I would not be a Christian today if it were not for The United Methodist Church.
That’s a rather bold statement. I’ve only recently come to realize this as I reflect on the formative events of my early discipleship. If not for the particular approach to theology and practice expressed in The United Methodist Church, I would likely have followed a path of rejecting faith.
I remember an experience that followed the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua that killed more than 5,000. I was 15 years old, and several of my friends were active in a charismatic Christian house group. They were reading The Late Great Planet Earth about signs of the end times. I saw an adult leader clap her hands and praise God for the earthquake because it was a sign that we were one step closer to the end! I was outraged. I was so furious about “Christianity” that I told my pastor I could no longer be a Christian if that’s what Christians believe. He patiently listened and offered alternative views of those obscure apocalyptic passages. He spoke of God’s grace and talked about what our church was doing for the people of Nicaragua and how I could help. If the only expression of Christianity open to me at that age had been that group of friends, I would not be a Christian today.
That was one of several experiences that opened the door to the spiritual life when other doors closed to me. My girlfriend was active in a fundamentalist Baptist church. The role of women and the attitude toward women that she accepted offended my common sense even before it contradicted my biblical understanding. At our United Methodist church, women chaired committees and taught from the pulpit, and I could not imagine belonging to a community that excluded women. Later, a classmate committed suicide. Hundreds of students attended the funeral in a fundamentalist church where the pastor spoke about how we should all feel happy because Martin was in a better place. He told us not to cry, because God has a reason for everything he does. He suggested that Martin had done things that caused God to do this. The image of a punitive God that causes suffering and the inability of the pastor to address the real grief in the room made me cringe. The experience sent me back to my pastor. If this was Christianity, I wanted no part of it. A month later, Martin’s father killed himself.
There were branches of the Christian family that surrounded me as a teenager that were militantly anti-science and anti-intellectual, and that forced people to choose between the Bible and evolution as if these were fundamentally incompatible. I could not have followed Christ if it meant giving up my intellectual curiosity. There were branches that were perfunctory in their liturgy, void of music and song, and entirely intellectual in their approaches, and the emptiness left me cold. Some of my friends were strict Nazarenes, and they could not go to movies, watch TV, or attend plays. Their isolation from society would not reach me. There were denominational families that prohibited birth control, and these made no sense to me. And there were churches that railed against gays and lesbians in hateful and hurtful ways, and I could not belong to a community like that. There are many theological disagreements and clashing perspectives in The United Methodist Church about homosexuality, but I’m glad to belong to a church that does not avoid the hard conversations and the complex issues. Sincere people of faith strongly disagree, but I’m glad we say that homosexuals are people of sacred worth, loved by God like every person on earth.
United Methodism’s theology of grace, varieties of worship, emphasis on inner holiness and social witness, global vision, hymnody, our ability to hold together head and heart, our respect for women and men, our openness to people of all nations and ethnicities, our vision to transform the world through audacious projects like Imagine No Malaria—these form an expression of Christianity, a way of following Jesus, that can reach people that no other faith expression is able to reach. I’m not saying our approach is better than all the others; I’m merely suggesting that people respond to the truth of Christ through our expression of faith who cannot respond to other expressions. This form of faith and practice reached me, and without The United Methodist Church I suspect I would never have become a Christian.
The goal of the Call to Action is not to save the denomination or the institutions of the church. I’m offended by people who accuse me and others involved in this work of merely working for institutional survival. I have poured thirty years into the work of ministry in Christ’s name, and I have not done this to maintain an institution.
The reason I pour myself into the ministry and into leading the church comes from a deep-rooted place inside. It is grounded in the grace I have experienced, an initiating love that sought and found me through countless people who brought me God’s unconditional love. This desire to share God’s grace is God-given and sacred.
From the depths of my soul, I desire for people to love and be loved, to experience a sense of purpose from serving others, and to believe that their lives matter. I want people to feel immersed in community, surrounded and sustained. I genuinely desire for them to discover the inner life, and to learn to ease the suffering that comes with empty strivings. I want them to discover that love is the better way, and that the ultimate expression of love can be discovered in Christ. The spiritual life changes us, and through us God’s Spirit changes the lives of those around us. Patterns of violence and injustice can be interrupted, loneliness can be overcome and suffering relieved, and there is a depth to life that is sacred and worthy of cultivation.
Methodism began as a way of life, and this way of life, deep-rooted in our theology and practice, is worthy of fostering, not for our sake, but for the love of God in Christ. There are people who can receive this love in the form we offer it who otherwise would never be able to do so.
In Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched, Adam Hamilton suggests that every church leader should be able to answer the following questions: Why do people need Christ? Why do people need the church? Why do people need The United Methodist Church?
What elements of our faith and practice form a way of following Jesus that made The UMC the way for God to reach you? What makes it worth the effort to strengthen the United Methodist witness?
For Scriptural exploration, read Luke 5:36-39.
To delve deeper, check out Leading Beyond the Walls: Developing Congregations with a Heart for the Unchurched by Adam Hamilton, or for a reflections beyond United Methodism, read Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices by Brian McClaren.