What are you doing here?
That question was asked of me countless times last week. As a United Methodist, my presence at the OPEN Faith gathering at Christian Theological Seminary was received with welcome, question, and (once) even with distain. Why would someone from the mainline want to attend a gathering of evangelical church leaders?
I was asking myself the same question all last week. After I boarded the plane in Norfolk, then took the 5 minute Uber ride from my Airbnb to the seminary campus, I asked myself, “what in the world are you doing here?” It’s a legitimate question for other attendees to ask of me and for me to ask of myself.
Some of my responses looked like the following:
The UMC and evangelicals have a lot in common. We love Jesus, right? That’s a good starting point.
We in the UMC are in the midst of a large conversation about human sexuality. In my experience the more conservative voice has been louder. I am here to learn a new vocabulary so I can add to the conversation.
I am interested in the MDiv. at CTS, so I figured since it was sponsored by OPEN I’d come check it out.
There were some there who were suspect because they thought I was there to promote a UMC agenda (potlucks?) or my podcast (C&GJ). And in full-disclosure I did not lead with the potluck or podcast. Although, potlucks would’ve been very non-threatening.
So why then did a UMC youth pastor, who serves a church who leans more to the conservative side of the scale theologically, attend a conference for progressive evangelicals?
I learned the answer was twofold.
First, I want to develop language to engage theological conversations.
To do this, we must engage in actual theological conversations. I believe we have lost this skill. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, our conversations are limited to 140 character canon shots that we throw out into cyberspace and never responded to. We are not engaging in theological conversation, we are screaming at one another in the public square or worse yet in the wind.
Meeting people like Stan Mitchell and Colby Martin, hearing them speak and reading their work, has provided me with the opportunity to develop language I had put off as something I would do when “I had the time” or when it was convenient.
Progressive evangelicals, for the most part, are coming out of Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical traditions. This is what I believe is going to happen to the UMC in the not so distant future. Part of my preparation for ministry in the new UMC landscape will be to help facilitate conversations between people who view the issue of human sexuality as the defining issue for church today. I don’t think this is the defining issue. I’d push to say sharing Good News of Jesus Christ is, but hey, who am I.
Second, as most of us know, evangelicals are excellent church planters.
One of the things I feel called to is the planting of new faith communities. This conference was an opportunity for me to learn from people who know how to plant churches that are sustainable and welcoming to the entire community. I can be easy for us to build communities that match our preferences views but to create a community that is inclusive of the entire community requires us to step out of our comfort zones, and as someone in the mainline I have become too accustom to being comfortable.
So answer the question already.
To answer the original question, “what are you doing here”, I want to be part of the conversation. Mainline UMC, conservative evangelical, or progressive evangelical, it does not matter to me. I believe that in order for us to make disciples for the transformation of the world we must be in conversation with one another. It’s bigger than LGBT inclusion, but that should not be taken off the table. This is a larger conversation that needs to begin in the mainline.