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COMMENTARY: Allegedly glorious past won’t provide answers to UMC needs Wes Magruder, Oct 10, 2011
By Wes Magruder Special Contributor
In Woody Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris, a young struggling novelist pines for the “good old days” of 1920s literary Paris, when the cafes were filled with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Through Mr. Allen’s inventive and playful script, the novelist, played by Owen Wilson, gets to revisit that golden age.
Without giving too much away, Mr. Wilson’s character learns that the present is the only time we are given. He discovers that the time he spends pining for the past is wasted, as well as misdirected.
In the raging discussion about Methodism’s future, I believe all of us are stuck in a similar rut. Some of us think the good old days of Methodism were in 1950s America, when church attendance was generally higher. Some of us think the best days of Methodism were in the early American years, the time of the circuit riders who gallantly evangelized the wild western frontier. Others look back to the days of John Wesley himself, particularly his middle-age years, when he seemed to have a fairly stable routine of annual conferences, society and class meetings, and circuiting lay preachers.
The truth is hard to swallow. Methodism since the 1950s has been inextricably linked with the myth of American exceptionalism, and thus failed to slow the Cold War or prevent wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as numerous covert operations elsewhere. Furthermore, mid-20th-century Methodism was found to be profoundly white and middle-class.
The 19th-century circuit riders didn’t seem to protest the treatment of Native Americans during the frontier expansion, nor did they seem overly concerned with treatment of slaves. It appears they were more concerned about beating the Baptists and Presbyterians to new areas than anything else. Furthermore, they were ridden hard by bishops who seemed to ignore their declining health and diminishing enthusiasm.
And don’t get me started on John Wesley. As much as I admire the guy’s theology, writing and organizational skills, he was likely a real pain to work with. He had an obsessive-compulsive disorder that rivals anything I’ve ever seen in real life, had a strange relationship with members of the opposite sex, and ruled the Methodist connection with an iron fist.
I’m making a very simple point here: Let’s stop comparing our present to our past. Our context is different from those other places and eras. Discipleship in the 21st century may have nothing to do with church attendance, or baptisms, or recorded professions of faith. It may have nothing to do with buildings, denominations or clergy.
So let’s quit trying to rebuild, recapture, redo old-time Methodism, whatever it was. Stop worrying about “death tsunamis” and “declining attendance” and “shrinking budgets.”
The serious disciple of Jesus only has one real question to answer: What does it mean to follow Jesus here and now?
The Rev. Magruder is senior associate pastor at First Rowlett, United Methodist Church in Rowlett, Texas, and blogs at www.methofesto.wordpress.org, where this column first appeared.