For the past two weeks, I’ve been inspired to write about the United Methodist Church. A video from the General Board of Discipleship set the wheels in motion. In that video, a simple question was posed to key leaders in our denomination: “Where will the United Methodist Church be in 80 years?” Their answers pointed backward as well as forward. And their assertions focused on the notion of praxis, or the manner of being in the world.
Another way to describe and define praxis is the notion of a bicycle’s pedals and gears. It really isn’t much of a bicycle until the force is applied and the principle is fulfilled, is it?
These leaders have shared ideas on our structure and practice that are easily classifiable as neo-orthopraxy. By neo-orthopraxy, I mean that most of their assertions relied upon the organic creativity that exemplified early Methodism in Europe and America. It literally means new well-aligned practices, but has a hint of returning to the past locked within the word as well.
Because this topic is valid when and if — and only if — it is within the context of a lay understanding of our Church, I am keeping it simple. That doesn’t mean “dumb it down.” It does mean that when I use technical language, I provide a meaning within the context, or offer a link to a simple, expository resource. Still, the writing has been intentionally couched in very simple terms. And I’ve also opted for a structure that is devoid of the usual twists and turns of theological writing. For this setting, I’ve utilized a very stark framework based upon the work of N. T. Wright. Through his historic lens, I’ve undertaken to examine our denomination in light of our story, symbols, praxis, and four major questions:
- Who are we?
- Where are we?
- What is the problem?
- What is the solution?
Before you read the next section, I invite you to read both A Vision for the Future: Part One of Five and A Vision for the Future: Story and Symbol 2/5. These two entries provide the details which will flesh out the preceding summaries.
Now, on to the praxis of the United Methodist Church, past, present, and future.
At last we come to, what is in my estimation, the main point of the video. How are we to exist as The United Methodist Church in the future? That question can only be answered by answering the question of “How have we existed in the past?” In my opinion, United Methodists have steadily declined in the role of being United Methodists. John Wesley made dire predictions as to what we might become. This thought was penned in a letter simply entitled, Thoughts on Methodism, written in London, England and dated August 4, 1786. I join a growing band of scholars and theologians who are claiming outright that we have become, in the ways that matter most, exactly what John Wesley feared the most: “[A] dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly [has become] the case [because we did not] hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
I must admit that this is a bold claim, even if one might support it with statistics. Unfortunately, those statistics abound, and are redundant if included here. Instead, I purpose instead to mention causes and effects.
Present Praxis: A Vacuum of Leadership and an Abdication of Authority
We’ve turned bishops from the task of leading Conferences to the task of representing Conferences to the General Agencies. Though many bishops are actively involved in ministry, I daresay most bishops feel out of touch with the local congregations. They feel overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily administrative tasks. My colleague, the Rev’d Sky McCracken has been positing this viewpoint for years, well before he became embroiled in the administrative life of a District Superintendent. He writes eloquently of the problem in his own blog, Kyrie Eleison. I would particularly point you to his running dialogue on the Future of the Episcopacy. There are multiple entries across multiple years. I would start with this one. Then read the second half of part one, then part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six if you want to chase the rest of them down.
In short, we don’t let bishops “bish” (this, another Sky McCracken quote). And though this is part of the general mindset of a denomination that is high on the notion of an empowered laity, the practicality of the concept — the praxis — becomes nearly impossible in an organization that has achieved the size of our own. Since our structure makes is difficult to lead, perhaps we should say that our bishops have not so much abdicated their authority as we have hobbled them from the moment they are consecrated.
If this disempowered episcopacy impacts any part of our denomination first, that part will naturally be the office of District Superintendent. With the far-flung roles of our bishops, circumstances have turned District Superintendents to the “minders of the Conference” in the absence of bishops. In turn, many pastors are disconnected from each other because the relationships to the institution at the district and conference level are more emphasized than the relationships we share in Christ. And, for the record, I don’t find our relationships to the institution to be particularly Christ-like in either direction. Most of that relationship appears in the form of required meetings, required documents, and notes and calls to remind and enforce the requirements. Granted, there are islands of shared experience, but they are so few and far between as to be discrete unto themselves, lacking continuity in most cases, authenticity in many cases. Too many of my colleagues, Superintendents included, have lamented the fact that there is an absence of any depth worth mentioning.
Past Praxis: Holiness of Heart and Life
Our way of being in the world was once an interactive exercise of personal, social holiness between an empowered laity and an empowering clergy. The clergy were expected to seek holiness of life and heart in the same way as the laity — as well as functioning in the role of their office. Specifically, that meant the dedication of self to the ministry of the Gospel and the ministry of the Sacraments. But this was always — always – meant to be in the context of one’s own personal discipleship.
