A UM Missional Future: Lovett Weems Provocative Question 2

Entry 2 of 21:

Issue: Global United Methodism
Provocative Question: Can the growing global regions of United Methodism remember the first law of life-guarding—don’t let the drowning person drown you?...
How then do we accomplish a global church with maximum support and minimum interference?

First, some questions about the questions.

The first question would seem to presume that the US United Methodist Church is the "drowning person" that would bring down all who swim too near with any interest in trying to save it. Is the question asking whether the "growing global regions" should seek to distance themselves in a variety of ways from what the US church does? Or perhaps it is responding to what sometimes seems to be heard in the US church-- that if we did the same things here that our global counterparts do there, we'd be growing instead of declining? (That, of course, is somewhat counterintuitive for us missional contextualists!).

The second question is interesting for what it does not say. Who is the "we" in the question? Does the question itself presume a US-centric church that is changing its approach to create a global church that works? Or does it presume a global church that actually has the capacity to make such decisions and reallocations of resources and authority globally?

Now some thoughts about the content of the paragraphs the follow this question.

Dr. Weems writes:
One way to think about it is to ask what American Methodists most needed from other Methodists during years of dramatic growth. The last things needed were another culture’s structure, rules, liturgies, and politics. Of more benefit would be prayer, relationships, resources, and genuine partnerships in reaching others for Christ and healing and transforming the world.

Well, yes, that would be one way to think about it. But it might not be a MISSIONAL way to think about it. Or it might not be a MAXIMALLY missional way to think about it, at any rate.

How are we defining growth, after all? Are we defining it in terms of the number of congregations? Or in terms of the number of people who identified themselves with a particular denominational label? Or in terms of the rate at which we added congregations? Or the rate at which we added people to the rolls of congregations? Which of these might be missional metrics that Mr. Wesley might recognize or approve?

Let me first say this. I think it is clear from history and from the stories of older Methodists in the US who remember an earlier time not just with sentimentality but with some accuracy that Methodists in the US have become decreasingly overtly evangelistic over the years. Being evangelistic is part of being missional-- it is an intentional, verbal outreach to others to announce that they can experience in Jesus Christ what we have experienced, and it invites them into communities both to experience that and to share the results of that with others inside and outside the church. When we were starting a church a day in the late 19th century, we were being very evangelistic, and so very missional in that more limited sense.

But were we being Wesleyan at that point? Mr Wesley was not even trying to start congregations. That was not intentionally on his radar screen at all-- not until he sort of made what he WAS trying to get started INTO congregations by fiat, as it were, in the early 1780s.

What Mr Wesley was trying to start all over the place were missional groups (class meetings) where individuals were holding each other accountable for living into the General Rules (all three of them, including one that required participation in a congregation IN ADDITION TO whatever they were doing in class meetings, bands, and the societies) and then gatherings of these groups (called societies) where both individuals and the groups themselves could be held accountable for their progress.

If we go back to the "church a day" years, when Methodism appeared to be visibly growing the most rapidly in the US, there is something striking about the form of that growth. It was not at all a growth of class meetings or even societies. Those had all but died out among Methodists in the US. It was instead a growth of congregations.

Perhaps one could make the case that at that point in US history, congregations were the basic missional unit, places where people could be held accountable for their missional efforts. The problem with that assertion for Methodism in the US, however, is that congregations were not doing that very much at all. District Superintendents, Conferences and Bishops might hold each other accountable for how many new congregations were being started-- but ordinary Methodists themselves were not experiencing the basic missional structure or activities that characterized Methodism in England OR in early North America.

What was growing in those years, then, was not missional Methodism at all-- but rather institutional propagation. There would be a church building and a congregation with the label Methodist on it and following more or less orders and patterns provided by denominational leaders all across the countryside-- wherever roads and railroads might meet (at least East of the Rockies!). But that congregation would be more Protestant that Methodist, or perhaps more Methodist in theology (Arminian, a focus on prevenient grace), worship practice (singing from a Methodist hymnal and following the fairly basic Methodist ritual), polity and programmatic structure than in hands on missional structure (class meeting, society, and some connection to a congregation for worship, etc).

