Institute on Religion and Democracy
November 29, 2000
Over 1,300 young adults who are considering the ordained ministry gathered together in November for “Exploration 2000,” a national event sponsored every two years by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education. Held in Dallas this year, “Exploration 2000” was designed to help these students discern “God’s call to ordained ministry” within The United Methodist Church. The board gave over $200,000 towards the costs of this conference, whose audience ranged from high school juniors to recent college graduates.
As someone who is planning to attend seminary and follow my father into the ministry, I had hoped that an event like “Exploration 2000” would provide spiritual guidance for aspiring ministers-to-be . But I was disappointed. Most, though not all, of the speakers in Dallas failed to explain what it means to be a United Methodist, much less one called by God to proclaim His Word.
In a bow to political correctness, “diversity” was a predominant theme at “Exploration 2000.” (Amid all this talk about diversity, nobody explained what the basis for our unity is as a church.) Lynn Westfield, a professor at United Methodist Drew School of Theology in New Jersey, mentioned admirable types of diversity: “…race, age, culture, gender, class…” But as part of her long list of diverse groups in the church, she cited the existence of “some” United Methodists who still “believe that He [Jesus] was ransomed for our sin.”
Her strong implication was that belief in the Atonement of Christ was optional for United Methodists. (By doing so, she was ignoring Article II of our Articles of Religion.) With Westfield, other speakers acclaimed theological diversity, implying there were no absolute doctrinal standards to which the church should adhere. Most speakers were just vague.
The topic of homosexuality, a chief flashpoint within United Methodist, inevitably appeared during Westfield’s “Bible Study.” “Gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans-sexual…” were all attributes that appeared in her list of diversity within the church. She mentioned later that some would try to say there is no room for people of different sexual preferences. But she then commanded, “Don’t listen to them!” Westfield strongly implied that calling homosexual practice sin was equivalent to endorsing slavery, or suppressing women. She did not mention our Book of Discipline’s opposition to homosexual practice.
Other major speakers were Tex Sample, a retired professor from United Methodist St. Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City, and Minerva Carcano of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. They, like Westfield, disagree with our church’s opposition to homosexual practice. Indeed, all but one or two of the major speakers at “Exploration 2000” were from the liberal side of the theological spectrum, giving a skewed view of our denomination to the participants. Evangelical young people probably would be discouraged from ministry in United Methodism if they based their decision on what they saw in Dallas.
When confronted with complaints about the liberal line-up of speakers at Exploration 2000 a couple months before it began, a spokesman for the Board of Higher Education insisted that the schedule would not be changed. Not surprisingly, one of the chief organizers of “Exploration 2000” was the Rev. Ann Moman, who is Associate General Secretary of the Division of Ordained Ministry for the Board. In 1992 Moman conducted a same-sex union ritual at her Indianapolis church. Her action prompted her bishop to warn that such behavior would not be tolerated again.
Sample, when he addressed the “Exploration 2000” crowd, did not mention his stance on homosexuality. Instead he preached about “The Practice of Hope.” He exhorted the audience to hope, but the source of that hope was never really explained. Sample simply spoke of “a force of power in history that can be trusted, believed in, and it is the source of our hope.” Later he even exhorted to “hope in Jesus Christ.” But Sample’s primary example of hope, as he explained it, seems to have been his mother.
He explained that his mother “did not talk much about God or Jesus,” but “she cared about people.” Sample went on to urge the audience to “place yourself in a place you would not be if you did not believe in the future.” It is not clear what he meant by this. One college student in my small group, noticing Sample’s theological ambiguity, remarked that she thought he was telling us to “hope in hope.” She suggested he was “purposefully vague” so as not to offend anyone with beliefs that differed from himself. I could not disagree with her.
Bishop Janice Huie from Arkanas was another speaker. “Do you hear God’s call on your life?” she asked. “Are you ready to walk through the door and go where Jesus goes? Remember that the water of baptism will refresh you and the bread of life will feed you.” Huie said nothing controversial. But neither did she help to clarify some of the theological confusion at “Exploration 2000.”
