We’ve got a problem. We don’t know who we are. We have become such an interesting hodge-podge of new and old Christians from such varied backgrounds as Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Reformed, New Age, Independent-Evangelical, Assemblies of God, UCC, UUC, MOUSE as well as UMC and all her predecessors, that what it means “to be United Methodist” isn’t clear to most United Methodists. In our individualized and consumeristic culture, most UM church-goers simply believe what they believe and call in United Methodist. Then, when the denomination or an annual conference leader does something they don’t like, they get all up in arms that we aren’t acting appropriately. Recent controversies over immigration, collective bargaining, and societal advocacy indicate that many United Methodists are completely ignorant of our Social Principles, Our Theological Task, Our Doctrinal Standards, and our rich evangelical heritage of social reform. These things define what it means to be United Methodist, but sadly most of our pastors and laity leaders don’t teach them anymore.
United Methodists do not compartmentalize their life of faith from their day-to-day existence — at least, ideally they don’t. In our United Methodist doctrine and polity, our faith informs our values, our values guide our conscience, and our conscience defines our social and political engagement. Whole people of faith exist as a witness to the world, and that means we bring the whole person into the whole world. There is no way to be United Methodist and not be a fully engaged citizen of our country. This doesn’t mean there is only one way to think or act or believe, nor does it mean we will necessarily agree with one another, but it does mean we have both the right and the responsibility to stand up for what we believe God calls us to do and be. Christ never shied away from the powers and principalities of his day, and we cannot be the body of Christ in our day doing any less.
One of the great gifts of our church heritage is the balanced integration of the inward, personal growth and development in our relationship to God in Jesus Christ (acts of piety); the centrality of Christian community and the importance of a communal and shared faith (practicing the means of grace); and full engagement in the world as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (acts of mercy). Our faith engages the entire package — body, mind and spirit — in a transformative process of belief, belonging and behavior. We are a people who actually believe that God’s Holy Spirit is active and infusing the church in the work of “making disciples for the transformation of the world.” There are many in our churches that want to make our religion “all about us,” but sadly, this ISN’T who we are.
Nor is our faith all about personal experience. The personal piety fallacy of the 20th century is still alive and well. At its purest and finest, our faith is grounded in spiritual relationship and Christian community. Church is plural, not singular. We need each other in order to be Christian. The evangelical error of the last century asked the question, “Do you (singular) know Jesus Christ (emphasis on the person of Jesus more than the divine Christ) as your personal (individual and private) Lord and Savior (once again, personal promise of individual salvation). This approach to Christianity is a sad bastardization of the “good news.” Yes, of course, individuals must make the connection and form the personal relationship, but this is the starting point, not the finish line of the Christian journey.
We have a very important, but a fairly simple, challenge before us. At all levels, denominational (global and national), conference and congregation, leaders (both clergy and laity) need to read, study and discuss ¶ ¶101-166 of our Book of Discipline. YES, the Book of Discipline (not instead of the Bible, but in addition to it). This is our Doctrinal History, Standards and General Rules, Our Theological Task and Our Social Principles. We need to pray about these things, and we need to TEACH, PREACH, and ACT on these things. And we need to connect the dots. All of this amazing and inspirational information that defines who we are, what we believe, and how we shall live our faith in the world has a scriptural and theological basis. Our people called United Methodist NEED to know these things, and they will not know or understand them if our leaders don’t lead. Unless we are immersed in the 100 level paragraphs of our Discipline, we CANNOT know who we are. And this is a tragedy.
Granted, people aren’t going to like this. They will discover that WE believe things that THEY don’t. We will discover new things to disagree about. Some will take their marbles — and their money — and go someplace else. But we need to realize that many people have already left because we don’t truly know who we are. We are drifting. We are directionless. People have no clue as to why they might want to be United Methodist instead of 101 other denominational/non-denominational options. What might possibly attract new people about a church that is clueless about its identity or purpose?
We carry forth a rich tradition of Albright Boehme, Otterbein, Whitfield and the Wesleys who believed and taught that spiritual leaders were also social reformers. Ours is not a passive church. We cannot transform the world locked inside our buildings. God works the miracles of the Holy Spirit through the heads, hearts, hands and voices of us ordinary folks in the pews. We are a “both/and” people, never an “either/or.” Let us get serious about finding out who we are again. It’s time to solve the mystery and clear up the confusion of what it means to be United Methodist. And it is something all of us — any of us can do.