In Search of Normative Methodism

Often times I hear people describe why they go to a specific church. I imagine the reasoning has shifted over the decades. I grew up as a Southern Baptist preachers kid, but never knew why we were Baptist. I found out in late adolescence that I wasn’t that Baptist after all, and that went on a search to find a faith tradition that both made sense to my own spiritual journey as well as the strong background in scripture and discipleship that I carried as part of my family.

So I became a Methodist.

When people ask me, I typically say it was two things that really made it happen; the discovery of the Great Tradition (especially the Apostles Creed) and the doctrine of Entire Sanctification. I ended up officially becoming a United Methodist during my last year in seminary.

I enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary because it was the only place I didn’t hear people complain about. I also liked how many people who were on the translation team of the NLT taught there. Also, my dad was on the faculty at an SBC seminary and joked that I would probably get thrown out the first month at one of the SBC schools.

I started off my Master’s in Divinity as an oddball semi-progressive Southern Baptist and finished it as a United Methodist. I entered our official ordination process and was excited to have a firm denominational anchor.

But my anchor couldn’t really dig in.

To that point, my only experience of Methodism had been a campus ministry led by an Asbury Seminary graduate, a downtown county seat Methodist church (pastored by an Asbury Graduate and full of professors at Asbury and other institutional related folks) and an inner-city restart (pastored by another Asbury graduate).

When I took my first church back home in North Louisiana I carried a multitude of assumptions with me that were quickly proven to be just that…assumptions. No one knew about Entire Sanctification, the choir would share marvelous anthems but didn’t sing Wesley Hymns, and I came to the first set of “well, we are Methodist because we can believe what we want” in the actual wild. And this isn’t any sort of judgment on the appointment (it was a fabulous three years), but instead my own lesson in the power of assumptions and falsely imposing my experience upon others.

I assumed my experience and understanding of Methodism and the United Methodist Church was normative for everyone. Instead, I learned it was only normative for me.

And since then I have grown. In some ways, I have moved more to the left, while in others I have moved towards the right. I pretty much hang out in the exact center most of the time. I’ve got things I don’t agree with, things I am uncomfortable with, things I can live with and things I am deeply passionate about. I developed a deep passion for evangelism, more so than experiential worship and corporate expressions of faith (which were my jam in seminary). I’ve learned many things that I feel contribute not to just me being a better pastor, but a better Christian. I’ve learned where my own theological training was deficient and grown from relationships with other pastors different from me. I’ve also learned I can’t “leadership” my way out of tough pastoral situations and sometimes we need to do the parts of ministry that aren’t native to our skill set.

My Normal Has Changed.

Outside of my denominations current theological fracas, I realized that many things I assumed to be understood and “normal” were unheard of. When I heard of all of the controversies of our doctrinal standards in the 1972 and then 1988 section of the Discipline (Our Theological Task) I thought it was unimaginable. These attempts to create larger boundaries, encompassing a diverse denomination, have taken on a multi-generational life that gives us a diverse understanding of who the people called Methodist actually are.

And that leads us to where we are today. A “big tent”, furled across a variety of landscapes. It has churches of all shapes and stripes, full of all sorts of different people. These churches are pastored by people with multiple graduate degrees to certified lay ministers with training led at the district level.

The seminary trained pastors have come from an assemblage of seminaries, both “official” schools and recognized schools, each with their own coursework and qualifications for the degrees.

One of my fun pet projects over the last few years has been looking at both degree plans and transcripts from the variety of schools that train United Methodist Pastors. Even inside of that project, we find a high degree of variance. Outside of the 4 Methodist classes, hardly any of the training resembles what a graduate of the same degree at a different school would have on their transcript.

My fear is that not only in our current arguing place of human sexuality but also in any other sort of doctrinal conversation we claim the catholic spirit and the idea of holy conferencing without having a shared footing of experience and tradition. Both local congregations and pastors have different ideas of what defines Methodism. This was a bragging point and a cultural identifier at one point in time, but it has taken us to a place where we often struggle to hear others and to be heard because we instantly assume our own definition of Methodism is the same as those we are both talking with and talking about.

