East Ohio Annual Conference 2012 – Day 1

It’s Monday of Annual Conference. A lot of thoughts go through my mind as I contemplate the day. Actually, I had a lot of thoughts throughout the day.

The business session didn’t actually begin until 3:30 p.m, (it was supposed to start at 3, but the clergy session ran late). For the most part, it was pretty uneventful. So many times, I think this part is so futile. We vote on where to set the “boundaries” within the the auditorium and other random, but pointless formalities. Then we heard reports. Again, I think it might be just as easy to have them printed and read them, but fortunately Dr. George and Jessica Vargo are excellent presenters (the rest try very hard and I appreciate the efforts . . .)

Both Dr. George and Jessica’s presentations (as well as their combined one) brought even more to light the futility of this meeting of East Ohio United Methodists. Together the two reported on General Conference. Apportionments should go down, appointments may not be guaranteed anymore, but the thing in their report that hit home the hardest was the fact that the meeting was expensive, huge and highly unproductive. General Conference did not make the church any more relevant, it did not spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Their report made me ponder these four days we’re spending here at Lakeside. Fortunately, it’s a beautiful setting and makes for a nice retreat, a great time to get away and think about what I can do to bring myself closer to Christ as well as empower our congregation to be a vital testimony to the world we live in. However, much like General Conference, I don’t believe that this meeting of our Annual Conference is productive or educational enough to justify the cost. We pay for houses and hotel rooms, for paper and technology. Expense after expense, and to what end?

Jessica’s report brought to a head the thoughts I’d had all day regarding the morning worship service. She seems to be in a quandary as to how to make sure her children have a real relationship with Jesus Christ within the confines of the United Methodist Church. If the worship service at her home church is anything like the one this morning, I can totally understand her predicament.

For two hours this morning I felt as though I was just going through the motions of worship. Somehow, I think if Jesus asked us not to use “meaningless repetition” when we pray, He also would apply that to our worship. The service this morning was the same exact service we’ve used for more years than I can count. The same exact hymns (and some of the worst tunes in hymnody). I don’t mean to belittle those who have truly been discriminated against, but I felt alone, like a foreigner in a place where I wasn’t welcome.

I’m a musician. That’s what I do. Music IS the way I worship. So, when I’m forced to listen to ancient tunes that remind me of that resounding gong in 1 Corinthians 13, and then I’m forced to listen to four or five of them, I feel very alienated. I’m sure it’s how the unchurched feel when they come in to a place of worship for the first time. The music is completely foreign, the liturgies repetitive and irrelevant, the chants archaic and pathetic. The words SAY we worship, but the notes betray us, and if a non-churched person would have walked in this morning, they’d have walked out, probably figuring that they’d prefer to not attend a Methodist church.

And, in case you didn’t get it in the last paragraph, it’s not just the music. The Wesleyan prayer at the end of the service couldn’t have been any more archaic. Seriously, that’s the first time I’ve used the word “wilt” without talking about lettuce for years. What really confused my daughter and I about that prayer is the fact that those who planned the service decided to change the Lord’s Prayer, the one piece of liturgy that even the unchurched have probably heard and would graciously accept its antiquity, but chose to retain the original language of this unknown piece of writing from Mr. Wesley.

This morning’s service is the epitome of the problem with church growth. It’s the answer to the reason I hesitate to tell those inquiring about our congregation that we are affiliated with the United Methodist Church. With the exception of a handful of churches within our conference, the United Methodist Church’s worship is entirely irrelevant and even worse, boring. I hate to say it, but my daughter (under 30) and I were bored this morning.

Bishop Hopkins and the speaker who shared immediately following him did keep our attention; however, had we been looking for a place to worship every Sunday, those two would not have been enough to keep us coming back.

I’m not suggesting we throw out the hymns. In fact, at our church (Sycamore Tree – Ohio Valley District), we worship with many hymns. Some we sing as originally written, some we’ve updated the words but retain the melody and others we’ve updated the rhythms while maintaining the words and melody. Chris Tomlin has done a wonderful job of updating some of the most beloved songs of the church. Hymns are not the enemy. However, there are some that are not congregational friendly. Some hymns have melodies that SOUND like they are out of date, some have words that mean nothing in today’s culture.

I am suggesting that every church attempt to do something to be relevant to the current generation (folks under the age of 50!) Yes, believe it or not at least 1/2 of the population under 50 would prefer something more contemporary, and of those under 35, that number probably raises to about 75%. Yes, there are young people who love the hymns! Don’t discount the hymns and the liturgy!

I think my biggest problem is the fact that our unproductive meeting at Lakeside every year has the opportunity to introduce an older generation to a new way of worship. They will come whether they like it or not. Six worship services every year, and not one of them is contemporary (or if they are, they’re usually not well done and aged or young, mediocre is not acceptable).

I, too, struggle like Jessica. I want young people to WANT to come to church. Sycamore Tree is achieving that goal. About 1/4 of our congregation is under the age of 18 and they actually ASK their parents to bring them. 1/2 of our congregation is 20-35 and they find real meaning in our worship. They look forward to coming and invite their friends to come. In fact, even most of those over the age of 50 now admit it would be hard to go back to a totally traditional style of worship.

But Sycamore Tree’s reach is limited. More churches MUST become relevant to the culture, and this meeting of the Annual Conference is completely missing the opportunity to introduce a new style of worship to an aging group of conference goers.

I’ll probably have to evaluate coming to Lakeside in the future. Am I being a good steward of God’s gifts to me? Is this bringing me or any one any closer to Christ? Am I learning new things I can take to my congregation? If not, why am I here? Questions every delegate and clergy should ask themselves. And if the answer is no, what will we do about it?

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