Are we a church or an institution?

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?

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6 thoughts on “Are we a church or an institution?

  1. I think many who now speak of division also take seriously the incarnational reality of the church. They perceive themselves to be part of a momentous moment of Spirit-stirred and Christ-inhabited reformation that cannot be avoided for the sake of appointment security. It’s incarnational to go through the “great ordeal” and “to contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.” This battle is tearing down strongholds, destroying facile arguments, and exposing every arrogant word spoken against the truth. Buckle up!

    1. I hear that, Gary. I am trying not to paint with too broad a brush on this. I am just reflecting on some conversations and interactions I’ve had recently. In some places, my experiences might not resonate at all.

  2. John,

    I’ve read so much now about a possible split or ways to stay united. I’ve even written some on it. Nothing else I’ve read, written, heard, or thought carried the theological weight of this short post – at least not in such an explicit way that we had to grapple with it like this. Thank you.

    Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.

    1. As a frustrated lay person, I spent four long and disheartening years–starting with GC2012 and ending with GC2016–listening to every voice I could find within the UMC as well as observers outside the UMC. Problem is, the UMC is populated with very different understandings of your next to last sentence: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.” Everybody claims the work of the Holy Spirit, as well as citing Jesus and John Wesley and yet end up in very different places of understanding of what that sentence means for our lives individually and collectively.

  3. This does not surprise me, nor should it come as a “revelation,” to anyone.
    Two people who may be sitting in the same pew may well have differing views when it comes to scripture. Some of our fellow members are traditionalists, others of us are progressives. There are many translations of the Bible as well as, even more, interpretations of the same scripture.
    A, now retired, minister in the UMC once said from the pulpit, that the Bible, as is the Constitution, should be a loose leaf binder, and revised as new knowledge is gleaned. Our Constitution adds amendments, so should the Bible.
    Those who obsess over our LBGTQ+ sisters and brothers and feel that they should be excluded from marriage or ordination are merely proof texting. Proof texting is picking a scripture chapter or verse that you like while you exclude others that you think are archaic.
    For instance, most people in the UMC consume shell fish, unless they have an allergy to shell fish. They eat pork, too, and wear clothing of various threads or materials. We no longer take our disobedient children to the gates of the city to be stoned to death. Adulteresses are no longer stoned to death. Men who committed adultery were spared this horror, according to the Bible. Men could have several wives, and this is no longer allowed, legally. Slavery is no longer condoned, although it is allowed if you take the Bible literally.
    Yes, although our more conservative sisters and brothers are dedicated, basically kind, people, but they take from the Bible the chapters and verses that suit their agenda, and leave out what, they feel, is no longer relevant.
    Some day the entire UMC, not just the jurisdictions, and conferences that voted to be in what is called “Non Conformity,” will realize that our LBGTQ+ sisters and brothers are no different from those of us who are heterosexual, other than the persons to whom they are attracted, and love. or that the body that was given at birth may not be the person their mind and brain know they were meant to be.
    Do you ask the nurse who cares for you when you are recovering from surgery or a serious illness his/her sexual orientation or gender identity? No, you do not care, you want kind, compassionate, and competent care to help you get well. Do you ask your doctor, or your lawyer or a coworker these questions? No, it does not affect you, as you want a competent, kind, efficient doctor, lawyer, or coworker.

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