Monday, February 2, 2015

Profiles in Ecumenism: Rev. Ted Beam, UMC

The quote that began an earlier post was by Rev. Ted Beam:  "If churches can work together to build a house, why can’t we get together to evangelize the world?" 

Beam is currently Pastor of Petrie Memorial United Methodist Church in Elkton, KY.  He has also been involved in many international missions.  He is known for being a strong supporter of ecumenical relationships, especially when it comes to joint evangelization efforts.  I had the opportunity to talk with him about his approach and philosophy this past July.  These are some of his methods and guiding principles for working together between Christian denominations.

Go and Make Disciples of All Nations (Matthew 28:19)

Pastor Beam takes seriously the New Testament call to go and make disciples of all nations. He sees that there is a limited amount of joint evangelization—which also results in less overall evangelization—because Christians disagree on some things. By not working together to evangelize, Christians are hamstringing themselves from realizing one of their primary commissions.

In Beam's view, "most of us disagree on secondary matters; we should want to work cooperatively on primary matters."  He explains further:  "Paul was not sent to baptize but to preach the Gospel—even baptism is secondary.  The death, burial, resurrection of Jesus is of primary importance." 

Creation as Model of Collaboration

As a young minster, Rev. Beam got involved in a group working as missionaries in Venezuela.  Quite unexpectedly, he was thrust into the spotlight and had to give a keynote address to the group strategizing how to unfold a missionary plan.  His plan, 'how to reach the city in 7 years," centered on ecumenical collaboration: "When churches work together, miracles, healings and conversions become commonplace." 

The Revelation of God in Creation provides the roadmap to follow for Beam:  "God has built creation to do that very thing:  A team of horses mathematically can pull more than the sum of it's parts; Canada geese flying in formation can move 70% further than flying alone."  Through teamwork and synergy, there is a compounded effect that otherwise cannot be realized except through a collaborative community effort. 
It may be worth pondering that both diversity and unity play a role in achieving this end result.  If a town is being approached by missionary groups from 5 different denominations, for example, it is understandable that the reception to the excitement of Christianity may be lukewarm when the people presenting it are themselves so divided.  However, when all these groups join together, they bring different charisms, skills and approaches that when combined intensify each other.  The strength is not either unity or diversity but rather unity in diversity.
Refreshing Realism

Pastor Beam offers this insight:  "I am Pastor of a Methodist congregation.  Some of our members are Episcopal.  Others are Lutheran," he said.  What he means is that the theological beliefs of his congregation's members would have them align with different denominations—that is to say, if church membership were solely a matter of doctrinal belief:  "They choose a congregation because that is where they connect to God and make meaningful connections to each other, not because they always agree with the doctrine." 

A common assumption in popular culture is that membership in a church denomination assumes that a person is aligned with the beliefs of that group.  That definition is woefully incomplete, as Avery Dulles pointed out in his groundbreaking work Models of the Church.  The congregation which Rev. Ted Beam pastors is a living witness to that, but his congregation is far from unique in this regard.  Many churches seem to go out of their way to disguise this fact.  They seem to circle the wagons and portray a monolithic image of the group's composition, seeing disagreement as a weakness instead of a testament to the robust diversity of the membership, their array of religious experiences and their creativity in describing what that means.

There are many reasons for this.  An individual may not feel like it is their place to promote their individual views, which could come across as disrespecting the longstanding tradition of their denomination to favor their own self-oriented universe.  Clergy may feel this pressure a lot.  One has to also wonder, however, if this could come across as either a form of dishonesty or unhealthy groupthink.  Pretending there is uniformity denies the vibrant diversity and personality of the members, a fact which could actually edify the stature of that group.  Uniformity may make the group less appealing to newcomers who find value in membership but who are not willing or ready to change some of their views.

