Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Same Calling/Divergent Paths

Much has transpired since the last posting to this blog on January 12th ("Methodism Deconstructed"). For starters, two people very dear to me, Pat and Hilda Baker, left the United Methodist Church to start a new one in Caldwell called "Area 3:16." Pat Baker was one of the CLMs who graduated in Class '10 and Hilda is the author of "Standing at the Cross Roads." Both are very devoted disciples of Christ and ardent supporters of Walk to Emmaus. Both lovingly give of their time at Cross Roads Retreat which hosts spiritual renewal programs for Christian groups and each Walk organized by the Brazos Valley Emmaus Community.

Hilda has the depth of faith that I've always wished that I could claim but never had enough conviction to fully embrace. She has always been one who has searched out God's will for her life, and once discovered, let nothing stand in the way of fully living that out. Maybe the one of the best examples of that is her influence on Pat - she was the instrument used to bring him to Christ. Today, as pastor of Area 3:16 Pat is no longer a mere follower of Christ but a spiritual shepherd ministering to others as well.

In contrast to Hilda's intense spiritual resolve and Pat's total surrender to His service, I spent 16 years pretty much hiding out from what I knew God's call to be for my life. With the exception of a brief foray to Lott and occasional service as pulpit supply around our district I never really surrendered my will. I found the oasis provided by my little country church in a town that time conveniently forgot to be the perfect spot for me to reside in comfortable denial of who I am in Christ and to Whom I am called to serve.

While the Bakers and I share pretty much identical viewpoints on how far the Methodist Church has strayed from its roots and the resultant tragedy of its decline, God was clearly moving me to a path separate from theirs. Like Pat, I too, felt the call to ministry but instead of doing a "new thing" I was led out of my oasis and into the mire of broken systems within our denomination – everything that I had purposely avoided for years.

Although God had been preparing me for pastoral ministry for 20 years, clich├ęs like "culture shock" and "mind-blowing experiences" don't even scratch the surface of what was to happen after finally submitting my will to His. In saying "yes" to Him, He has propelled me to an accelerated spiritual-growth regimen that leaves me feeling like I am waking up in a new world everyday and I no longer recognize the man that I have become. So much of what was once familiar has been transformed to become something distinctly different as seen through new eyes. But the same cannot be said of our denomination.

It is still full of broken systems and apparently stuck in a spiraling decline, but that doesn't necessarily mean God isn't still at work in the midst of it all. God's glory has been revealed in the numerous mistakes of mankind and religious systems flawed by well-meaning human intervention through the ages. Indeed, it is through just such situations that we often seem to encounter Him. Now, instead of looking at the brokenness of the church I search with my new eyes for where God is working in the church. Regardless of what detractors might say, He is still here and very much at work in our midst. And, there is still much kingdom building to be done regardless of existing conditions in our denomination. In recognition of all this He has led me to a place where I can finally respond, "Here am I, Lord. Send me."

COMMENTARY: A Missional Future—The United Methodist Way

Mar 24, 2008

By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Special Contributor

At the November extended cabinet retreat at Lake Junaluska, Duke Divinity School professor Randy Maddox presented a paper on “The United Methodist Way.”

Much of what was presented was very good and very hopeful for a missional United Methodist future. I want to focus on the critical paper developed by a team that Dr. Maddox led. A copy of Dr. Maddox’s paper is available athttp://www.gbod.org/extendedcabinet/UMWay.pdf. It’s well worth the read.

I’ve even downloaded it into a file I call “basics,” where I store core documents for my life and ministry. I think it’s that essential, and I hope its insights about early Methodism can be widely felt.

Dr. Maddox says United Methodism today looks far more like the Church of England during the 18th century than it looks like Methodism, being “marked by much nominal commitment and spiritual lethargy.” Why has this happened? He suggests it’s partly 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 because we became confused about what church was and could be, after we changed from a movement that sprang up alongside churches to becoming a church ourselves through John Wesley’s action and the General Conference’s affirmation in 1784.

Wesley was afraid this kind of thing could happen, Dr. Maddox reminds us. In the most-quoted line from his 1786 “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.”

Dr. Maddox says “doctrine, spirit and discipline” were the critical elements of early Methodism that made it the missional, incarnational, evangelical and transformational dynamo it was. As described in the General Rules, it was “centered in the work of the Holy Spirit,” “shaped by vital Christian doctrine” and grounded within “a rich set of Disciplines.”

He proposes that we try to help congregations recover these core principles and practices, beginning by highlighting where they are already taking place, such as Disciple Bible Study, Covenant Discipleship and Volunteers In Mission.

He also suggests a second step: a systematic analysis and “creative retrieval” of “those dimensions of the Methodist Way that have been lost over the years due to neglect or abuse.” This, he adds, will have to be carried out at all levels of denominational life; pastors, for instance, will need to retrieve their role as “practical theologians.”

Here’s the problem that I see with this proposed remedy: It won’t work. Indeed, it can’t work—at least not well. The politics and institutional realities of the church being what they are, the only things that can be generated by this kind of denominational analysis and attempts at retrieval will be a lot of work, a lot of bills (of the financial and legislative sort), even greater resistance because every stakeholder will want input, and almost no progress.

Attempting the second step could become a serious distraction that could precipitate a more rapid decline.

Here’s why: Think missional and think early Methodist. Our early Methodist missional DNA had no bias toward analysis and institutional process; it had 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 Anglican congregations. It was a movement to make disciples who would live out every day what they professed on Sunday morning.

Trying to bring this new wine into the institutional mechanisms of the current denomination will result in either a busted wineskin and a wine-stained floor, or given enough institutional pressure/inertia, a deeply domesticated version of the original that won’t be recognizable as new wine at all.

This isn’t because institutions are inherently bad. The problem is that our current denominational and congregational institutions are simply not designed to make missional Christians, much less deploy much of what early Methodists were up to.

We are continuity structures and supply houses, not on-the-ground missiologists.

Some United Methodist institutions can and do provide support for those of us who try to live into Methodism. We have a lot of folks inside the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD) and other agencies who “get it”: that some of the best help we can provide is to ask really good questions that tease us into thinking and acting missionally rather than to offer ready-made fixes.

We’re not the enemy. We can be helpful in a variety of ways. But we’re not the answer.

You are.

If 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 Celtic Christianity in the missional and cultural contexts in which congregations found themselves, Methodism would never have taken root. Methodism was not generated by the institutions of the churches nor by the congregations. In fact, it was often opposed by them—and at times, with due cause!

The Church of England did not and could not have done what Methodism was doing. The institutional churches couldn’t take credit for Methodism, though they could and did benefit from the renewal of life happening in Methodists who happened to be part of their congregations and institutions.

Methodism was the peculiar work of God enacted by the people, most of whom were laity, alongside their existing denominational/congregational/institutional structures, without analytical studies, organizational realignments and bureaucratic authorization systems, but with deep clarity, passion and commitment.

These people were out to become holy, to live and serve as Christians, and to invite others to join them. If the institutions came along supportively at times, great. If not, they were still committed to stay Methodist and whatever else they were, to be present and fully engaged with both as much as they could.

The current institutional forms of the United Methodist Church can be helpful but are probably not generative of the renewal we need. The appendix of Dr. Maddox’s article gives indicators for what Methodist-friendly (my term) congregations look like and what bishops and others could do to provide leadership toward that end.

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 begin to live this way, maybe someday the institutions—including congregations—will figure out how to relate more helpfully to the Methodist missional DNA. But let’s not expect them to do it for us.

The Rev. Burton-Edwards is director of worship resources for the GBOD. This commentary was excerpted from a post at emergingumc.blogspot.com.