By Patrick Scriven | Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministry


The future is mobile, whether we like it or not.

In 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously declared the following about the iPhone.

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.”

In August, Steve Ballmer announced his retirement as the CEO of Microsoft. It goes without saying that Apple’s iPhone was a game changer and did allow the company to make a lot of money. Still, Ballmer was mostly right about the vulnerability of Apple’s pricing structure. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it was Google who would take advantage. In the last quarter of 2013, their Android OS captured 81% of the market, Apple’s iOS had 13% and Microsoft was stuck with 3.6% for their Windows Phone OS. An interesting reversal of fortunes to say the least.

The thing that should strike us in this situation is that Ballmer wasn’t wrong in identifying the opportunity, had all the tools and talent necessary to exploit it, and still wasn’t able to capitalize on it. Apple’s iPhone wasn’t marketed as a better phone, music player or a smaller computer, though it was each. It was sold as a revolution and its competition, invested as they were in the status quo, were caught flat footed.

The United Methodist Church did not end the year 2013 very well. Despite much good work across the connection, our cultural moment was another church trial and the defrocking of the Rev. Frank Schaeffer. In a year where a beleaguered Roman Catholicism received a breath of fresh air in the form of Pope Francis, we continued to fall on our connectional sword, repeatedly.

Leaders across the denomination are wrestling with a sense that change is coming and trying desperately to understand their appropriate role in things. Bishop Ken Carter waxed philosophically about the role of the episcopacy while other bishops released statements distancing themselves from positions on sexuality increasingly seen as bigoted by the larger culture. Lines are being drawn by a growing number of advocacy groups talking past each other.  It’s likely that 2014 will bring more of the same.

It is easy to look at the division within The United Methodist Church, to see and obsess about the many challenges. I’ve done my fair share of this. But we should remind ourselves that what threatens existing structures often creates opportunity for those dreaming of something new.

The future may be mobile but the transition takes planning and work.

Apple began its work on the platform that would eventually give birth to the iPhone and iPad in 2004, a full three years before the original iPhone would launch. The iPhone wouldn’t be the first smartphone but it was the first designed with the mass market in mind. A key to the initial and enduring success of iOS was the App store. This innovation created an ecosystem for developers to bring their gifts and creativity to the table and a way for consumers to retool their devices to meet their individual needs and desires. When they first launched, the iPhone did a few things really well but only offered a promise of a future untethered from our computers; each required a computer for registration and maintenance.

When I got my last iPhone I didn’t plug it into my computer at all. I typed in my password, and my digital life began to download from the cloud. I’m not ready to abandon my laptop yet but I do find that I don’t need to open it nearly as often. A 14% decrease in PC sales as the mobile device market booms suggests I’m not alone in feeling this shift in the way we engage technology. It’s entirely possible that the youngest among us may never own a desktop computer or even a laptop.

I’m also not alone in sensing the shift in the way people, and churches, engage the connection. It’s not all about our different theological positions on human sexuality; it’s much deeper than that. We can dismiss it as creeping congregationalism but we can’t ignore the effects. While only a handful of leaders and congregations are leaving the connection now, a greater number beat the slow retreat of detachment and disengagement. Lacking a theology that truly unites us under one tent, is there a way to preserve a generous Wesleyan orthopraxy while making room for various interpretations of orthodoxy?

If the future is mobile, why do we fight so much about the past?

Buckminster Fuller, a systems theorist and innovator once said, ”You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The iPhone didn’t develop itself. Talented people wrestled for years to create something that Steve Jobs could present as a revolution. Is there a team of United Methodists somewhere developing the revolution we need? We have a proliferation of groups seeking to reform the institution, to fight the existing reality; but is anyone out there building a new model of what it means to be a connectional church, something nimble, adaptable and responsive to change? Who is developing a mobile future that will empower us to move confidently out into our neighborhoods; untethered from a fixed system that keeps God in a box underneath the desk running Windows 95?

Ballmer saw the opportunity clearly, and Microsoft was well positioned to capitalize on the opening Apple left with their iPhone strategy. Microsoft failed because they couldn’t recognize the paradigm shift the iPhone represented. As a denomination, can we recognize the opportunity before us and take advantage? Do we have the corporate agility and vision that Apple Inc. exhibited, or even Google’s savvy ability to imitate the right idea? Can we resist the urge to only invest in the status quo, and overcome the inertia of our structure, to dodge a Microsoft-like fate? Or will we continue to attempt to put new wine into old wineskins and act shocked each time they burst?

