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January 24, 2013

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I am about the same age as the United Methodist Church, but I am a 21st century convert to the faith. I did not grow up in United Methodism. I have had to learn it after joining the club.

When I wanted to understand what being a United Methodist was all about, I went back and started reading John Wesley.

More and more, I am coming to understand that was the wrong way to go if I wanted to get a good grip on United Methodism. The John Wesley of United Methodism has little in common with the John Wesley found in his own writings.

I’m also aware that our Book of Discipline is a bad place to find the meaning of United Methodism. It is a jumble of different materials and ideas, not all of which fit together and not all of which any United Methodist I know treats as authoritative.

So, I have been trying recently to distill from my experiences and reading the essence of United Methodism. Here are the core commitments of United Methodism as best I understand them:

  • Trinitarian worship of God
  • Social action and social concern
  • Mutual emotional support for members
  • Claiming to welcome everyone into our worship and fellowship
  • Non-judgmentalism
  • Middle to upper-middle class sensibilities and norms
  • Cultural accommodation
  • Desire for success and relevance
  • Obsession with polity coupled with active resistance to rules and leaders

My window on United Methodism is narrow. I admit this readily. But I have tried to get a wider view by reading and engaging with conversations across United Methodism for the last 5 years or so.

I’m open to modifying my list, but as it is actually practiced in the United States, these are the marks of United Methodism that I see.

by

January 24, 2013

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What is United Methodism?

I believe Brother Meunier hit the nail on the head with his list of descriptors of the UMC. I would have ordered the list differently, and topped it with "Middle to upper-middle class sensibilities and norms." We are an institution living within a nation of institutions, all of which operate within their own cultural milieu. We are a very middle-class institution, one which sees some religious practices (like conversions down the sawdust trail) as being declasse'.

We prefer to have Christians who have grown up in Christian homes, and for whom expressions of the Christian faith are not strewn with excessive exuberance or emotionalism. We would rather get new members who either long ago made their conversion (believing there is no one as offensive as the newly converted Christian) or who grew up in homes knowing no other Lord but Christ, and taking it for granted.

Even though we found our growth in the nineteenth century in going to where the people were and founding churches in every community we could, in truth, the home missionaries we sent out were not there to create new Christians by conversion, but by being a church to the settled folks. (Even John Wesley learned that when he came as a missionary to Georgia hoping to convert the Indians but finding that his church really only wanted him to be a chaplain to the Anglo immigrants.)

We are a church which likely is the last, relatively unadulterated remnant of an institution steeped in the political modality political scientists call "Jacksonian Democracy." This is a radical form of democracy where anyone who moves to a higher level, or represents a group, is elected by the group next lower in our polity. Every minister in the UMC was *elected* as a candidate by the Charge Conference of the Church in which his/her professing membership was held, and was affirmed by the District Conference in which his/her local church had its existence, before s/he could ever go for review by the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Annual Conference in which s/he sought membership. Our churches *elect* lay members to Annual Conferences, and *elect* lay and clergy delegates to the General and Jurisdictional Conferences. This is our organizational and polity DNA. The only recent and amazing thing about this, to me, was the shock and surprise that the Judicial Council undid the action of the General Conference seeking to re-organize the denomination. This action was as predictable as the tides and the phases of the moon!

We've made it work for years. Now, we need to learn how to make our church work in an era where the growing social divide is between the upper classes and the working class--our "market," the middle class, is shrinking. It can be done, if we can accept this, our corporate culture, and learn to live within it.

Tom Griffith more than 1 years ago

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