Review VII: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is not a Private Affair”

Welcome to the penultimate post in my series on Bishop Willimon’s book Why I am a United Methodist. My last post will come a bit later with some of my overall thoughts.

One of the major assumptions of our westernized (and increasingly secular) culture is that religion should just be something we keep in the privacy of our hearts and homes. Such a view shows that those who hold this view probably do not understand religion. What if I were to counter: “Please, keep your secularism in the privacy of your home and out of the public”? If we believe in something so strongly that it has re-shaped our entire lives, then how can anyone ask us to conveniently compartmentalize our lives? It is a tension within Christian thought as to just how exactly the Church should affect the world around it. So I won’t get into the theory of how exactly we should be salt and light in the world. I’ll merely say that the compartmentalization that many in this world ask of us is impossible. A changed life is a changed life. And such a change spreads out all around the life in one way or another.

“…One of John Wesley’s great insights was that the Christian life, if taken seriously, is far too demanding to live alone… If all the Christian life involves is a momentary realization of God’s saving grace (justification), then who needs friends for that? But if (as Wesley contended) the Christian life also involves maturation and growth in grace (sanctification), then you can never do it by yourself.” (Page 118)

So it’s not only that we affect the world around us, but also that the term “solitary Christian” is simply an oxymoron. There is no such species. We can no sooner be a “Christian, alone” than we can be an elephant. The Christian life is much more than simply having some particular ideas or feelings.

“Jesus’ message was not a simple ‘Do you agree?’ or ‘Do you feel?’ but ‘Will you join up?’ Will you come forward to be part of a movement, a people? So being a Christian is more than a vague feeling or intellectual assent. It is also discipleship, discipline, embodiment. The church is the very Body of Christ, the specific, institutional, corporate, in the flesh form which the Risen Christ has chosen to take in the world… It affirms that Christ’s promised, predominant presence is in and through the organizational church.” (Page 110)

We are a movement and thus, we are a Church. The Church is how our movement is structured. The United Methodist Church is perhaps unique among denominations for our particular structure. It is termed “connectionalism.” Now, as is usual, the bureaucracy is a bit difficult to describe. So let me just say that connectionalism is a form of episcopal polity with a touch of congregationalism to it. We have bishops and a Council of Bishops, but we also have conferences where lay leadership is also stressed.

John Wesley realized that:

“Sometimes it takes a good shove from our brothers and sisters for us to do what is right.” (Page 107)

So our church utilizes bishops with authority over local churches.

“Pastors are assigned on the basis of the bishop’s assessment of that congregation’s missional needs rather than on the basis of how much the congregation can pay or on the basis of a few powerful people’s wishes. Sometimes this means that the pastor you get is the one you need rather than simply the one you like.” (Page 114)

A purely congregational polity can be problematic. It can lead to a particular church becoming far too introverted and isolated from the broader church. One of our local baptist churches is actually experiencing problems from this right now. The leader of the committee that is searching for a new pastor is very strict about what he wants the pastor to believe. This church may receive the pastor that it wants. But will he be the pastor they need? We’re usually not very good at assessing our own needs. We turn a blind eye to our own sins and weak spots.

At the same time that we have bishops with authority, our conferences have strong lay participation because we realize that the professional clergy do not always have a monopoly on theology or missional ideas. Some of our best groups have been lay-led organizations. I’ve often said that if it were not for the United Methodist Women, our denomination would have died long ago. The UMW is at the forefront of many of our missional, charitable, and welcoming efforts.

At the same time,

“Wesley had no interest, nor should we, in organization for its own sake… Our organization is for the sake of mission.” (Page 110)

The church structure is a structure that serves a purpose. It is not a self-propagating bureaucracy (or at least it shouldn’t be.) As I mentioned in my last post, it is the mission that forms us and it is on the mission that we should be focused. If we worry about that, the structure can take care of itself. But if we start to worry about the structure for its own sake, then we lose sight of the mission and begin (or continue) to die.

Bishop Willimon had this insight about local church structure and how it should be shaped to correspond to missional need:

“There is no such thing as a large church, only large numbers of small groups who happen to gather in the same building. As Mr. Wesley discovered, the church, no matter how big it becomes, is still primarily a face-to-face meeting of friends who know and care about one another.” (Page 112)

No matter how big a church becomes, it must remember this fact. The church is primarily a community. Without a sense of community, the church is merely a show put on to entertain and maybe inspire individuals. An inflated and glorified philosophy of individualism is one of the greatest dangers the Church (and likely human community in general) is facing.

“Individuals shop around for a religious enclave that ‘meets my needs,’ turning religion into yet another item for personal consumption. Sunday morning church is described as a ‘filling station,’ a place where I come to get my needs fulfilled, my spirit serviced for another week. We judge all experiences, people, ideas on the basis of personal fulfillment–What’s in it for me? The Christian church, in this cultural context, can degenerate into a center for therapy, a place to discuss assorted religious ideas, or a stage for religious entertainment. If this cafeteria-line approach to religion is criticized, the response is, ‘Well, at least they are meeting people’s needs.’ We United Methodists are committed to meeting human need… But Christian mission involves meeting human needs in the name of Christ. That makes all the difference because the gospel rearranges our definitions of ‘human need.’” (Page 117)


~ by crossingthebosporus on September 4, 2012.

2 Responses to “Review VII: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is not a Private Affair””

  1. I love this – so much wisdom there, so much to chew on, intellectually, and so much spiritual insight. I am so glad you are exploring your own tradition – because you are enriching all those of us who read this 🙂

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