By Lindsay Peyton
In the Episcopal Address at this year’s Annual Conference, Bishop Scott J. Jones challenged those attending to focus on unity – and to find a path toward greater togetherness through love. He asked, “What form of unity best fits our global, local, downloaded, decentralized form of Christianity today?”
His theme was drawn from John 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus’ love is at the root of the church’s mission to make disciples, Jones explained. “The life-transforming grace of God is all about the love of God making a difference and teaching us how to live life and do it abundantly,” he said.
One example of this work in action in the TAC is the “We Love All God’s Children” initiative. Jones started his address by focusing on the program, now nearly five years old, headed by Rev. Jill Daniel.
Since its establishment, nine Children’s Centers have opened in the conference, providing full-day, full-year places for more than 1,000 underserved children. This summer, another Center will be launched, as well as an after-school program.
In addition, there was a distribution of more than $500,000 in children’s furniture, equipment and resources to churches in the Conference through a partnership with the Moody Permanent Endowment Fund.
Also, through a partnership with the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation, more than 2,000 home libraries were gifted to children in need. “That’s 20,000 books,” Jones said.
Rev. Daniel has met with local churches in all nine districts of the Conference for consultations, strategic planning and coaching. She also hosted 19 training sessions for child care, nursery and children’s ministries staff members.
We Love All God’s Children addresses discipleship, literacy and health Jones said. At the same time, the initiative gave churches an opportunity to reach out to their mission fields in new ways.
“Too many of our UMCs have turned inward and become a club existing for the benefit of their own members. That’s not the church,” Jones said. “The church Jesus had in mind would be a mission station that God could use to transform the world and change lives.”
The bishop explained that churches should be committed to sharing love, which is “precisely what a hurting world needs.”
“Think of all the people in your community who desperately need the kind of fellowship, love, mutual support, mutual encouragement and care that your congregation members have for each other,” Jones said. “When we hoard that, and turn inside and just keep it to ourselves, we’re failing Christ. We’re failing to reach out and make a difference.”
Acting as a church that truly reaches out to make a difference is at the heart of Wesleyan Christianity, Jones explained. He discussed his own personal journey of diving into the depths of the denomination – from his wandering from church as a young man to his reawakening later at Perkins.
“This is me. I’m home,” Jones realized after learning more about what set the Wesleyan movement apart. “And that set my mission for the rest of my life,” he said.
Social justice key to vital future
UMC membership and worship attendance has declined almost every year since 1968, Jones said. He is convinced, however, that the trend could reverse through clarifying the church’s mission and a focus on social justice.
“That’s the key to a vital future for Wesleyan Christianity,” he said. “I think there’s a bright future for that movement.”
Jones believes that what makes Methodism strong is present in both the continuing UMC and the emerging Global Methodist Church (GMC). “I admire the people who are casting vision for both of these denominations,” he said. “I want to think the best of each group.”
Churches in the TAC are now discerning which path appeals most to them. Jones outlines pros and cons for both.
For instance, he said that the UMC will move in a progressive direction and become more inclusive of LGBTQ persons, while promising to still welcome traditionalists. Still a lot remains unclear about how that will proceed.
In the meantime, Jones said, the Global Methodist Church will offer a traditional alternative on issues of human sexuality. He believes there will be advantages to being a new start – as well as challenges.
Both the UMC and the GMC will have a large mission field, Jones continued. And he believes there is space for both to coexist. “I’m convinced that the Wesleyan movement needs both a progressive denomination and a traditional denomination,” he said.
The TAC will provide continuing assistance as churches continue to discern their ways forward. As a Conference, Jones said that all churches should be blessed on whichever path they follow.
“What we need is a new form of unity,” he said. “I’m committed to the unity of the church – but in the 21st century, we have to think about unity in a different way.”
Between the GMC and UMC, as well as internal to both denominations, Jones believes unity based on mission, instead of structural covenant, will be critical, as will mutual respect.
“It all depends frankly on love,” he said. “We’re headed into difficult times as a Conference and as a denomination. I hope, after the dust settles and the separation is done, that we love one another and find ways of cooperating together.”
Jones pointed to John Wesley’s sermon on the Catholic Spirit: “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike?”
“As we keep going forward, I ask, love one another, and love all God’s children,” the bishop concluded.