Methodism reimagined: Resurrected existence

October 10th, 2022

Set aside your disaffiliation anxiety. Forget the pandemic for a moment. In five to ten years these struggles will no longer demand our attention, but this reality will:

  • Less people than ever in our society will be a part of a church
  • Less young people than ever in our nation’s history will be a part of a congregation, enter a church building, or open a Bible
  • Christians, if current trends continue, will be a minority population in our society by 2070

We do not get to choose the time in which we live, but we do get to choose how we live in our time. If The United Methodist Church is to be reimagined in this era, we must realize that a vision of the church precedes a vision for the church. Vitality in our time will be like Christian vitality in any time. Rather than consider the form or structure of a denomination, we are wise to recall the function of the church. Consider some of the hallmarks of the first disciples who followed Jesus Christ: 

  • Trust in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the crescendo of proclamation in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. The first Christians understood that if Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected to new life, he really was the Messiah, Savior, and Lord. They followed his way with this level of conviction.
  • Actions consistent with the kingdom of God Jesus said was breaking into the world. The experience of the resurrection changed them. It was their on-ramp into a ministry and set of behaviors in keeping with the kingdom of God present in their lives individually and the church collectively. 
  • Their whole life was a spiritual life. Their life in Christ was not limited to a day of the week or a set of activities that bolstered the rest of their lives. The Holy Spirit led them to honor God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Their love of neighbor and self flowed out of their ongoing experience of God’s guidance from the time they awoke to the moment they entrusted God with nightly rest.
  • Deep concern for those who did not know Jesus. Throw them in jail because they talked about Jesus, and they converted the guard. Tell them if they talk about Jesus again bad things will happen, and they will say “…we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Evangelism, the ability to talk to others about Jesus, was not a program or spiritual gift. It was what you did because Jesus had changed your life and you knew he could change others’ lives as well.
  • Focus on the pain of the community. The first Christians healed the sick, made sure people had food, lived in communities where everyone had enough, and attended to those on the margin. They did what they sometimes did not want to do. This included outreach to the Gentile population, after the Holy Spirit told them that God now called such people “clean,” a rather significant and historic revision to Judaic law and tradition. Whether through acts of compassion or calls for justice, the early church offered God’s love, compassion, and power to those who were lonely, suffering, or in need. They loved people, even the ones who threw rocks at them.  
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As Christianity declines in the United States, other theologies and ideologies will fill the void. The UMC in the United States will be more like United Methodists on the continent of Africa, where Christians are distinct because they are in the religious minority. Being distinct is the opportunity before us. We already live in a time when the wisdom of Christ stands in remarkable contrast to the foolishness of the flawed ways our cultures tell people they will find security and happiness. The teaching of Christ and the foundational beliefs of our church make more sense now than ever because of the failure of leaders in society to offer people much other than division, dissension, and fear. A reimagined United Methodist Church must offer people a unique, Christ-ordered way of life that is transformative to those its hopes to reach and an alternative community within the larger society. 

It has been noted by many that resurrection is not only an event in the life of Christ, but a pattern God has placed in the universe. Resurrection follows death. For The United Methodist Church to find new life, some things must come to an end:

  • The current denominational structure. We have proved it impossible to productively set the course of a global, nearly 12-million-person ministry by pretending to be the United Nations in a 12-day meeting held every four years. We have a shared doctrine that properly states our beliefs, based on unchanging theological foundations shared by Wesleyan Christians. That is here to stay. However, it is time to give United Methodists who live in different continents and cultures the ability to have a regional form of governance with a Book of Discipline that is adaptable for this purpose. Let’s trust each other to work in regions and make ministry goals contextual while still retaining our connectional network. It is time to deregulate The Book of Discipline and increase the regional focus of our global ministry.
  • Cynicism about the ministry of the United Methodist Church. Pastors and laity alike complain often about every facet of the church’s ministry including appointments, apportionments, the work of General Boards and Agencies, and leadership at every level. Undoubtedly there have been and will be imperfections and disappointments among us. But it is time to honor the work of God in our midst as we learn the untold stories of the good we do as United Methodists across the globe, the lives we save, the children we educate, and the churches that thrive. Too many give too much too often to make our narrative one that lacks celebration. 
  • Distrust of each other. Those who choose the UMC must work together if we want to offer the world a different kind of community. This means building relationships across racial, cultural, economic, and geographic lines. The only way to deal with persistent problems and seemingly insurmountable obstacles is to create a network of relationships where we work together for the good of the whole church. 

Finally, resurrection is a new state of existence. It is not working harder to be a little less dead. For our church to have new life, we will have to rethink how we form people in the Christian life. Accountable discipleship, once a hallmark of Methodism, must emerge afresh in this time. The more spiritual encouragement and functional accountability people experience, the more progress they make in their sanctification. Our task is to help people live distinctively Christian lives that are attractive to others because of the integrity and love they demonstrate. Prior to Constantine, the early church did this slowly. They were not interested in quick, emotional conversions. People had to commit to the completion of the catechesis. They learned and lived the way of Christ before they were made members of the church. 

There is not a structural change that will bring us greater vitality. We can find it as we seek the power of God and reanimate the function of church, live the Christian way deeply, and offer Christ and his love and wisdom to the world. 

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