So the question, from a missional perspective, might be whether we can characterize the years of the fastest growth (church a day) in Methodism institutionally as being at all related to, as Dr Weems suggests, any sort of eschewing of "another culture's structure, rules, liturgies and politics." What's remarkable about these years is rather an almost machine-like uniformity on nearly all of these things, with the Book Concerns/Publishing Houses producing the materials that made such uniformity possible. If one is looking at church planting or even missional group formation from the standpoint of local indigeneity and contexts, from THOSE places (the places RECEIVING all the new Methodist institutions), what they were receiving were in fact ANOTHER CULTURE'S structures, rules, liturgies and politics!

Which leads me to wonder, then, if perhaps Dr Weems is NOT referring to the "church a day" era, which was neither Wesleyan nor, as it turns out, all that indigenous. Maybe he WAS referring to earlier American Methodism, and perhaps before it got stamped into churches and was still primarily in the form of class meetings and societies while their participants participated in congregations elsewhere.

Perhaps that was the intent. After all, in 1784, the very first General Conference over here PRECISELY received structures, rules, liturgies and to some degree internal politics from a priest of the Church of England, another and even an enemy culture. It did abandon much of the liturgical material in 1792, but still not the much of the structure, rules or politics. So if we want to look to a time when those things were not in play, then we have to look before 1784. In those days what was primarily in play were, in fact, "prayer, relationships, resources, and genuine partnerships in reaching others for Christ." That's exactly what Methodism had done in England before and after 1784 (and until its formal split into a separate church in the early 1800s). And it was what Methodism HAD to rely on when it was not yet pressed into being churches itself.

But, clearly, that's not current United Methodism at all. At this point we ARE congregations bound into conferences and stuck with a what remains of a one-size fits all political scheme that doesn't play well in many local contexts and that tends not to reward, and sometimes actively to discourage networking based on prayer, relationships, resource sharing and genuine partnerships in the gospel that may cross congregational and denominational lines.

So what might a missional future for a global UMC look like? Is maximal support and minimal interference either necessary or sufficient?

Maximal support, maybe. But the question would be support for what, and how that support is given and received. Are we talking about support for exporting or expanding congregation centered models? Or are we talking about support, globally shared, for reconstructing something more like original Wesleyan Methodism, which was much more about missional groups and networks of individuals who ALSO related to congregations, but congregations of many labels and types. And what criteria would be used to determine how support is raised and where it goes? Would they be about extending and spreading effective missional models (those that are clearly making a strong spiritual impression and community impact), or about rewarding whoever can plant the largest or the most congregations?

Minimal interference? If by interference we mean something like "bureaucratic leadership" (an oxymoron that is still being tried without getting how oxymoronic that is) or all sorts of red tape or merely institutional accountability (not to malign the importance of that, but it's not enough!), then yes, minimize that, indeed eliminate that wholesale at every turn. But not all interference is created equal. Missional interference-- people who keep the vision and the basic structures of our common life to keep us missional out in front of us and insist we keep moving in that direction, or call us on it where we don't-- that, I think is indispensable. I think we have to ask whether the lack of interference by anyone in "white" US Methodism to recall us decisively to our missional structures in the 19th century has in fact served us well missionally. We need people whose job is to say, as perhaps Dr. Phil would ask, "How well is that working for you?"

Dr. Weems goes on to say:
The money required for a global governance system on the traditional U.S. model could, if rechanneled, mean the difference in life or death to untold numbers of people, missions, congregations, schools, and clergy around the world.

I think that's spot on. The current US model is VERY expensive and AT LEAST RELATIVELY challenged in its effectiveness missionally AND institutionally-- unless by institutional effectiveness one is measuring things like financial spreadsheets and audit reports. (And again, it's a good thing that we do that, too-- but that can't be the final or even the essential measure even of institutional effectiveness). We could do much, much better IF the rechanneling were in fact rechanneling into our Wesleyan missional identity, purpose and impact primarily, and THEN into institutions who are designed from the ground up to support and be adaptive to that identity, purpose and impact in and across the global church and Wesleyan missional structures we may aspire to be.

What are you seeing about these questions through Wesleyan missional lenses?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards