When contemplating the future of The United Methodist Church, we all find ourselves asking a couple of questions: How did we get to this point? Why is the theological gap so wide? My answers take me back to an experience in my own life that propelled me on this journey of awareness and struggle within the UM Church.
Some United Methodist readers might not be surprised that one of the most disappointing, trying, and life-altering times I had ever experienced happened within the walls of a UM general church agency. About seven years ago I attended a General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) training program for US-2 missionaries (a US-2 missionary agrees to serve two years in domestic missions). Initially, I was excited to be around other millennials like myself, who, I assumed, shared the same passion for missions and spreading the Gospel as I did; I quickly learned otherwise. Some of us clearly did not share the same perspective and values regarding missions.
Several nights during my initial training I remember lying in bed wondering why I decided to join this GBGM program. I had come to the training eager to learn how to talk to others about Jesus and how to be an effective missionary, but to my dismay, we hardly ever talked about Jesus. The primary focus was on social justice issues and very little about evangelization and spiritual growth. To be sure, like many millennials, I am very passionate about injustices toward individuals and groups of people, but fighting injustice cannot be done effectively without passionately sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. He is, after all, the one who compels us to share the Gospel with others in both word and deed. Unfortunately, the GBGM program seemed primarily interested in being open and affirming of other people’s beliefs and convictions than in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
When I raised some concerns based on the UM Church’s evangelical and traditional beliefs, I was not taken seriously. Instead, I was treated as somewhat of an outcast. Years later, I still struggle with the fact that a general agency of the UM Church would send young adults out on the mission field without covering them in prayer, teaching them the spiritual disciplines, and equipping them to share the Gospel.
My first four months of service were spent in New Jersey with the intention of focusing on recovery and relief in response to Hurricane Sandy – a worthy effort. However, in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, I encountered an institution confused and desperately trying to figure out how to keep dying churches open by creating more programs.
Eventually, I was transferred to Miami and placed in a non-profit called Branches where I served the remainder of my two-year term. Branches, an organization originally started by the UM Church, seeks to educate and inspire people through student, family, and financial wellness services. There, I had the privilege to work alongside many deeply faithful Christians. I ended up serving at Branches for nearly five years.
I am grateful to GBGM for the opportunity to work and serve in these cross-cultural communities. However, I began to see ever more clearly that at least parts of my beloved UM Church had significantly strayed from a warm-hearted, Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith that has always excelled at integrating faith and service.
As I have reflected on my service as a US-2 missionary, my service in local UM churches, and as a General Conference delegate in 2016 and an alternate in 2019, I have observed some things about UM Millenials.
First, I think many of them, especially those new to the faith, are struggling to find their way, to find their place and purpose in the world. They desperately desire an authentic community, a community that speaks the Truth into their lives. They want the church to speak honestly to them about their struggles and not dismiss or ignore them. They don’t want a church that simply mirrors the world; they can find that kind of community in a variety of places. However, like new Christians of any age, some do chafe at a church that challenges them to change and grow in holiness.
I have also observed that some young adults find their identity in how they feel about things, in their desires, and their experiences. They’re at a bit of loss as to how to find their identity in the Creator God. Our feelings and emotions are a gift from God, but like anything else our feelings and emotions can be used by the enemy to confuse us. Millennials need a church that will help them ground their identity in Scripture, the great teachings of the church handed down through the ages, and above all, in Christ, who is constant and never changing. Unfortunately, I fear the church has failed many young people by not teaching these foundational Truths.
Finally, I’ve discovered our differences are far deeper and wider than I was aware of. Certain quarters in American Christianity appear incapable of making sound moral judgments rooted in Scripture and the teachings of the church. Young people are growing up learning we need to be “slow to speak and quick to listen” – a good thing to be sure – but I am afraid some are so slow to speak up at all for fear of being bullied or shamed for their theological and ethical convictions. They are reticent to answer questions about what is right and wrong or state why they believe what they believe. These young people need to hear us proclaiming the Gospel and our orthodox views with clarity, compassion, and confidence! Christians must model a kind of fearlessness that is tempered by grace and wisdom.
Admittedly, I was naïve about the church’s theological and ethical differences when I attended that GBGM training event several years ago, but no longer. The bitterness evident at our annual conferences and General Conference revealed that chasm. I was heartbroken in Portland in 2016 and St. Louis in 2019 when I witnessed young people quote Scripture out of context, use mean spirited words, attempt to shame those who disagreed with them, disrupt the work of the church, and claim tolerance and acceptance as the church’s preeminent values.
Their desperate pleas have challenged me to think about my own words and actions. Am I hateful and causing harm? Am I leading people away from God? Have I misunderstood the Bible? I have spent much time praying and reading Scripture; I want to be as sure as I possibly can that I am not in the wrong. Thankfully, instead of engendering doubt and uncertainty, prayer and Scripture reading have only re-enforced my strong evangelical and traditional convictions that Christ is Lord, and the teachings of Scripture and the church universal provide all of us with a sure foundation.
As I continue to think about millennials like me, my deepest desire is to see them enter into a deep and committed relationship with God. How? By extending them extravagant hospitality, by inviting them into genuine and honest conversations about what it means to follow Christ, by a willingness to speak the truth in love, and, by teaching them the great spiritual disciplines of our faith.
My first instinct is to avoid those who are screaming and shouting their disagreements at me because I fear their rejection. I am reminded in those moments to view what scares me in relation to God and not myself, and it is in Him that I will be triumphant. Let’s not allow the world to convince millennials and younger people to believe falsehoods about God and themselves. We need to do the hard things. We need to speak up with grace and truth. We need to reach out and pull them back. If we don’t, who will?
By Elizabeth Fink
September 20, 2019
Elizabeth Fink serves as the Associate Children’s Director at Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She served as a General Conference lay delegate from the Arkansas Annual Conference in 2016 and 2019, and will do so again at the 2020 General Conference. She is a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.