On Monday, the United Methodist Church celebrated its 50th anniversary.
I was 14 years old when the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church came together as one body. I remember being in a bible study when the pastor walked in and asked those of us who had gathered, “Do you feel any different today? You are no longer Methodists. You are now United Methodists.”
There was a moment of laughter as we began our study of the scriptures. On Monday, as I reflected and prayed, I gave God thanks for the ministry of the United Methodist Church and for how one particular church in West Virginia had given birth to my faith and had shaped my life.
I give God thanks for the opportunity to be part of the ministry of the United Methodist Church for the past 44 years. I suppose I have known it all along, but on Monday it became real that I have given my entire adult life to the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church.
So, I gave thanks.
I gave thanks for teaching me the balance between theology and practice. I learned early in my life the relationship between “personal piety” and “social holiness.” Without knowing it, I was being taught that prayer and action were connected in my Christian faith.
I gave thanks for teaching me the relationship between how I lived my life and what I witnessed to in my life. I did not hear “practice what you preach” but “preach what you practice.” I learned from watching the people in my congregation care for people in the community and then later by being invited into that practice.
I am grateful for how my life has been shaped and enriched by the church.
But, my prayers were not all prayers of gratitude. This is my opinion, but the United Methodist Church has changed significantly during my lifetime.
I was born, raised, and taught at a time we have called Christendom. I have been a pastor in a post-Christian world. The church has struggled to be relevant, holding on to the values of Christendom while living into a different reality. I have not known any time in my ministry when the church was not engaged in an identity crisis.
What Has Changed
One place I have seen a significant change is in the imbalance between theology and practice. I have experienced it this way: we have too many persons with too much religion and not enough theology. And too many people with too much theory and not enough Christian faith.
There is a tremendous imbalance between theory and practice. What we call Christian faith has nestled itself in our culture. But this form of faith is a peculiar kind and, in many instances, is not Christian at all.It seems that Christianity has become a form of cultural faith rooted in traditional and social values. It is presented as a gospel of personal happiness and success, and of individual peace and well-being.
There is a dangerous alliance between our faith and our happiness. This has given root to personal preferences and has cultivated a consumer mentality which presents Christianity as a “beneficial” faith, with political alliances and leveraged as necessary for the welfare of our agendas.
This form of faith has little regard for the cross and even less regard for human beings in whom God takes pleasure. Jesus actually gets in the way of being happy. This is why I say the United Methodist Church has changed over my lifetime. This is not the church that gave birth to my Christian faith.
On Monday, I prayed that we might rediscover the balance of faith and work that has been the catalyst for transformation throughout our history.
Theology & Theory Over Faith
There are people who have far more theology or theory than Christian faith. We are impressed with what we know but have little or no motivation or know-how to put what we know into action.
We are excited about the faith as a way of thinking but are alienated from the Christian faith as a way of living. We have separated Christian “piety” from Christian “mercy.”
Dr. Leander Keck writes, “The symbol of the Christian faith is not a theologian sitting like Buddha, savoring the subtleties of theology, but a cross where a man was nailed up so that life’s meaning could be nailed down.” Many people of our day endorse Christian ideals and proclaim them as valid, but are not willing to become sufficiently committed to living those ideals.
We love talking about them, but to have them shape our living gets in the way. The church that shaped my life, taught me and showed me a balance of faith and action, of personal faith and of living out that faith in relationship to the people and the world around me. On Monday, I prayed that we might rediscover that balance.
Ethics without Ethos
Another place I have seen a significant change is in our tendency to preach and teach about mission and ministry, without the character to back up what we preach and teach. By preaching ethics without ethos, the church pushes people to all sorts of social action without a clear purpose.
As Christians, we should be concerned with the hungry, homeless, racial bias, gender bias, gun safety, human trafficking, etc. We should be actively involved in addressing social, economic, educational, residential, and all other issues that separate and oppress people. But why? Our involvement and on what basis, and to what end, should also be clear.
We do what we do because of God’s initiative in our lives. We know that initiative in and through Jesus Christ. As T. S. Eliot once said, “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” We must be concerned to do the right thing for the right reason.
Identity of Christ
Our way of life is not sufficiently rooted in the identity of Christ. It is good to have a community meal. But we are disconnected from the community we are serving. So really, we are not engaged in Christian mission or service.
We make pious pronouncements backed up with platitudes about love and justice. Posting on social media somehow we think have done something significant. We commit ourselves to covenants and disregard them when they get in the way of what we want.
We, as the church, must develop an ethos that will require us to become who we call others to be. Only then will we have integrity in our ethics.
Paradox of Change
It is amusing in way. There is a paradox around how much the church has changed.
The church has been slow to change in regard to the rapid changes in our culture. Life is not as simple as it once was. Most of us do not live in communities where our local church is the center of our lives. We are focused upon a multiplicity of demands upon our time, abilities, and activities. Social media has separated us as much as given us information about each other.
We no longer live in a Christian culture. In fact, most of our population is basically pre-Christian. It is not a matter of looking back on the Christian faith which we once possessed but no longer accept. Rather it is a matter of facing the fact that most of the people around us have no Christian experience at all.
Even though some have been baptized, the majority of persons have never made a valid, vital commitment to Jesus Christ. It might be true that they have never had the opportunity to do so. But, culturally and historically, we are in a post-Christendom era while the population is pre-Christian, because it has never been Christian at all.
Be the Resurrection
Last week I asked you to pray that I am a faithful witness of the Resurrection. What if being that faithful witness is not based upon my affirmation of Christ’s living presence, but upon the incarnated presence of the living Christ in me?
Would that mean that my faith in the Risen Christ would be seen both in my theology and practice? That my living would reflect what I call and challenge each of you and your churches to do? Would that mean I am not called to believe in the Resurrection but rather called to be the Resurrection? Would that mean that Christ’s presence would be witnessed in what I say and do?
I confess this is what the United Methodist Church has taught me. On Monday, I gave thanks. Today, as I give thanks for you I pray your United Methodist Church is doing the same for you.