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Looking for the one true Church

Church closings shared by Jerry DeVine.

In his Cabinet Report to the 2022 Michigan Annual Conference, the Rev. Dr. Jerome DeVine asserts that scripture and history demonstrate, “No one expression of the Church is the ‘one true Church.'”

JEROME DEVINE
Dean of the Cabinet, Michigan Conference

For the Dean of the Cabinet Report this year, I want to reach out to those laity, clergy, and local churches who wish to remain in the United Methodist Church, those who want to depart and become part of a new expression of Methodism, those who don’t quite know what they want, and those who don’t really care one way or another.

The Apostle Paul was quite clear in his writing to the Church in Corinth that there is only one Body of Christ, with many and diverse parts. There is only one Holy Spirit who pours out many and diverse gifts upon all who are in that one Body of Christ. You and I could argue and differ on many things along the journey of life, yet we cannot alter those key truths that there is just one Body and one Spirit. That is God’s creation, not yours or mine. Christian history has made evident that there can be many and varied expressions of that one Body. Yet, no particular one of those expressions contains the full aspect of what God has created through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. 

I am reminded of the words from the prophet Isaiah when the Lord proclaimed, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Therefore, I pray that as we gather for our annual conference session, we might do so with some level of humility in our conversations with one another.

I am preparing to enter my 42nd year under appointment in the United Methodist Church and my 45th year responding to my call to ministry. As I move closer to the end of my full-time ministry, I am grateful that I have been involved in numerous conferences, general agencies, and local churches during my career, including three distinct conferences right here in Michigan. Before coming here to Michigan in 1999, I spent 18 years as a member of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference, which encompasses the State of Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Maryland was very much the birthplace of Methodism in the United States. Because of that, almost every town and city has living evidence of every denominational split that has occurred since our founding in 1784.

Just before moving to Michigan, I served a church in a county seat historical town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There were three United Methodist churches in that town. The church I was appointed to, First United Methodist Church, was diagonal across the street from another United Methodist church and just five blocks from another. My church was founded in 1786 as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The church five blocks away was the historic Black United Methodist Church. That congregation had been given the building my church had initially been using until they built the current structure. Historic and systemic racism had created two separate congregations, even though there is only one Body of Christ and one Spirit. Sin created separation that still prevented union and unity 212 years later.

The other United Methodist church diagonally across the street from the church I was serving had been part of the Methodist Protestant Church that separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1828, just 44 years after the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed. In the fellowship area of that church, they had a lighted memorial stand that contained their historic declaration from when they separated from the church I was now serving and launched their newly formed Christ Methodist Protestant Church. It stated, in part: “On this day, 11 members tried and true of the one true church did separate and walk five blocks away to start the Christ Methodist Protestant Church.” In 1996, 168 years after that event, they still had this in focus. Twenty-eight years after becoming United Methodist, all three churches were still separate, even though there is only one Body of Christ and one Spirit.

The pastors of the other two churches and I had known and respected each other before being appointed to these three churches. We chose to begin building bridges, though not so that we could combine the churches into one congregatioInstead, ourOur focus was to give witness to what God can do when we share in a common mission in our communities. We intended to live out the reality that no one expression of the Church is the “one true Church” and that collectively we have a more vital witness than when isolated from one another.

I share this with you today because all of you, all of us, are facing the same choices in our communities right now and right here in Michigan. We are facing these choices across our denomination. On May 1st of 2022, a new expression of the wider Methodist heritage was established. What it will become will take time to evolve. One thing is certain, just as the United Methodist Church is only one reflection of the fullness of the one Body of Christ, so too the Global Methodist Church will only be one reflection of the fullness of the one Body of Christ. No one expression of the Church is the “one true Church.” We have all been baptized into the one Body and are beneficiaries of the outpouring of the one Holy Spirit. If we can acknowledge this, we have a much better opportunity to live as kindred spirits in our communities across Michigan and beyond.  

