Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Why I Will Not Save The United Methodist Church

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.

There are a lot of people out there with a plan to save The United Methodist Church. These plans vary, both in the way they identify what the UMC must be saved from and how to do that saving. They range from implementing new managerial techniques and institutional strategies, to adopting certain social and theological positions, to reconfiguring the structure of the denomination, to saving the best parts of United Methodism by establishing them in a new denomination. Though they don't agree on how, there are a lot of people out there that think they are going to save The United Methodist Church.

Not me.

It's not that I might not like to save The United Methodist Church. As someone who was brought up in a United Methodist congregation, nurturing spiritually and intellectually through a series of United Methodist churches and Methodist-founded colleges, and is currently employed by a United Methodist agency, there are many reasons why I might like to save The United Methodist Church.

And it's not that I don't have any ideas about how The United Methodist Church might be a better version of itself. Anyone who has read this blog long enough knows that I have views on the UMC and some things I think would improve it.

It's more that I have a healthy sense of limitations, both my own and human limitations generally.

First, I take issue with the idea that The United Methodist Church can be saved by any one individual. That notion fits well with the "Great Man" theory of history and with American cultural sensibilities around heroic individualism, but it doesn't fit well with careful study of how social and religious movements actually come to pass.

Renewal movements are just that--movements, which extend far beyond the work or actions of any one person. Certainly, central figures play important roles in movement. Far be it from any religious descendant of John Wesley to say that central figures do not matter to movements. But Wesley did not build the Methodism movement alone. Not only were there many others who worked with him (shout out to Charles!), but he also drew upon ideas that came from outside himself, even if he combined them in sometimes novel ways.

So, if The United Methodist Church is to be saved, it will not be because of the work of some heroic individual, but rather because God has brought about through many contributions the necessary conditions for the denomination's salvation.

Second, while I have some ideas for reform of the church, I am keenly aware of the challenges facing the denomination and my inadequacy to single-handedly solve those problems. Within the United States alone, the denomination is facing a long-term general decline in religiosity, decreasing relevance of denominations, increasing distrust of and antipathy towards institutions, and increasing social and religious polarization. Globally, add to that the challenges of intercultural communication, economic inequality, shifting centers of Christian vitality, and other mega-trends.

While I can list off these challenges, I do not know how the UMC should best steer itself through these stormy waters so as to ensure the continued spiritual growth of its members and organizational well-being for the denomination as a whole. I don't even know how to solve one of these challenges, let alone all of them together.

Third, even if I did have the solutions to these problems, I recognize the limitations of my medium. I write a blog. I have no ability to command the actions of others or the use of resources. The best I can muster is to write something that I hope will be persuasive to the several hundred or couple thousand people that might read it. What they do with whatever ideas they gleam from my writings is outside my direct control. And those people are getting other ideas from other blogs, conversations, podcasts, sermons, etc., most of which probably differ substantially from my ideas.

I have no corner on the market for offering ideas for church renewal. Instead, it's a saturated market, and it is hard for anyone to break through beyond a core audience, let alone to motivate their audience to participate in a movement.

Fourth and finally, I probably come from the wrong social location for someone who will save The United Methodist Church. Historically, saviors come from the margins. They have some connections to the system they reform so as to provide them with enough familiarity with the system and education to think critically about that system, but they're not sitting at the seats of power.

I'm not a bishop or the leader of a large congregation, but I do work for an agency, which gives me some standing in the current system. I am an American, straight, white, well-educated male. I have a lot of privilege. If you were going to look for someone who could save or revitalize The United Methodist Church or the Methodist movement more broadly, that person would probably differ from me in some important part of their identity or background.

So there you go: I'm not going to save The United Methodist Church.

But here's what I am going to do: I'm going to try my best to work faithfully on the task before me with the best knowledge and wisdom I have.

My doing that won't save the denomination. But perhaps my work can make a small contribution toward setting the conditions necessary for Methodism to flourish, in the United States and around the world. Someone else will lead that flourishing, but that's okay with me. I don't need to save the UMC; I just need to be faithful to the work God has given me.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these insightful comments. Sometimes what one can do to serve seems so insignificant in a world with such overwhelming needs. We need to hear these kind of reminders now and then.