Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
As indicated previously, I had the honor of preparing a document for the Commission on a Way Forward for use in developing their Missional Framework. This is the fourth post in a series explaining what I sent to the Commission and why. In these posts, I speak about my own writing and am not commenting on how the Commission used that writing or the final Missional Framework they developed.
The document I prepared is structured into three sections: a set of affirmations about mission, a set of affirmations about the church, and a set of values flowing from these two sets of affirmations. In this post, I want to reflect on the affirmations about the church.
Since the request from the Commission to me had been presented as a request for a “missional ecclesiology” (emphasis added), I felt compelled to reflect not only on the nature of mission but on the nature of the church. As I noted in the introduction to this series, given the recent release of Wonder, Love and Praise, I did not feel it necessary to reflect on the theological nature of the church (e.g., as rooted in grace) in my document. Instead, I decided to reflect on the nature of the church from the perspective of distinctive Methodist attitudes toward and practices of being the church.
I thought this section needed to begin with the observation, also emphasized in the “Preface” of the long version of my document, that Methodism is both a missional movement and a church (or several churches). Beginning with this observation serves to put the identified practices into missional perspective. Methodists practice church in these ways not for their own sakes, but for the sake of mission. This is historically true – John Wesley used missional effectiveness as his metric for evaluating most practices of the church – and it has been true at many other points throughout our history. The evolution of our polity is often driven by the evolution of our mission.
With this context in mind, I then presented what I thought were four practices of being the church that I thought characterized Methodism broadly across time, space, and specific denomination – connectionalism, conferencing, appointive ministry, and general superintendency.
These four are probably not the only such characteristics shared by Methodists broadly, but they seemed particularly important and/or relevant to mission. Each gets at what I see as core functions of a denomination – decision-making, clergy deployment, oversight, and shared ministry.
Thus, the choice of these four is also geared toward a view of the church as a denomination rather than the church as the local congregation. This focus on the denominational level is not meant to devalue the work of local congregations. There can be no denomination without local congregations. Nevertheless, I understood the Commission’s work as entailing making decisions regarding the denomination as a whole, including its local congregations. Moreover, the key Methodist concept of connectionalism works against focusing primarily on separate local congregations.
I called these four Methodist hallmarks “practices,” both as an acknowledgement of Methodism’s generally practical orientation to ecclesiology, and as a recognition that each of the four implied not only beliefs but more importantly a set of regular actions. Methodists don’t just believe in connectionalism; we also engage in actions and create structures to help us connect.
As noted in the “Preamble” of the original, long version of my work, the actions we have used to practice these four hallmarks have changed over the centuries of Methodism. Conferencing, for instance, is still essential, but quarterly conferences are not what they used to be. Thus, the ways in which we currently live out these four practices are not the only ways to do so, and it would be possible to do so in the future in different ways without abandoning our commitment to these practices. I believe recognizing that possibility of faithfulness amid change frees us for the future.
A final affirmation about the ecumenical nature of the church is also intended to free us in our thinking. Methodists have always been ecumenists. The United Methodist Church is not the One True Church outside of which is no salvation, and no one pretends it is. Indeed, The United Methodist Church is just one denomination within the larger stream of Methodism.
Denominations are useful as organizational structures, but they are not prescribed in the Bible, and we would do well to remember that our attachment to denominations or particular denominational structures, while it may reflect sincere belief and devotion, is separate from our attachment to Christ’s church and the kingdom of God. When we consider how to change our denomination, we are making changes to human structures, not divine ones. That is not to say that our decisions are not important, but that our human actions cannot alter divine truths. That knowledge, I hope, gives us a little more courage in how we proceed.