By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministries

One of the most frustrating elements of our current denominational conflict is the air of inevitability which surrounds it. Whether you orient as conservative, moderate, or progressive, you have likely felt that the whole situation is somehow out of our hands. If there is one experience we share as a United Methodist Church today, it is this feeling that the sky is falling and there is simply nothing we can do. For some this breeds anger and frustration, but for most it encourages detachment and a growing connectional malaise.

[quote_box_right]We have the collective ability to make the requisite changes to move forward together.[/quote_box_right]As strong as this first feeling might be, it simply isn’t true. While we may not have the power to mold and shape the denomination into our perfect theological likeness, we do have the collective ability to make the requisite changes to move forward together. And if we truly desire this, we are fully empowered to start that process by treating those we disagree with with respect and Christian love.

Our ability to see the truth that the sky is not falling is obfuscated by a second feeling that is grounded in a certain amount of reality. The United Methodist ship is sinking and we’re not clear about what to do. We see it regularly confusing our conversations about the many issues that divide us. Conservatives and progressives both claim that more faithfulness to their positions is the key to future vitality. Church growth gurus offer a variety of recipes which work miracles in some places while causing anxiety and despair in others.

Too rarely in our denominational conversations do we acknowledge the shared complexity of being church in a world that isn’t sure it needs church. The future of Christianity, and of religion in America more generally, is much more complicated than any single church growth strategy can accommodate for. And those that suggest the solution lies in being more obedient to a particular understanding of the Gospel or Scripture must willfully ignore data points that undermine their assumptions.

[quote_box_left]We need to learn how to bail water together or practice our skills at walking on it.[/quote_box_left]The church we see and experience today has taken on a lot of water. The sky isn’t falling but those ominous clouds are very likely yet another storm. The larger cultural trends tell us that the seas ahead are likely to be filled with winds and waves. If we are going to weather the storm we need to learn how to bail water together or practice our skills at walking on it.

Despite the challenges of our contemporary situation, and the advantages working together could bring us, we still have some who would declare mutiny instead. Our mutineers are not below deck bailing water. Instead they are found above deck proclaiming that all is lost and that the sky will fall unless they get their way.

Our mutineers can be found trolling United Methodist message boards and attacking opponents rather than trying to understand sisters and brothers. They co-opt and agitate honest disagreement and frame everything in the starkest terms seeking the best slogans rather than the deepest discernment. Their loud voices don’t represent the majority, but their threats and demands disrupt things all the same. And too many of the rest of us allow their distraction to take our eye off of the difficult work ahead that we might still do together.

[quote_box_right]Pick up a bucket or walk the plank.[/quote_box_right]Let us all commit to redoubling our efforts toward making our church a powerful force for the transformation of the world. After all, this work is hardly done. Let’s strive to innovate and discover new ways to be a church that honors and learns from its theological diversity, recognizing that there is more than one way to bail water and rig a sail. And finally, let us clearly mark where the plank is so that those who insist the sky is falling may find a way off a ship that disturbs them so very much.

Friends, the ship may be sinking but all hope is not lost. Pick up a bucket or walk the plank. It’s time for you to decide.

Image Credit: “Story Sea” by Marcus Larson (1825-1864), via Wikimedia Commons.



  1. I love your comment, “Too rarely in our denominational conversations do we acknowledge the shared complexity of being church in a world that isn’t sure it needs church.” We are all in this together and we all run the risk of “going down with the ship” and drowning in our own pools of self-righteousness.

  2. On this day when the Supreme court has said Prayer in public facilities does not violate “free speech” We need to seize the day and run, not walk, to a new way of church. A few years ago I heard the most helpful statement. We need to come from a place of “purpose” not ” Preference” engage and combine the young people’s ideas and move them into the new definition of “traditional” . God will direct us if we take off our blinders, open our hearts, identify our ministry’s and “take action” wringing our hands does not solve anything.

    • Agreed. We do not use enough purpose language and even when we do, we too often confuse purpose with preference. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

  3. I wonder if the mutineers have a point. Is it really worth it to bail out this old, sinking ship, or is there something new on the dry dock, something that will fit the times better than our 1950’s model that was designed to sail the calm seas of Christendom? Perhaps the mutineers (or are these the gang-plankers?) are calling us to faith in Christ rather than faith in institutions. Institutions demand constant maintenance and an inwardly focused life. Faith in Christ calls us outward to give our lives for God and, if we must die in the name of the mission, to let God bring on the resurrection. So I wonder if either peaceful dialogue or ever-more-frantic bailing will actually get us toward our God’s goal. Maybe it’s actually just death and resurrection we need, 21st century edition.

    • Sandy, I think that is certainly a possibility. I know there are days I certainly can appreciate the sentiment.

      What I was trying to get at here is that no one benefits from the open hostility and grandstanding. Whether it is a group of southeastern mega-church pastors making demands from a shadowy room, or those who have been legitimately hurt by the church responding in kind, the mission doesn’t benefit and any attempts to reconcile and move forward are doomed to fail.

      So maybe, at the risk of mixing metaphors, we’ve discovered that the big tent doesn’t really have a center pole? It just seems that we all still share quite a lot of problems, and hopes for the world, in those few moments where no one is shouting.

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