Why I am United Methodist – Part I

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What’s in a label?
There is a trend in the church planting circles these days. “Shed the labels.” In order to reach a market that prefers generic Christianity over “name brand” versions, most denominations have jumped on the label dropping band wagon with little thought or reflection. And why not? The sentiment is certainly understandable. If you want to reach more people, get rid of the baggage. People don’t want to hear about infrastructure, denominational infighting, tradition, or denominational history. They desire purity, simplicity, authenticity, and an absence of conflict – or at least the appearance of less conflict.

It is a reality that all new church pastors have to face. We faced it at Reconciliation, a new United Methodist Church plant in Durham, NC, when we began our ministry in 1997. I wish I had a nickel for every person who suggested that we drop the name “United Methodist Church” and opt for “Reconciliation Church.” At the very least, we were counseled to make the denominational title an addendum, like fine print at the bottom of a legal document – print that can only be read with a magnifying glass. When the temptation to follow suit came our way, we decided to continue walking on the road and let the wagon leave without us. I don’t regret the decision, though I am sure that many things would have been easier if we had chosen to “shed the label.”

I am not surprised that people are tired of anything that smacks of an “institution” when it comes to matters of faith. I emphasize that qualifier because it is also clear that everything else in our lives depends on institutions, and we would die before we allowed anyone to challenge, dismantle, or degrade them. How many parents want to send their children to “generic” institutions of higher learning that may or may not have been accredited by a national agency? How many desperately sick patients go out of their way to find a physician that is not “board certified” and up to date on the most current research and licensing? How many victims of injustice prefer a lawyer that has not passed her boards?

Lets face it – we love institutions and we love to hate them. But it only takes a few moments of careful reflection to reveal that we need them to function and live. Despite this reality, institutions remain easy targets for everything that ails us when we are dissatisfied. Who doesn’t take regular pot-shots at the government? Easy to do, but at the end of the week, people still expect their trash and recycling to be picked up promptly and disposed of efficiently. Last time I checked, that is at least one example of the “government” – at your service. The same is true of the church, though I am convinced that this institution suffers more attack than any of the others.

What’s in a label? Quite a bit, when you think about it. We don’t name our children “you” … but “Mary, Jane, Bill, and Chad.” We also give our children last names so that people will know where they come from, what family they belong to, and what history they are a part of. Do some families have things in their histories to be ashamed of? Sure. Do some family trees have stories of division, dissension, infighting, and abuse? Absolutely. Does shucking your last name allow you to escape from these realities? Hardly. The truth is, names and “labels” bear stories of hope even as they bear stories of pain. If churches are determined to “shed the label,” fine and good, but lets be clear about one thing – we are engaging in plastic surgery, not practicing internal medicine.