Like I assumed my definition of Methodism was the same as my first appointments, we too easily step into very important conversations assuming the exact same thing. In short, we each put on our own theological 3D glasses that attempt to transform the reality of others into something that most resembles what is going on inside of our head.

So I want to think some about what I like to call “Normative Methodism”. How I think churches are typically Methodist (and how they might define it), how we as clergy contribute to this mess, and finally offer a few suggestions on moving forward as a family (because you can’t complain without trying to fix), regardless of the outcome of the next 18 months.

How Congregations Identify Normative Methodism

How do congregations see themselves as Methodist, and how to begin to define what normative Methodism looks like in the eyes of the local church?

I remember asking a church member what was the big difference between our church and the larger First church down the road. We had started 60 years before as a plant and were sent to the edges of town. In the years since then, they had moved out even further than their plant had.

She told me, in the beginning, this was the church for younger people. And once it had been an established congregation, in a permanent campus for almost 20 years, the other church moved and began building it’s current facilities. At that point in time, they were defined by a more formal style of worship (this was during the liturgical resurgence movement). Now, my then church was seen as a healthy neighborhood congregation of around 300 weekly while the First church was a more regional worshipping community of 600 or so.

In the 60 years since the two methodist churches co-existed, there had been three unique shifts of mission and purpose. And another church was started at the same time, flourished, moved, and now all three are within 5 miles or so driving and 2 as the crow flies. And each very different.

Regardless of our shared theological heritage and denominational connexion (much less essentially serving the same demographic and mission field), they are three very different congregations.

And I think this is a small microcosm of the entire denomination. As much as we like to point to the discipline and our denominational framework, our localized culture creates unique visions of differentiation in each church. This happens outside of any sort of faith framework. And all of these variations can be called Methodist.

In fact, the only anchor point every single methodist church has is the conference relationship. We can look to our theological task, our doctrinal standards, and the hymnal…but local culture will trump institutional regulation every time. We might even go so far as to say the greatest point of theological congruence is the hymnal! (1)

So our own system provides many of the unstable theological grounds we find ourselves in!

Our own system, created and called to be extremely diverse, is often the only thing actually shared by any congregation that is United Methodist, in effect, we have baptized the method while making a decision to agree/disagree on the mission.

If we had to find a normative anchor in the average United Methodist congregation, it would have to be strong enough for the local church to survive whatever storms the annual conference and the denomination throw at it. Often, I think it is the very relationships people have there are that anchor. In a negative way, this gets worked out in the classic clergy attack of “You’ll be gone and I’ll still be here” and in the positive an understanding of how each church receives a pastor with a skillset they might have not seen before, in theory strengthening the congregation in each appointment.

Most people I know are finding their home in any church for a few reasons.

  1. It fits the needs of their family.
  2. It provides a pleasurable experience.
  3. Their family has historically belonged to the congregation.
  4. It serves as a denominational midpoint to a married couple (one is Catholic and the other Baptist).

Very rarely do I now see people holding to some sort of strong denominational belief. At one of the churches I lead, we see more people not growing up in church period, rather than growing up Methodist and moving to town and finding a new church. This new style of church affiliation means people are bringing a plethora of theological ideas (known and unknown) in the congregational space. Some claim this new category of methodist and others (especially from reason #4) will always claim the faith tradition of their childhood…even if they’ve been away from it longer than they’ve been part of it.

Internally, congregations can’t define normative Methodism from a doctrinal standpoint among themselves.

I’ve seen all sorts of different surveys as to congregations thoughts in regards to The Way Forward and our debate over human sexuality. And they all look different. When at the Leadership Institute at Church of the Resurrection this year, it seemed we were overwhelming in favor of changing the restrictive language of the discipline. I can also look at surveys taken by other annual conferences and see that a large number oppose any change to the language of the discipline.

I simply don’t think we can trust straw polls. Because straw polls typically happen within people of a like-minded expression of normative.

I think we have two things going on. The first is that only the outer 10–15% of our local churches actually care about our current debate over human sexuality. They care about being an expression of the church that missionally attaches itself to ministry with those marginalized and typically left out of the greater church ecosystem. The second is that most folks don’t go to a United Methodist church because they are Methodist…it’s just the place where they have found a home to worship in.

