I think I have put my finger on what is bothering me this week about the 2016 General Conference.
It's not the lack of progress for LGBT people (though there is that). It's not the talk of schism (though there is that). It's not the waste of money (though there is that).
The pebble in my shoe this week is this: in many ways, General Conference feels like the world's smallest church meeting.
So much of what we talk about at General Conference is small. The minutae of church law we are dealing with is necessary, in some cases, but it is small. The practical strategies we've talked about for disciple-making, inasmuch as we've actually talked about them, are small. Even the budgetary items we've discussed so far, significant though they are, are small when you look at the overall $600,000,000 dollar budget proposed for the United Methodist Church over the next quadrennium; the most audacious proposal I've heard amounts to all of 3% of that budget.
Everything we talk about at General Conference is small. I don't mean to demean the real conflict--the real fights--we are experiencing over full inclusion in the church. Nor do I mean to say that the decisions we make are not deeply important to the work of God in the world. But everything we have talked about so far is small, compared to the task that stands before us: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
To wit: I had dinner with colleagues tonight, heroes of mine, and our conversation centered on our frustration at the state of the General Conference. That's nothing unique; the same conversation was happening all over Portland tonight. And yet as I got on the bus, I noticed that few, if any, of the people on that bus would be affected by what we do this week. Some riders were homeless. Some were poor. Some seemed to have been on their feet for 20 hours of the day. Some had shopping bags with all their possessions contained therein. Some were young and rolled their eyes at me when I got on the bus in my suit. How is what we are doing this week at General Conference going to affect them? Will it affect them at all? Or are we experiencing the world's smallest (and most expensive) church meeting?
Also: somebody sent me an article tonight about a congregation of a different denomination, just up the road from the remarkable United Methodist congregation I serve. The church up the road had its last worship service two days ago, on Pentecost; the building is now shuttered and for sale. The congregation celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit with the closing of their doors. That's not an indictment of that congregation; it's a recognition of the cultural forces we're working against in the United States, and the weight of our task. Another congregation, one of our sister churches in the neighborhood, closed last year. They've torn down the beautiful, historic sanctuary and are building condos and shopping in its place. The neighborhood seems more excited about what is happening on that corner now than what went on in that church for years. And here we are at General Conference, talking about, I don't know, a few dollars and a few items on the consent calendar.
I could tell this story about many congregations in my area. In fact, the church I serve was just a few years away from being one of these stories, before it put on its boots and went out into the community--and the world--to make disciples. There are other churches in our denomination that are doing this important, sometimes painful, work. And yet we don't hear about these churches, nor do we dissect and learn from their practices. Instead, we argue over the scraps under the table instead of recognizing that the meal atop the table has actually been set for us.
I want to be a part of a church that recognizes that everything we do ought to be subservient to and funneled through God's mission for us: that we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. If it gets in the way of the mission, it's got to go. I want to be a part of a church that spends less time looking through a magnifying glass and more time using a wide-angle lens.
I am absolutely convinced that if there is a way forward for us, it is through the avenue of disciple-making. No, let me say that a different way. I am absolutely convinced that there is a way forward for us, and that the way forward is through the avenue of disciple-making. After all, we serve one Lord and celebrate one baptism. The more we are able to lay aside our differences and make disciples in our communities, such as they are, the more faithful we'll be to God's message and the more God's church will grow. The more we set aside our differences--not in a "stop talking about this issue" kind of way, but in a "you do what you need to do to make disciples in your community, and praise God for you" kind of way--the more we do this, the more God will be honored, the less upset we'll be with one another, and the more fun we're going to have doing God's work! This work is supposed to be fun! After all, we're presiding over Jesus's baby shower, not his funeral.
I still have great hope for this General Conference. I don't know what to make of the rumors of schism that always seem to infect this work; I pray there is a way forward for us to work together. But I do have hope.
We need not aim so low. We need not treat this work as if it is small. For, as always, God is calling us to something bigger, something new, something effervescing with possibility.