By Bob Phillips
I arrived in Portland, Oregon on Monday midday for the Tuesday start of the General Conference, the gathering every fur years of United Methodists from the worldwide connection to set policy and direction for these wayward children of the brothers Wesley. Some arrive "with loins girded for battle" over this or that issue. I much prefer to view it as our version of Woodstock, 45 years or so late, but that is typical church-people time for such doings.
I am praying for a God-driven and Spirit-based perspective in the days to come. I offer this sample. I walked from the (nice) hotel where some delegates are lodged to the convention site, ambling along the esplanade that embraces the Willamette River in the heart of Portland. Walking there and back I was very aware of the large number and percentage of adults under 40 who were walking, jogging, running, sunning and otherwise being "present to the moment" as those ancients among us remember as a slogan of the raucous 60's.
This is an age group increasingly missing from many churches, but no less in need of the redeeming call of Christ to repentance, faith and discipleship. Perspective will help the General Conference focus on how to reach those who currently reflect little interest in the Kingdom...as the denomination so often presents it.
And there are no easy answers. I crunched the numbers and learned that at least six individual Protestant churches in Portland have a larger weekend worship attendance than every one of the 25 or so United Methodist churches in the city (roughly 1,446), combined. Most of those churches are not yet 25 years old. All of them are a mix more in line with historic Christian teaching in some areas while wildly inventive in others. This is in no way to diss or smirk at our brothers and sisters who have worked so long and graciously to provide ministry as United Methodists in Portland and hospitality to the delegate-saints straggling into Portland for the spiritual Olympics. It is a snapshot of the challenge that UM churches throughout the USA face.
With this I close this first posting. Walking along the river to and from the convention site I also noticed an obvious number of homeless men and women; sitting, walking, standing with stares at those jogging past, black and white and Asian, in their 20's and in their 70's. In this thriving city with new construction and pricey real estate and the stuff of millennial dreams, no less than Peoria or any other city, the pain floats on the surface. This does not account for the many more adults and children not technically homeless but living on the margins seeking physical and spiritual survival. Words like 'invitational' or 'inclusive' tend to be popular at such church gatherings but can become conveniently tailored to this or that boutique agenda or group.
When folks who are jogging in upscale Nike shoes and folks who are sleeping nights in the park find a reason to care that United Methodists are gathering in Jesus' name and see the connection of the Jesus we proclaim with the lives they live (or endure), well, that is the main thing! Pray with me and for me that whatever else may happen, the main thing remain the main thing.
(Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is the senior pastor of Peoria First UMC, Illinois River District)