Normative methodism, in the eyes of the local congregation, is exactly what that congregation is used to and who they are.

How Clergy learn and (can’t) Express Normative Methodism.

I remember a particular interesting class in seminary. It was an intro to philosophy that I put off until my last year. We were talking about something, and I was the typical loud-mouthed pupil that always wanted to talk. What I do remember was a conversation about fundamentalism and I made a statement along the lines of “fundamentalism isn’t actually a belief system, it’s an unbelief system. Fundamentalists rarely believe in something, they just don’t believe in a lot of somethings”.

A classmate was part of the Southern Methodist Church, a small denomination in the southeast that actually is a fundamentalist expression of Methodism. The rest of class (and around 30 minutes afterwards) turned into a theological thunderdome.

If I really get down to brass tacks, I think the only normative statement most clergy can make is “well, we aren’t baptist (or pentecostal or non-denomination)”. I say that based off many of the conversations I have been part of and observed in a private UMC clergy Facebook group. It’s the only statement that no one typically fights.

We can all gripe about the free church system and how we believe it has negatively affected our churches.

But is this causing any good, or is it just us slipping into pseudo-fundamentalism, with nothing we actually believe in?

In Scott Kisker’s book “Mainline or Methodist” he asks the question about our variety of mergers in the 20th century that created The United Methodist Church and their participation in creating a more bland — civic religion. In essence, Kicker argues that the level of mainline sensibility the UMC has assumed over the last 50 or so years was never a distinguishing feature of Methodism prior to the mid-20th century.

I think Kisker asks a good question. Are we assuming a Methodism that speaks more to downtown squares and high steeples? Do we understand how country Methodism was shaped by major growth points and population declines in the 20th century? How did the Brethren and Methodist Episcopals get along in towns where both had First churches?

What formed our assumptions of normative Methodism in the ranks of the clergy? Was it our home churches, or perhaps where we went to college (a private UMC school or a state college with an active campus ministry)? Did seminary drastically change us? How many of our clergy have made a strong theological shifts in life or has it been a steady path?

Even without the questions raised by the wide degree of variance in our education, can we discern and articulate the theological variance in our own conferences? How might regional geography play into this as well? Do we look down upon the expressions of Methodism believed by other clergy? It might be over our current debate of human sexuality, or it could be in our Christology, our understanding of Sacramentalism, Soteriology, our adherence to the denomination or annual conference. It could be because we see others as beneath us because they aren’t seminary trained…or it could be the part-time local pastor who feels she is a step-child in the eyes of elders. We still have to overcome issues of female ordination and non-caucasian clergy.

We look at the (so called) ladder climbers, conference staff wanters, send me to the right part of the conference folks and those that simply want to see their kids finish high school at the same place they started. We’ve got pastors who will willfully move every year because they believe in the system and those who have never been able to have a healthy ministry because they’ve been moved every 2–3 years.

We are different.

And we need to realize it. And just because another clergy persons vocational expression is different than yours, it doesn’t make one more Methodist than another.

If one practice is normative across elders, in my experience it is our understanding of baptism. I didn’t get asked that much about my thoughts on female leadership when I was in ordination. No one asked me if I was a closet Calvinist after the commissioning interview (Remember, SBC pastors kid) or any other Arminian questions.

But everyone wanted to talk about baptism. Why we baptize infants, how to respond to someone who wanted to get rebaptized (HINT: Don’t use the answer of “well, you can’t get circumcised twice” line). I had to rewrite a good bit of my 2nd cycle ordination paperwork because I had been doing, thinking, reading and practicing so much evangelism I wrote from the perspective of adult conversion and it caused a multitude of questions.

If there is a normative theological topic, across both local churches and clergy, it just might be infant baptism. We can all come together on that. (2)

But how many other traditions baptize infants? It’s not just us. We don’t own the concept or theology. Infant Baptism isn’t distinctive enough for denominational normality.

We all have our own understanding of normative methodism, and we will typically live and minister in that zone.

As clergy, we impose our definitions of normative. We impose them on our congregations, and hopefully don’t cause any harm. We impose them on colleagues, both unofficially and officially. If we are serving on the Board of Ministry, we might think differently about others who aren’t like us. If we aren’t careful, we can become gatekeepers. We make assumptions about the effectiveness of others ministries because of our perceived differences. And even worse, we often make assumptions about them based off of a sheet of paper or transcript.

