggested changes to structure and the way we do missions; it will be messy. Some will assume because of past position and prestige they will be the leaders of this new group, but they will find others see opportunity or feel called to do so as well. The saddest part of any church splitting is the expense of energy in division instead of the pursuit of multiplying and being fruitful.
My hope is not in the United Methodist Church. My hope is not in institutions, interpretations, or in being right at the expense of relationships. My hope is in the Savior who taught us that in order to experience resurrection, we first have to die. We have to die to self. We have let our egos, our agendas, and our belief that we know the right answers and right paths die. We have to die so that we can experience resurrection in Jesus. In many ways, the church that ordained me as an Elder has died. Like all deaths, this death has brought me great grief. But I wait, as Christ waited in the tomb three days. I wait for Easter. I wait for resurrection. After all, it is what Jesus would do.
“No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”
– Jesus in John 15:13
Gardening God, who patiently works in Grace in our lives:
-till our soil;
-pick up the rocks of selfishness and fear;
-plant seeds of hope, mercy, and compassion;
-and harvest from us a crop of service in love.
Jesus, take us to your garden:
-Where suffering with you our sweat drops
–water the hopes and dreams of those in poverty, pain, silence.
-Where dying with you we join the compost heap
–fertilizing the blessings that generations to come will inherit.
-Where rising with you in glory
–We bask in the sunshine of your grace and love.
Spirit, lead us in suffering and glory to follow our Lord, Amen.
Lord, we come to your Word with squashed dreams, devastated visions, and tremendous fears about the future. Breathe hope into our lives. Guide us with the light of the Hope Candle into new beginnings. Burn away the darkness with Hope today, Amen.
LIGHTING THE HOPE CANDLE
This year has been devastating…
Wildfires, hurricanes, shootings, turmoil
It would be so easy to give in to apathy,
to let our hearts grow dark with despair.
But there is a light shining in the darkness.
(the candle is lit)
A single candle, a small voice, a still reminder…
Hope in the Word proclaimed by the prophets.
Hope in the Promise of Emmanuel.
Hope in the birth of our Savior.
LIGHTING THE LOVE CANDLE
She places a hand on her belly to feel the kicking from within as they journey down the road toward Bethlehem…
a Babe will be born, a Savior will arrive, Love will come down.
The lost world pushes on drudgingly, slaves to a never ending care-less-ness.
It would be so easy to give in to apathy,
But there is a light shining in the cold winter.
(the candles are lit)
A simple hope, a wonderful gift…
Love nurtured by a Mother’s embrace…
Love shared from the Father’s strength…
Love in the birth of our Savior.
LIGHTING THE JOY CANDLE
Cheerless faces marching in the land of misery…
Chained to our desires, held captive by our regrets, slaves to our brokenness.
It would be so easy to give in to apathy,
to let our hearts grow deaf, our open lips mute with pain.
But there is a song shining in the silence.
(the candles are lit)
A simple hope, the gift of love, a song of joy…
Joy brought the Angel’s song to the shepherds.
Joy inspired the Wise to follow their starry dreams.
Joy in the birth of our Savior.
LIGHTING THE PEACE CANDLE
War affects more than those who are fighting.
Men, women, children, babies, refugees.
Turning a blind eye, pretending it isn’t our problem,
It would be so easy to give in to apathy.
But there is a light shining in the night.
(the candles are lit)
A simple hope, the gifts of love, a song of joy, the peace of Christ…
Peace born in a prince lain in a manger.
Peace waging in our hearts, seeking justice, offering mercy.
Peace in the birth of our Savior.
LIGHTING THE CHRIST CANDLE
(all the advent candles are lit)
She gives him a nod; he realizes it is time,
There is no room in the inn.
It would be so easy to give in to the apathy that surrounds them,
Yet they don’t give up, pressing on to the stable.
Light is born in the darkness. A child is born unto you.
(the Christ candle is lit)
A simple hope, the gift of love, a song of joy, the peace of Christ…
His name is Jesus.
He is Emmanuel – God with us.
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,
He is the Christ child.
Prince of Peace, Comforter, Creator –
while we placing offerings in the plate,
a shooter was putting a bullet in the chamber;
while we were counting attendance,
he was sizing up ammunition;
while we came to pray, giving thanks for life,
he came to kill.
The people gathered in the sanctuary,
yet evil ripped through hymnals, pews, and people.
God have mercy.
Comfort your people’s pain.
Help us lay down our fears and weapons of massacre.
Aid us as we unload our anger and guilt.
Wipe the tears from our eyes so that our aim might be as true as your aim.
Gently trigger us into a holy conversation about peace
so that we might lead through this tragedy,
so that we might prevent another from occurring.
All in the name of the innocent crucified Savior, Jesus, Amen.
From Matthew 13:1-9
Mrs. Smith was one helluva teacher sent from Heaven. I know because I had her for English. I know because I watched her put up with Ed. Ed didn’t want to be in school, Ed didn’t want to learn the puns of Shakespeare or the alliteration of Blake, and Ed didn’t want to be told what to do.
Through it all, Mrs. Smith never gave up. She’d offer extra time on tests he had no intention of completing. She’d push him to enter rap lyrics into a poetry contest, but Ed didn’t do extra work. She’d encourage him to redo the homework he turned in before she graded it, but all this was casting pearls before swine. Ed didn’t care. His apathy, a black hole, sucked the energy and impetus around him. Ed didn’t care. But Mrs. Smith cared, and she never gave up on him.
Today’s world has joined what some psychologists call the ‘cult of self.’ At the expense of self-awareness and self-limitations, we boost self-esteem eclipsing reality in exaggerated egocentric effigies of us. We know the education system is failing, yet more students get A’s and Honors than ever before. If a C is the average, how come so few kids get them? Ivy League Students were surveyed and 80% of them claimed to be in the top 5% of their class. And everyone gets a trophy.