An exception to the theological ambiguity was Steve Long, a professor at United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago. According to Long, words like atonement, propitiation, sanctification express concepts that are essential to the Christian faith. Along these same lines, Long said that many people complain that the cross is controversial and alienating. “It’s supposed to be,” he pleaded, “That’s the point!” To do away with the alienation of the cross is to abolish the heart of Christianity, Long made clear.
Long insisted that we as Christians are not called just to be self-actualized “individuals,” but to be “followers of Jesus Christ.” Denying the self-absorption of our culture, he said that we ourselves are not the future, but “the future has a name. That is Jesus Christ, the Son of God; truly human and truly God.” Even more pertinent to the supposed purpose of “Exploration 2000,” Long stressed that “ministry is not an individual possession… [but rather] there is only one ministry, the ministry of Jesus Christ.”
Long emphasized that if our acts of service are not acts that come out of Word and Sacrament then they are “mere moral-ism.” He reminded us that “it is in Word and Sacrament that Jesus is still present.” To those who respond saying that it is not about Word and Sacrament, but merely about our hearts being ‘strangely warmed,’ Long asked, “Do you know what warmed Mr. Wesley’s heart? The introduction to Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans.”
Long pointed out that it was the objective truth applied by the Holy Spirit, not just sentiment, that warmed Wesley’s heart. He warned us that there is “intellectual labor to be done” if we are to take our faith seriously. If we are to be pastors, then he said we must learn “the language of faith” so that not only our hearts might be warmed, but that we might warm the hearts of others.
But Long was nearly alone at “Exploration 2000” in warning against theological ambiguity and moral relativism. Besides many of the speakers, even much of the worship was lacking in spiritual meat. The words of one of Methodism’s most revered hymns, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” were changed to avoid references to “King” and “His.” Charles Wesley’s song was made gender neutral, in another instance of homage to political correctness. Diversity evidently does not include respect for traditional language. One college student mentioned to me: “I’m glad I was fed in other ways this weekend, because I wasn’t fed at all by the worship services.” And another student called the music “superficial,” and not “deep enough.”
I expected the workshops, unlike the plenary speakers, to allow the time and format for more serious theological reflection. But even they seemed weighted towards ambiguity. As one young woman form North Dakota complained after attending several workshops: “I thought I would learn something. Everyone I’ve talked to hasn’t learned anything.”
During a diversity workshop panel discussion called “Many Faces,” the official stance of The United Methodist Church on homosexuality was stated. Little more was said on the subject. The two panelists who did speak up were Matt Hook, a Detroit Conference minister, and Nick Harvey, a minister from North Georgia. Hook said there are typically two modes of thought in United Methodism today: that the “Holy spirit is continually revealing new truths, or that the Holy Spirit calls us back to the Truth” as revealed in the Bible.
Hook said homosexuality was often a “litmus test” for which side one stands on this more foundational issue. In responding, Harvey said, although I think without recommendation, that “most of us have a Dalmatian theology. We believe the Bible in spots.” Harvey’s advice on the homosexuality issue was: “We are not going to tell you what to believe. You must work it out for yourself… Know what you believe, and why you believe it.”
There was a mixed message throughout the weekend as a whole. Are we throwing off the old time religion, as things such as changing the words to “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and Lynn Westfield's speech suggested. Or are we reclaiming the “language of the faith,” as Steve Long exhorted us to do? Has God been gracious to us by sending His son to die on a cross, or is belief in the Atonement just one of the many options on the diversity platter that we have as Christians?
Is the Bible God’s complete revelation to us, or does God continue to reveal new truths daily? As one panelist during the “Many Faces” workshop put it, when looking into the United Methodist Church for the first time he was worried that we believed “everything and nothing at all.” However, when this panelist read the Book of Discipline and our Articles of Religion, like Steve Long and a few others, he realized that we as the United Methodist Church do believe in something.
But another pastor on that same panel, John Miyahara from Colorado, compared the theological atmosphere of The United Methodist Church to Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors. Miyahara said, “How boring would it be if you could only have vanilla when you went out for ice-cream.” The majority of the speakers at “Exploration 2000” seemed to agree that the more flavors the better.