Life-Long Methodists and Open Doors

Open hearts, open minds, open doors.
— United Methodist advertising slogan

I sometimes hear or read words to the effect, “I am a life-long Methodist.” As an aspect of a person’s life-story, that’s mildly interesting. As an argument about what’s right for the church, however, it’s completely irrelevant. Well, almost.

Local churches sometimes develop a version of the “life-long” syndrome. When newcomers visit or join the congregation, they quickly learn who is in charge. Aunt Sally or Uncle Jack expect things to go their way because, well, they grew up in this church, they’ve paid their dues (literally) and they’ve earned the right to run things the way they see fit. Aunt Sally and Uncle Jack may be likable, hard-working, Christ-loving people who honestly believe that that they know what is best for the congregation, but the doors of their church are not truly open. Newcomers – and for some local churches that can include people who joined decades ago – always remain second class citizens.

Most pastors recognize the detrimental effects of the “life-long” syndrome in the local church because it makes change and growth extremely difficult. At the annual conference and national levels, however, some pastors and lay leaders offer the same argument as Aunt Sally and Uncle Jack.

On a national and global level, we are facing a number of questions about the way forward within the United Methodist Church. A number of issues threaten to tear us apart. Sometimes the argument boils down to, “I’ve been a Methodist all my life, so I know what Methodism is and you don’t.” Or, “The church is being hijacked by outsiders.”

I’ve never figured how the math of the “life long” argument is supposed to work. I’m 52 years old and I’ve been a United Methodist for 26 years. I’m a “half-life-long” Methodist. Is the life-long status of, let’s say, a 24 year-old supposed to trump my 26 years?

Let’s acknowledge that there is a danger in giving newcomers an equal voice at the table.

First, they may be ignorant. I started college shortly after 18 year-olds received the vote. My politics professor thought it was a bad idea. He thought we only let 21 year-olds vote so they could get some practice at thinking politically. He thought that young people were too immature, inexperienced and short-sighted in their thinking to vote wisely. He had a point, at least about me! We let young people vote anyway, with the hope that as they participate, they’ll grow wiser.

Of course, the new folks might be wiser than we are and we’re just afraid to change!

Second, giving newcomers an equal voice may tempt some people to try to stack the deck. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the deciding factor in whether Kansas would become a free state or a slave state was “popular sovereignty.” Let the people vote! As a result, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces attempted to flood Kansas with settlers sympathetic to their views. The result was “Bleeding Kansas.”

The fear of conflict, however, is no excuse for not listening to the voice of the newcomer. Despite the dangers, the voice of church newcomers cannot be ignored.

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Remember that the laborer hired last received the same wages as the one hired first. While Jesus told this story to illustrate a theological point and not to guide organizational politics, the story’s intent is clear: newcomers to the kingdom are just as important in God’s eyes as those who are life-long citizens.

As a practical matter, a denomination ruled from top to bottom by life-longers does not truly have open hearts, open minds or open doors. Who would want to join an organization in which they are constantly dismissed with, “Well, I’ve been here longer than you.”

As an intellectual matter, arguments from longevity carry no weight. How does, “I was here first” validate the truth of your claim or the wisdom of your proposition? As Spock says, “It is illogical.”

It is especially illogical to assume that longevity imbues authority when newcomers uphold the church’s official position and the life-longers fight against it. There is a divisive issue of human sexuality, for example, about which the General Conference has spoken clearly and consistently for many years. I believe it represents both the best theological thinking about the issue and the most loving approach to living in the world. Some life-long Methodists disagree and are doing everything they can to undermine the church’s teaching on the issue and obstruct its implementation. Who best represents the United Methodist Church in this arena, newcomers who support the church’s position or life-longers who sabotage it?

Certainly, we should listen to those who have invested their lives in the United Methodist Church and respect the deep emotional attachments they have to it. Life-long members cannot impose their views on the rest of the church, however, simply on the basis of longevity. Longevity is significant, but it ought not to be determinative. The truth of Christ ought to be determinative. We’ll have our disagreements about that truth, but let’s talk about the disagreements and not about who got here first.