5 comments

  1. >Institutions and (church) names matter.In Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet Capulet begs her “star-cross’d” lover Romeo Montague to ignore the bitter family feud that exists between the Capulets and Montagues by relinquishing the importance attached to their surnames:”What’s in a name? That which we call a roseBy any other word would smell as sweet.” A rose would still smell sweet even if called a “pepper” or “cucumber.” But, as Juliet discovers in Shakespeare’s tragic play, a red flower with thorny stems is known by the world as a “rose,” just as Romeo was known by the world as a Montague. Romeo and Juliet simply could not escape the inescapable conclusion that names mattered in their world.And names matter in our world, too.In fact, our difficulty with names is the same as Juliet’s – the instinct to rid ourselves of names, particularly church names, originates usually from a natural desire to rid ourselves of the baggage church names carry. Sometimes a church is laden, for instance, with the historical baggage of bigotry and racism, or sometimes a church simply seems out-of-touch with contemporary needs or culture. In response to this desire to rid ourselves of institutional church baggage, there has been an explosion in recent years of non-denominational churches and parachurch institutions. And I am not prepared to say this explosion has been altogether bad. Many of these churches have had an incredible impact on the spiritual wellbeing of individuals and communities within our culture – I personally was a member of a nondenominational church before moving to North Carolina!What is interesting, however, is that we sometimes expect – like Shakespeare’s Juliet – that attending a church without a denomination will mean that we can escape the burden of baggage a name brings. Yet, no matter how we dress up our church institutions, baggage abounds. Churches full of imperfect people simply cannot avoid it. Because we cannot avoid human imperfection and the baggage it brings, we need to reevaluate our culture’s instinct to flee denominations or traditional church institutions. This evaluation should begin, not surprisingly, with the name “church.” Early Christians seemed to have a more fluid notion of church, that the church was a body of believers, not merely an institution. Isn’t a church, then, more than its four walls and even more than its denomination?Many American churchgoers flocking to nondenominational churches understand and appreciate that the name “church” should mean a unified body of believers. Too often denominational churches focus more on the church as “institution” rather than the church as a body of believing, albeit imperfect, human beings. As a result, many traditional denominations lose their focus – and often their spiritual heart of unity. There are numbers to maintain, electrical bills to pay and programs to enact. The institutional, denominational church grinds along preserving its status as an institution, but often parishioners desire more. The “more” parishioners desire, however, is as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Pastor Bill Hybels of the nondenominational Willow Creek Church located outside of Chicago recognized these needs by polling people to see what kind of church they would like to attend. His market-based approached to church has been highly successful – Willow Creek is one of the largest churches in the United States and includes laundry facilities, a coffee shop and dozens of programs for all age groups. They have a dynamic praise band and drama team, and President Bill Clinton even has spoken there. Bill Hybels, to his credit, has met many of his parishioners’ desires. Some institutional churches could learn from him. The problem with Hybels’ model, however, is that it can easily begin to stray from the depictions of the church in Scripture. The Scriptural church shown in Acts reveals a group of people who believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and who met together regularly to eat, worship and care for the needy among them. Having a laundry mat in the church building isn’t the problem here. The problem is that the modern American movement away from denominations and toward better equipped nondenominational churches can encourage American values more than Christ-like ones. When we participate in the church or body of believers, do we simply want our varied needs to be met, or are we seeking ways to imitate Christ Jesus, “Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant . . .” (Philippians 2:6-7)?A “me-first” mentality has snuck into the church as an institution and as a body. This attitude is rampant not only in nondenominational churches but also in denominational ones as well. Ridding ourselves of denominational churches for nondenominational churches (or vice versa) is not going to rid us of that baggage. Self-interestedness by any other name is still self-interestedness.How, then, do we learn to imitate Jesus’ model of selflessness? The short answer is that this learning happens within the church, that is, the Body of Christ. Our characters and lives are honed in relation to other believers. “As iron sharpens iron,” said King Solomon, “so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). In order to get to know the Body of Christ within a fast-paced American culture, we need to be learning to love and serve one another – yes – within healthy church institutions. Traditional denominations, while full of baggage, often have a history of working through important relational and theological problems and therefore tend to be less prone than nondenominational church institutions to theological manipulation. All church bodies (whether denominational or nondenominational), however, need to encourage, care for and serve one another unselfishly. In order to develop these “fruit of the Spirit,” all church bodies also need to create a free environment for worshiping Jesus. Pop rock star Bono was once asked what kind of church he attended, and he responded by saying that he went to those places and communities where the Holy Spirit moved, whether in the back pew of a Catholic church or in the front row of an African evangelical service. Bono accurately describes the heartbeat of so many American churchgoers – we want the Spirit! As King David lamented, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalms 51:11).Churches full of the spirit are those full of unity, service and love for one another. A church body with these qualities, whether denominational or nondenominational, best mimics the church described in Scripture. Such fruitful churches may worship charismatically or liturgically, in a home or a building, with a band or with an organ. What they all do is revel in communing with the Spirit of Jesus.How do churches become those where parishioners commune with the Spirit of Jesus? Occasionally, there is a dynamic pastor, minister, rector or vicar. Most often, however, the church leadership holds out the body and blood of Christ (in some shape, way or form), and the church laity feasts on Jesus, while learning how to lay down their lives and serve one another. The responsibility for a transformed church body, therefore, rests not exclusively with the church leaders; instead, it rests also with each imperfect human being who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ and endeavors to follow him in community. In our church community, we bear the identity of Jesus together. In the world, we bear not only the identity and name of Jesus, but we also bear the identity and name of our church community. We cannot rid ourselves of this “baggage” no matter what church we attend.

