Dying well: A good death and the self-donation of the people called United Methodists

March 4th, 2020

“I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 CEB).

It’s been said of Methodists that we “die well.” In John Wesley’s day, people remarked on the calm, patient and peaceful way that Methodists passed into the valley of the shadow of death.

Like all clergy, I’ve been at the bedside of many people who had a good death. They entered a restful sleep with a glow in their soul. With dignity, grace and the assurance of salvation, they passed into the arms of Jesus. When people die well, it’s a sacred moment of beauty, goodness and truth.

I’ve also been at the bedside of people who didn’t die well. When people die struggling, disillusioned and unprepared, accompanying them is hard.

Often people who die well right all the wrongs in the final season of their life. They make amends for real or even perceived harms. People who die well give themselves away. They make the proper arrangements for their funerals and how their inheritance will be distributed among their family. They leave a legacy for the next generation. Dying well is a generative form of self-donation.

While the church of Jesus Christ will never die (Matt 16:18), The United Methodist Church as we know it is dying. Our denomination in the U.S. has been in a steady state of unbroken decline for 50 years.

Perhaps as a whole Methodists are not dying well these days. We are not going openhanded into the grave. Which forces us to ask: Do we trust enough to release our denomination into the hands of God, to die well, donating ourselves to the next generation, in the hope of resurrection?

Like many lifelong United Methodists, I am both sad and hopeful. I’m sad because the denomination that gave me life, the connection embodied in the local church that gathered around me at my infant baptism and vowed to raise me in a “community of love and forgiveness” ceases to exist as I’ve known it.

I’m sad because our denomination looks like children fighting over the inheritance of a dead parent, while the body has yet grown cold.

However, I’m hopeful that resurrection is on the horizon.

This is why I support the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” While not the silver-bullet to all our problems, this proposal offers a graceful way to end the current deep division in the UMC. It gives us an opportunity to have a good death, and a potential resurrection. Here’s seven points to consider:

1. Death is the pathway to resurrection.

Dying well requires acknowledging denial. Every possible metric indicates our days are numbered. Our church body has a broken arm. But our body is also riddled with cancer. It’s as if we’ve dedicated incredible amounts of resources and time to heal the arm. While completely neglecting the cancer. Invasive surgeries, chemotherapy, change of diet and exercise routine are needed.

This isn’t a technical problem, rather an adaptive challenge.

We’ve defaulted to institutional strategies based in increasingly false assumptions that blind us to changing contextual realities. We’ve also failed to understand the macro-context of a global denomination or the anti-institutional push against pyramidal hierarchies and the new protestant, spiritual-but-not-religious, zeitgeist.

We’ve merely addressed presenting symptoms and not the underlying causes and conditions. We’ve not even begun to treat the real factors that stunt Methodist vitality, including professionalization of the clergy, loss of the small-group system, the diminishment of equipping laity for mission and the institutional voids between franchise-like local congregations and the rapidly changing communities that cradle their life. [1]

The church isn’t about self-preservation, rather self-donation. We break off pieces of ourselves and give them away to a hungry world. This is the eucharistic nature of the body of Christ.

2. Denominations will die.

Post-denominational views are frequently promoted by postmodern scholars who in many cases have grown apart from the life of praxis in the local church. It’s hypocrisy to seek separation from accountability to the very systems that nurture us.

Nevertheless, denominations are a recent development in the scope of Judeo-Christian history. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. This began the sixteenth century fragmentation process that resulted in the multitude of competing mini-Christendoms among denominations today. [2]

In the U.S., Protestant denominations adopted the organizational structure of the twentieth-century corporation. Embracing this corporate structure helped UM churches to thrive for a generation. Our polity, while initially missional in origin, was infused with corporate management systems, rationalized efficiency and pyramidal bureaucratic structures. Like many mainline denominations, the UMC in the U.S. is a largely attractional, propositional and colonial form of church.

Many of our mental models were formed in a world that is fading from view. The conditions that caused this franchised, corporate, iteration of the church to thrive in the U.S. have changed. We now live in the hyper-connected, dispersed, polycentric, Information Age, called “the network society.” [3] Our one-size-fits-all approach to theological uniformity, polity and institutional affiliation is largely no longer valid.

Before our connectional polity was institutionalized in its current form, it was a missional phenomenon. It emerged from early Methodists forming an organic, relational, network, focused in sharing the gospel across the land. While denominationalism is not essential for Methodists, connectionalism is both foundational and essential.

3. We have not been “United” Methodists for quite some time.

Rolland Allen, missionary to China, realized long ago that the modern church was held together in unity primarily through financial bonds. He wrote, “But unity so maintained by an external bond is not Christian unity at all. It is simply submission to bondage for the sake of secular advantage, and it will fail the moment that any other and stronger motive urges in the direction of separation… The only unity which is worth preserving is the unity of the Spirit.” [4]

I’m disappointed the “United” of the UMC has been held together by a financial bond that was advantageous but has created in some sense a counterfeit unity. A sign of this is when the first order of business while gathering to decide our future is the “pension plan.”

4. Adaptation to the emerging societal structure will allow us to reach more people.

The protocol allows multiple diverse streams of Methodism to emerge. Smaller, nimbler, less hierarchal networks of churches will be able to more effectively engage a post-insititutional, post-membership, culture. We will be able to re-enculturate ourselves in the flows, nodes and hubs of a network society.

Enculturation is a fluid process. The church persisted for 2,000 years not by staying the same but through finding faithful re-embodiment in a multitude of diverse contextual expressions for every time, people and place. Thus this graceful separation could allow us to become learning organizations and find vitality again.

The technological forces that are transforming the world are leading towards equal access, collaboration and sharing, while moving away from possession and membership narratives. This post-separation arrangement could seed a flourishing new indigenous Methodism, growing wild in the soils of a post-denominational network society. It will get us away from the crumbling hierarchal pyramidal structure and move us towards a polycentric, network kind of church, which reflects the globalized civilization of today.

5. We can stop the harm.

People are being harmed in the ongoing schism — on all “sides.” No matter where you stand on LGBTQ inclusion, we can stipulate this fact. One of my greatest frustrations as a UM clergyman is watching the real damage happening to real people. Furthermore, we’re tired of the never ending back-and-forth diatribe of this debate. Millions of faithful Methodists across the world are engaging our mission fields in vibrant, incarnational, and effective ways. However, you would never know this by watching the incessant headlines about UMC schism. This ultimately distracts us from mission, drains us of energy, siphons off massive amounts of resources and perpetuates the negative stereotypes so-called “nones and dones” already hold about Christians.

The protocol does release us to stop harming each other and each find our own way to share Jesus.

6. The rise of organic missional networks.

An international movement of the Holy Spirit is sweeping the globe right now. Thousands of new Christian communities are forming in the places and rhythms where people do life. Fresh Expressions is one example among many similar movements (other examples: Forge International, 3DM, or Church Multiplication Association). New forms of church are emerging among the people traditional congregations aren’t reaching. These movements are finding ways to be church with people who don’t go to church. [5] 

The “why” of fresh expressions is not because the church is dying as we know it. Even if the church wasn’t dying, we should be cultivating communities following Jesus in every sphere of life. A coalition of missional practitioners are forming partnerships, not based in denominational affiliation but in a shared missional orientation. These relationships are occurring organically, and new structures are forming to facilitate collaboration around a singular purpose … sharing the gospel of Jesus with people for whom it is not only good but for whom it is news.

Congregations involved in cultivating fresh expressions are experiencing forms of revitalization. The future has less to do with denominational affiliation, and more to do with local churches becoming a blended ecology, in which inherited and emerging forms are living together in symbiotic relationship.

Denominations, even new ones, won’t unfold some centralized plan that reverses the decline of local churches. Instead, the Spirit is asking local-church people the Moses question: “What’s that in your hand?” (Exod 4:2). Revitalization won’t come from above at the top of the pyramidal bureaucracy, no matter how well intentioned the plans. Revival movements are released from disruption, experimentation and risk-taking from the bottom-up if not from the edge. The “way forward” will be how we decide to be with the people directly in front of your church today.

This kind of shift resembles early Methodism, which was a renewal movement within the larger church, rather than a separate institutional entity.

7. A third way?

Multiple versions of Methodist denominations may emerge following the proposed Protocol. Yet more “new denominations” aren’t the appropriate response to the adaptive challenge on our missional frontier. Breakaway denominations try to solve problems with the same thinking that created the variation.

Contextually intelligent pioneers are already at work between the institutional voids. When the dust settles from whatever takes place at General Conference 2020, we need to be prepared to embody a contextually faithful version of the church for the information age.

I envision a connection of relational networks of churches, unified by core values rather than institutional benefits, similar to the Methodism that started in the fields of John Wesley’s day. We need networks that are accountable, connectional and missional, but not necessarily denominational. A community proclaiming the orthodox Christian faith, rooted in Scripture, empowered by the Spirit and sustained by covenant.

We can and probably will participate in whatever new denominational organizations may arise after separation. However, collaboration among emerging decentralized missional networks will become the actual church of the future.

We now have an opportunity to die well together. By supporting the Protocol, we make preparation for a sequence of death leading to resurrection. We can go into the ground like a grain of wheat, and in our dying and self-donation bear much fruit. Before us is an incredible opportunity “to die well” and plough new ground before a watching world.

[1] Beck, Michael Adam, "Contextual Intelligence: One Intelligence to Serve Them All" (2019). Doctor of Ministry. 359. 

[2] Murray, Stuart. Church After Christendom. Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2004, P. 66.

[3] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), xvii–xviii.

[4] Allen, Roland. Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1962), 52-53.

[5] Michael Beck, with Jorge Acevedo, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, April, 2020), in press.

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