On Saturday, I returned from attending my first national meeting of our denomination, The General Assembly of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in the United States and Canada. As a relative newcomer to the denomination, I wondered going into the meeting if I would feel excited or cynical about its condition in 2009. Now that I’m back, I can safely say that I feel both excited and cynical about my new denomination.
First, here are my good impressions. On the program dais, speakers and musicians represented a broad variety of genders, ethnicities, ages and nationalities. It was a rainbow of skin colors and accents. I appreciated the effort made to be mostly inclusive of the diversity in our denomination (for an explanation of the “mostly” see below).
I heard some inspiring messages during the assembly. Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President (whom you may have seen preaching at the Presidential Prayer Service following President Obama’s inauguration) gave a moving sermon about our interconnectedness with fellow Christians around the world. She told of being present at a baby dedication in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and asked us, since that baby is not only a part of the Congolese church but also our church, what is our responsibility in regards to the poverty and oppression he and his family live in? Also, each day, Dr. Newell Williams, church history professor at Brite Divinity School, offered deep yet accessible insights on Disciples spirituality. He was so good that I bought the DVD’s of his presentations and will be showing them the next three Sundays in my 9:30 Sunday School class.
Another exciting aspect of my experience at the assembly was my interaction with other Disciples committed to the causes of peace and justice. It was a joy to meet with members of the Disciples Justice Action Network, Disciples Peace Fellowship and the Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples Alliance (G.L.A.D. Alliance). It was reassuring to me that there are committed groups of Disciples out there who are working to ensure that our denomination will be much more than a bunch of middle-class, wishy-washy Christians whose only distinction is they take communion each week.
A great step in the right direction in terms of social justice occurred on Saturday night when the Disciples Justice Action Network held a vigil for health care reform. (Read the local newspaper account.) I headed home on Saturday and hated to miss this exciting event. For me, this is exactly the kind of work the denomination should be doing.
Now, here are some reasons I feel a little cynical or perhaps better said: concerned, about our denomination. Although the program was obviously purposefully inclusive in terns of gender, race, age and ethnicity, when I looked around the convention hall, the crowd was mainly Caucasian people over retirement age. This is not a novel observation; Disciples have been making it for years. What concerns me is the question of what will we do to incorporate younger and more diverse members? (This should be a familiar concern to our own situation at First Christian.) I sense a strong temptation in some quarters to pull towards the center or even the right in terms of cultural politics and theology, and I believe such a move is absolutely the wrong one for our denomination. The young people I saw present at the assembly were greatly concerned about issues like war and peace, the environment, inclusion of GLBT Christians and a theology that is proactive rather than reactive. It remains to be seen if the diversity within our denomination will result in honest dialogue about issues that matter in our day or in a choice for mediocrity that speeds our decline.
I sensed an aversion to conflict at the Assembly which on the surface doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Conflict can be a good thing, however, when it generates new passion for the church’s mission and faces openly the tensions within a body of believers. As I mentioned, the program speakers were diverse in every way except in terms of sexuality. To my knowledge, there were no persons on the program who were openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered—at least none that chose to identify themselves as such, and only rarely were these Christians in our midst mentioned. Several General Assemblies ago, issues around sexuality led to a tumultuous meeting and subsequent study groups meant to address that conflict seem more like a way to avoid the subject rather than to face it with integrity. For me, the inclusion or GLBT Christians or lack thereof was symptomatic of a greater fear of facing the differences in our denomination.
I should also mention that even though it was my first General Assembly, I did speak during a business session in opposition to a change in how Disciples will deal with difficult issues. I won’t bore you with the details here, but I will share about it on my blog for any who care to find out more.
Overall, after attending the General Assembly, I feel more excited than cynical/concerned, but it will be interesting to see if the Disciples of Christ will choose to claim a prophetic role in our culture and world or choose a gradual slide into irrelevance.
Grace and Peace,