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Being United Methodist: Identity and Purpose

One of the problems with having a sign in front of your church, and particularly a denominational identity, is that it produces certain expectations in people who may considering entering your property and visiting your church for an event or a worship service. Now some of you may not think this is a problem–you want an identity. That’s good! But consider these question: Is the expectation created by your label realistic? Is it what people will find when they enter? Are you willing to stand by that purpose even if they choose another church?

This discussion could apply to any denomination, I think, and also to many non-denominational congregations. But my experience is with entering a United Methodist local church. I’ve discussed parts of this experience several times before, but rather than link to a scattered set of sources, let me just highlight the relevant points of my own experience.

I was raised Seventh-day Adventist, and completed my MA degree in Biblical Languages at the Andrews University Graduate School in conjunction with the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Then I left the SDA church and all churches for 12 years. I started my path back into the church at a United Methodist congregation. One of the first things I asked for was a definitive statement of United Methodist doctrine. I wanted to know what I was getting into. So the pastor of that church gave me a copy of the United Methodist discipline. Don’t groan! Considering the way I presented my question to him, he had no choice.

I read the early pages of the discipline, the doctrinal standards and the explanations. I questioned elements of the social principles, but based on that reading I thought I could get along in a United Methodist congregation. I was naive enough to believe that Methodists actually had some idea of what was contained in their own doctrinal statement, but more on that in a moment.

I attended two different United Methodist congregations off and on, and also went to small group Bible studies in both. When I had decided to rejoin the church, and specifically one of those two congregations I went to the pastors and discussed it. The first pastor told me that I would be welcome in his church no matter what. I explained that while I had been baptized, I had been out of the church for some years and wanted to acknowledge that. “We don’t care about that,” he said. “We just want you to enjoy our fellowship.” There was no discussion of my beliefs in any way. I’m not sure he had ever heard me affirm that I believed in God, though he knew I read Greek. I can testify that the two are not equivalent.

The second pastor sat down and asked me what I believed about Jesus. What a difference! We had a serious conversation. I even contested points with him. But at the end he knew that I did, in fact, believe in Jesus and was ready to accept me into membership. I joined the second congregation.

I suspect that the first pastor did not want to offend me by suggesting anything in particular I had to do. But by doing so he made me ask myself why I would join his congregation. What was the purpose? If it was merely to “enjoy fellowship” that wasn’t sufficient to me. By being open to all, I think he made the church seem to be unimportant and of little use.

Even in the church I did join, however, there was disappointment. I read about the doctrine of Christian perfection, one of those Wesleyan doctrines with which I have a certain amount of trouble. I read Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection amongst other things in order to clarify what Wesley taught on the matter. When I discussed that with the pastor he asked me to teach a class for the entire church on the topic. Now I had grown up in the SDA church and heard about John Wesley all my life. Imagine my amazement when I found that not one single member in that class was even aware that there was a doctrine of Christian perfection and that it was listed in the doctrinal standards of their denomination.

I can’t really speak of what goes on in the broader denomination. I’m a small picture man. But I do see this in congregations. If you try to be all things to all people, you can easily wind up being nothing at all. Those who know me and read any of what I write will know that I’m not calling for tense, lengthy, doctrinal standards. But I am calling for knowing our identity and purpose at the congregational level. United Methodists should go out to that cross and flame symbol and ask themselves whether it is false labeling. Are people going to experience the the incaranational love and revelation of Jesus Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit in your church? Is it an expectation of all or most of the members? Don’t suspect me of forcing a particular definition of each of these elements. I’m not. What I’m wondering is whether you could answer that question, whether you’re church member or pastor, in an intelligible way. If I was joining your church, would you say that you just wanted me to enjoy your fellowship, or would there be expectations of service, an identity to assume, and a purpose to support?

My pastor (Gonzalez UMC) when he arrived at the beginning of a building program for a “family life center,” made certain that the name was changed to “community life center.” The name makes a difference, he told me. We need to be a church that reaches out to our community and makes a difference. There’s one piece of the identity. If you don’t want to reach the community, you’re going to have many moments of discomfort at our church. It gets more detailed than that, but I’m not writing to tell you what your purpose should be in detail.

What I’m trying to say here is that when we get so open that we lose identity, we also give up any reason for anyone to enthusiastically support us. People don’t support an organization with any enthusiasm because of what it’s not. They support it for what it is. If you don’t know the purpose of your church, whether you’re church leader, member, or pastor, you will find it difficult to grow.

As a final note, I think this is an area in which Christian liberals and moderates have failed in particular. We too often either define ourselves, or fail to define ourselves by what we are not, and then try to keep from offending anyone on any side.

On the one hand I can define myself as a person who does not believe in the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, who does not accept a literal seven day creation week, who rejects penal substitutionary atonement as the true meaning of the atonement, and who rejects male only church leadership. But what a dull litany that is!

