Methodists not "Positionists"

The other day I was in conversation with a member of the church I serve and he told me of a book that he was taught and memorized much of when he was younger, The Westminster Shorter Catechism. He went on to tell me that the first question and answer in this book is:

  • Q. What is the chief end of man?
  • A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
    Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash


Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

This was the foundation of his early Christian experience. It was also clear in our conversation that he is in a phase of this formation where he is deconstructing his faith and has more questions than ever before. This is a natural process for so many but the Church has not been very helpful at guiding pilgrims through the deconstruction (death) of their former understanding of faith in order to help usher reconstruction (resurrection). I tried my best to listen to him because he embodies the type of Christian that I desire to be - curious, open and humbling seeking. 

After learning about what he was taught was the chief end of man was, it dawned on me that perhaps this is a point of difference in the UMC that I have experienced. That is to say, the United Methodist tradition that I have experienced is one that is concerned less about the "ends" than it is concerned about the "means."

The UMC says that the sacraments of communion are "means of Grace." The UMC has three rules - 1) do no harm, 2) do good and 3) attend to the ordinances of God. That last rule is about upholding the practices that draw us closer to the Spirit of God such as worship, prayer, fasting, study, silence, etc. These three rules all point to a process, a means a way of living. These are not rules to think about but rules do live. These are not so much of positions as they are postures that give flexibility to the Christian to discern how to live these rules out. So within the Church we have conversations about what "doing good" looks like or take actions to repent in the ways we have done harm. Methodists were made fun of in the early days because of their insistence on the "methods" of practicing Christianity. The Methodists were not made fun of because of their positions but because they emphasized the methods/means/practice. 

There are some within our denomination that demand we all pick predetermined sides to the hot issues of the time. It is seen as "unfaithful" or "not a winning strategy" to be a voice that calls for incremental change. The Biblically informed Methodism that has shaped me is one that emphasizes the process (method) over the position. 

The way we are having conversation these days - blaming others, scapegoating victims, dismissing arguments, creating straw-men and false equivalences, not repenting of our own hypocrisy, etc. - is less Methodist and more reflective of the newest denomination I call Positionists. 

Church Leadership - From Committee Process to Leadership Positions

The Church often tells herself that she is counter-cultural. The reality is the Church is a cultural product and in influenced by the culture in many of the same ways other spheres are. For instance, the rise of the "big box" stores in culture, where one could get all they wanted in "one stop",  was also seen in the rise of the "mega church", where one can get all you want in "one stop." Or the rise of "Christian hip hop" comes after the hip hop movement is underway. There are moments when the Church is counter-cultural but the Church is more often a laggard to the cultural influences. 

 Photo by  Samuel Zeller  on  Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Since the early days of America, the United States government has relied upon a strong committee system to generate, build and adopt policy. Since the 1970's the government has made dramatic strides to move from a committee system and embrace more a party system. This is a long and nuanced history, but the essence is this: the power in the committee systems lie with the committee chairs whereas in a party system power lies with party leaders. Those in key leadership positions have not liked that there are committee chair persons who have great autonomy to "cut deals" and modify the agenda. Additionally, there was push for greater transparency in these committees and so the committee system has slowly been marginalized. 

The erosion of the committee system has contributed to a more polarized congress than ever before and it is now the small number of party leaders who wield the most power.

All of this relates to the Church because we are seeing now this play out in the life of the Church. While there is an ever growing push in culture to streamline decisions and consolidate power around positions, this is also making its way into the Church. 

Where was once a joke that Churches would have a meeting to decide if they were going to have a meeting, now Churches are making decisions to cut committees and move to "executive teams" or "governing boards". These teams/boards are very efficient and able to make decisions quicker than committees. This system also has a number of benefits that are favored in these times where so much of the church revolves around the pastor who is given even more power to "lead" the church. I am not knocking church leadership that moves away from the committee model; to each her own. What I want to offer up is the reminder that the Church is called to be a counter cultural voice, the place that values the still small voice and worships the God of all time not the god of efficiency.

"I Am with the Goats" - A Tale

Peter Rollins’ book Orthodox Heretic is a collection of what I will call parables, even in the preface he hesitates with that label. These parables are the sort of parables that I adore and give all sorts of insights to wisdom. If I were to dream up a book this is the sort of book that I would want to have the creativity to write. This book is sort of a combination between the sayings of the desert abbas/ammas and David Eagleman’s book Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives.

It is in the spirit of Rollins’ book that I offer up a sort-of tale of my own based on Matthew 25 which I will call “I Am with the Goats”

 Photo by  Simon Matzinger  on  Unsplash

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

As the sheep walked into eternal life, Jesus joined with the goats. Perplexed by this action, a sheep, “Jesus where are you going?” Jesus replied, “My ministry with those on the margins never stopped. I AM and always have been among the goats.”