A lot of ink is in the process of being spilled over what ails the United Methodist Church. Everyone seems to have their own take on what our shortcomings are and what could ultimately save us. With General Conference coming in 6 short months I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface of ideas to save our denomination. It is in the spirit of offering ideas that I would like to explore an avenue that could inspire us to think anew, or at least differently, about who we are and what we’re about as The United Methodist Church.
Russ Richey explains in his book, Doctrine In Experience, that from the outset, Methodists saw their purpose as one of Providence. With Methodism’s timing in America, at the beginning of a new nation, Richey notes:
“Methodists conflated the kingdom of God with the nation, construed denominational purposes in terms of those of a Christian America, and in making the church subservient to Christian nationalism, intimately tied the former’s health to the later’s” (p. 21)
Now this problem isn’t exclusive to the UMC by any stretch. Protestantism in America as a whole fell victim to tying its mission too closely with the utopian notion that somehow America would, unlike its European older siblings, form itself into the perfect mix of Nation/Church. The past 200+ years have illustrated the slow demise of this mission. One of the major problems churches all over the country now face is a lack of vision and mission. I would argue that much of this is due to the fact that our earlier purpose was faulty at best. When the promises of democracy and liberty as the ultimate form of being the church failed and the realities of pluralism in a global society revealed the fault-line in the vision of a so-called “Christian America,” The United Methodist Church (along with all other mainline denominations) suffered a blow to its structure that we’re now all trying to assess and hopefully heal.
So what has Providence looked like throughout American Methodist history?
For starters, the historical questions that have been asked of Methodist preachers at ordination over the many, many decades can offer a glimpse into our earliest views of providence. The 3rd question, What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?, became nuanced very early. Over the years this answer has offered a statement of Methodist purpose through the wording: to reform the Continent, and spread scriptural Holiness over these lands. And thus our purpose from the beginning was tied to the development and evolution of the nation.
Methodist historian, Abel Stevens, drew the providential connection of church and nation firmly. In his book, Compendius History, Stevens sketched Methodist system as one mirroring that of a machine. It was no mistake that he sought to link the physical work of James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, with the moral work of John Wesley. Stevens firmly believed that the mechanistic design of the Methodist system was a perfect fit for a nation encountering the evolution into the Industrial Age.
Matthew Simpson, the Methodist pastor/historian famous for being a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln, extended this vision of a conjoint mission between the Methodist Church and America. For Simpson, it was through the experience of the Civil War that the Methodist Episcopal Church found itself wedded to the nation. If the American Revolution offered the roots of our “revolutionary spirit,” Simpson saw the Civil War as the fundamental act whereby the American Methodist Church separated itself as a church unto itself. Therefore he told the amazing stories of American church growth. He reveled in the success of the institution that displayed superior organization and efficiency. But when it came to providence, Richey notes that Simpson let the nation be the beacon of light:
“Such claims had led [Simpson’s] predecessors almost inevitably and immediately to invocation of providence. Simpson made much less of providence than they. When he did speak of it, the nation rather than the church came into focus” (p. 31)
In linking the mission of the church to that of the nation, Methodism essentially practiced a form of Christian Triumphalism. And now, in a post-Christian nation/world, we’re left to fight the temptation to fall into a new sense of triumphalism. Many are both very critical and very supportive of the Call to Action statement offered by the Council of Bishops. It’s a major structural change that seeks to address the excess and inefficiency identified as a primary source of our “lack of vitality.” But just as the Methodist church has done before, it adopts major practices from the American culture to find a source of providence. The structural changes promise a priority on the building of congregations. We’re no longer to be a connectional church as much as we’re called to be a collection of churches. But the problem is, as far as I can tell, we still don’t address our lack of vision and self-awareness. “Making disciples for the transformation of the world” easily gets linked to church growth when we fail to recognize the measures of what disciples look like and how they are formed by the grander vision of what the church is called to be (found in paragraph 201 of our Discipline but often overlooked in favor of the “bumper-sticker” approach mission statement). All we seem to be left with is the natural inclination that a bigger church will be a better church and we need to get bigger in order to get better.
I’m a self-avowed critic of the Call to Action not because I don’t like accountability, and not even because I don’t think statistical reporting is a good thing. I think there’s some merit in how the Call to Action addresses both the need for accountability and the need for diagnostics as a church failing to live up to God’s call. My concern is in the end-game. What do we believe God is calling, nay demanding, of us as a 21st Century Christian denomination? What do we think will actually come of building more churches? And if providence is at the heart of the Methodist mission, then what does that look like?
Whatever we think will come of this, we should be wary that we don’t fall into the trap of creating yet another manifestation of Methodist mission shaped by American ideals. That experiment didn’t work the first time. So we need to spend some time thinking and praying about not only where to go, but who we actually are. If we’re going to spread scriptural holiness by forming disciples in the practices of holy living, we can’t domesticate this mission into any sort of vision of Christian America or franchised brand of the Methodist system.