Thursday, March 13, 2014

In What Lies Our Unity?

I’m not so much making a point with this post as asking a question. I have been in dialogue with a friend who asked: Is the unity of which we speak in the UMC a baseless unity? In other words, what is the common thread that runs through the UMC and holds us together?

Our unity does not lie in doctrine, though I believe that it should. But there are many clergy, including some bishops, who seem to have little regard for the Doctrinal Standards in the Discipline. They would point, rather, to the section called “Our Theological Task,” which articulates the method we have come to call the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”

That leads to the question: Is our unity in this theological method? Clearly, it is not. The method is so broad that it is virtually useless. To say, for example, that we consider scripture as primary is not a very helpful claim when we have so little agreement on the nature and function of scripture.

I’m not even going to suggest that our unity is in ethical issues or commitments to social justice. We’re all over the map here.

Is our unity, then, confined to matters of polity? Are we only held together by the trust clause and our pensions? I really, really don’t want the UMC to split. I would consider that a great tragedy. Yet what are our main reasons for staying together?

I’d appreciate receiving your comments below.

Oh, and be nice.


21 comments:

  1. For a whole host of reasons, I don't think the church should split. It will show a bad example and do more harm than good - at least in the current cultural climate. That being said, I don't think it's insignificant that the question is difficult to answer beyond questions of polity. So, in short, I got nothin'.

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    1. Chris, I agree with you that schisms within the church do not convey a positive message to the world about our life together as Christians.

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  2. I was involved (though not a primary driver) of a twitter conversation on this subject a month ago or so. We came up with two. The first is potlucks. The second is the concept that "God is love." (It is prudent here to note, though, that meanings for both "God" and "love" are not universally agreed upon.)

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  3. I would like to say that our unity is centered on the worship, adoration, and proclamation of the transforming Triune God. Yet, sometimes I wonder if we can all agree on something as foundational as that. :-/

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    1. I would like to say that, too. And that would be enough for me.

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  4. These are all hard but excellent questions. I too wish we had some doctrinal standards which could serve as a unifying factor, for without them we become nothing more than a social service agency. The very words United and Methodist have clearly become an oxymoron, since we can't even find unity on what it means to be a Methodist, let alone the often opposite understandings of what it means to live in holiness of heart and life. Despite these deep frustrations, I hope that our unity is based in a mutual trust that God's grace will work through the tensions as a process, perhaps as a type of ecclesiological sanctification. In order to work, such unity ultimately has to be grounded in humble relationships with God and one another.

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    1. I love the term "ecclesiological sanctification."

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  5. David, a thought prompted by your blog today: Maybe in the midst of an overly atomized culture we should start not by specifying what holds us together, but instead by asking "Does any of this warrant breaking the Body of Christ."

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    1. Great question! I'm glad you asked that.

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    2. My response would be to ask, does the decline of denominational religious organizations equate the "breaking the Body of Christ," or is the Body of Christ bigger than any human organization?

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  6. I hesitate to post as I don't have much to add. Your observation about polity would be accurate - we are united primary around a polity. I suspect that isn't resolvable. We are too big, too diverse for it to be any other way. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say we are united out of habit... we have been together so long we don't know what else we would do. I should add that I would be saddened at a split of any sort. I continue in my conviction that God called me in, to, and for The United Methodist Church. I struggle a bit these days to understand what that means,

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  7. This was a question that was brought up yesterday in our cluster, and I think that what keeps us united at this point is ignorance/apathy to the larger connection. Most UM churches aren't all that connected to the connection. The average member of a UM Church doesn't have a grasp on the polity of the connection, and if they even recognize that their UM Church is in some way connected to the UM Church down the street, the assumption is that the corporate life of that church is not significantly different from their own. If if wasn't for the occasional article making its way into the Dayton Daily News or USA Today, my guess is that the ecclesiastic life of UMs living in New York, Texas, California, or Georgia wouldn't even be on 99% of our folk's radar here in the Miami Valley. So for the 1% who are really invested in the UM, I think you are right that we are primarily United in Polity (pensions, trust clause, etc.), but for the majority of our folks, their commitment is to a local church, not an international connection.

    I don't think this is unique to United Methodism. In small towns throughout the midwest there are conservative UCC churches that remain UCC because their commitment is to the local church, its life, history, and legacy--and no amount of progressive marketing will move them left or urge them to leave because they have learned that their life together is not dictated by those who have national power.

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    1. Caleb, I'm not convinced that all but 1% of people in our churches are so ignorant of the connection. Do you think you might be overstating this a bit?

