Did you know that The United Methodist Church doesn’t exist? How could that be? We are more than 12 million members worldwide. We have 30,000 congregations right here in the U.S. But, as a denomination, we are not incorporated, we are a series of incorporated bodies. Annual Conferences are incorporated, General Church Agencies are incorporated, and congregations are incorporated, but the denomination as a whole is not. The various organizations make up The United Methodist Church.
As a denomination, and particularly at the General Church level, we are organized and act more like a government than a church. We are modeled after the pattern of the United States government. We have three branches of government: legislative (General Conference oversight of the mission, constitution and laws of the UMC), judicial (Judicial Council decides the constitutionality of laws decided by General Conference and if they are followed by the conferences and other bodies of the church) and the executive branch (Council of Bishops that superintends the church). In fact, I shudder when I show up at a meeting and a layperson has brought their Discipline that is dog-eared, underlined and marked with post its. It’s then that I know we will be talking about laws and governing issues rather than people and mission.
Today I begin a series about the identity of The United Methodist Church, reflecting upon whether or not we are:
- A government or a church
- A nuclear family or an extended family
- A set of behaviors or a way of being
I want to think with you about how our identity furthers our mission or inhibits our mission.
John Wesley, our founder, never intended for us to be a Church or denomination, let alone a form of government. He intended the Methodist movement to be a way to supplement and support other denominations and focus on weekday living rather than organizing Sunday worship. His great experiment in England attracted thousands of people and created a movement for living spiritually, mercifully and justly. In the 1700s the movement jumped across the Atlantic to the emerging nation here in the United States. But in the U.S., Methodism morphed from a movement and became a denomination.
Governments, particularly large, complex governments, tend to focus more on the laws to carry out the mission rather than the spirit of and activities for carrying out the mission. Systems, particularly large, complex organizations are designed to produce what they accomplish. For instance, General Conference is designed to review, manage and vote on more than 2,000 pieces of legislation which I estimate takes up more than 70% of the 10-day gathering that meets every four years. This becomes a political exercise for the most part, and it is done very well. But I wonder what kind of church we would be today if we spent 70% of our time on worship and mission discernment and accountability. We will probably never know because the oversight of our denomination at the General Church level is designed to act like a government.
The church is better at focusing on worship, mission discernment and accountability where it is small, clear, and the people’s context for ministry is similar. These bodies, annual conferences and congregations are also closer to the mission field which is critical for being a church. For instance, GNJ’s three-day annual conference session is designed to spend about six hours in legislative conversation and about 12 hours in worship, study, mission discernment, and accountability. This shift has produced greater focus throughout the year on recruiting and equipping spiritual leaders to make disciples and grow vital congregations for the transformation of the world.
Our healthiest churches have a similar experience when they gather for meetings. They focus their meetings on spirituality, mission discernment, and accountability. The other work, policies, procedures, and administration is essential for the health and vitality of the church, but receive maybe only 30% of the meeting time. If we spend 70% of our time on policies, procedures, and administration, we tend to be more law-focused than mission engaged. Our policies and procedures would be better served if they arose out of worship and mission rather than what not to do. This is what governments do; they focus more on law rather than mission, order rather than the movement of the Spirit.
In our earliest days, the Book of Discipline was a daily guide for how a disciple lives their life. It contained hymns, orders of worship, daily practices and guides for how to live. As we matured, in an effort to protect our values and the health of the denomination, I believe we started to become a government and the governmental process became more layered. Today, our Book of Discipline does not contain hymns, orders of worship or daily practices for living a disciple’s life but contains our laws and policies primarily for our organizational life.
What’s a church to do that is organized as a government? The answer is found in those closest to the mission field. Church literally means those “called out” from the Greek word ecclesia. The New Testament refers to the church as the body of Christ. In other words, a group of people called out to think, feel and act like Jesus did. In The United Methodist Church, I find this happens most often where the people are called out and living and serving the people in the neighborhoods and communities. The ecclesia that is in the neighborhood is more concerned about feeding souls, minds and bodies. It is more connected with the everyday concerns of the people living in the community and world. Suppose every time a congregation, annual conference, and the General Conference gathered, the prevailing questions were: ‘what must we decide today to feed the souls, minds and bodies of people in the community?’ ‘How will our decisions ensure people in the community see and experience the mercy and justice of Jesus through us?’
If we based all of our decisions on these questions, we might actually transform the world.
Three steps to being a church:
- Recognize whatever group you are with, God has called you out to be the body of Christ
- Deepen the ecclesia’s faith and understanding so that every day the congregation’s disciples are living more like Jesus
- Ask missional questions, like how will this decision help us feed the souls, minds and bodies of the people in the community
When we take these three steps, we become more like the Church of Jesus Christ than a government or a political body. People will see us differently, and our identity will be forged missionally rather than governmentally. Also, never forget, change will occur at the top when it is already happening in the congregations and annual conferences. Let the change continue with us.
Keep the faith!
Bishop John Schol
The United Methodist Church
of Greater New Jersey