Wandering In the Desert for 40 Years

Let me just start with a disclaimer.
I’m not attacking anyone or anything. That’s not my intent. I just want to voice my opinions and frustrations of how I feel as a young clergy in the UMC and specifically, Cal-Pac Annual Conference. And everything I say, I’m speaking with a broad and general stroke of a paint brush.

Adam Hamilton asks if the UMC will still be around in 44 years.
And it’s hard to say.
Truth be told, I feel trapped in my denomination.
I feel like there’s this feeling of “paying my dues” before my gifts and talents are truly utilized. I’m not saying that’s the case, but I’m saying that’s how it often feels like.

And sadly, I feel like we’re no longer relevant. The message, the Gospel, that is so alive, so relevant, so true, it seems to get lost in the way we do things. Presenting the message seems to get lost in the endless amounts of committee meetings. And when the Spirit leads someone to do something, and they do, without the acknowledgment of SPRC or the Board of Trustees, well, heaven forbid that pastor do anything like that again.

The state of the UMC, suprisingly, angers me. Before, I didn’t care. I didn’t read the newsletters and what not. But now, I’m paying attention. I’m reading all sorts of posts through the methoblog and other places and of other UMC pastors. I’m talking to local pastors around this area and beyond. And often times, I’m left sad. and a bit angry. Annoyed even. Instead of living and emboding the Gospel, churches are seemingly trying to just merely survive. Instead of adapting to new ways and new things, we stubbornly hold on to the way things were done 10 years ago. I got news for you! It ain’t working! And then we have all these new ideas and thoughts and practices and methods that come along, and majority of times, it gets shot down.

This brings me to the title of my post.
The Israelites wandered through the desert. For 40 years. And they were promised a land where milk and honey would flow. They saw the pillar of fire and pillar of clouds that led their way. They saw the Red Sea split, and walked on the sea floor.

Yet, they always thought of the life in Egypt. Many complaints were levied to Moses, “had we stayed in Egypt, we’d be better off!”
Did they not forget that they were slaves in Egypt?
They were so caught up in what they used to have in Egypt, they couldn’t see where they were going, where the desert would be leading them.
Eventually, that first generation that lived in Egypt, the majority, if not all, didn’t make it to the promised land. Perhaps if they just forgot about how things were and focused on what things can and will be, the journey to the Promised Land would’ve been a bit shorter.
That second generation? They didn’t have Egypt to fall back on. They don’t remember what Egypt was or looked like, or what life was like. They were born in the desert. And all they knew was the desert. And they knew any land would be far better off than living in the desert. So they hoped and prayed that one day, they’ll leave this life of wandering and find a place to settle.

That sort of, for me, looks like the UMC today. We have pastors and members who are too caught up in the past and past successes, that it really hinders the church to move forward.
Are we, the younger clergy, supposed to wait out for all the older clergy to die out to change things and become more relevant today? The sad thing is, when this finally occurs, we will be old and probably trying to hold down the next generation because we’ve finally paid our dues, and it’s our turn.

When did we become so scared, as a collective body, to experiment?
When did we become so set in our ways that no one under the age of 50 wants to come to our churches?
What is it that it keeping us to become open minded and flexible?

Here’s another thing that I want to gripe about.
All the books I’ve been reading about other churches and denominations, all the churches I’ve visited like Newsong and Rock Harbor, when listening to the pastors speak or reading what pastors write, their methodology, their way of doing ministry, the programs that they implement, it’s all what John Wesley did. Maybe they are aware of that. Maybe they are not.
Andy Stanely of Northpoint and Dave Gibbons of Newsong Irvine, (and actually, many of the non-denominational churches) they stress on the importance of small groups and how they are important for the spiritual growth of members. Sure, the worship gathering is great, but it’s not enough. They feel the need of more intimate interactions and a place where members can hold each other accountable.
Do you know who else advocated for that? Wesley. Society meetings, class meetings and band meetings. Sound familiar, right?

Not only that, these non-denominational churches stresses the importance of prayer and scripture reading, something which I see lacking in the handful of UMC churches I’ve observed. (Or am I just picking the real bad ones…)Guess who also stressed the importance of prayer and scripture? Yea, our main man (next to Jesus) John.
Wesley considered prayer an essential part of Christian living, calling it, in many of his writings, the most important means of grace.  He wrote in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection:

Whether we think of; or speak to, God, whether we act or suffer for him, all is prayer, when we have no other object than his love, and the desire of pleasing him.
All that a Christian does, even in eating and sleeping, is prayer, when it is done in simplicity, according to the order of God, without either adding to or diminishing from it by his own choice.

Wesley also read the Bible and immersed himself in the Word. Here’s John Wesley on how to read the Bible.

When did the order of worship and liturgies that we do exceed the importance of worship itself? Or when did finishing the worship in exactly one hour became more important than being led by the Holy Spirit, or allowing room to be led by the Holy Spirit?
When did all the committee meetings replace the need for class and band meetings?
When did the emphasis on prayer and scripture reading fade away for many of us? Why are we, as pastors, not challenging our members to read more and pray more? Or encouraging and teaching them to read and pray more?
When did we start to feel the need to walk on egg shells when preaching the gospel? Did you not hear or read that Jesus spoke the truth in every situation, and when he did, people wanted to kill him? (And they were successful at it too)
When did love of neighbor become more important than the love of God? Love of God will always directly lead to the love of neighbor. But if we just focus on love of neighbor, it doesn’t always lead back to loving of God.

And lastly, why are other (non-Methodist) people better at implementing some core things of Wesley?

Recently, I’ve been wrestling with why I’m going through the ordination process. I know I’m called to be a pastor. But that doesn’t mean I’m called to be a UMC pastor. And often times, I feel that if I choose to pursue ordination elsewhere, my voice would be heard easier and I’d be more effective for God. But that’s just grass is greener on the other side type of thinking. I am (surprisingly) mature enough to know the truth: the grass is greener where you water it.
And, I love what the UMC stands for.
Like Hamilton writes, I also believe that our approach to the gospel is definitely needed. And as much as I may feel that I’m wandering in the wilderness and in the desert, God always leads us out of it.
There is so much hope for us.
And sometimes, we just have to get out of our own ways and really follow where God is leading us, as an entire body.

So, I’m preaching this Sunday, on the John text about Jesus clearing the temple, because that’s the lectionary text.
I was going to discuss some of this, and go along the lines of Jesus clearing the temple was a way of challenging the system of the temple.
Today, I looked through the NIB Commentary and this is what it had to say on the reflections section:
Jesus challenges a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God.

5 thoughts on “Wandering In the Desert for 40 Years

  1. Joseph,

    The complaints you are voicing are the same ones I have heard from almost any pastor who has ministered where ever any congregants have existed for any length of time or come from older churches. The downside of being part of a denomination with a hierarchy is you have more people to tell you that is isn’t done that way. But those same people exist in churches that do not belong to a denomination with a hierarchy.

    I was ministering in a church plant and the folks who came to that plant from other churches in the same denomination would say, “we’ve never done it that way”, “That’s not how it was done in church xyz”. But they were offset by the new believers we led to Christ and who began to attend our plant. You dont have that offset in an existing church, because the members become so inward focused and cliquish.

    You are right, it IS a bit of the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. But like you say, you have to water the grass.

    Keep up your observations. Keep focusing on Christ. Keep looking to the past to see what to avoid and what to use for the future. Keep focused on looking for the wisdom God provides. You’re doing great from my perspective.

  2. thanks for your words and wisdom.
    It’s just always nice to know that I’m not the only complainer. haha.
    But, you’re right, I (and we all) just need to keep focusing on Christ and pray that we see through the eyes of God.
    Thanks again!

  3. You have hit the nail on the head with this one. You’ve summed up much of my own angst in looking at our denomination. It’s exactly what you say of seeing the fruitfulness of other churches outside of Methodism, churches that indeed face the same exact issues we face, yet refuse to give in to self-fulfilling prophecies of stagnation and decline.

    For me, part of watering the side of the fence I’m on currently is realizing my identity as a pastor is not in my denomination, John Wesley, the board of ordained ministry, the Cabinet, nor my complimenters or complainers. My identity is in Jesus Christ, and he has called me to bear fruit where I am planted. I continue to pray, for there is a time for uprooting and replanting somewhere else, and that day may still come. But for now, this is where I am.

    Prayers of discernment for you as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s