Back in March, I shared a blog in MIconnect, asking a heartfelt question: “Can we bless our neighbors?” I won’t bore you with the entirety of that blog right now, yet I do want to remind you of a couple of biblical stories that have something to say about our current situation. First, in the book of Genesis, there is the story of Abram and his nephew Lot. There had come a time of tension between their households. There were competing allegiances and a strain on resources. It had become quite clear that if either or both were to survive and thrive and not be internally destructive, then there would need to be some separation between their households. So Abram takes the high road of Divine hospitality to create a gracious space in which they could remain in relationship. Here is what he said:

And Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, … for we are kindred. … If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” (Genesis 13:8)

Mutual respect. Gracious space. Co-existence. Mutuality of relationship and the blessing of one another. 

The other biblical narrative comes from the Gospel of Mark in the 9th chapter (Mark 9:38-41). 

In the story, one of the core disciples, John, comes to Jesus in what was likely an animated manner and says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” I am guessing that John thought he would be affirmed for telling the other person that you have to do things the way we do, or you do not fit in. Instead, it went in an entirely different direction. Jesus said to John, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus makes space for varying gifts to bring new life to individuals and communities. Jesus brings into focus the gift of expansive grace, widened community, and the unity of the one Body seeking to live out the presence of the risen Christ in the world.

I encourage you to meditate on these two scripture passages and contemplate what the Divine hospitality, Divine grace, and gracious space might look like and need to be here in the State of Michigan, in the Michigan Conference, and in your local church. There will be a separation into different expressions of our Methodist heritage. Yet, like Abram and Lot and their families, we will still live next to one another. We will still see one another in public spaces and will need to decide how we wish to treat one another and how we collaboratively can minister to the communities around us. If we denigrate one another, what witness does that give the wider community? If we truly bless one another, how might that be seen and experienced by those not a part of our faith communities?

It is very possible, even likely, that we will have some new situations where there will be a United Methodist Church within close proximity to a Global Methodist Church and vice versa. The people living in that region will not care about the name on the church building. They will care about how we treat one another and collectively partner to care for the well-being of the wider community. As the folk hymn rhythmically states, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” It is very likely that within the ongoing large tent and gracious space of the Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church, there will still be congregations who consider themselves centrist, others who consider themselves conservative, and still others who consider themselves progressive. How will we treat one another? How might we collaborate though we might differ in some of our perspectives?

Even more challenging is the fact that within some individual congregations, there is not usually unanimous agreement on whether to remain United Methodist or to depart for another expression of the one Body. If a third of a congregation chooses differently than the other two-thirds, are their other core values sufficient to keep them together? My observation from my interactions with clergy and laity in our local churches is that when our local churches are not caught up in fighting about who is right and who is wrong, they actually do reveal strong core values that can be life-changing and sustaining. Some of those core values are:

  • invitational hospitality,
  • nurturing of spiritual life,
  • deepening of our relationship with God in Christ and deepening of our relationship with one another in a faith community,
  • tangible care for the needs of the wider community,
  • a genuine partnership with community leaders to address areas of common concern

My cabinet colleagues and I have a deep concern for the stability of congregations in the year ahead. How you have those kinds of conversations about your core values and where you find your denominational home may determine if you will remain whole or splinter and decline. That dynamic will hold true whether your congregation remains a United Methodist congregation or they separate and transition to a new expression. Conceivably, if there are several United Methodist churches in a given locale right now, there may even be a shifting of members between some of these churches as some remain United Methodist and others choose to transition to a new expression. Will each congregation help people have the space to make those choices with grace, humility, and intentionality? Will you follow those Three Simple Rules of “do no harm, do good and stay in love with God”?

I trust that every person participating in the 2022 Annual Conference session of the Michigan Conference loves God and yearns to know God more fully in their daily lives and relationships. I trust that the majority desire to follow Jesus faithfully, in their understanding of it, amid the challenges and situations that life and relationships present us all with. I suspect, deep down, that most desire a sense of unity within their own faith community and wider connections. May God surround, fill and guide us as we seek to be a part of the one body of Christ in the world today. May God continue to pour out the Holy Spirit into our lives, into our faith communities, and into our ministries. Amen. 

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