Jeff Slater (His blog is here, and his twitter is here) and I were talking the other day during his Annual Conference about something his Bishop said regarding the recent departure of a congregation from the United Methodist Church. Through our conversation, a question came up that I'd love delve into, and hopefully, Jeff will grace us with a bit of a response - I'd call it a rebuttal, but we are on the same side in this conversation, just sharing our hopes for the United Methodist Church in our lifetimes.
The question is:
For those with no United Methodist ties, why make them?
This question arose because the Bishop, meaning well and from all accounts visibly shaken by the pain of such a situation, claimed that the congregation "did not have a deep United Methodist identity." This is not a conversation about the rights/wrongs of the UMC or this particular congregation - this is a conversation about the above question. Another corollary, although not for this post, is why I should encourage young adults in the UMC to pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church.
Many of us in the ministry in the United Methodist church are here precisely because of our ties. I know I grew up in the UMC. The church has helped me in more ways than I can write here. The core of who I am is so wrapped up in Wesleyan theology and the movements of the UMC, I don't thing any place could feel so much like home.
Some of us are here because it has become home in exile. We were pushed out from other congregations or denominations, and the United Methodists were the only ones who would take us in. Or the United Methodists were a good middle ground from where we came from. I don't know why you are in the UMC - and if you aren't yet, I like to joke that eventually you will be :) Because I believe it is the best church in the world. Or else I wouldn't be in it.
Why is it the best? Well, for me, and I've already mentioned this, it affirms who I am.
But is it best for those outside the UMC?
As a place to start, I want to begin with Jesus - crazy, I know.
The Gospel is good news for everyone. Its good news for those who believe it and its good news for those who don't believe it. Rob Bell makes the point in one of his books, I can't remember which one, but he offers a hypothetical situation. Lets say Sarah accepts Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She lives on a street with a Muslim, Hindu, and Agnostic. Sarah accepting the Gospel is not just good news for her, its good news for her neighbors as well. Without any conversation about the salvation of the others on the street, we all would admit that Sarah's presence as a vessel for Jesus Christ is good news for everyone on that street (How often in our society is the presence of a Christian frowned upon? You should read my post about creepy Christians...).
Anyway, if the Gospel is good news for everyone, it would be awesome if that was analogous - no, literally, the same presence as the United Methodist Church.
I am United Methodist, but I'm Christian first. If the UMC ceases to exist, I will still follow Jesus Christ. I might be American, and proud of it, but I will always be Christian first.
I want my identity to be wrapped up in Jesus Christ, and if my identity is in the United Methodist Church, it is the Church that must move closer to my Jesus, not the other way around.
So, first, idealistically speaking, I want as little difference as possible between the Gospel and being United Methodist.
Why should someone with no ties to United Methodism, make ties? Because it helps them know the Savior better and helps them live into the Christian life.
I can see this two ways. 1) Your theology is thoroughly Wesleyan and so the church speaks the same language as your heart (and because Wesley loved Jesus, anyone who starts with Jesus can be Wesleyan, whether they know it or not). And 2) The church offers a way for you to improve your walk with Christ.
You could argue that the one thing the United Methodist Church offers that is strictly unique within Christianity is its system. Its a connectional system, where congregations act within an Annual Conference - a connection of churches that pray for, care for, and support one another.
Hmmmm.... so can the connection be a reason to be United Methodist? Absolutely. Why should a congregation make ties in the UMC? Because we achieve more together than we ever could alone. You could argue the bureaucracy does not adequately distribute resources, blahblahblah - this isn't that post. Moving on.
Without the connection, are you really United Methodist anyway? And if you don't have that connection, does the UMC offer such grace, peace, resources, and strength that you are better off with the connection than without? Even before you have it? Sure, but how well does the UMC welcome new people and new congregations?
What if we have established a system that is only good news for those within the system.
To say it more bluntly, we protect the system from those outside the system. There are lots of ways we can do this. Maybe...through a laborious process and lots of red tape to discourage anyone coming in? I've seen this in the ordination process and I'm sure that on a congregational level, it would be near impossible for a church to actually *join* the UMC if it didn't start that way. (well, I know how to do it, just give the conference your property and all authority).
I digress. Why should someone with no connection join our connection? For...the... connection?
My hope is that the connection is favorable for any person, church, or community because it makes the future look better. I don't think we will get many
Yes, the Church has been good to me and has been a means of grace for sharing God's love with me and my loved ones. And that will continue to be a big part of my "sales pitch" for the church. But I'm working to create a United Methodist Church that does not live in the past - I'm excited about the future. Much like my spiritual walk with Christ - I'm Christian not just because of what Jesus has done for me, but what he will do for me today and tomorrow.
So those are my two reasons (for now hehe) that someone without Methodist ties should make them.
1.) Because it helps them know the Savior better and helps them live into the Christian life.
2.) Because we achieve more together than we ever could alone.