Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Connectional Table - Online Communion Reflection

I am SUCH a United Methodist.

The opportunity I now have to serve our church by supporting the Connectional Table constantly calls upon memories of the places and spaces where I’ve learned to be a United Methodist: from the local churches that baptized and confirmed me, to the annual conference youth programs that instructed me, through my United Methodist seminary education with a field educational component at a General Agency. I am truly a product of our connectional structure.  The United Methodist Church, as a whole, has developed the ongoing call of God in my life to serve the church and the world.

This development has given me a deep appreciation for the way our connectional, worldwide church makes disciples in a variety of contexts.  As I have experienced first hand with my work with the Connectional Table, this might mean our work together feels clunky, and perhaps (to the dismay of many) slow-moving.  Working together in a denomination as large and diverse as ours requires challenging conversations and often moments of Holy-Spirit-inspired compromises in order to most effectively live into our mission. 

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to be present for a conversation about the practice of the sacrament of Holy Communion in our United Methodist Church.  The buzz that stirred this conversation into being came from a proposal by a congregation , responding to perceived contextual needs, is exploring interactive media as a space (if not physical place) for gathering as the Body of Christ.  (http://www.concordcentral.org/)  Twenty-seven leaders of The UMC, including scholars, bishops, local church clergy and General Agency staff gathered (in person) in Nashville to discuss how these online communities of faith might address the concern of sacraments, communion in particular.  (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259669&ct=13332193)

I’ll be honest.  I personally came into this experience as one who was beyond skeptical that this was a topic that even merited serious consideration.  The idea of communion being anything other than a communal practice shared among the gathered (and here I mean physically)  - or collectively scattered - Body of Christ, connecting the children of God with both the memory of Jesus’ final meal and the foretaste of a heavenly banquet, seemed… well… crazy.  (I’m going with “crazy” here because I don’t typically throw “heresy” or “abomination” bombs… that’s not my style.)

As I sat and listened, the hours passed, and voice after voice around the conference table seemed to echo the same sense of disbelief.

And yet, we engaged the conversation.  (Much to the chagrin of some of our ecumenical colleagues and many of those “following” the trending conversations on Twitter – #onlinecommunion.) And as the conversation went on, I experienced the Holy Spirit stir important questions, challenging this group to name again, in new ways, what it means to be a church.

The group ultimately decided to urge the Council of Bishops to call for a moratorium on online sacramental practices, while also committing to actively lead the denomination to develop excellent practices of online ministry across the connection.  They also covenanted to share the notes and papers from this conversation with the broader church in an effort to educate others in our denominational sacramental theology.  (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259669&ct=13343945)

In the days that followed this experience, the same Spirit I felt stirring the group’s conversation continued to stir within me.  I continued to reflect on how conversations like this one invite us to be challenged by the differing perspectives and the realities of our brothers and sisters.  This kind of dialogue is not only helpful, but I would contend, it is vital to our connectional nature as United Methodists.  While some might scoff at the fact that we entertained such a “crazy” notion, the fact that we engaged it gives me hope for our denomination.  As we seek to address cultural, technological, and economic shifts within our ministry context, we should continually be asking how we can broaden these conversations, learning from one another, listening to each other, and challenging each other.  Further, I hope that as we continue to explore and develop excellent practices for online ministry we continue to consider who else might need to come to the table.

Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, Executive Secretary of the Connectional Table, sent me to be a part of this meeting to watch and to listen, from a General Church perspective, for the ways we are talking about and embodying our ecclesial identity.  As I listened, this conversation uncovered ways our worldwide nature is reflected (or not), and also named ways we are pursuing congregational growth and vitality (and at what cost).  This conversation also wrestled with parameters for what our New Places for New People can and should look like, and questioned how (and to what end) we are authorizing our Principled Christian Leaders in ministry with the world.  Clearly, this was a conversation ripe with important issues that need to be conveyed across the denomination. 

The Connectional Table’s work is to build bridges and build relationships; to share stories, and to share strategies. More than simply confirming our sacramental theology, this gathering also convicted me of the importance of these relational mandates in the stewardship of our denominational resources.  Our ongoing life together as the Church will continue to be shaped by conversations like this one, and the Holy Spirit will continue to show up wherever two (or twenty-seven) are gathered. 

As we move toward our CT meeting next month (wow, next month, already?!), will you join me in prayer that our conversation as The Connectional Table might be reflective of the unity-in-diversity we embody as a denomination.  It is my prayer that as we gather (in person) and share in the Lord’s Supper, the presence of the Living God will embolden us to let all voices be heard, and in the hearing of these perspectives, that we might catch a glimpse of God’s vision for our church and for our ministry with the world. 

I believe there is always more work to be done to build and convey a shared understanding of our mission and vision as a denomination.  I share this reflection in hopes that, by God’s grace, The Connectional Table might renew its commitment to play an important role in that work.


Meredith E. Hoxie Schol, is the Missional Collaboration Coordinator for the Connectional Table.