I’ve received a number of emails and phone calls asking if I am going to weigh in on the GracePoint UMC/GracePoint Community Church (Wichita, KS) split story. Well, yes and no. I don’t know enough about the specific story to comment intelligently, but on the surface and in general this appears to be a classic example of the current clash of two competing realities. The United Methodist Church is desperately involved in an “institutional preservation” paradigm. Everything seems geared to keeping the old UMC relevant and in existence. New church launches have less to do with making disciples than putting more numbers on the books. This stands in stark contrast to the larger, more robust paradigm of “spiritual enlightenment” that is less about institutions and more about empowering individuals to live the Christian faith in the world. Denominational loyalty is a shadow of the passing paradigm in decline. Congregational entitlement and independence seem to be the wave of the future. I am not saying this is a good thing, but it is the direct and irrefutable result of our insane addiction to big churches, celebrity preachers, and high profile programs. In other words, we can’t be surprised by a story like GracePoint, since we have made such stories unavoidable. A system is designed for the results it gets — many involved say this story couldn’t have ended any other way.
Many of our clergy leaders do not have a clear sense of why United Methodism is worth preserving. The most “successful” churches in our denomination gained their status by being congregational, not connectional. They broke with tradition, copied independent conservative-evangelical models, and ignored the essential tenets of United Methodist doctrine and polity in order to grow. Almost all of these churches are “United Methodist” in name only (if they bothered to keep ‘United Methodist’ in their name at all), and they have been allowed (and sometimes encouraged) to do this by the church hierarchy.
If we want different results, we need a different system. Our values cannot remain grounded in size, power, and popularity. Quantitative measures of success must be replaced by qualitative measures. A United Methodism that has virtually nothing to do with our history, heritage, doctrine, theological task, or social principles isn’t actually United Methodism.
Anyone surprised by the GracePoint situation simply hasn’t been paying attention. Many of our congregations are figuratively saying “give us a good reason to be United Methodist,” and they grow tired of waiting for an answer. It falls to our leadership to hold the entire system accountable to a God-given vision for our future, grounded in our Wesleyan and Methodist roots.
There is no automatic guarantee that a denomination must exist — we earn the right to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ each and every day. If the world needs a United Methodist Church it will be because we add value and because we equip people to live as faithful disciples, transforming the world in positive and meaningful ways. And even when we do it well, there will be times when some of our congregations choose to break from the family and go their separate way. The more faithfully and effectively we do what God calls us to do, the less frequently others may choose this option.