I’d prefer to be known as a person who believes that God has gifted us through his Spirit with the testimony of persons and communities of faith who have experienced him in real and special ways, who believes that God works mightily through the reliable fundamental laws of the universe he created to produce near-infinite variety, who sees the atonement as so broad and deep that it requires many metaphors just to scratch the surface, and who believes that God gifts all of his children in wonderful ways for a variety of roles in the church.

And frankly, I’m happy with that latter identity. If you want to openly discuss those issues, welcome to fun and fellowship. But if you want to put down those who don’t believe the Bible is inerrant, or demand that all recognize just one metaphor of atonement, or make the women of the church feel as if they are not merely different than, but less than–well, go find another fellowship! I will, if I find myself in a congregation that wants to behave in that way.

It’s not a matter of writing people out of the kingdom of heaven, or refusing to discuss with them or deal with them. It’s a matter of bringing together a congregation that can produce a coherent witness to the love of God in their lives.

(I wrote some on a related topic on the Pacesetters Bible School news blog.)

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  1. Excellent post. I too am an adult “convert” to Methodism. When I joined the UMC, I wanted to find out eveything I could about Methodist beliefs and history. Many lifelong Methodists never do that and, sadly, do not not have the awareness you wrote of.

  2. Excellent post. I wonder how to overcome this problem.

    Despite your “small picture” view, I believe you touch on something that is broadly true of the denomination.

  3. Good stuff. I am a lifelong United Methodist and come from a long line of Methodists. Some UM history is taught in confirmation classes, but what kid is going to remember that later in life? And adults who become UMs do not have even this advantage.

    The Online Learning Center at UMCom (dot) org offers an excellent 2-month course in the basics of the history of Methodism, Theology & Beliefs, Organization & Governance, etc. This would be an excellent course for the beginner UM to take, but there is a $12 fee that may be cost-prohibitive to some (maybe some churches could encourage new adult UMs to take the course & provide a scholarship where needed). Even though this just covers the basics, resources for further studies are provided and the moderated discussions can get pretty intense and thorough.

    I feel the Church needs to emphasize that new members learn about United Methodism and not just the local church. In my church’s New Member Class, spiritual gifts and areas of service are emphasized, but there is no “who are these people called United Methodist and how did we get here” taught at all.

    And how many United Methodists actually own their own copy of the Book of Discipline, much less have time to study it?

  4. Wonderful post. It reminds me of an incident I had about 20 years ago when I was involved with planning a college age retreat for a group of UMC college students. In the midst of discussion I stated that, unfortunately I see the UMC trying to be everything to everyone and we were going to end up being nothing to nobody. The reaction was silence before I was attacked for being discriminatory and not open minded enough. Being a preachers kid (at at one point a seminary student) I would like to find my way back to the UMC, however too many of the congregations I visit fit your “fellowship” description.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. Wonderful post! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by identifying one of the biggest problems within the UMC. We don’t know who we are. The Confessing Movement is the best hope for this to change.

    I’m quite conservative in my theology, and still I agree with almost everything you said, with the exception of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. The Bible is very clear that Jesus died for our sins in order to take away the wrath of God. Is that the only thing or “metaphor” that explains what happened on the cross? No, but it is primary. Jesus died to save sinners.

  6. Reno wrote about living in the ruins and then he left. As a UM I understand living in the ruins. I still think there’s something worth saving.

  7. Good post, Henry. A couple of observations.
    1. I preach on holiness/Christian Perfection in my congregations. I don’t think it’s even sunk in to the degree that my people, when polled, would admit to having heard it.
    2. In my earlier days as a UM Christian (the UM came first) I used to be angry at the preachers who never preached the gospel. I had to go to other places to hear it. In my later years as a preacher & pastor I’ve agonized over people – I preach the gospel over and over and they just don’t hear it. Now I’m less judging of other preachers. While I’m sure some don’t preach the gospel, I’m equally sure there are many more who just don’t hear it.
    3. Some of us are much more aware of denominational identity than others. At least around here people seem to care more about whether the people are friendly and the preacher keeps them awake. They seem to know little and care less about what we call theological distinctives. While I’ve benefited from this (through church growth), I don’t think it’s a wholly good thing.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Richard. I would like to emphasize that I’m not blaming pastors in particular. I think there are pastors who don’t do their job, just as in any other calling. As a teacher, I’m also aware of the number of times one can say things without having it soak in!

    I do think there is a United Methodist problem (though it exists in other churches as well) in which we are unwilling to admit the possibility that our denomination, or more importantly a specific congregation may just not be the one for certain people.

    My current congregation and pastor make it pretty clear. Now you will find people in the pews who still don’t get it, but the mission of the church and the parameters that define us are much more clearly understood. It’s not an exclusive club, else I’d personally find somewhere else to worship, but it is a defined “people with a mission.”

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