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    2. I don't think I would say that either. What I would say is that for almost every United Methodist Lay person (and a fair amount of clergy, especially locally licensed) the actions of the global connection pale in comparison to the life of the local church. My guess is that maybe half of our folks feel some sort of connection with the UM tradition, either because they had an aunt who was a pastor or they went to UM camps as a kid, or they have been to Annual Conference, or a similar experience that celebrates the connection. But of that group, the mission, piety, and holiness of the local church is a much larger concern than squabbles among the Council of Bishops or who is teaching Islamic Studies at Claremont.

      And it may be overstating it by a bit, but I think it is truly just a bit, to say that for 99% of our church's people, the history, legacy, actions, and direction of the local UM church, in which they are a part, will determine their participation or non-participation

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    3. I have to agree with Caleb. My experience growing up in the UMC and then working in the UMC is that most people are completely ignorant about everything you guys are talking about (polity, the Book of Discipline, ecclesiological sanctification...). Just the other day I had to explain to someone who had been on staff at our church full-time for over twenty years what the Book of Discipline is.

      Ninety-nine percent is not an accurate statistic, but it does convey that the majority of UMC members are not aware of the connection you're asking about, nor do they seem interested in it. I would also add that I don't think this is a particular feature of the UMC and that it's more than likely other Christian denominations also experience this.

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  8. Totally agree with your statement about the "Wesleyan quadrilateral" replacing our theology, instead of merely being how we "do" theology. A whole generation or more of us have grown up not knowing what we believe. Or even what Wesley believed and preached. Some of us are trying to correct that, now, as pastors.

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    1. I hope you have great success in this!

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  9. David, first of all, thank you for your post and for asking this question. It's a very important question to ask, and with all the turmoil happening at the moment within the UMC, I’m glad you're not the only one asking. I've read several blog posts and articles touching upon the issues addressed here, and I have the same question for everyone that I always ask:

    Why does the slow decline of the United Methodist Church (and most Christian denominations) have to be a bad thing?

    I find it rather telling that no one here has provided a good, solid answer to the question, "Why should we stay together [as a denomination]?" The most consistent answers I find online boil down to: 1) because that's how it's always been, 2) pensions and property, 3) we have a valuable theological tradition that can only continue to exist if we are there to safeguard it, and 4) bad things will happen if we don't stay together (i.e. if the United Methodist Church does not continue to exist in the same state as it does today, then it will be a major setback for the Great Commission).

    Like I said in my earlier comment, I am a Millennial who grew up in the UMC and has been working at a UMC for the past several years, and the thing that frustrates our staff more than anything else is that the majority of our members come to church for an experience and then go about their week until Sunday rolls around again. Our staff is constantly struggling to offer a great experience that will hopefully motivate them to become more engaged (and by engaged, I mean invested in everything you guys are talking about: being a Disciple of Christ, theology, polity, the Book of Discipline, ecclesiological sanctification, etc).

    Unfortunately, this hopeful motivation can eventually turn into desperate motivation when churches begin to rationalize poor decisions where the ends justify the means (“It doesn’t matter how honest or manipulative we are as long as people are ‘coming to Christ’”). The latest examples of this are Mark Driscoll manipulating bestseller lists and Steve Furtick’s use of behavior manipulation techniques to encourage baptisms.

    I find the older I get, the more fatigued I am by organized religion (and all the battles over homosexuality, Biblical literalism, theological interpretation, etc), and I know I’m not alone. There are several large studies (and many more online stories analyzing those studies) about Millennials leaving the church, etc, so I won’t talk about that here.

    For hundreds of years, people have worshipped and practiced their faith within the safety of a religious organization. It gave them a sense of identity and served as a system of protection from false teaching. It also was a great way to pool resources to help the less fortunate in ways that were beyond mere individuals.

    But why shouldn’t Christians move on? What if it’s time for the Church to leave the safety of its institutional cocoon, to spread its wings and fly upwards to the next stage of its life? Why aren’t Christians celebrating and exploring this change, rather than trying to stop it?

    In John 15: 1-2 (MSG), Jesus says:

    “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more”

    Yes, the institutionalized church produces good fruit. But what if God is pruning us back now, so we will bear even more?

    I for one am very excited about the future of the Church, yet I am frustrated by a seemingly lack of enthusiasm from church leaders who seem to be focusing their energy on trying to get people to come back to the church (sometimes resorting to ends-justify-the-means strategies). I am also tired of asking this question and getting only blank stares from church leaders who are so invested in the trees that they can no longer see the forest.

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