The prefix “re” usually implies “again,” — return, turn again; review, view again; regain, gain again; reframe, frame again — so in the case of ReThink Church, the implication is that we have thought church through at least once. (It doesn’t work so well with regret, gret again?, rebate, bate again?, rebut, but again???) Upon reflection, some believe it is time to rethink church — to take a careful look at what we’ve got and ask the question, “is this the best we can do?” The deeper question is, “are we really re-thinking or just dressing up the same old thing so it looks different?” As with most things in life, the answer is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
ReThink Church is a branding package — a promotional ploy to update and/or replace the problematic “open hearts/minds/doors” sound bite of Igniting Ministry — designed to get more people to want to join The United Methodist Church. To this extent, it is simply same-old, same-old — nothing new, just a retread. If it becomes nothing more than a pleasant website and a logo on a bumper sticker or a coffee mug, then we’re no further along than we’ve been with whatever Ministries we’ve Ignited over the past eight years. Each time I visit the website, I come away dismayed that there really isn’t anything new or innovative. It seems to me to be a fresh coat of paint on the old, familiar structure. To me, and I emphasize that this is (as always) just a personal opinion, it smacks of the tired “Venus fly-trap” approach to snagging young people to bolster the sagging attendance stats of the UMC. So much is geared to getting people in our doors — the main foundation of the “institutional preservation paradigm” of our denomination.
This calls to mind the business book battle of the 1980s and 90s between “re-engineering” vs. “reinventing.” The United Methodist Church cannot afford re-engineering in a time demanding reinvention. Our denomination accepts as given the historical and traditional practices of itineracy, connectionalism, governance, judicial review, episcopal oversight, appointive orders, apportionments and disciplinary obligations, and resourcing. None of these should be summarily dismissed, but all have more validity for 18th, 19th, and 20th century realities than relevancy in the 21st. It sometimes seems that we are trying so hard to be a Sony Walkman church in an iPod world. This is more than an “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” thing — it’s more an “I’m a Mac, I’m an IBM Selectric” (with self-correcting ribbon cartridge!) distinction.
The idea that The United Methodist Church might actually be doing a new thing falls apart under close scrutiny. ReThink Church, at least what has appeared so far, is the same old institution parading around in a new suit of clothes. Unfortunately, like the emperor of the children’s tale, this new suit is imaginary and what is underneath is shining through — the church we’ve always had, unaware that it’s not fooling anyone.
We need a new United Methodist Church — drawing from its strengths, its theological roots, and its commitment to transformation — to create a Christian presence in the world that is different. The key to this difference is that we stop focusing so much on “Methodist” and we start focusing more on “United.” Rather than airing all of our grievances, disputes, controversies, and conflicts, we need a witness to the world that unity in Christ is greater than our petty squabbles. Instead of fixating on our sins, failures, losses, and weaknesses, we need a vision for God’s healing grace, inclusive justice, unmerited mercy, and boundless love. We need to get up out of our pews, stop hiding in our sanctuaries, drop our clergy-laity competitions, and take our faith into the world — especially the ugly, dirty, broken, diseased, and hopeless corners and crannies. We need to stop believing we are the gravitational center of the Church, and become the presence of Christ reaching to the fringes, the margins, and the boundaries where the children of God are disenfranchised and ignored. We need to break from the “mainline” to and draw a “newline” that encompasses more of those on the outside — increase our definition of “us” while significantly decreasing the number of people we marginalize as “them.” Perhaps what we need most is to stop listening to those calling for revision and pay a little more attention to those crying out for a revolution. It’s not too late. Let’s rethink our rethinking before all we end up with is a repeat of what we’ve already done.