Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

Main ThingThe aftershocks of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage continue to reverberate in our nation, denominations, and congregations. The 5-4 decision split reflects the deep divide in popular sentiment on the subject.

I shared previously that The United Methodist Church’s policy remains unaffected by the court case. The Book of Discipline prohibits clergy in our denomination from officiating at same-sex marriages. Some applaud the church’s stance while others call for change.

Over the past weeks, I’ve listened to strident voices on both sides of the issue. In the midst of the national debate, I have wrestled with three questions:

  • What is the core character of a Christian?
  • What are the core beliefs of a Christian?
  • What is the core mission of a Christian?

The Core Character of a Christian

One day a Jewish teacher asked Jesus: “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” The Lord added that the second commandment is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The core character of the Christian is love of God and love of neighbor. We can agree to disagree and continue to love one another.

The Core Beliefs of a Christian

Hmmm . . . this one’s trickier because the “what” varies in size among believers. Unitarians profess a minimalist belief in one God—period. Contrast this to a church sign that declared: “We are a 1611 King James Version, Inerrant-Bible, Premillennial, Post-Tribulation Believing Church.” For me, The Apostles Creed sums up the core beliefs that I cannot compromise.

The Core Mission of a Christian

In Matthew 28, Jesus gave the church its “Great Commission:” making Christian disciples. Set our current debate in a larger context. Many congregations’ worship attendance drops yearly. The United Methodist Church has not posted a positive membership increase in decades. Christianity continues to decline in the United States. According to a recent Time magazine article, the only world religion outpacing world population growth is Islam.

The ship hit the iceberg long ago, and we’re still rearranging chairs on the Titanic. God forgive us as the rest of the world goes to hell.

When I grow pessimistic, I recall that Jesus promised the gates of Hades would not withstand the church’s march. The Christian church continues to grow in many parts of the world, including Korea, and Africa. However, if the American church does not experience revival, then our grand churches will become museums, restaurants, and bars just like they have in Europe.

So it’s time for Christians to make the main thing the main thing: making disciples of Jesus Christ. If we cannot agree to do this, then all of our other debates are meaningless.

Serving as a Christian Minister in a 5-4 World

On Friday, June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that the U. S. Constitution supports the right to same-sex marriage. The 5-4 decision split the high court along familiar liberal/conservative lines with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the decisive vote.

DividedThe 5-4 vote vividly illustrates the deep divide that runs through our nation, denominations, and local congregations. The current presenting issue is same-sex marriage, but similar divisions exist in debates about politics, immigration, gun-control, health care, fiscal policies, social programs, capital punishment, abortion, and more.

Now imagine serving as a Christian minister in a “5-4 world”. (I would love to take credit for that turn of phrase, but it’s not original unto me. However, I cannot determine the original source. Preaching professor, Dr. Fred Craddock, always said: “Whoever steals from me steals twice!”)

It’s my privilege to serve as one of the pastors of the First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville. Founded in 1823, the congregation continues to faithfully serve our community. Our mission statement declares: Making Disciples of Jesus Christ who Love God, Love Others, and Reach the World.

Our church roll lists two thousand, nine hundred, and some odd members—some odder than others. The Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Baby Busters, and Generations XYZ all serve together in Christian unity . . . sometimes.

However, I serve a diverse congregation that includes: males, females, children, youth, adults, liberals, moderates, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Anglos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Central Europeans, pro-choice, pro-life, heterosexuals, homosexuals, traditional families, non-traditional families, agnostics, seekers, believers, Apple, PC, I-Phone, Android . . . .

I pastored Mount Carmel United Methodist Church fresh out of seminary. During a Sunday morning worship service, I made the rookie mistake of asking: “Is it too warm in here?” Half the congregation adamantly agreed the sanctuary felt too hot while the other half complained it was too cold! The scene provides a microcosm of church life.

Serving as a Christian minister in a 5-4 world means balancing the roles of prophet and pastor.

Prophets boldly proclaim God’s Word, letting the chips fall where they may. John-the-Baptist-wantabes don’t hesitate to call the crowds “broods of vipers” that are hell-bent and hell-bound unless they change their sinful ways. Prophets often live in a black and white world where law trumps grace.

Pastors minister to the deep hurts and needs of their parish. Like a shepherd caring for sheep, pastors walk in the midst of the people as a servant among servants. Wounded themselves, pastors serve as wounded healers in ministry to others. They work in a black and white world that often blends into grey. Law provides the parameters of discipleship, but grace always speaks the first and last word.

Serving as a pastor in a 5-4 world offers dangers, challenges, and opportunities. At times, it feels like I’m standing on the railroad tracks as a train rumbles around the curve. It’s the place where law and grace meet and even collide. However, it’s also the realm where genuine ministry takes place.

Serving as a pastor in a 5-4 world does not lend itself to a life of comfort, but I cannot find a single place in the Bible where Jesus called his disciples to a comfortable world. Real ministry occurs in real life where God’s Word and our world intersect. Odds are this is where we’ll find the Lord already at work.


Same-Sex Marriage and the Church


On Friday, June 26, the Supreme Court ruled that the U. S. Constitution supports the right of same-sex marriage. The 5-4 decision immediately became the law of the land, Within hours of the announcement, judges performed weddings for same-sex couples in Gwinnett County.

What does this mean for the United Methodist Church?

The Supreme Court ruling does not change the language or policies of the United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline currently prohibits Methodist clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings. Pastors who do so can lose their ministerial credentials.

The General Conference which meets every four years is the only body in Methodism that can change The Book of Discipline. Delegates will meet next May in Portland, Oregon for the 2016 General Conference. Due to political dynamics within the church, I personally believe that any change in our current stance is unlikely next year.

What does this mean for the First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville?

Our congregation mirrors the denomination and nation, encompassing the spectrum of societal, political, and theological perspectives. Our church family includes conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives, singles and couples, traditional and non-traditional families.

Like any dysfunctional family, we struggle to live together; and we cannot understand why the other person doesn’t see things MY way . . . which is naturally the RIGHT way. But we remain family—children of the same heavenly Father which means that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.

What this means for the First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville is:

  • We will continue to graciously welcome everyone into our family, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation.
  • We will continue to claim that the Holy Spirit who binds us together is greater than anything that might tear us apart.
  • We will continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
  • We will continue to keep the main thing the main thing: making disciples of Jesus Christ.

In his sermon, A Catholic Spirit, John Wesley discussed the goal of Christian unity. Echoing 2 Kings 10:15, Wesley declared: “Give me your hand!” Give me your hand—not so we can agree, not so we can be the same, not so we can cease debate—give me your hand so we can reach the world in the name of Jesus Christ.