Do we in the United Methodist Church consider ourselves a church or a human institution?
Yes, I know, the answer is both because we in the UMC always say the answer is both. But bear with me for a moment, please.
As I’ve listened to clergy in the UMC begin to prepare themselves for a possible split within the UMC, I hear lots of people saying some variation of this: “The institution might change, but God’s work continues.” Or this: “Whatever happens, I know that God called me to this vocation and God will see me through even if the institution falls apart.”
These kinds of statements are variations on the theme you often hear when clergy and laity talk about the United Methodist Church. They betray, I think, a weak theological understanding of the church or, perhaps, an unspoken acknowledgement that we are not really a church at all.
In the minds of many in the United Methodist Church — left, right, and center — seems to be the idea that the UMC is a human institution not a product of the Holy Spirit’s work. I get the impression that many of us do not really believe that the Book of Discipline is a result of the Holy Spirit’s guiding hand in our conferencing. I suspect that many do not really believe that the Holy Spirit works through the General Conference. Many of us have seen how the sausage is made and find it hard to believe the Holy Spirit was leading the process.*
I suspect all this because of the ease with which we speak of the demise of the UMC and the way I hear so many speak of it. I get little sense that many of us understand the UMC to be a church raised up by the Holy Spirit, sustained by his power, and in communion with one another and with Christ. We tend to speak of it as a bureaucratic superstructure that holds our local congregations together — sometimes against their will.
It may very well be that God has decided that the UMC as it is constituted now no longer serves his purposes, and God is working to do a new thing with our church. God might be dividing us or purifying us. We see only in part right now, and so it is hard to say. But I find it helpful to remember that the UMC is itself a work of the Holy Spirit, a clay vessel, perhaps, but one with precious treasure within and formed by the potter’s hands.
If we believe we are a church, the way we talk about the bishop’s commission and the possibility of church division should reflect that. We should talk much more about what God is doing in and among us and have much less brave talk about the mere institution being something that does not really matter in the end. If the institution does not matter, was it ever a church to begin with? On the contrary, it matters a great deal.
The United Methodist Church was raised up by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s ends on the earth. And right now the church is like Jacob wrestling with the Spirit at night, aware of our failures, anxious about our future, and crying out for a blessing. I don’t know how this encounter with the Holy Spirit will end or which direction we will be sent limping away from it, but I do think we would all be better served if we would be intentional about the way we think about the church and speak of it in these times.
*Do we betray an aversion to incarnation here? When pushed do we resist the idea that God actually works in and through messy human beings?