Who are we now?

Given the fact that most of my longstanding readership is moving or has moved out of the United Methodist Church, I’m not sure who will read this or have any interest in this, but I feel a bit like the guy stranded on a desert island building a fire in hopes a plane or ship passing by might see it.

We in the United Methodist Church have a serious problem.

It is easy to look at the huge wave of churches and pastors leaving the UMC and say it is all about misinformation and animus. That would be a foolish conclusion.

The most effective argument, by far, in persuading people to depart the UMC is that our polity is broken. The argument goes something like this: our Book of Discipline is a “scrap of paper,” our accountability systems are arbitrary at worst and ineffective at best, our General Conference is pointless and toothless, and the meaning of what it means to be United Methodist depends more on who your particular bishop is rather than any shared tradition, belief, or covenant among us.

Again, you can pretend none of this is true, but if the UMC wants to convert this hemorrhaging into a total collapse, we will say those who left had nothing to say and we have nothing to learn from the last few decades of strife. Because here is the truth: Even as we lose members by the thousands we have thousands – perhaps millions – of members still in the UMC who have very little faith in the denomination.

I, honestly, don’t know how this can be fixed. Perhaps it cannot.

I don’t even know what the first step is.

I recall over the last couple decades how often someone has asked a question along the lines of “What makes a United Methodist a United Methodist?”

I was just talking about that with a person considering membership in the congregation I serve. I talked to her about universal beliefs we all share as stated in the Apostles Creed. I talked to her about this evangelical renewal movement started by John and Charles Wesley that preached ceaselessly about justification by faith, free grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I talked about the movement that was so passionate about the gospel that it adopted whatever means it could discover to save souls, and in doing so transformed communities and nations.

My sense is that this story no longer is shared by United Methodists as our story. When we look for the things that unite us, too often, it feels like we look to the superstructure of the denomination rather than the power of our story.

If this is not “our story” any longer, what is our story? Who are we now? What is the vision of United Methodism that can give us the clarity and will to repair what is broken within our denomination?

I guess a better question really comes first. Do we want to be healed? Do we even think it is necessary?

5 thoughts on “Who are we now?

  1. I’m with you, John, what’s to be healed here? Do you mean, what will get us back to managing our normal load of dysfunction? Really, who wants that (whatever their tee shirt proclaims)? Not even Will Willimon, the great explainer.

    1. Absolutely not. Healed to me means so we can actually do what Jesus put us here to do. I do not have any idea if that is possible. I know it is not without God.

  2. It’s a truism that all things are possible with God but not all things are easy. Especially doing the thing which is heroic. When all of the turbulence around disaffiliation has settled and everyone has decided (at least provisionally), we’ll have sorted ourselves out and be looking at “the meanwhile” (all the quotidian tasks again). “Meanwhile, the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning” (C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)

    You’ve got to be asking yourself, “After this is over, who will read my blogs?”

  3. Many years ago, I was in a provisional group, and we had a guest bishop teaching and asked this question: “What holds the United Methodist Church together?” expecting some answer about the connection, or our history, or the BOD. I answered, “Pensions and property” and she did not contradict me or have a retort.

    1. I’ve heard that many times as well. I wonder what would give us a different answer. On one hand, I hear the attraction of being able to say, “Doctrine and discipline,” but I wonder if the answer needs to be “God.” I know that simple statement is not enough, but it feels like the place we need to start.

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