Re-Arranging Chairs on the Titanic

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

The 2016 General Conference expressed its will in no uncertain terms that the majority of United Methodists affirm the historic view of Christian marriage as a divinely sanctioned means of grace between a man and a woman. Other marital arrangements, even if sanctioned by the State, do not constitute, in the view of the majority, Christian marriage. This is the overwhelming view of the church throughout the world, and all through church history. Nevertheless, the General Conference authorized a special commission to study the matter over the next few years in the hope of finding a way to secure the unity of the church in the face of an issue which has severed many denominations.

I know that thousands of Methodists around the country are praying earnestly for God’s blessings to be upon the Commission. One of my prayers is that the Commission will recognize that the episcopal mandate was actually too small. Indeed, the deepest flaw of the commission is in the very question which has been posed to the Commission. They have been charged to look at every sentence in the Discipline related to human sexuality and recommend possible changes which might restore unity in the church. The problem, however, is that those of us committed to historic faith in the wesleyan tradition believe that the question before the Commission is way too tiny to actually address the deep ecclesial angst we are in. My deepest longing is not for the United Methodist Church to merely reaffirm an historic view of marriage, or find some “middle way” which will pacify all groups. This issue, after all, is but a symptom of a much deeper issue.

We are not divided, in the final analysis, over the issue of homosexuality. That is merely the presenting issue. The real question before the church is whether or not we intend to align our life, witness and mission to historic faith, biblical fidelity, Christ centered mission and vibrant church planting. This is not about “going back to the 1950’s” when we were equally compromised with a privileged, white middle class view of the world. The challenges we faced in the 1950’s are different from the challenges we face today. We need now what we needed then; namely a return to our roots than anything in the living memory of any of us.

Such a dramatic turn only emerges out of the fires of crisis. That crisis is now upon us. We have bishops (e.g. Bishop Melvin Talbert and Julius Trimble) who have openly defied the Discipline which is the very symbol of our connectionalism and doctrinal unity. We have other churches, like the Orchard United Methodist Church and Getwell Road United Methodist Church in Mississippi who recently voted overwhelmingly to leave the denomination. The Getwell vote was 95%. The Orchard vote was 99%. We all see the tsunami coming.

The General Conference has, in effect, charged a group of United Methodist leaders to re-arrange chairs on the Titanic, and failed to address the deeper reality that the United Methodist ship has been struck by a fatal blow which, if not addressed, will sink the ship. Our deepest prayers should be far more expansive. It begins with a commitment to biblical and historic fidelity. We must first restore our orientation back to historic Christian faith. Second, we must remember our wesleyan heritage which has also been lost. Third, we must devote our energies to missional vibrancy on behalf of a world without Christ. Without these great pillars of strength restored, all other discussions are merely addressing symptoms of a deeper malady. I am, of course, aware that the progressives in our denomination are convinced that they are being biblically faithful, true to Wesley and, above all, missional to this generation. We are, indeed, at an impasse. This is precisely why the larger conversation is so important.

My prayer is that the Commission and the sheer magnitude of the crisis we are in will result in a “moment of truth” for us which could, in the end, result in our rebirth into Christian vibrancy and missional clarity. As I travel across the country, I am seeing vibrant signs of pre-revival. I am hearing the early strains of a great awakening. The great lesson from the 18th century is the importance of travailing prayer during this crucial time. One of the lessons from the 20th century is that no amount of doctrinal concessions to the voices of an increasingly godless and shrill culture will make us “attractive” to the world. The gospel has power for a lost world precisely because it offers a stunning alternative to the world’s madness. We have nothing to offer the world but a bloody cross, which remains a stumbling block in every generation.

One of the ironies of the Commission is that they met this past week at Grace United Methodist church in Atlanta. There are few greater symbols of our plight than the history of that historic church. It was once a place where evangelical faith rang forth under the ministries of faithful pastors such as Cecil Myers and Sam Coker. I know, because I came to personal faith in Jesus Christ in that sacred sanctuary. It was my home church growing up. In the last few decades it has dwindled down to a mere shell of its earlier vibrancy. It is a story which has been repeated across our nation. The Commission was, quite literally, seated in a case study of the decline of the denomination as a whole.

I am praying for the Commission. I just hope that as they discuss how the chairs might be rearranged, someone will have the courage to notice that the entire ship is tilting to one side.

Our “problem” is not limited to a few paragraphs in the Discipline. We are in a struggle for nothing less than the historic faith. Jude prophetically spoke when he said, “I found it necessary to write to you appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who…pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3,4 ).

Comments

  • Gene Maddox says:

    Thank you. You have presented the one great issue before us. God bless you, brother.

  • Well said, Dr. Tennent. Thank you for your courageous voice.

  • Mike Hunt says:

    Funny that the “Commission” was tasked with examining the Discipline to see how it can be changed to promote unity.
    The only unity needed is in God’s word, the Bible. Make the discipline reflect the Bible.
    It seems the UMC is putting the Discipline ahead of God’s word, something that is warned against in the Bible itself.
    Good luck UMC. In the mean time, those churches that are teaching the blood of Jesus and the Bible, and not some legalistic “set of rules”, are growing, bringing people to Christ and making disciples.
    Maybe the UMC can learn a thing or two from them.