But it’s not just kids… Social Media enables us to tell the world about us and to live in a world that revolves around us. We Instagram what we’re eating, tweet the songs we’re singing, and post “Best Vacation Ever” every time we slip away. Narcissism rises as we can literally count how many likes, shares, comments, friends, and followers we have. We create monsters who no longer can be told they are incorrect and will not admit that they made a mistake all in the name of the god called self-esteem.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells us a parable about farming. We show up clutching to our report cards, trophies, awards and affirmations; Jesus ruins it. God loves us, but some of us just aren’t going to get it. The parable of the sower casting out his seeds is pretty familiar to all of us. We know about the different types of soils: the path, the rocks, the thorns, and of course the good soil. And each time we hear this parable, we tell ourselves the same things: “I’m so glad I’m the good soil,” or “I used to be like that soil, but now I’m the good soil,” or “here’s a list of things I have to do to make sure I’m the good soil.” We are so focused on ME! ME! ME! we’ve retitled this parable. No longer is it the parable of the sower but the parable of the soil.
Jesus tells us about God. Jesus lets us know God doesn’t give up on us. Jesus is tells us about God’s wasteful generosity. A farmer goes out to plant. How many farmers do you know cast seed out on Highway 58? How many farmers do you know throw seed on rocks or among thorns on purpose? How many farmers do you know who are tighter than spandex on an 800 lbs gorilla? Farmers I know count their fingers after they shake your hand.
God is not your average farmer. Our Lord is so generous every soil gets seed. God loves the road. God loves us when we are hard and mean as asphalt. God loves the rocky soil. God loves us when we are shallow, undisciplined, and unwilling to let his love affect us deeply. God loves the soil with thorns and thistles. God loves us when we let money, worry, friends, and family come before what really matters. God loves the good soil. God loves us when we are ready to receive his Word, take it into our lives, and bear fruit.
This is not a story about us. This is a story about God’s wasteful generosity. God is willing to love even when there is little chance the love will be returned. Our part in the story is to love like God loves.
Jesus sat down by the sea and told us a story about God: the most generous, loving, wasteful farmer the world has ever known. Let’s be honest, some folks are just not going to get it, but that doesn’t stop God from loving them. It shouldn’t stop us from loving as well. God gives so much grace in the world that some of the grace is going to waste. Some folks just aren’t going to follow Jesus. Yet, God doesn’t give up on them… and neither should we. After all, it’s what Jesus would do.
There are some Christmas Traditions that won’t die – like going to church on Christmas Eve. The tradition I grew up in didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass sounded too Catholic for them. Instead, my family’s tradition was to open our gifts from ma and pa on Christmas Eve knowing on Christmas Day we would go to the extended family Christmas. The one where you got all these gifts you didn’t want from Aunts and Uncles you wouldn’t see again until the next family gathering.
The irony is the first Christmas Eve service I ever went to was in a Catholic Church. I was at college in Danville. Two of my good friends were Catholic, so when they invited me, I went. The priest was very open and joyful. He didn’t care that I wasn’t Catholic. So when the time came for me to receive communion, I went forward with everyone else. And that’s when I encountered the wafer.
I’m not sure what brand of dissolvable cardboard the priest gave me, but it wasn’t bread. Bread has flavor. Bread has texture. Bread travels down to your stomach with a sensation that is real, sensual, and gratifying. Not so with the wafer. It had no flavor. It had no texture save the distinct realization by my tongue something had been placed on it with a micro-measure of weight. And after it dissolved in my mouth, I’m not sure any remnant made it any further down the pipe.
I’m not trying to poke fun at our Catholic sisters and brothers. I respect their understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper. Yet it occurs to me that many times that wafer represents my own experience in spirituality. It lacks flavor. There are times that I can’t tell you the last time I tasted the joy of the Lord’s presence. It lacks texture. There are long places in my own life where I don’t feel as if God is with me; quite the opposite of Emmanuel. It leaves me hungry.
At the first church I served as pastor, I was reminded of this by a 4 year old boy named Cody. It was an ordinary Sunday with ordinary hymns. You might say we were going through the motions. I’m sure it was the first Sunday of the month, because we were having communion. Folks were coming up to the rail in groups as was tradition. They knelt and received a torn bit of bread which they were invited to dip into the cup. But the ordinary disappeared when little Cody received his bread.
“Is that all I get?” He had said it as any 4 year old would have said it. Quiet enough that the entire congregation heard him. Loud enough to embarrass his mother and father. But what struck me was his honesty about the hunger. He didn’t come here for wafers or crumbs. Cody wanted the flavor, the texture, the fulfillment. Cody wanted the feast, all that God would give him. Cody wanted to experience God at the table.
You may be asking what does this have to do with Jesus, the Stable, the Manger, etc. God didn’t offer us fast food solutions, but instead offered us a full multi-course feast in this babe, in this birth, in this life, in this death, and in this resurrection. He could have been born in a palace, yet he chose a stable. He could have had Angels announcing his coming to all humanity, yet he chose shepherds in a field. He could have picked any town – Rome, New York, Washington DC, yet he chose Bethlehem, a Hebrew word that translates as “House of Bread.” He could have had the best Tempurpedic, double down, plush bed for his crib, yet mother Mary laid him in a manger – fancy word for a “feeding trough” for animals.
We didn’t come here for a little snack or a bit of fast food. We came here for the whole experience of who Jesus is. Tonight we celebrate his coming to us. Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a little child laid in a manger. Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a candle light dinner of a little bread and a little wine. Thank God some traditions won’t die. Amen.