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?