January 2018 – The Church and its Identity

January 8, 2018 | | GNJ News, Bishop's Relay Column

“You’re not going to wear your nose piercing for the wedding?” asked the future mother-in-law of a young women. She was referring to a small diamond chip in the cruck of the young woman’s nose.

“Oh no, I am going to wear it,” emphatically replied the young woman. The conversation went back and forth and finally the future mother-in-law said, “It will be my gift to myself to make sure you do not wear the nose piercing.”

When families are extended, families and values get even more complicated.

Today I continue a three-part series on the identity of The United Methodist Church. Last month, I reflected on how The United Methodist Church is organized as a government, not a church. Today I want to talk with you about whether we are a nuclear family or an extended family and how our identity furthers our mission or inhibits our mission.

Nuclear families, parents and their children, have the ability to develop, shape and align values, traditions, and practices while it is harder for extended families, aunts, uncles, grandparents, in-laws, and cousins, to shape and align values, traditions and practices. It is not unusual for people in the same extended family to have different values about what is right and wrong, how to raise children, political views and the value of faith and money.

Within The United Methodist Church, on at least one level we understand this. As a denomination, we all share the Book of Discipline, but did you know that in conferences outside the United States, the Book of Discipline may be modified by the people in that region to reflect the practices, values and understandings in different regions in the world? Yes they can modify the Book of Discipline without having to get the approval of the General Conference.

Even in the New Testament church they wrestled with being a nuclear or extended family. In Acts 15 the church is confronted with extending the faith to the Gentiles. Leaders of the church argued that the uncircumcised Gentiles would have to honor the Abrahamic Covenant which required circumcision to be fully part of the emerging Christian church. Paul and Barnabas argued that one did not need to be circumcised to be a Christian. It created a conflict within the church family as the leaders of the church wrestled with becoming an extended family.

The notion of extending the church family to the Gentiles and not requiring circumcision prevailed but Christians with Jewish roots continued to value circumcision and circumcised their children to honor the requirement to share in the Abrahamic Covenant.

Within the church today, there is variety between Christian denominations and even within denominations. For instance, Seventh Day Adventists interpret the Bible literally and follow the command that you shall rest on the seventh day and keep the Sabbath holy. The seventh day and the Sabbath, according to the Bible, is Saturday. Seventh Day Adventists worship on Saturday and rest on the literal Sabbath.

While smaller congregations have a greater opportunity to reflect a nuclear family, larger congregations do not. In a larger congregation there is more variety between small groups, worship services and mission engagement. Some larger churches have three or more different worship services and each one differs from the other.

Within GNJ, there are differences in what churches do, not only by the size of the congregation but also by ethnicity, language, theology, culture, geographic location, and age of their disciples.

Does this help or hurt the mission?

All healthy mission is contextual. Understanding and connecting with the culture, values, practices and traditions of a particular community context is essential for healthy mission. Paul demonstrated this in the understanding of circumcision, eating meat and other religious and cultural expressions.

Today, rural communities tend to value tradition more. It is appropriate for smaller rural churches to have practices that feel more traditional. Larger metropolitan areas are sometimes quicker to embrace change and difference and therefore are not as traditional in their practices. Many larger churches in both rural and metropolitan areas honor the tradition and embrace change.

There is a lot of change occurring in our world and it’s happening fast. That is neither good nor bad, it is just a fact. The church will need to continue to evaluate what change to embrace and move forward and what change to let evolve more slowly. Nuclear families can adapt and change more slowly but extended families tend to adapt and change more quickly or they will be embroiled in conflict and resentment. So the mother-in-law that I talked about earlier better learn to accept her new daughter-in-law as she is or there is going to be an unhappy relationship that will affect the extended family.

Here are a couple of things I have found along the way that have helped me in adjusting between nuclear family and an extended family experience in my family, the church and society.

  1. John Wesley, the founder and architect of the Methodist movement’s advice and approach was, in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity.
  2. Stephen Covey’s axiom, seek to understand before you try to be understood.
  3. 1 Corinthians 13, I may have the faith to move mountains, but if I do not love, I am nothing.
  4. Jesus spoke from the throne, ‘Behold I make all things new’ Revelation 21:5

Only our smallest churches, those worshiping under 50 can be a nuclear congregation, but congregations interested in growing must embrace an extended family approach which means variety and embracing difference.

Our denomination’s challenge is the struggle for identity and part of it is a struggle that we all think and act alike. Our challenge to embrace difference in thinking, theology, experiences and understanding continues to challenge our mission and that we are stronger together as an extended family. One way through our challenges is to ask what does in all things charity, look like within the church today?

Keep the faith!

The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey