The death of homogenized United Methodism

April 1st, 2016

Growing up on a dairy farm, we often used milk right out of the bulk tank. This large, gleaming stainless steel reservoir was supplied from a pipeline flowing from the udders of patiently lactating cows. Grandma pasteurized the milk we used, but it retained its naturally irregular consistency. During breakfast, rich strands of milk fat clung together and rested on top of our corn flakes. What my grandparents called natural, many consumers find disturbing. That’s why milk from our farm went through the process of being homogenized at the factory before it was shipped to stores. Some fat was removed, and the rest was forcibly blended in to create an artificially uniform consistency.

For all our talk of diversity, United Methodist polity operates mostly on the assumption of homogeneity. Our structures above the local church (districts, conferences, and jurisdictions) are based solely on geography. What’s good for one church in upstate New York, it’s thought, ought to be good for another. We are intentionally naive to the fact that churches geographically proximate to one another might nevertheless benefit from operating under a different approach to ministry.
We see the stress of our shared delusion everywhere. “Open itinerancy” of clergy within conferences is our official policy. This means any pastor should technically­ be able to serve any church. But we all know that no bishop in their right mind would make an appointment without consideration of the “tribe within the tribe” to which both the congregation and clergy belong. While episcopal discretion manages some of our differences, there are untold people that go unreached because reaching them would require us to stretch beyond the limits of our standardized approach. (This is one reason why we are tragically becoming less ethnically diverse as a US denomination in a culture that will soon be “majority minority.”1) On the general church level, our chargeable offenses for clergy are currently ignored by many, including bishops, who find them unjust. We are coming once again to General Conference armed for the battle for control of our centralized rules.

When someone moves from our congregation to another community, I cannot in good conscience automatically encourage them to find “a United Methodist church.” I tell them to find a good church that teaches the scriptures and gives their family opportunities for involvement and spiritual growth. I love it when there is a United Methodist congregation I can recommend. It hurts me to admit that the denomination I love and have dedicated my life to serving provides no guarantee of doctrine, worship experience, or uniform vision for discipleship. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist, the things most important to me are not necessarily defined by our denominational moniker.

We are a church at odds with itself. Do we divest from Israel or support the state of Israel? Do we perform same-sex weddings or define marriage as the union of a man and a woman? Do we applaud when a pastor comes out of the closet as living with a same-sex partner or press charges? Do we financially support the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice or fund groups supporting the Right to Life for the unborn? These are not just differences but mutually exclusive options. To support one is to reject the other.

There are bigger problems than simply not getting along. We are losing our capacity to reach our culture. What was once an insurgent, entrepreneurial movement has become as rigid and dead as the church we once sought to reform. Our wineskins are old, cracked, and dry. We desperately need to create laboratories where new groupings of United Methodists can work together to find a way to expand our mission into new people groups.

Some have called this season the death throes of United Methodism. It doesn’t have to be. But we must be careful.

Some would seek to continue the delusion of homogeneous United Methodism
on a national scale. What we need, it is said, is to put the USA under our own rules. You only have to look at the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s plan for global restructure(2) or the “A Place of Reason” plan(3) for a US Central Conference to find groups that assume United Methodism in the US could thrive under the same homogeneous structures if we only eliminated the cultural influence of the growing African Church. These constitutional proposals will fail passage, I predict, because they require super-majority support that recent history has shown does not exist.

We would do well to admit that our divisions are based on more than nationality. United Methodist congregations with very different approaches to ministry are to be found in the same town. There are, however, areas where United Methodism is quite uniform. The problem there is not intramural conflict but a diminished capacity to evangelize anyone who would not be drawn to Jesus by that single ministry brand. Many of our domestic mission fields could benefit from the flowering of a different kind of United Methodism that’s stifled from even sprouting because of our standardized approach.

Unlike some of my fellow evangelicals, I am not for schism. Our separation in 1844 prefigured disaster for our entire nation. It’s a positive witness when people with significant differences find space to stay at the same table with one another. However, there are productive ways to do this and unproductive. We’re currently going the unproductive route as we lock people with incompatible
worldviews together in rigid geographic structures and ask them to plan and conduct ministry together. Not only does this not work, it’s the recipe for frustration, conflict, and poor results.

Fortunately there are other ways. Rather than investing our energies into global segregation plans or unsustainable “local options,” I favor opening our conference and jurisdictional borders and giving United Methodist congregations, clergy, and conferences more choices in the types of connectional relationships that best serve their mission. If we can get beyond our delusion of homogeneity
and stop crying over our collective spilled milk, I am hopeful General Conference 2016 can position us for a much more interesting future than our current trajectory suggests.

1. "Church lacks racial diversity, officials say," UMNS

2. Northeastern Jurisdiction Global Connection Plan 

3. A Place of Reason UMC

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