  • In a society dripping with sexuality used inappropriately you would think the church would be concerned in developing programs and policy that take the society back to healthy sexuality. Instead we have single pastors participating in it with the approval of groups who use it to further political agendas and then accuse others of sensuality when they simply may be charismatic. All because we are myopically focused on homosexuality which is 4 percent of the population. Most of the ten commandments are about creating community if you wish the law path. New Testament central core is the Sermon on the Mount. Where does those issues above fit in that framework and what solutions did Jesus give? Revelation has a part in it. Its first half is letters to the churches. That was the focus not the world. The rubric used was much of what the Sermon on the Mount referred to. I would need to do a deeper study but on the surface I do not recall seeing a whole lot of ten commandments referred to in those letters.

    • While I appreciate the work of Dr. Tennent and his thoughts I would like to share that the Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta is once again a thriving and vital congregation in the ever changing area of Mid-Town Atlanta. The passion and dedications of pastors like Dr. John Beyers, Rev. Kate Floyd and now Rev. Stacey Rushing have brought this congregation to life again … reaching the very community they are planted in for Jesus Christ. Please understand the commission was seated in a place of resurrection not death, a place of hope not despair. I know this to be true as I have had the privilege of being the District Superintendent for the Atlanta Emory District where Grace UMC is doing a fresh expression of ministry for the Kingdom.

  • Steve Pedlow says:

    Sorry, internal focus rejects love God, and love neighbors. Focus on missions outside. Let all worship. Let all love God. Give up judging sin and focus on loving sinners and loving hatred and sin to death.

  • Tom says:

    Dr. Tennent, our local Methodist pulpit is almost devoid of this information. I pray that, at the very least, we receive a message giving us the tools to fight this war, not once but over and over. Thank you for keeping me abreast of the battle His churches are involved in, in my own back yard.

  • JD says:

    I have not been up-to-date on the UMC since my college days in the 90s, and this is surprising to me. I guess I just assumed the UMC already had fallen in line with the liberal progressive agenda by now. In the mid-90s I attended a conference for student leaders in Colorado, where the chapel and altar were all adorned with rainbow cloth, every song was about inclusion, and every seminar and “open-mic” time was all about what stance the UMC should take on homosexuality. I hope the conversation does what you are asking here…that it goes deeper beyond the surface to what the root of the problem truly is. It takes a lot of humility to come before God, much like a child should before a parent, and say, “Your ways are higher than my ways”, and trust that He has good reasons for the things He has asked of us.

  • As an Asbury graduate under your presidency (M.A., 2011) and an occasional visitor to Grace since I’ve moved to Atlanta, it is especially sad to me how you’ve lodged yet one more unnecessary and harmful denunciation against actual family members in Christ who are worshiping and serving Jesus even if they are failing to measure up to your standards of “vibrancy.” No doubt they will continue to do so. I hope you will accept the invitation graciously granted to you by the church to actually join with them instead of standing against them.

  • Your testimony is incredible and I’m thankful that you encountered Christ at Grace UMC. Your comments about Grace UMC in the present are totally inappropriate and disparaging. Asbury Seminary is not defined by your blog.

  • Scapegoating Grace UMC seems a bit harsh. Their congregation has transitioned over the years for more reasons than clergy leadership (racism, white flight, economic hardships, Ford motor company leaving Ponce de Leon, Addiction, and all around societal ills that happen when whites left town for the suburbs). The whole Church carries blame here, not just clergy or the leadership at Grace.

    It’s a bit simplistic to blame everyone else for our misgivings. Your desire for Christian revival and renewal is correct, but I would pause on hanging Grace UMC out to dry. They have really persevered. For some reason, God has not sunk their ship yet; therefore I encourage you to ask why God has not closed them yet. I believe he has plans for Grace UMC.

  • What if we were on the Titanic? Could rearranging chairs have meant holding out some small semblance of hope? Yes, it seems everything is crashing down around us, but don’t we serve a God who is able to take the absolute worse situations, and bring new life? In this church seasons, are we not preparing from something to come out of the tomb? Also, what does a blog like this add to the hard work of the Commission who is really working hard? Dr. Tennent is bullying Grace UMC, and the UMC as a whole. Tennent and Asbury are the big kid pushing smaller kids around. Bullies always have something to prove, usually, it is just that they are hurt people themesleves. Asbury has the strength, resources, size, and scale to dramatically impact a united solution. I would respect them getting behind that effort, instead of throwing unhelpful stones.
    (Elder-Florida UMC. 2011 Alum. Student in KY and FL and served on staff)

  • Is the story of Grace UMC over the last 30 years a story of decline and failure or a story of faith and perseverance? The decline in membership since the 1980s is more a result of white Methodists moving to the suburbs than liberal UM policies. Some members have transferred to more conservative congregations, but I know people who feel we are too conservative. The important thing is our doors are still open and we are still a witness to our community. We are diverse like our neighborhood and we are welcoming like United Methodists.

    The four Senior Pastors I have known since I joined in 2001 have all been blessings to our congregation and community. Tim you know you are welcome at Grace anytime. Blessings!

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Not only is it ineffective to hang on to the deck chairs for safety, it is also too late to re-engineer the Titanic. Neither option will save us or the church. This is a “hole in the bottom of the ship” problem that can’t be denied, even if we disagree about how fast the ship is sinking.