Normative Methodism for clergy is harder to discern than we might think. We need to change our language and just speak of differences instead of claiming to assign or rescind how “Methodist” someone else is.

James K A Smith, my favorite living Calvinist theologian, speaks of the “primary orientations” in his book “You Are What You Love” and I think we can go a step further and look at the idea of primary spiritual experiences. (3) What if many of our clergy have never stepped into the place of understanding differentiation and a broader scope of Holy Love for clergy who might not think like them? What does it mean to lead a congregation that as a whole doesn’t look or sound like you theologically?

What if I told you we aren’t the only ones in this mess?

What if we realized it is actually a major part of the story of western postmodernity? The sociological phenomenon of the last few years of an unspoken, more conservative movement is interesting, but has yet to provide an answer.

We can look the mess the Brexit vote and subsequent legislation has caused. It happened years ago and is still being sorted out. It took Great Britain by surprise. The 2016 Presidential election in the United States, and the absolutely different method of Executive Branch leadership than the world has seen in modern times is another example. One of my favorite presidential conspiracy theories is Donald Trump never wanted to be president but ended up winning. Our 2016 General Conference is another great example. Who could have expected or predicted the way legislation would go at the committee level, much less the last couple of days of the general meeting?

All of these situations didn’t provide answers, but served as expressions of people saying “I’m no longer satisfied with what is actually going on…so let’s just change it”. I say this not as a yea or nea in any of these examples, but for us to step back and look at the wider social dynamics at play.

We asked our bishops to lead in a way that they ecclesiastically never have before. And we are all arguing over the results. We wanted something different without actually articulating what we believed to be upset about. Just that it was time for something different. And I don’t think any of our 2016 delegates stepped into their meetings wanting to keep everything the same. As many have already said, our current issue isn’t over human sexuality, it’s just the battleground we have chosen to use as the crux.

I’ve felt this for years and over the last few months it has played a major role in my own discernment over what may or may not happen. But things can’t stay the same because they’ve never been the same.

May I suggest to you that we have all been realizing that normative Methodism doesn’t actually exist. That the unity which we tried to make normative in the latter part of the 20th century (you could say it was the greatest mission of the United Methodist Church) was the last gasp of modernity and Mainline Christianity. As our larger tradition of Wesleyan Methodism contracts and expands across time, it is too big for an attempt to all make it the same. Regardless of our conversation of human sexuality, we need to remain laser focused on the mission and our attempts to create normative methodism by diversity have instead turned us into a minivan full of hungry toddlers. Each one has a different set of taste buds and eating schedules.

I’m a bit of a Revelation nerd, and John’s apocalypse gives us an interesting commentary,

In Revelation, we see repeated instances of some combination of “nations, peoples, tribes and languages” throughout the book. (4) We see “nations” in use in total 25 times in Revelation. This exegetically breaks down as a commentary on ethnic and racial groups, government and civil boundaries. “Nations”, translated from the greek word ἔθνος, speaks to the range of variagation within human population…specifically the cultural groupings we find ourselves in as part of human behavior (you might call these affinity groups).

As we read scripture, even at the end, we see differentiation. An honoring of unique personhood, race, qualifications, people groups. Everything. In Revelation 21, we read about how the kings of earth, those treated previously in the book as hostile enemies, as part of this gathered body. Still as others have tried, Revelation 21:27 also speaks of those who are outside of these boundaries of the presence of God. (5) We can jump into some sort of instant universality or we realize how uniqueness even lasts into eternity. This large grouping of people was once all named as enemies to God, and at the end is named as part of the redeemed community, with access to the presence of God.

The eschatological reality isn’t one where we have all traded in our stories for Jesus story, but one where Jesus permanently steps down into our story. All the things we have dealt with, the people we have become, the places that made us and broke us…every.single.thing.about.us.

