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Sharing in Faith: Focus on our ‘wildly important goal’

The Rev. Robert Phillips. Photo courtesy of Robert Phillips

The Rev. Robert Phillips
Photo courtesy of Robert Phillips.

When I was a freshman at the University of Illinois, I confessed faith in Jesus and joined the Shiloh United Methodist Church in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Today there is no Shiloh church.  There is no Southern Illinois Conference and not because of a 1996 merger with the former Central Illinois Conference. The equivalent of more than the entire membership and worship attendance of the former Southern Conference has vanished from the rolls.

That fact colors my approach to "the" issue facing our church. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus. That is what Stephen Covey called a "Wildly Important Goal," so crucial that if it is not achieved, nothing the organization does achieve matters.  Imagine modern history if the Allies had been content to finish a ‘strong second’ to Hitler. For the Allies, defeating the Axis powers was wildly important. For the church of Jesus, making disciples is the make-or-break mission.

Suppose a restaurant framed its marketing around the theme, "We are an inclusive, welcoming restaurant, where all can come to be served." It would go out of business in months. Folks of different races, colors, accents and orientations would avoid the place. The purpose of a restaurant is to deliver delicious food through quality service. If that is not the message presented and delivered in real ways, nothing else matters. Similarly, if the church doesn't fulfill the mission of making disciples, categories and issues of inclusion ... or exclusion ... move from irrelevance into oblivion.

Where there are two Methodists, there are three opinions. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, when it comes to a United Methodist church you never know what you are going to get, except that as a box of chocolates absolutely will have chocolates, the church will have Jesus, a Jesus whom folks from all backgrounds and interest groups will recognize. This is the Jesus who “will draw all people unto me” but only as he is the only one lifted up.

When former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi was asked if he was faithful to his wife, he replied, “Frequently.” Selective obedience to our common Book of Discipline will bring no healthy solution. Advocating a shift in church teaching is the right of any member through prayer, conversation and presentation of alternative understanding for the connected Body of Christ to receive and prayerfully consider at General Conference. Any group can seek to change the understanding or the priority given to issues such as same sex marriage in the existing Discipline.  

I serve a church where most of the folks freely embrace the teaching of the church on these issues, and some equally faithful members do not. Mutual love and respect, nurtured by sharing our stories and by listening to one another, have gone far to make the divisive conflicts and sharp feelings experienced by some other churches seem unreal. Keeping our covenant promises to one another has kept us together in healthy and constructive ways.

Most of all, keeping the mission our central focus has helped us channel our spiritual and emotional energy toward Christ rather than collision.

The Rev. Robert Phillips
Peoria, Illinois

Posted December 9, 2014.