Commissioning of the disciples
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Thoughts on the passage:
Every four years our denomination holds a gathering called General Conference. It is the primary organizing event for our church. Only General Conference is empowered to speak for the church on matters and only General Conference has the power to change our Book of Discipline which is our guiding document as a denomination, containing our rules, but also our core theology and historic beliefs. Every General Conference has a scripture passage to serve as its theme. This year that theme was “Therefore Go” drawing from the Great Commission in Matthew 28.
Two years ago I was elected as an alternate delegate to General Conference on behalf of the Minnesota Annual Conference. My role was to go and assist our delegation in its work and when needed step in for one of our voting delegates when they were not on the floor. It gave me a chance to see the administrative workings of our denomination. It also let me experience the beautiful diversity that exists. We send about 850 voting delegates to General Conference from around the world. About 60% come from across the US while the remaining 40% come from Europe, Asia, and predominantly Africa. We hire translators to facilitate the conversation between French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, German, Tagalog, Swahili, English, and Korean. The mixture of languages is most evident in worship where songs, scripture and prayer come in a variety of tongues.
While General Conference is a great display of our diversity that can also come with costs. One of the things that greatly divides our church is the issue of human sexuality. In particular, we struggle with how we are to be in ministry with people who are GLBTQI (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex). Many in our church believe that there are clear prohibitions on homosexual behavior. Others feel that God calls us into loving relationships which can take a variety of forms.
Disagreements around these issues have become increasingly divisive. While the vote has remained the same at about 60% in favor of prohibitive language and 40% in favor of inclusive language, where those votes have come from has changed. United Methodists in the US have become increasingly in favor of inclusion while especially in Africa the church remains strongly in favor of prohibitive language. These disagreements came to a head this year as rumors swirled that several bishops were meeting with both conservative and liberal leaders to discuss schism, dividing our denomination over this issue.
On Tuesday, Bishop Ough, our bishop in Minnesota, and also the head of the Council of Bishops addressed the General Conference in an unprecedented move. He spoke passionately about the pain and division that exists in our church and reiterated his deep belief in our need to stay united. Following his speech, the body took an equally unprecedented move of asking the Council of Bishops to come back with a recommendation. What makes this so remarkable is that the role of bishops at General Conference is to facilitate rather than participate. Asking for their leadership is not something that anyone had heard of happening before. The following morning, Bishop Ough returned with a series of recommendations for how we could move forward. These included stepping back from controversial issues to pray and appointing a special commission to study all areas of our church discipline effected by this and bring forward recommendations, ideally at a specially called General Conference in two or three years (rather than our regular meeting which will be in Minneapolis in 2020).
Since nothing can happen easily at General Conference, debate ensued. Several different amendments were suggested. After multiple votes, the body agreed to act upon the Bishops recommendations. For better or for worse we were stepping back from the brink of schism and from these deep conflicts.
I know people on all sides of this issue who were frustrated with this decision. It was not an easy one. In the end however my hope is that it helps us with the real focus on General Conference, “Therefore Go.” Freed from the conversations that threatened to overwhelm all our work, now we can move forward as a church and focus primarily on what Jesus is calling us to do, make disciples.
While much of the legislative work focused on other things, like details of setting a budget and running a multinational organization, the preaching and worship was clearly focused on our Great Commission. Every morning, using different passages, and different messages, Bishops implored us with to go. Go and make disciples! Go and heal a broken world! Go and spread the good news!
As much as I like rules, committees, and the legislative process, our focus on mission and ministry was far more invigorating to me. As a denomination we agreed upon four areas of focus and set goals for each of those areas. We are going to be in ministry with the poor, seeking to transform 400 communities into areas of vital, abundant living. We are going to develop principled Christian leaders by engaging 3 million plus people in world-transforming activities. We are going to create new places for new people and revitalize existing congregations to form 1 million new disciples of Jesus Christ. Finally, we are going to improve health globally, reaching 1 million children with lifesaving interventions and engaged in 10,000 churches in the United States in developing support systems for treatment, education, and prevention in their surrounding communities.
Despite the turmoil at times, General Conference was a very hope-filled experience for me. I find hope in the number of people who are committed to our church, who love our denomination, and who passionately believe that together with each other and God, we can do amazing things. I am filled with hope at the differences we can make. When we started the Imagine No Malaria campaign, a child died every 30 seconds in Africa from malaria. Sadly, children are still dying, but now it is only once every 2 minutes. We are making a differences. We are spreading God’s healing love to a broken world.
What we need to remember is that General Conference, for all its formal leadership, is really the follower and not the leader. The cutting edge of ministry does not happen in our national offices, but in our local churches. It is right here in Willmar that we become the real hands and feet of Christ. It is here that we really live into our call to make disciples and transform the world.
Jesus challenged his disciples to go. He is challenging us to go as well. Go out from our churches. Go out from our pews. Go out from our safety and comfort zones. Go out and reach people who are hurting. Go out and reaching people who need the love of Christ. Go!
Questions to Ponder:
What does making a disciple of Christ look like to you?
Who are you called to reach?
When is a time that someone reached out to you with the message of Christ?
God, may your spirit watch over us as we go forth. May you bless us as we go and reach out in your name. May you strengthen us when we falter. May you be with us in all that we do. Amen