God chose Abraham and Sarah to be the source through which a "new people" would be created to reflect God's desire for humanity. God knew they needed a base of operation, so Abraham and Sarah were located in Canaan where a community could be formed and God could reveal his purpose.
Later, a drought forced the community from Canaan into Egypt, were they were welcomed by one of their own. Egypt was never intended to be a permanent location, but the people did what most of us do: They viewed the temporary situation as permanent. They lost sight of the real purpose for their existence. As a result, the people woke up one day to find they had become slaves in the land where they fled for temporary relief.
I see a parallel in this story to the life of our United Methodist Church. The structures we use to arrive at the "destination" God chose for us have now become our "land of slavery." We have been visited by several plagues including:
- Reduction in average church attendance
- Loss of influence in our communities, states, provinces, nations, and world
- Reduction in financial resources
- Rampant distrust throughout our local churches, districts, annual conferences, jurisdictions, central conferences, and the general church
- Loss of creativity
- Loss of young people who choose other places to live out their faith or who do not put their faith in any church
The list could go on (and if I were faithful to the Ten Plagues visited upon Egypt, I would list four more) but you get the message and can surely think of others. The plagues came because the Egyptian leadership and the Hebrew people didn't see a reason to move out of their current situation into God's preferred future for all. The plagues were not only a threat to Egyptians but to the total community, including the Hebrews.
The movement that led the United Methodist Church to develop the Call to Action and Vital Congregations program feels to me like a movement of the Holy Spirit. When I look at the related data, it's clear that God wants to have a conversation with us about where the church is now -- and where he wants it to be. Few of us would argue that God is pleased with his church today, nor are we pleased. How many United Methodists long for a vibrant church that makes a difference for Christ and all his people?
I am hopeful that we can soon leave this temporary home in Egypt, while praising God in all we say and do. I am hopeful that we can move with faith and determination toward the "land of promise" that God intends for us.
Bishop James E. Swanson Sr. is resident bishop of the Holston Annual Conference.