I spend a lot of time writing about the UMC. Much of what I say is critical, I admit it. I want to be clear, though: this is critique from within. It is critique derived from a deep love of the UMC and a desire to see us become the most effective we can possibly be in fulfilling our mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I was raised in the UMC, and for the first part of my life simply took for granted that I was a United Methodist. In seminary, though, I asked myself a tough question: do I want to stay in this tradition or do I want to look for another tradition where I fit a bit better? I chose the first path.
There have been a few posts in the blogosphere lately about why people stay in the UMC despite all of the infighting that goes on, so I thought I’d put in my two cents. This is not an exhaustive list, but several reasons come to mind:
1. Like other Wesleyan traditions, we are heirs of a powerful revival that is still going on through much of the world. Revival is in our bones.
2. We are the heirs of a profound theological heritage. Wesley may not have been a constructive theologian, but he brought together a very rich set of ideas related to the Christian life. These ideas were rooted in the faith of what he called the “primitive church,” meaning the church of the first five centuries, and which he believed to be derived faithfully from scripture. The emphasis upon holiness and sanctification, new birth, and the power and work of the Holy Spirit are some of the Methodist movement’s most valuable theological emphases. I would love to see these take center stage again in our corporate discourse.
3. We provide an alternative to Calvinists. I mean no offense to these brothers and sisters in Christ, but there are a few roads I can’t go down with them. And these roads are important. They relate to the nature of salvation, the nature and function of scripture, and the character of God. Calvinism is quite dominant in North American Protestantism right now. Pastors such as John Piper and Mark Driscoll have huge audiences. I would like to see Wesleyanism make some inroads into these conversations.
4. We have a strong intellectual tradition. United Methodists and their forebears have established numerous fine institutions of learning, particularly in North America, but also in other parts of the globe. We value education, including theological education. Intellectual inquiry into the nature of the faith comes naturally in our tradition.
5. Our understanding of holiness is both personal and social. Now we have to be careful here. When Wesley talked about “social holiness,” he wasn’t talking about what we would call “social justice” today. What he meant was that we don’t come to lives of holiness by ourselves, but in community with other people who were also devoted to personal holiness. In other words, we need each other. Our Christian fellowship helps us to know God more fully.
6. That having been said, the people called Methodists have long been known as advocates for a more righteous society and social change. Have we always done this? Of course not. But social engagement is in the DNA of United Methodists, going back all the way to John Wesley himself.
7. We ordain women. Some of the most inspired and Spirit-filled ministers I have ever met have been women, and God is raising up women as powerful leaders all around the world right now. To deny ordination to these people who are called by God is both unfair and unwise.
8. The most important reason that I remain with the UMC, however, is that I believe that God is at work among and through us. If I didn’t believe this, I’d be gone. Why do I believe it? I see it over and over. Yes, there are the statistics about church decline…. Yes, there are churches that are as lifeless as a rock…. But there are also vibrant congregations–in the U.S. and abroad–filled with the Holy Spirit, where lives are changed. As a seminary dean, I go to a lot of churches, and let me tell you: God is not finished with the United Methodists.
Look, I know there are problems. I write about them all the time. Nevertheless, as someone wiser than me once said, “All denominations sin. We just sin differently.” And even as we are cognizant of our sin, it will be well for us to be aware of our virtues.