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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Remembering what it means to be a Christian

We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.

— Rod Dreher, from the Introduction to The Benedict Option

The church in every age is tempted by the surrounding culture as Christ was tempted by the devil. Worship me, the church is told, and you will have power and prestige. It is the deal that kings and aristocrats made with the church. It is the deal that plantation owners made with the church. It is the deal that the Nazi government made with the church. It is the deal that America makes with the church.

The result of the church’s easy acceptance of the 20th century American version of this temptation is the desolation of the 21st century church. It turns out that rather than power and prestige, the church’s easy embrace of American cultural values — consumerism, me-first individualism, militaristic nationalism, and therapeutic spirituality — has led to the church’s marginalization. With little to offer people that they could not get in other places, the church found itself with less and less to say that was not already being said by others. As a result, more and more people see the church as irrelevant to their lives.

At its core, I believe, the problem of the church is that a great many Christians have no idea what it means to be a Christian. We leaders in the church have failed to teach, and the people have failed to learn. Instead of Christianity, a great many Christians practice a kind of hopeful niceness with a veneer of Christian vocabulary layered on top of it. Many of them would be stunned to learn that being a good American and a friendly neighbor are not the sum total of what it means to be a Christian.

This development has not gone unnoticed, of course. I am not breaking any new ground in writing this. Indeed, this problem is not even unique to our day and age. The Bible is a story of the ways in which God’s people have chased after things that are not God rather than worshiping and being formed by obedience to God. Remember the stories about that apple and that golden calf?

This is the same problem we read Paul scolding churches about and John of Patmos dictating letters about in Revelation. It is what inspired Luther to get his hammer out and John Wesley to preach while standing on his father’s tomb. And so it stirs many in the church today.

One response to this need is the The New City Catechism, which has been published as a book and has a handy mobile app. The Catechism is a short work — only 52 questions — packaged as a devotional. It grows out of the Calvinistic Gospel Coalition and is based heavily on the catechisms from Westminster and Heidelberg. The roots of the catechism mean it cannot be easily adopted wholesale for use in Methodist churches. For instance, the Heidelberg catechism was adopted by the very same Reformed Synod that condemned the Ariminian affirmation of free grace.

And yet, there is such pressing need for good formation and teaching in our churches, that I believe the New City Catechism could be a useful resource for pastors and lay leaders who want to help their congregations better understand what we believe and how that belief shapes the way we live.

I’d be interested in resources for teaching you have used in your churches and in hearing about ways you have used or adopted catechism in your ministry.

‘The process’ and the pastor

I was listening to Bill Simmons interview Los Angeles Lakers Coach Luke Walton. Although the Lakers are not winning a lot of games right now, Walton said he thought the team was succeeding this year because it is building habits and setting a foundation that will help the team become what it needs to become down the road.

I often here leaders in sports and business talk like this. They talk about process and building fundamentals and foundations. They have a clear vision in their head what “winning” looks like and they can measure success along the way based on moving toward that vision.

So often, it feels to me, that we in the church do not have anything similar. We can list things the church does, but quite often cannot clearly sketch what the church is building toward or tell you if we are getting closer to or farther from our ultimate goals.

For John Wesley, the vision was pretty simple at its core. He wanted to move people toward holiness. Therefore, everything he did was judged based on whether it helped do that. Reading his journals, it does not sound like he started with a blueprint for what Methodism would become in his head. He simply had a goal in mind and knew what “success” looked like — more and more Christians making serious strides toward holiness in heart and life. As he went, he judged new ideas and processes against this goal.

Other church innovators and planters often have a more clear vision of an end product they hope to create. They see “successful church X” and in their minds strive to recreate that in whatever place they find themselves.

In my first year as a full-time pastor, I find myself thinking about this and wondering what “success” should look like right now. I wonder what we should be building toward and how to get the congregation to buy-in to that vision. I wonder how to lead this and how to do things day-to-day to make progress toward that goal. I am aware that it is my job to answer these questions.

At the end of the interview, Walton said the biggest difference he felt between being an assistant coach and a head coach was the constant demand on his time and attention. The responsibility never ends. There are no breaks. The head coach is always responsible for moving ‘the process’ forward. So is the senior pastor.