A UM Missional Future: Path 3-- The United Methodist Way

Part 13 of 21...

Path Three: "Teaching the Wesleyan model of forming disciples of Jesus Christ"

"The United Methodist Way," was a paper presented by Randy Maddox at the Extended Cabinet retreat in Lake Junaluska last November, where bishops and their extended cabinets (DSes, DCMs and some other conference staff) heard Lovett Weems's Ten Provocative Questions, reflected around what "The United Methodist Way" might look like, and were offered sort of a first round of what will be in effect a 6 hour presentation at General Conference linking the Vision Pathways and the Four Focus Areas-- and how this is hoped to play out for the good of the mission of the denomination. They also got a first look at Bishop Reuben Job's new little book on the General Rules called Three Simple Rules. (I'm not trying to promote the book here-- just let you know it exists. I won't even be discussing it in this series-- if you want to talk with me about it, contact me directly at: burtonedwards at gmail dot com).

A lot was presented in Junaluska. And a lot of it was very good and very hopeful for a missional United Methodist future.

Here, I want to keep the focus primarily around "The United Methodist Way," a critical paper developed by a team led by Randy Maddox. It's well worth the read. I've downloaded it into a file I call "basics"-- a place where I store what I consider to be core documents for my life and ministry. I think it's that essential. I hope its insights about early Methodism can be widely felt.

"The United Methodist Way" begins by noting the degree to which United Methodism today looks far more like the Church of England (and I would add, the vast majority of all the various churches in England) during the eighteenth century than it looks like Methodism-- "marked by much nominal commitment and spiritual lethargy." Why has this happened? Maddox suggests this in in part because we traded our heritage of an accountable way of life for bragging rights about our peculiar polity and institutional strength. I'd say it's also in part because we got confused about what church was and could be after we were changed from a movement alongside churches into a church by Mr. Wesley's action and the General Conference's affirmation in 1784.

Maddox reminds us that Mr. Wesley was afraid this kind of thing could happen. In the most-quoted line from his 1786 piece, "Thoughts upon Methodism," Wesley wrote:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

Maddox uses the last few words about "doctrine, spirit and discipline" (though in a slightly different order) to organize his thoughts about the critical elements of early Methodism that made it the missional, incarnational, evangelical and transformational dynamo it was. It was "centered in the work of the Holy Spirit," "shaped by vital Christian doctrine," and grounded within "a rich set of Disciplines" described and lived as the General Rules.

What the paper then proposes is that we as a denomination seek to help congregations recover these core principles and practices. It suggests we begin by lifting up places where these kinds of things are already taking place among United Methodists-- and particularly in its programmatic life-- resources such as Disciple Bible Study (doctrine), Covenant Discipleship (discipline around the General Rules), and Volunteers in Mission (rule 2 practices). (But also see my colleague, Steve Manskar's blog post, Programmitis).

Then it suggests we take the second step, both a systematic analysis and a "creative retrieval" of "those dimensions of the Methodist Way that have been lost over the years due to neglect or abuse." This, it notes, will be a challenge that has to be carried out at all levels of denominational life, including pastors (who will need to retrieve the role of "practical theologians").

Here's the problem I see with this proposed remedy: It won't work. Indeed, I'd argue it can't work-- at least not well. The politics and institutional realities being what they are, what can be generated by this sort of "denomination wide" analysis and training for creative retrieval will be a lot of work, a heck of a lot of bills (of the financial and legislative sort), even more resistance (because every stakeholder will want input), and almost no progress. Frankly, I think that trying to do Step 2 as a primary means toward a more missional Methodist end could end up being be a serious distraction that could mean and perhaps even ensure a more rapid decline on every front.


Think missional and think early Methodist. Our early Methodist mDNA has no bias toward analysis and institutional process. It has a bias toward action. It did not try to reform the Church of England per se. Let me say that again. Methodism was not a reform movement to rescue moribund Anglicanism, nor moribund congregations of any other denomination. It was a movement to make Christians who were living every day the ritual they enacted and the faith they professed in their various congregations of many traditions on Sunday morning.

Try to take this new wine into the institutional mechanisms of the existing denomination and you'll get one of two results: a busted wineskin and a wine-stained floor, OR given enough institutional pressure/inertia, a deeply watered down or domesticated version of the original that won't be recognizable as new wine at all.

Sound familiar?

"having the form of religion without the power"

This isn't because institutions are bad per se. The problem is that the denominational and congregational institutions as we have them are simply not designed to make missional Christians, much less to enable or deploy much of what early Methodists were up to. We're idea and continuity structures and supply houses, not on the ground missiologists. A variety of UM institutions can and do provide SOME supports for those among us who may try to OPT to live into Methodism, either as individuals or as groups within or around congregations. We do have Covenant Discipleship, and a staff person (my colleague, Steve Manskar) to try to help that happen in more places. We do have a lot of folks inside GBOD (and other agencies) who get it that some of the best help we can provide might be to ask really good questions that help tease us into thinking and acting missionally rather than offer ready-made, plug and play fixes. We're not the enemy. We can be helpful in a variety of ways. But we're not the answer.

You are.

If Mr. Wesley had waited around for the Church of England to engage in a massive self-study about how it could reclaim the core practices of, for example, Celtic Christianity
in appropriate ways in the various missional and cultural contexts in which congregations found themselves in England, Methodism wouldn't have happened. Methodism was not generated by the institutions of the churches, nor by the congregations. It was often opposed by them (for a variety of reasons, and at times with due cause!). But the C of E (or church of whatever denomination) did not and could not have done what Methodism was doing or even have helped it very much. The institutional churches couldn't take much if any credit for Methodism, though they could (and did) benefit from the renewal of life happening in Methodists who happened also to be part of their congregations and institutions.

Methodism was the peculiar work of God enacted by the people, the vast majority of whom were laity, ALONGSIDE (and neither within nor over against) their existing denominational/congregational/institutional structures, doing what they did without big studies and organizational realignments and bureaucratic approval/authorization systems, but with deep clarity, passion, and commitment. These were people out to become holy, to live and serve as Christians all the time, and to invite others to do that with them. If the congregation and other C of E (or other denominational) institutions came along and were supportive at times, great. If not, at least until 1784 on this side of the pond, the commitment was to stay Methodist AND whatever else they were first-- to be present and fully engaged with both as much as they could.

That said, the institutional forms of the United Methodist Church (including UM congregations) can be helpful-- just not generative. And the "appendix" of Randy Maddox's article offers some helpful indicators for what a congregation that is being more "Methodist friendly" (my term) might look like and a list of proposals for actions bishops could take to provide leadership into a more "Methodist friendly" way. My only quarrel with that list is what appears to be its inherent assumption that the congregation, the denominational, or the pastoral leadership being "Methodist friendly" is the same as Methodism actually happening in the lives of Christians in, around or in spite of it.

The take away: Let's live the Methodist way! Let's support institutions trying to do this, too. But let's not get confused and think the latter is the same as the former. When WE live this way, maybe someday the institutions (including congregations) will figure out how to relate more helpfully to Methodism and mDNA. If we expect them to do it for us or even generate it among us, well...

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards