Lazy Methodists?

UMC Cross & FlameTwo different thoughts are on my mind this week, related because both touch on what it means (or what people think it means) to be a Methodist.

First, there is an online blog about Methodism that’s been making the rounds – both my wife and Steve Manskar have pointed to an article I think worthy of sharing, asking the question “Are Methodists Lazy?”

It might be an interesting question to consider.

Years ago, I heard the now-tired cliché from denominational leaders that many people explained their choice to be Methodist by saying “I can believe whatever I want.” Although I think such a cavalier attitude toward sound theology is disingenuous to The United Methodist Church at large as well as our constituent congregations, the breadth and openness of our teachings do perhaps lend themselves to such a perspective.

I wonder if the same thing has happened vis a vis the openness of our churches; because anyone _can_ join, perhaps we’ve lost sight of what commitment we make when we do join. Considering the commitments embodied in our history and heritage – from the stories of personal commitment we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, to the many and quite honestly challenging “one another” exhortations of the New Testament, to the dedication to personal and social holiness demonstrated by the early members of the Methodist movement   – I wonder how we shifted to a perspective that it is “easy” to be Methodist.

Did our general perspective shift – that instead of viewing church as what we are together, we came to view church as where we go to see one another?

Did we, somewhere along the way, begin to expect that church should offer more to me than it asks of me?

And, perhaps more importantly, is it unreasonable to think that we can reclaim such deep commitment to God and others? The kind of communal commitment demonstrated by the “primitive church” of Acts (or even of the early Methodists)?

Honestly, I think many (if not all) of us grew up with some incomplete perceptions of the church. If my memory serves me well (which I will admit it may not), as I recall both I and many of my colleagues in seminary had trouble when it came to defining a healthy ecclesiology – that is, a theology of the church. (Some of this had to do with weak pneumatology – our theologies of the Holy Spirit who unites us together as the Body of Christ, the Church, but I digress.) Many of we who were “called out” from among us to be ordained as clergy also struggled with articulating a positive and compelling theology of the Church.

Likely it is a struggle every generation has to contend with – finding ways to overcome the systemic (and resulting theologic) breakdowns of an ever-changing institutional structure, and re-capture a theology of the Church: this one, holy, catholic (universal), apostolic, communal, we-are-all-in-this-together, Body of Christ united primarily by the amazing work and grace of God’s Holy Spirit rather than any mutual race or experience or belief or even creed.

Thankfully, as Genesis 1 reminds us, God speaks into chaos to bring new order, new life. Such is true for the church, as it seems generations repeatedly seek reform and renewal.

And among those efforts for renewal we often find renewed commitment to truly living out a new life in the community. The early Methodists did exactly this: rising to overcome what they saw as a listless religion in the Church of England, they committed themselves (after the example of the early church) “to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Through the evolution of the movement Wesley and the Methodists developed bands, classes, and societies in addition to the local churches where they retained membership and attended worship! Methodists were committed, again after the example of the early church, to living life together, to providing from their own resources for those who had need, and to spending much time together.

To be a Methodist initially meant one was committing to a radical life change (as evidenced in the three rules!): not only was one turning away from the sins and temptations that so easily trip us up (“do no harm”), one was actively committing to being in community to support, encourage, and help others seeking to do the same (“do good”) through the same means (“attend to the ordinances of God”).

Sadly, institutional decay and our human tendency to forget our past have contributed to where we are today, perceived as something that one can belong to and be lazy.

I remember, when I attended the School for Congregational Development for the first time back in 2000, that I heard repeatedly that that successful, growing, healthy churches often “raised the bar” regarding their expectations of members. At the time, churches that required more of members seemed to be growing more than others. Perhaps we need to revisit the nature of our commitment, re-articulate what we mean when we commit to being part of the church together.

In his article on the stereotype of “just another lazy Methodist,” blogger Kevin Alton points to some of the commitments our healthy churches are engaged in:

  • Community
  • Mission
  • Personal Growth (“moving on to perfection”)
  • Biblical knowledge

These are just some of the ways people live out their commitment to being a follower of Christ within a local church body. I would suggest they are part of what is an imperative, ever-present tension in a Christian, between faith and works (James 2:25); between pious acts of faith (personal transformation rooted in God’s Spirit) and merciful works of mission (social transformation rooted in God’s Spirit).

All of this leads to the second thought about Methodism rattling around in my head. This past Tuesday evening some members of our church and I watched and discussed a presentation by Rev. Adam Hamilton about “Leadership for the 21st Century Church.” In the midst of the presentation (given to the 2007 School for Congregational Development), Adam said:

“We are a church of the extreme center.
We hold in tension things that others tell you should be pulled apart.”

I’ve referenced this phrase a few times this week, and believe that it gets to the heart of the commitment of being part of a Methodist Church. We allow (invite, even!) different theological viewpoints to be “held in tension” within our churches – from conservative fundamentals to liberal progressive. We “hold in tension” different political or social ideologies – consider that both George Bush and Hilary Clinton were United Methodist! And we seek to “hold in tension” the ongoing reality of works and faith.

To me, true faith in Christ naturally leads to deeper commitments involving tension. To be a Christian is to commit to following one who, being both wholly-human and holy-divine, both illuminates our flaws (conviction) and guides us toward perfection (sanctification). To be a member of a local church is to commit to a communal life with others, connected by the deep binding of the Holy Spirit to strive both individually and collectively to accomplish works of piety and mercy after the example and guidance of Christ.

There are many, deeply life-affecting commitments inherent in being part of the church. But – and this is good news – our imperfection in following any need not alienate us from being part of the community. The wonder of the church, to me, is that beyond calling for and often bringing out our best, the church is also a means of grace. The church is a means by which God is at work in my world – transforming the community for the better, sure, but also transforming me through a constant cycle of calling, conviction, forgiveness, and empowerment.

If you’ve read this far, you might also want to check out “The United Methodist Way” developed by our General Board of Discipleship.

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