Maybe I'm just naive, but I keep hearing the same allegation spoken again and again, and it sounds something like this: the United Methodist Church is in decline because we are preaching "anything goes."
Let me bracket the issue of the United Methodist Church being in decline. I'm not going to argue that one. We've got to do better on getting folks in our doors, we've got to do better at baptism, we've got to do better at evangelism. This is all good. I'd like to have a church to serve in twenty years, after all.
But "anything goes?" Really? Have you ever actually heard a United Methodist pastor preach "anything goes?" Do we have a cadre of spiritually blase ministers out there, preaching "Whatever" and "Do what you want" and "What you think and believe and do don't matter?"
"Dearly beloved, we gather here for some reason or another, not that it matters, to join these two in holy marriage, which doesn't even really mean much. I'm just here for the honorarium."
"In the beginning was the Word, which you can interpret however you want. I choose to think that the Word was not so much a Word as a symbol, like the artist formerly known as Prince."
"Do unto others whatever you feel like, really."
"Keep these commandments, when you can."
Are these sermons being preached? Of course not. Find one such sermon, send it to me, and I'll eat my words. They simply do not exist. You would be hard-pressed to find one mininster who has preached one sermon that boils down to "anything goes."
This does not mean we do not have some deep-seated theological differences, not that that is a bad thing. We disagree on many issues, but ours is a big tent denomination, for better or worse. The United Methodist witness is born out of these disagreements, tempered against different opinions and dulled a bit, perhaps, in community. We move slowly, but we are a Church. We're carrying two thousand years worth of luggage. Slow movement is warranted.
To say that "anything goes" is to deny the strongly-held beliefs held by those with whom we disagree. I may hear a sermon with which I disagree, but I'll bet I will hear a passionate defense of the point, using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
Deep-seated theological differences are not the same thing as "anything goes," and I am starting to believe more and more that blaming "anything goes" is a convenient way to keep from looking at our actual house, figuring out what is actually going on, and addressing our actual issues.
But maybe I am wrong. Find me one "anything goes" sermon and I'll recant. I just don't think they exist.