What do you think? Do you see a future for a desktop-like one size fits all denominationalism or are you sensing the mobile opportunity? What would a mobile denomination look like? Scroll down to leave a comment.

21 COMMENTS

  1. A good analogy for change within the denomination, Patrick. Laying the groundwork is what I feel is happening now! It will become a revolution when more of us participate in calling for a new model and the subsequent exciting change it will bring!

    • Thanks for reading Jim! Momentum is certainly building forward something; let’s pray it isn’t more gridlock. 🙂

  2. I agree this is a good analogy, but I’m not even sure if our connectional system has made it to the desktop. General Conference lately looks more like a mainframe, churning out code intended to execute on a variety of platforms but not totally suitable for any of them. The result is a completely unpredictable and sometimes unintelligible output.

    Take our ordination process, for example: In theory we have the same set of rules and standards in place in every conference in the U.S. But the seminaries, structures, and procedures we use vary SO much, along with the unwritten criteria for ministry that get applied in each BOM (and can change each quadrennium) that there are really as many ordination processes as there are conference boards.

    I don’t think this is a bad thing – as long as we are willing to acknowledge it is the case. The longer we try to pretend that connectionalism means uniformity, the longer we will spin our wheels. The gospel “program” has to run on individuals and in communities that are far more diverse than our computer hardware. How do we focus more on output – manifest fruits of the Spirit – and less on the policies, procedures, and (dare I say it) theologies that achieve them? Can we allow ministry to look very different, and use very different assessment criteria, in different communities in different parts of the world?

    And of course there is another reality: Revolution is seldom easy or pretty. Even technological revolutions usually leave casualties (typewriters, film cameras, Blackberries, etc.) and the church “revolution” will as well.

    • Thanks for reading Todd. I’m with you on several of your points. Perhaps even the painful mainframe connection. It drew me to remember college days printing to a shared dot-matrix printer where the paper would always bunch up.

      • Dot matrix, eh? You must be older than I thought! 😉 I recently picked up a book I’ve had (but clearly not opened) since my senior year of college and found a floppy disk in it – you know, from back when they really were floppy…

  3. I wrote a rather lengthy reply, with some insightful comments keeping with the computing metaphors… but alas I wrote them on my iPad and well… As you can see that didn’t work out.

    Now on my laptop… I agree there is a strong and urgent need for a more flexible and adaptive structure. There also remains the question of how we do that and maintain our connectional identity. Many point to building a UMC with a more congregational polity, but that in itself does not indicate success (sorry UCC). Do we pull an Apple and try to build something new? Or pull a Google and look to improve upon success (such as, gasp, Acts 29 churches)?

    Also, if we’re sticking to a mobile technology metaphor, what do we make of the massive, expensive, centralized server farms that are hidden behind each and every cloud-reliant mobile device?

    • Kind of bummed I’m going to miss out on the lengthy version. But thanks for the extra efforts.

      I’m with you in being dubious, to some degree, of just becoming more like the UCC. But our resistance to being honest about our congregationalist tendencies, especially as they come into play in appointments, isn’t helpful. Better to ask, what are the essential and distinctive characteristics of Wesleyan theology and how do they serve the church in discipleship and mission today.

      I’ve chewed on this analogy for a while and hadn’t thought about the server farms…at all. Interesting, what are your thoughts? The cloud is what liberated the iPhone from the PC/MAC; what would that look like in the church world?