Our beliefs are based upon an interpretation that calls for holiness of heart and life, something Wesley called for in a letter to the Rev’d. Mr. Venn from Birmingham, England in June of 1765. He said,
What I want is, holiness of heart and life. They who have this are my brother, sister, and mother. “But you hold perfection.” True, that is, loving God with all our heart, and serving him with all our strength. I teach nothing more, nothing less, than this.
I won’t go so far as to claim that modern Methodist clergy are poor disciples or that we have become ignorant of our basic beliefs and tenets, though there are some who would — and do so with some merit. I will assert that one of our problems took form when the emphasis came to rest on teaching and preaching about the Gospel as opposed to teaching the practice of life lived in the context of the Gospel. The latter was the genius of early Methodism. We are sorely lacking without it. In this way, any praxis that was in any sense Methodist itself was diminished to a theoretical or even hypothetical concept. We do not, as a denomination, understand or practice the art of disciple-making. We are “teachers about,” not “teachers of.”
While it is true that one cannot give what one does not have, I do not believe this to be the case. My instinct tells me that it is a problem of faith that prevents the practices. Too many of my colleagues simply do not believe that we will find God in those long moments of silence and communion. Our efforts to lead people to God become efforts to lead them to some kind of philosophy of life rather than an encounter with the Divine. In short, too many do not make the call, not because they think the line will be busy, but because many believe that any call we place will not be answered at all.
Our deepest problem is not the institution we have become. That is merely a symptom. United Methodism’s illness is institutionalization. Max Weber wrote definitively on the subject of how charisma of one generation is relegated to the routines of the next. I was a student of then doctoral candidate Graham Reside at Candler School of Theology at Emory University when I discovered Weber. Dr. Graham Reside, M.Div., Ph.D., is now a senior consultant with Generative Consulting in Atlanta GA. His classes taught me that institutions are built from the routines that develop after the departure of a dynamic and charismatic leader.
I believe that we have stumbled upon the “routinization” of an entire denomination. Rather than relying upon the organic strength of our denomination, we have sought instead to enshrine our work, codify our beliefs, and preserve our local settings as museums as if we had reached some sort of apex in our history. Having achieved a considerable measure of success, the leaders of our denomination, dispersed throughout the body, began the process of grasping and establishing.
The question is, “Did we become an institution because no one could duplicate the charisma associated with deep relationship with God or did we lose the widespread ability to deeply relate with God because we became a hollow institution?” My answer is simple. I have no idea.
In any event, the situation is what it now is. All we can say, is that the events that led us here were without malice. I firmly believe that this is the clearly communicated danger that Jesus and Wesley both foresaw within their lifetimes.
Jesus dealt with Peter’s desire to stake a claim and begin the building of shrines in three of the four Gospels. From Mark’s account of the Transfiguration:
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Obviously, Peter was satisfied that this was the moment that Jesus had truly come into his own. Peter was ready to build the shrines, establish the rule, and form the new order of “this is how it will always be.” We must note that Jesus and the disciples descended the mountain a brief time and a scant two verses later to resume ministry among the people. Was Peter acting because he was unconvinced of his own capabilities? Perhaps.
Wesley’s time-honored prediction that we might well become the very thing we sought to reform and repair in the Anglican Church of his day: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Did we fulfill this prediction because we lost faith in God or ourselves? Or perhaps because we lost sight of our goals in the midst of all the structural maintenance that we wrestle every day?
A Loss of Common Praxis
That doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which we first set out had far less to do with codes and laws and resolutions as it did with the principles that allowed for the simultaneous formation of similar responses from unified yet individual communities.
In short, given our basic beliefs and practices and the common spirit of our denomination, a United Methodist in California responding to a perceived injustice should have a similar response to that same injustice as a United Methodist in Georgia. This is not the case. While it has not universally been true in our history, we can say that our efforts in the areas of Christian Conferencing are considerably diminished from days past. It was not our doctrine that first changed. It was and continues to be our common practices and spirit of unity that have changed.
This common praxis must be regained. I believe that given a simple method, modern Methodists can rediscover our common praxis. But we must abide by common doctrine, spirit, and disciplines. Without all three, we are more likely to make up something of our own creation and to turn to whatever our itching ears wish to hear.
Next week’s responses to N.T. Wright’s four questions will prove enlightening for us as we approach the future. We must begin to realize the changes that we have made have not all been bad. But to lose the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our heritage is to embrace extinction. An examination of who we are and where we are will help us to provide a description and nature of the core problems and solutions. I look forward already to next week’s post.
Author: Joey Reed
Joey is the pastor of Grace UMC in Jackson, Tennessee. He and his wife, Laurinda, have two children, Jack and Becca. There’s also a cat named George living at their house. Their idea of a great day usually involves Happy Hour — at a Sonic Drive-In.