What if this experiment with absolute unity and acceptance is failing across the world not because of a conservative vs. liberal fight, but because the idea of an inclusive message is one that is both absolutely gracious and absolutely personal at the exact same time? And us as humans are incapable of causing that to happen on our own. It’s a good idea, and we get moments of grace in our attempts, but it won’t be till Jesus comes back that we all can walk into one great big place together. An equality that is not honoring of differentiation or individualization isn’t equality…it’s just being generic.

I think it is time to ditch the idea of big tent methodism. It simply doesn’t allow us to accomplish our denominational mission of “creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Is one big tent or a bunch of circled tents more comfortable? What’s more missionally appropriate? You can only stretch out tent stakes so far, but you can always add another one the the circle. And you can deploy a couple of those tents out on strategic mission to places without the space for that big one.

The best thing for us to do now is simply recognize the complexity of differential Methodism at play. Because the world, the gospel and the mission set before us is not one of normality, but incarnational contextuality.

What does this look like? I’m not sure, but I can tell you what I am doing.

I am trying to see, treat, and embody the equality of the love of Jesus Christ to everyone I know. Regardless of if I agree or disagree, if I like or don’t like, and especially if I want to think unholy thoughts about them, Jesus died for them just like me. And he loves the at the same level that he loves me. And I’ve for certain got those people in my life. I ain’t perfect by a long shot.

I realize that I am part of a cosmic mission. Jesus has been bringing this world back to Himself for 2000 years, and we serve a God that created this universe. Through prevenient grace, He never left and has been calling each of our names throughout history.

I’m not Jesus. I preached through the Sermon on the Mount a few years ago and when asked what I learned the most I responded “The boundaries of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ are far narrower than I am comfortable with, but the boundaries of the grace of Jesus Christ are far wider than I am comfortable with.” In my own humanity, I am not capable of something so boundryless.

We are the best person to reach the people that we know. Wesley’s understanding and teaching of the catholic spirit calls us to set aside differences and pray for, work when possible, and recognize and support the gospel ministries of those we might not 100% agree with. I agree with things and disagree with things. I agree with certain people and I disagree with certain people. I realize the power of being graciously different.

But what I know is this. My personal definition of normative Methodism is constantly changing as I realize I’m not the beginning and end of Methodism. It grows and moves every time I meet, eat, and live out the Christian life with others. No matter who.

Sola Sanctus Caritas

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1.In seminary I took a class on the theology of Charles Wesley’s hymns. We were tasked to answer the question “If we only had the writings of Charles, and nothing of John’s, could we construct a proper understanding of Wesleyan Theology?” And at the end of the term we all agreed it was possible. I think the only normative place of Wesleyan theology in many churches comes through the songs they sing and their worship.

2. It might be because that is the only baptism a large amount of our congregations are every seeing. I am concerned at how many UMC elders don’t really have a clearly articulated identity of non-Christian or pre-christian. And I am equally enthused at friends on both sides of the theological spectrum that champion what it means to accept Jesus and “be saved”.

3. This language of primary spiritual experiences is mine, with a heavy dose of influence from J. Smith and others in the radical orthodoxy community. In essence, it means us realizing how the influential the first notable spiritual experience is in our life and how it defines what’s “Christian” for the rest of our life. I think this plays an influential role in any conversations regarding change or differentiation in church.

James Fowler, in his work “Stages of Faith” also speaks about the identity of faith development. Much of stage 2 is a bland/generic ideation of assumed truth. Stage 3 moves you forward, but you typically stay within similar groups of thinking and believing. Fowler also believes many stay at this stage.

4. Revelation 5:9, 7:9, 10:11 (add kings), 11:9, 13:7, 14:6, 17:5 (both nations and language).

5. I am appreciative of the words of friends like Rev. Brady Whitton (FUMC Baton Rouge) and Rev. Morgan Guyton, and colleagues I’ve never met like Rev. Matt Miofsky who speak to the necessity of evangelistic and salvific priority as a needed part of the progressive movement. We can’t have a Christian conversation without a conversation of conversion and the actuality of the absence of the presence of God from a person’s life. The tough patch of doing contemporary theology is reckoning the whole idea of “unchristian” and to Wesleyans, what comprises the idea of “shipwrecked faith” and what it means to intentionally not be Christian. If we are to grow in our life together, we will need deep conversations about such matters.