The American branch of The United Methodist Church has been facing some rough times recently. In the US, the denomination continues its four-decade long loss of membership, part of an overall decline in religiosity in the country. While that membership decline has yet to affect local church budgets, it has begun to have financial impacts at the national level. The debate about gay ordination, gay marriage, and the resulting trials has reached a fever pitch. Questions have been raised about the ordination process and ordination requirements. People worry about millennials' disaffection with the church. Some of this hand-wringing is a natural occurrence in large organizations. Some of it is a sign of the prevalence of commentators in an internet age (including, admittedly, this blog). Yet it is more - it is a sign of some deep anxieties in the church.
As Christians, it is natural for us to use biblical imagery to make sense of the situations in which we find ourselves. Commentators have used several biblical images to express this state of anxiety in the UMC: wilderness, exile, "Babylonian captivity." These images all share the assumption that the UMC in somewhere else than the promised land where God intends us to be. The assumption is that the UMC used to be in the perfect situation (usually associated with the 1950s or early 1960s), but we have since been expelled by God from that situation for some infraction of ours (and the identified infractions vary widely).
I'd like to suggest another biblical image for the current state of the UMC in the US: the image of Babel. At Babel, the people of the earth joined together to build a tower and "make a name for [themselves]" (Gen 11:4). But the LORD "confuse[d] their language there, so that they [would] not understand one another's speech" (Gen 11: 7). As a result, "they left off building the city" (Gen 11:8). I think that the UMC in the US was trying to build not just a city, but a church, a country, even a world up through the first two thirds of the 20th century. It was a church with influence, able to dictate standards of personal holiness and social justice throughout the culture and beyond. Yet, within the last forty years, our language has become confused so that we can no longer understand each other, and we have been unable to keep building as a result.
I think using this biblical image suggests two important things about our situation as United Methodist in the US and around the world. First, it reminds us that we cannot go back. The 1950s are not some promised land from which we are in exile and to which we will return if we only obey or have faith or follow the right road map. The 1950s are a time of building a tower that it is no longer possible to complete, nor did God intend for us to complete that vision. A pastor friend of mine describes United Methodists as "perfecting the church of the 1950s," but if we continue to try to do that, we will only dwell in the shadows of crumbling ruins and not go out into the world where God sent us when God put an end to that building project.
Second, while the temptation may be to think that paying attention to the global church will only confound the Babel of confusion that already exists in the UMC in the US, I would like to suggest that it may actual hold important answers to coming to grips with this new situation. The Bible does not end with the people of the world being restored to their pre-Babel unity of language. It ends with believers uniting across differences of language and tradition in praise of God (Rev 7:9). The best in missiology over the past several decades has begun to help United Methodists around the world learn to listen and cooperate across linguistic and cultural barriers. We need to take those missiological lessons from the global church and apply them to the church in the United States.
If we do so, we won't return to the promised land of the 1950s where the UMC had vast membership records and large amounts of social influence. Yet, if we are at Babel rather than the wilderness, then the promised land is still ahead of us. We can't return to the way church was sixty years ago, but we can seek out new ways of uniting to be the church that may not be fully realized until sixty years (or longer) from now.