  4. I love your statement, “Lacking a theology that truly unites us under one tent, is there a way to preserve a generous Wesleyan orthopraxy while making room for various interpretations of orthodoxy?” That really hits the mark from my perspective. Working at the Seattle Cokesbury for more than a decade, I got to see a wide array of expressions of Wesleyanism. There are the evangelical holiness expressions of Wesleyanism. Coming out of Seminary within the Church of the Nazarene, I already had some familiarity with that Wesleyan expression, and there is much to commend it. I learned a lot from the social justice expressions of Wesleyanism, which was largely new to me when I came to work at Cokesbury after my time at Nazarene Theological Seminary. I learned there are some wonderful ministries going on all around the Pacific Northwest UM conference. With controversies like the defrocking of Frank Schaeffer, I can’t help but think there is a large segment of United Methodism that is in denial of the already existing diversity of expressions of Wesleyanism. Is there, in practice, really a Wesleyan orthodoxy? I don’t think so. Sure different UM churches have different ministries, but it does feel like there is a much more consistent orthopraxy across the denomination.
    So what does this mean? I think we (I have left the Church of the Nazarene, and am now United Methodist) should give up on a uniform Wesleyan orthodoxy as a denomination, and allow the honest expression of the various Wesleyan orthodoxies already present within UM churches. That is why I was furious when the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal to acknowledge the diversity of opinion on the issue of full LGBTQ inclusion in UM churches did not pass at the last General Conference. I think there is value in connectionalism, and I have had a unique opportunity to see it work from my former job at Cokesbury. Rather, as you, Patrick, hint at with the statement I quoted above, we should place our emphasis on a Wesleyan orthopraxy that allows for a wide array of expressions in many wonderful ministries. My suggestion is for innovative Wesleyan orthopraxy, and tolerance for diverse expressions of Wesleyan orthodoxy.

    • Lee, thanks for comment and for extending an idea farther than I could in post anyone would read. I like the connections you make and, as always, appreciate the vantage point you developed working in that petri dish we called Cokesbury. 🙂

      One further reflection, if I can piggy back on your comment. I suspect things would be less complicated if we were actually dealing solely with Wesleyan understandings of orthodoxy (with their diversity understood) but we know that we all approach these discussions with a myriad of theological impressions that overlap, compliment, and contradict. The popularity of non-UMC curriculum (Beth Moore <---> Living the Questions) in many of our churches is evidence of this. I’m not sure that I’d identify this as a necessary problem unless our goal is to arrive at a shared orthodoxy, in which case we should all adopt a shared curriculum (which isn’t going to happen).

      • Good point. “Living the Questions” made a little effort to connect the material to Wesleyanism for those UM churches using their material. The original study had a session on it in point of fact. Beth Moore is far beyond the Wesleyan pail. Her theology is not helpful to either Wesleyan orthodoxy or orthopraxy in my opinion (not to mention that her Biblical interpretation, while charismatic in presentation, is sorely lacking in solid Biblical scholarship). [It is also nice that since I have left Cokesbury I can now “badmouth” whatever “Christian” education materials I want to, therefore I can say that no UM church should use Beth Moore materials. When working for Cokesbury, it wasn’t my job to volunteer my personal opinion to everyone, but some people would ask me for my opinion.] There were churches that made choices of curriculum I thought were inconsistent with their respective denominational theologies. In some cases those churches adapted the material, but not in all cases. In the end the choice was all up to the churches for what curriculum to purchase.
        So that does make a common Wesleyan orthodoxy a difficult proposition.

    • Always a good question. I’m not sure this article changes Jesus’ location but one might conclude that a structure that is inefficient makes it more difficult to find him.

  5. One of the few things GC2012 actually did was ask the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters to begin working on a new Global Book of Discipline for the church. The have begun meeting, and they envision a new, slim BOD that is primarily a document that focuses on theology–rather than a book of rules and procedures like we currently have.

    My hope is that our frustration with our current Book of Discipline has reached its limit–so much so that we will embrace a new start as a GLOBAL church rather than a regional or congregational church.

    Frankly, I would like to see us declare that the form of polity we adopted in 1968 is a failed model. Perhaps we should admit that we have failed to be an obedient church, and hold a service of death and resurrection. Let’s celebrate the good we have done, confess our sins, and move on to be the people God is calling us to be.

    Frankly, I am delighted that the American version of Wesleyan Christianity is in crisis. Perhaps we can move beyond our parochialism and recognize that the world is indeed our parish.

  6. People are attracted to faith communities because of the way they see the members treating each other. Unfortunately in the UMC we have not been treating each other like beloved family and that’s our most serious problem. We have to figure out how to love each other, even when we disagree. And we won’t be successful in reaching others until we do.

    • How we treat each other, and even those outside our faith communities, is our most visible witness to the Christ we believe in. Unfortunately the Christ we offer the world, and to each other, too often falls far short.

      Thanks for reading and for naming this.

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