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CLUB 444: The Messy Middle

July 13, 2022

Have the courage to walk the messy middle

Commentary by Bishop Robert D. Farr
July 12, 2022 | COLUMBIA, Mo. (UM News)


Editor’s note: This commentary was adapted from Bishop Robert Farr’s address on June 11 to the Missouri Annual Conference gathering. 

Key points:

  • Division is always a choice. If an annual conference and its churches can figure that out, it can return to doing God’s mission and be amazing for God’s people. 
  • What if we consider the person next to us who is also trying to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, even if they think differently than we do?
  • The Jesus model – turning the other cheek, listening and engaging in holy conversation – does not divide us into separate groups just because we don’t agree.

UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.

Recently, I watched evangelist Andy Stanley on Facebook as he led the Georgia House of Representatives in prayer. Before his prayer, he asked, “What would it take to make the state of Georgia amazing?” Moved by his message and how it fits some circumstances in our churches and the Missouri Annual Conference today, I asked permission to share points of his message as it relates to us.

I grew up in Missouri. I have attended the Missouri Annual Conference since 1976. I love Missouri. Missouri is a wonderful place, but what would it take for the Missouri Annual Conference to be amazing?

What if we were so amazing that other conferences and United Methodists said, “What in the world has Missouri figured out that the rest of us should know so that we can be amazing, too?” 

In my 30 years’ experience as a local church pastor, 10 as a church planter and 14 as a judicatory leader, I’ve come to realize that organizations and churches are never better than their leadership and when leadership is divided, things are not amazing

Certainly, disagreement is unavoidable and present in any organization, but division is always a choice. If an annual conference and its churches can figure that out, it can return to doing God’s mission and be amazing for God’s people. 

Division creates complexity. Complexity creates inefficiency. Inefficiency creates uncertainty, and uncertainty drives people and churches into the “What’s in it for me?” corner. 

Division lets us demean, characterize and politicize the other side. With division, fear of “them” is our asset. Fear creates discontinuity and dehumanizes. What if we as a conference decided, “We are not going to do that anymore”? 

Just as unity in Christ is a decision, so is disunity in Christ. Disagreement can be helpful and healthy. But disunity is always harmful and unhealthy. Disunity makes things harder for everybody. 

To do something differently, we do not have to kick another person off our “team” to prove our point. If so, we’re doing something wrong. What if the leaders and pastors of the Missouri Annual Conference decided not to kick off someone else to prove their understanding of Scripture? What if we considered the person next to us who is also trying to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, even if they think differently than we do?

We don’t need to make enemies of one another to win. Extraordinary leadership does not need an enemy. All around us, we see insecure leaders who create enemies and foster fear to further their position. I’m afraid that we, the church, have adopted the world’s political ways that have moved our disagreements to division. Sometimes, it’s easier to revert to the ways of the world, rather than the ways of Jesus. 

What if we quit pointing fingers and telling each other, “You’re wrong”? What if we tried the Jesus model, turning the other cheek, listening and engaging in holy conversation? The Jesus model does not divide us into separate groups just because we don’t agree.

Let’s resist what Andy Stanley called the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” That’s what happens when we ascribe to others character flaws based on their behavior, but when we exhibit the same behavior, we justify it because of circumstantial issues. 

In our political world, our language sounds like this: “racist Republicans” and “godless Democrats.” In our church world, we hear “those unscriptural progressives” or “those closed-minded, inflexible conservatives.” Such generalizations are assigned to character flaws. We know that is not true. We can find disciples and Christians on all sides of every issue.

What if we stopped using this language and listened to each other? Our attitudes, life experiences, theology and biblical understandings might have to do with how we grew up, who we grew up around, who raised us and what we experienced along the way. 

We can do better than this. Let’s stop taking sides. Let’s put down our mistrust of each other and walk toward the messy middle, where problems get solved, experiences are shared and we acknowledge others with phrases that begin “I didn’t know that,” “I always thought” and I assumed.” Let’s unstrap from our conservative and progressive seats. 

I understand it’s hard to find support in the middle when nobody gets their way and we must accept things we don’t like. It’s hard to get noticed. It’s hard to win. And when we’re in the middle, we can no longer say our side is losing and theirs is winning. Let’s stop the game of win or lose. Let’s stop provoking each other or proclaiming that only we have the whole truth.

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Yes, it’s a challenge to get out of our theological corners and buckets and walk toward the middle. It’s not popular. It’s counterculture. But we can be so much more when we walk together.

The temple officials wanted Jesus to endorse them. The Roman Empire wanted Jesus to embrace them. The Roman emperor wanted Jesus to endorse him. He refused all of them, and they conspired against Jesus. 

We must stand in the middle, even if it takes us all the way to the cross. This is how we change the world. This is our opportunity to be an amazing church. 

Remember: disagreement will always be with us. But division and disunity are choices. In the Gospel of John (13:35), Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That love, if it’s true, will make us move out of our theological corners and walk in the messy middle with Jesus.

I love The United Methodist Church. I love the Missouri Conference. I love Missouri; it’s my home.

Let’s make our annual conference amazing by having the courage to walk the messy middle and worry more about our brothers’ and sisters’ feelings than our own. Let’s show the world and the rest of The United Methodist Church how to go forward differently. They will know us by our love. 

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