How Not to Renew the Church: The IRD and the Need for a Better Conversation

We can do better than this.
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Recently John Lomperis, the director of the United Methodist arm of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, blogged about how progressive UM leaders had supposedly conceded that they had lost the debate about human sexuality. This was a distortion of what Reconciling Ministries Network president Matt Berryman had indicated in his comments, but that is a separate issue. What most troubles me is how Lomperis spent three paragraphs (read them yourself at the link above) attacking the progressive UM position in what he called a “fairly summarized” manner.  The rule of Bible translation is that every translation is also an interpretation, and in that regards Lomperis’ interpretation of the progressive position was more caricature than summary. And that was far from the only problem with Lomperis’ post.

I attempted to offer what I felt was a friendly and fair critique, but alas, my response was not approved.  Here is my comment, unaltered from what I attempted to submit at the bottom of the post in question on the IRD’s Juicy Ecumenism blog:

Since when is it acceptable to simply put words in the mouths of one’s opponents for paragraph after paragraph? This is a hatchet job. There is no news here, it just a screed designed harden the opinions of fellow right-wingers.

This is particularly ludicrous: “…the usual arguments between theologically liberal and culturally conformed vs. biblical and counter-cultural approaches to the Christian faith.”

First of all “biblical” is a meaningless term in this context, as both sides claim the Bible in support of their views. Secondly, the obviously right-wing political tactics and linguistic hyperbole frequently employed by the IRD are clearly in line with the typical methods of the – highly secularized, mind you – culture wars and are in no way “counter-cultural.”

Lastly, if you are going to pontificate about bullying, anti-Golden Rule behavior, get the log out of your own eye before pointing out the splinters of others.

There is a place for criticism and we need voices on all sides UMC, and of course you have a right to your opinions. But you need to rethink your tactics if you think this kind of work is going to further your cause. It should be beneath any organization ostensibly dedicated to the renewal and strengthening of the church.

For more:

Of course, there is an irony to calling yourself the Institute for Religion and Democracy if you cannot bear to hear critical voices.  What is even more sad is a look at some of the comments that were approved, including this (a direct quote):

Jared says:

The gays in the UMC should simply give it up because everyone knows that Homosexuality is unnatural, abnormal, shameful, vile affection, perverted, and God has promised to judge all unrepented [sic] homosexuals! Stop trying to force people to believe the nonsense that you’re spouting.

Now, most of what the IRD puts out is far from this flagrant and malicious, but what does it say about them that this kind of support is publicly allowed while a relatively benign critique like mine is verboten?

Encouraging the worst elements in the church while stifling conversation is not the way forward. Renewal will not come by attempting to “win” some sort of ideological battle while burying our heads in the sand to other voices.

We need a better conversation: one that is able to hear other voices, not just lampoon them. A conversation in which all sides are firm in conviction, but charitable and fair to others in both language and tactics. We need to hear each other, and not just lob bombs before retreating back into our respective bunkers.

If that interests you, I encourage you to join my friends Stephen, Evan, and myself with a new project we are working on called Via Media Methodists. We are looking for a better way. We think God has plans for the United Methodist Church, that there is a way forward, and that it will only be discovered as those of us from different places (geographically, theologically, and ideologically) begin to converse, pray, and wrestle together.

There is a better conversation beginning to happen. I hope you’ll be a part of it.

4 thoughts on “How Not to Renew the Church: The IRD and the Need for a Better Conversation”

  1. I agree all voices should be heard in order to remain a cohesive and a unified denomination and in the bigger picture of Christianity. The problem with asking the church to change is that most people, myself included, don’t agree the church has an obligation to confirm to society. At times the church has been wrong with respect to discriminating against black people, interracial marriage etc but nowhere is there a moral equivalency to asking the church to accept a homosexual union. I don’t want the church to treat gay or lesbian people any differently than the next person but I disagree that the church should sanction gay weddings.

  2. YES. I follow the IRD on Twitter and read their blog mostly because it challenges me and helps me understand a POV that is far across the isle from where I sit (and I consider myself to be a fairly center-left Christian). It’s important to build bridges, but they seek to blow them up and leave people on the other side. And they’re not a Methodist organization – regardless of whether they have Methodists on staff. I to have had trouble getting comments approved, until I tweet directly at the IRD or Lomperis questioning why. The IRD strikes me as more of a TMZ of world religions than anything else.

    Thank you for your moderate voice, brother.

  3. I have noticed that the heads of religious right organizations try to say things somewhat tactfully and make some effort to over-zealous and incendiary rhetoric. But their junior write and tweet like like angry internet commenters.

    Though I have no formal connection to the UMC and I am principally an outside observer, I am sympathetic to the theologically liberal wing of the Church. Ten years ago, I actively loathed the IRD. As I have become less reflexively ideological, I have begun to hear the IRD’s concerns. While I generally do not share them, I do think that they have some points that the Church should hear.

    When their UM Director accuses clergy who support same sex marriage of “basing their entire ministry on a self-serving lie,” it becomes difficult if not impossible to have a serious conversation.

    It occurs to me that maybe the intent is not to reach out to people in the middle. Maybe the idea is to galvanize support on the right and do everything possible to keep that right flank constantly aware of the left’s alleged apostasy/heresy/lack of integrity.

    Good post. I enjoyed reading it.

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