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Christian Perspective, Professional Advice

A NEW GENERATION OF JOSHUAS FOR THE UMC?

[The Reverend Wil Cantrell (Robert W. Cantrell) is an ordained elder in the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church.  He serves as Pastor of Lebanon Memorial UMC.  Wil is a graduate of Emory & Henry College and Duke Divinity School.]

To my friends and fellow leaders in the Holston Conference and the United Methodist Church, I offer the following Minority Report: 

Numbers 13 & 14 tells the story of Moses sending twelve spies into the Promised Land.   All the spies come back talking about the fertility of the land and the great fruit it produces.  Yet, ten of the spies were so intimidated by the size and strength of the people in the Promised Land that they recommended going back to Egypt.

A minority report was given by Joshua and Caleb.  They called upon the people to focus on the low hanging fruit and God’s promise to lead them into the Promised Land.  Moses and Aaron then repented before the Lord and asked His forgiveness for the people’s lack of faith.  God forgives the people, but He informs Moses that of all the spies only Joshua and Caleb would remain alive to enter the Promised Land.  Due to their lack of faith, it would be 40 more years before the people would enter the Promised Land.

Thanks to God’s work in those who have come before us, there is a ground swell in our denomination that wants us to move out of slavery to the old ways and into new ways of faithfully articulating the Gospel in the midst of a changing culture.  Do you remember when we used to hear people say, “We don’t need to change.  People will come back.  The problem is with the culture.  We just need to keep on doing what we have been doing.”?  Do you remember when we were confused about whether the local church or the annual conference was the primary arena for making disciples?

I heard those kind of comments from annual conference leaders as recently as about 5 years ago.  I no longer hear those comments from our leaders.  As a denomination, we have heard God’s call and we want to leave slavery to the old ways and enter into the new ways of God’s preferred future.

However, during this General Conference it has become clear to me that while we long for the Promised Land, we are still addicted to the old ways.  As a denomination, the call to do things in a new way in order to articulate the Gospel in a new time is still the minority report.

Many people have compared the last 45 years of denominational decline as “wandering the wilderness”. This line of reasoning argues that since we’ve been in the wilderness for about 40 years, we should get to enter the Promised Land of increased vitality soon.  Personally, I hope these voices are right, although I suspect those 45 years may have been spent not in the wilderness, but in slavery.

We are now journeying through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.  Because of our difficulty letting go of our old ways, it may be a while before we get there.  In fact, some of us might not enter the Promised Land before we retire.

I believe that, like Caleb and Joshua, as young clergy we are called to continue to call our denomination to the new ways of articulating the old, old Gospel story for a new day.  We are called to offer the minority report by continually reminding people what the Promised Land looks like and the trustworthy nature of the God who leads us.

Plundering the Egyptians

After forty years of wandering the wilderness, Joshua and Caleb were finally able to lead the people into the Promised Land.  When the people entered the Promised Land they took with them the treasures of the Egypt that they had plundered from the Egyptians before leaving Egypt (Exodus 12:36).  Eventually the plundered treasures of the Egyptians were used to gloriously outfit the Tabernacle for worship.

At this General Conference, I have experienced a disturbing trend among many young adults.  Often I have heard young adults (and many others) reject ideas and legislation because they were not involved in their creation.   This attitude tends to come across as an attitude of entitlement and arrogance.  Worse yet, this attitude prevents good ideas from being seriously considered and implemented.

If we are to be a Generation of Joshuas, who along with others help to lead our denomination into the Promised Land of God’s preferred future, then we will need all the resources and help we can get.  We will need resources that we do not now possess.  We need the humility to recognize we are not entitled to places of leadership in our denomination and instead show gratitude that God has blessed us with undeserved grace and a place in a wonderful, though imperfect church. We will need the wisdom to hear and use the best ideas coming to us from diverse people in diverse places.  Some of these voices will come from people of different ages, different positions of power, different sizes of churches, different races, and different theological perspectives.

Please understand, I am not saying that we don’t need to focus intentionally on diversity and inclusion.  We do.  If we don’t focus on diversity and inclusion, we are choosing to ignore the voices of those through whom God might be leading us into the future.  By the same token, neither should we reject voices that come from groups that do not have perfectly inclusive representation.  We must have the courage and wisdom to debate ideas based on their merits so that we might use all the resources at our disposal for the glory of God.

There may be times when we receive a great idea from someone whose ideology we strongly disagree with or whose life exhibits a less than desirable level of integrity.  There may be times we find great ideas for leading our local churches from secular business leaders.  There may be times when a woman has the best idea for how to create a men’s ministry.  There may be instances when a young adult has the best idea for how to minister to older adults (or vice-versa).  Inclusiveness must be one of our goals, but we cannot allow it to become our golden calf that keeps us from hearing the one true God.

Raiders of the Promised Land

How will we lead our denomination forward into the Promised Land of a vital future that we have seen and tasted, but in which we do not yet dwell?  Please allow me to make a suggestion: We need to become raiders of the Promised Land.  Joshua and Caleb only spied and raided the Promised Land once.  Then they had to wait another 40 years to enter it again.  If we are going to move into the Promised Land of a vital future, we will not get there by simply hanging out in the wilderness and waiting.  We must continually raid the Promised Land.  We can’t wait until our denomination adjusts to the changing culture to bear fruit with our ministries.  We must bear fruit now. We must pick the low hanging fruit of the Promised Land and lay that fruit at the feet of our local church, annual conference, and denominational leaders.  We must invite others to taste the fruit and see that it is good, so that eventually rather than merely raiding the Promised Land we will have enough people with us that we can enter and claim the land.

As I have said elsewhere, I believe our denomination has reached a point where we cannot expect the denomination to lead our churches into the future of effective ministry.  I believe at this time in our history our local churches will have to lead the denomination into a future in which perhaps one day our denomination can again take the lead.  Wherever we are in the local church, there is fruit to be harvested.  We can complain that our denomination doesn’t let us grow fruit the way we wish we could.  I feel that frustration myself often.  We can talk about ineffective structures, unrealistic expectations, and misunderstood or unnoticed gifts and graces.  These are difficult realities in which we live.  Yet, we are called to bear fruit in season and out of season.

I have now been in full-time pastoral ministry for eight years.  Four of those years have felt like in-season years and four of those years have felt like out of season years.  In-season years are times when I feel like my gifts, graces, and desires are relatively well aligned with my pastoral responsibilities, congregational expectations, and family situation.  Out of season years are times when what is asked or needed of me in my job or by my family are outside of what I want to do or what I can do well.  Looking back on those years, God has often used my out of season years to bear as much or more fruit than my in season years.

Regardless of where you are right now, God has fruit for you to harvest.  The best way to transform lives and our denomination is to pick whatever fruit God has placed before us and bring it back to share with others.

Let’s not wait on our denomination or annual conference to put us in better positions to be effective.  Let’s do what we can in whatever settings we find ourselves.  When you see something that the annual conference or the denomination should be doing, don’t wait for a more opportune moment to act.  Just go ahead and trust as Joshua trusted.   If you do it well enough eventually others in the church will catch on and begin to resource what you are doing.  They may even take a large degree of credit for what you are doing.  But if we focus more on giving God the glory than getting the credit, then perhaps our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will grow up in a United Methodist Church that has learned a new way of being united despite our differences and that has found new methods of sharing the old, old Gospel in a new day.

With Gratitude For God’s Calling On Our Lives, Rev. Wil Cantrell, Lebanon Memorial UMC, www.lebanonmemorialumc.org.

About religiousjourney

I'm a professor at Emory & Henry College and operate the religiousjourney.com blog.

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