I come across this stereotype a lot when I talk with non-churchgoing people.  I have a strong respect for people who refuse to join a church if it seems like they would have to surrender their personality or intellectual faculties to get a membership card.  While they may feel they have rejected Christianity, I hope they do not mind that I think that the Holy Spirit must be really strong in them to be so rooted so as not to bend just to join a group.
Two by Two

One of his favorite activities is to join together with other local pastors and go door-to-door through town spreading the Gospel.  They walk two-by-two on both sides of the street at the same time.  It conveys a powerful witness of the unity of the Body of Christ.  "There is a Nazarene and Church of Christ pastor on one side of the street and a Baptist and a Methodist pastor on the other side, knocking on doors."

Having a non-competitive stance toward Christian collaboration is central to Pastor Beam's evangelization efforts.  "After 23 years of doing this, I have not gotten even one new member in my congregation," he recounted.  "Other churches have received new members."  This is quite a track record to show he practices what he preaches when it comes to being uncompetitive with other Christians denominations.

Still, there is a lot of work to be done.  Out of 29 churches in his zip code, only 4 were working together in this way.
"When it comes to us pastors, none of us has a corner on the market.  To be faithful to our calling, we need to be faithful together.

Authentic Relationships

While he participates in joint ecumenical projects like the one above, he affirms that it always works best when it is the fruit of true friendship.  “Authentic ministries will come out of authentic relationships,” be says.  He prefers a dinner with a family than a common worship service, but he will do both.  He makes an effort to befriend other pastors.  He has participated in ecumenical gatherings of strangers and finds the talks "guarded."  They do "official" projects together such as write statements or lobby the government.  However, "when pastors are friends, it is less official but more effective," he believes.  A pastor gathering over pizza worked very well in this regard while he was living in another town in Kentucky.

He views Christian togetherness as not just the fruit of evangelization but also the means to get there.  Pastor Beam is committed to reclaiming community aspects of Christianity.  Community is not just the means but also the end of evangelization.  Pastor Beam finds evangelizing so much more difficult in the USA due to the individualistic nature of our culture.  "It's an uphill climb," he says.  "Competition, free enterprise and an overall feeling of suspicion are dominant.  In the USA, people think that everyone is a leader."

Historically, salvation was often seen as a community endeavor.  He cites Acts 16 (see above picture).  Beam remarked that it was not until Martin Luther that salvation was seen as a purely individualistic enterprise.  Community conversions still work very well in many non-westernized countries.  Tribal people often convert en masse when the leaders convert.

In fact, he underscores the importance of using the existing cultural infrastructure in other ways in missionary work.  He cites the books Peace Child and Eternity in their Hearts, both written by Christian missionary Don Richardson.  These books demonstrate that there are themes of Christianity and arrows pointing to the Christian God within the myths, stories and values of non-Christian cultures.  The job of a Christian missionary is not to forcefully eradicate a culture and replace it with another, but rather to show the people the God who has been revealed to them alreadyalbeit in a less clear way, according to Beam.

Another way to tap into the existing community infrastructure right here in the states is this:  Before selecting outreach opportunities to help the local community, Pastor Beam first establishes key relationships of trust.  He networks with the police, school principals and the local superintendent.  He invites them to pray with him.  He asks:  Where should his church go?  Where is the need?  In one such instance, there was a community with increasing rates of domestic violence.  That begun a process which ended with his community teaching literacy to people in prison—ministering to the offenders and helping them build self-confidence and a feeling of self-empowerment.  These were key, as domestic abuse offenders often act out of a sense of powerlessness and a lack of self-confidence.

He concluded with a few thoughts on Pope Francis.  He appreciates that he is "not sweeping misbehaviors under rug."  This kind of leadership, combined with his overall charisma, are "making Christianity and Jesus look good again."

1 comment:

  1. I know Rev. Ted Beam and I agree that he is thoroughly cooperative and non-competitive. Though it may be harder to do direct cooperative evangelization in the U.S., I wish we were doing more of it.
    I agree that there is a diversity of doctrine among the members of congregations, I wish you had addressed the limitations of such diversity, instead of just blessing it. It seems that, if the diversity becomes too great, the church becomes paralyzed and is never able to speak or act as one. Frank Ruff