Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Church or Movement?

For as long as I have been a United Methodist pastor there has been ongoing conversation about whether or not the United Methodist Church is a church or movement.  Again and again, I have heard references as to how and why we should become a movement:  "That's what Wesley launched:  a movement, not a church!"  "If we can only recapture the movement..."  I can even recall a bishop who made such a claim:  "We are not really a church but a movement."

I find this kind of rhetoric fanciful.  I also wonder if it reflects a deeper unwillingness to come to grips with our doctrine and polity as United Methodist, or as Albert Outler observed, that as United Methodists we really do not want to have an "ecclesiology" because we simply have not had to deal with it:  i.e., we really don't want to deal with the kind of accountability 'being the church' implies.  We have been so good at putting our eggs in the 'movement' basket that we keep kicking the ecclesial can down the road, saying things and doing things with little to no understanding about what it means to be 'church.'  Hence, we have little awareness of our own discipline or doctrine.  Persons can believe what they want!  Or, at least, that's what I am told...

That may sound crass, but I don't think it is far from the truth.  In addition, even if we were to become a movement again, it still wouldn't solve our problems with doctrine, discipline, and polity.  I don't think Wesley stopped doing the hard work of spiritual direction and doctrinal formation in the midst of revival without the ecclesial mechanisms of authority and accountability in place.  In fact, the whole Wesleyan movement could not be sustained if it didn't have the ecclesial marks or ways of identifying it!  That's part of what is so contested today among Wesleyans and Methodists:  What makes us unique?  We don't seem to know.

The whole conversation about whether we are a movement or a church is non-starter, at least for me; it has become another way to avoid the kind of theological work we need to be doing as the Church.  We can only pray that the Spirit will move us in that direction.


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