  2. >Institutions and church names matter because we still don’t get it. God’s patience with us mystifies me.When I was a teenager I commented to a lady that I was a “Baptist,” and she corrected me saying, “You are a Christian.” At the time I thought her correction was unnecessary, that I was simply being more specific by telling what kind of Christian I was. You see, Christianity has “brand names,” and “off brands” or “knock offs.” I wanted people to know that I was a brand name Christian and my faith was authentic. Over time, I came to understand why she pointed out my flawed viewpoint. It seems to me that denomination is the same as division basically. Perhaps the lady was telling me that to follow Christ is a greater goal than to follow an imagined “brand” of Christianity. Eventually I left the Baptist denomination for that “something more” that Anonymous wrote about- because I still didn’t get it. I found a nondenominational church that focuses on building relationships and “dying to self.” I came to believe that church denomination is irrelevent as long as Christ is truly the Lord of the believers there. They must be a body of servants to the Most High God, not to themselves, the doctrine and the rituals.I can hop from church to church forever, but the true church (the body of believers) has no walls except spiritual and emotional ones. If I won’t tear down the walls around my heart (pride, jealousy, lusts, envy, prejudice, racism, fear, etc.) I can’t be in agreement with my brothers and sisters, so I won’t be reconciled to God (Matt. 5:21-26). Wherever I go, I take those walls with me, and they contribute to the church. I can’t escape my sin nature in a different denomination. I eventually returned to the baptist church where I had first accepted Christ, but continued to have trouble breaking down the walls. After relocating to North Carolina, I looked for a body of believers who understand the revelation that God has given me. I think that I understand it, but I still need to grow in it before I can take the message to others and effectively teach. I suspect that I still don’t get it- I only know in part. So, here I am now, growing in grace in the United Methodist church. To me, the labels of denomination is only a reflection of man’s sin nature, of spiritual walls being built between believers to the point where communities split and went their separate ways. I don’t expect these things to be corrected until Jesus returns and establishes his kingdom. I think that the kingdom of God, since it is at hand, must be attainable in our relationships with Christ and with one another. After all He wants us in agreement, “[f]or where two or three are gathered… [He]is there in the midst of them,” (Matt. 18:19-20). If He had been in the midst the denominations would never have been necessary; their existence reflects a falling short of the unified body that Christ teaches us about. We still don’t get it.I think I understand the labels, and I tolerate them, but in my opinion, denomination labels are the equivalent of the concept of race and its labels. Both are ideas rooted in someone’s desire to break unity for the purpose of having their own way over others, to establish who is better, more righteous,or whatever, for selfish purposes. That is not love. However, it is another blog discussion!

  3. >Good posts – thanks for your reflections. Danielle said:To me, the labels of denomination is only a reflection of man’s sin nature, of spiritual walls being built between believers to the point where communities split and went their separate ways. I couldn’t agree more. The church is divided, and it grieves the Holy Spirit and compromises the Church’s witness. In a future post on this “Why I am UM” series, I plan to address why I believe that United Methodists are at least willing to recognize the divisions and pray and work for both physical and spiritual unity among various communions.Grace and Peace,Kevin

  4. >The comments posted here were really interesting so firstly let me say thanks for sharing your thoughts.I have struggled with the denominations issue. I was raised Roman Catholic, have attended churches of many denominations, and most recently have been attending a Baptist church.I think that many folks are brought up within a specific denomination and tend to stay within the denomination “if” they continue attending church. I think this is a tragedy, because those folks never experience what I call a “blended Christian experience.”Many would contend that this blended experience is exactly what is a achieved in a non-denominational church. However, I would argue that point. I have attended many non-denominational churches and have noticed that the pastor will generally bring the denomination with him (or her). This has a lot to do with their religious upbringing, and more specifically, their seminary training.I recently attended a church that held itself out as non-denominational, but the service was obviously Presbyterian (Reformed Baptist) in nature. I did some research on the Pastor and found that he was a recent graduate of the Reformed Theological Seminary; so his approach to church made sense (for him). However, I tend to shy away from Calvinistic predestination concepts so this turned me off immediately.So this begs the question (that has already been asked); is making a church non-denominational a true act of shedding labels or a marketing ploy? I was certainly lured to the faux non-denominational church but turned off by the way in which the Message was presented.I’ve started to believe that labels are important. They help us identify the product that we are consuming. Unfortunately, most of us don’t look to closely at the ingredients (I must be hungry). So we don’t really understand what the label means.Now don’t laugh, but in the past I stayed away from the Methodist church because I truly thought that they were teaching “methods” for getting to Heaven. Now that I understand the true meaning of Methodism, I’m seeing past the label and understanding the ingredients. I find that I truly identify with this “brand” of religion. So, is the label useful for attracting folks — maybe not. However, it is helpful to me in determining whether or not a body of believers tends to think the way I do.As a closing thought — we don’t go looking for an automobile, and say “just give me whatever car you’ve got.” Any car will get us from point A to point B but we all have preferences and we have to live with our choices. I’m pretty sure God appreciates our efforts to love Him, but how we show our love seems to be up to us. Have you hugged God today?

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