In-Sight: The Theater Is Not On Fire

In a time when the air is thick with the acrid smoke of divisiveness, proposed exit plans, and cries that “the United Methodist Church is burning down,” it is refreshing to breathe some fresh air provided by two books: one out and one forthcoming.

John Harnish has edited ‘Do Not Be Afraid!’ (Cass Community Publications), a series of essays by church leaders–some who are younger clergy–offering evidence of ecclesial vitality and exhortations to remain hopeful. I hope you will read it soon.

Ted Campbell’s book, ‘The Sky is Falling, The Church is Dying, and Other False Alarms’ (Abingdon Press) will come out this Fall, offering convincing counter points to the naysayers, and encouragement to us to stay in the ship, remain calm, and hold fast.

I join with Harnish and Campbell (and others like them) in saying “all is not lost,” and if we don’t allow the critics to create panic, we will make it through the current crisis just as the Church has repeatedly done since it began.  Here are a few reasons (my own, Harnish’s, and Campbell’s) why this is so…

First, Christianity is growing worldwide, and so is United Methodism.  Some of that growth is visible here in The United States, and the growth is by no means concentrated in or limited to churches of one particular theological position.

Second, the theology in the Theological Section of the United Methodist ‘Book of Discipline’ is sound, and is not in need of a new denomination to make it so.  The combination of classical creeds, confessions and articles, and well-crafted theological statements are life giving. 

Third, younger clergy are coming into ministry with a deep commitment and keen ability to understand the times in which we are living and to proclaim the Gospel (in word and deed) creatively and winsomely. If we will (to borrow horse language) “give them their head,” they will lead us toward home.

Fourth, the witness of the laity, both in their commitment to live out their discipleship through their respective vocations, and their recently documented message “do not divide” (a request from 90% of those surveyed) in a major survey conducted in June of 2014.  If we refuse to allow an overly clericalized church to drown out the witness and message from 99.9% of the Christian population (laity), we can trust the priesthood of all believers to see us through.

Fifth, the biblical trajectory toward unity (e.g. John 17:21 and Galatians 3:28), the warning of the early Christians (around 110 a.d.) in The Didaché: “do not desire schism” (4:3), and John Wesley’s dozen reasons why Methodism would not separate from the Church of England (1758), combine to lay a good foundation for us to stand on today in advocating the continued unity of The United Methodist Church.

These reasons are only illustrative of many others I have discovered, and that you will find in the two books I have cited above.  But perhaps what we really need is to heed Robert Fulghum’s simple reminder that when we have to cross the street, the best thing to do is hold hands and stick together.

Yes, we do have formidable challenges, but we are not the first Christians to have them, face them, and overcome them.  It happens when we realize that the theater is not on fire–the church is not burning down.  God is with us.  Is there anything too hard for God? (Jeremiah 32:27)

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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4 Responses to In-Sight: The Theater Is Not On Fire

  1. Jack Harnish says:

    Excellent article. Thanks, Steve for the good word about the book. Would you at some point be willing to write a review, perhaps of the two books together, for Christian Century and Circuit Rider? Cokesbury was supposed to have my book out for the annual conferences where the contributors serve as Bishops, but I don’t think that happened.

  2. Rev Ben Hadley-Goggin says:

    I concur with your assessments. The VA Annual Conf. is planning to ask, to suspend the rules, to make a motion to group all of the resolutions addressing sexuality, hold a time of Holy Conferencing, utilizing tables of six persons, with 2 min later limit to speak was., then take a written vote. I am not in favor of this motion. There is not sufficient time, within the allotted scheduled session of AC, to properly and adequately address the LGBTQ concerns and matter of sexuality. The proposed round table discussions do not provide enough time for any education on the issues, nor amble time for healthy discussion, let alone sny opportunity to hear all perspectives presented. I believe, the proposed motion is simply a means of trying to get through addressing these highly charged resolutions as quickly and quietly as possible. But that is not how such a very sensitive, critical, possibly divisive matter should be handled.

    One possible alternative, might be to hold a special AC session, solely for the purpose of not only discussing this matter, but also a time for some educational information to be presented, a panel of presenters to speak to each perspective, collective worship and prayer, then a time of working to develop a collective resolution. Sure it will cost extra money to convene another AC session. However, perhaps it is worth the cost to be able to properly and adequately address such a highly charged and divided concern.

  3. joe wheels says:


  4. Jack Harnish says:

    Thanks so much for the good word.


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