I grew up Methodist and then once in college I left. I joined an evangelical campus ministry.
The campus ministry also led me to be involved in an evangelical church. I think there was a Wesleyan group on campus. But I don’t know what it did and I don’t know who was in it. My parents were never enthused about me being in either evangelical ministries and think they would have been happier had I hunted down the elusive Wesleyan group and figured out how to belong there.
Instead, ministry and the church came to me, with open arms. They offered a place to not only be passionate about my faith, but a way to understand the world through it and put it to work on campus. I had never experienced any ministry doing that growing up. It was nice to be wanted and it was nice to be given structure in which to view the world and work.
I took on the culture’s beliefs (theological and political) at first, but as I wrestled with them I grew to disagree with them. Yet, I didn’t know where else to turn. After all, I still didn’t know where the Wesleyan group was or what it did. Further, I had a place in the community, but boundary markers being as they are with any tight knit culture, in order to belong you have to go along. So I hid my disagreements.
But you can only hide and go along for so long. Finally, I realized I had to go. If you’ve read unChristian and you’ll see why. It wasn’t so much the structures and theologies themselves, but the cultures they produced… so I guess it was the structures and theologies, because they created the space for such culture.
So, (to my parents delight) I left the campus ministry and that church (even if some evangelicalism sticks with me). And I went back to the UMC. After all, it’s the church I’m called to, part of the reason being its identity. The UMC’s identity is not restrictive and tribalistic as is Evangelicalism’s. It has more more porous and fluid boundaries. That’s why I returned. Or perhaps more correctly, I returned because of why those boundaries are porous and fluid.
Originally, and at heart, the UMC is a Kingdom oriented organization. Its beginnings were not as a movement in protest like others of the time. Wesley and Methodism certainly have beliefs and theologies they protest, but Methodism began as an Anglican reform movement. Wesley wanted to reinvigorate a body.
Methodism is about the gospel of Jesus Christ and calling people to it. This means it’s about going out and proclaiming the message that Jesus proclaimed. Which means it’s about calling all people to meet and reflect the holiness of God’s love. Which means it’s about sending people out to meet the needs of others through good works, community service and social justice.
If this is what it’s about, Methodism must be a fluid and porous movement and intentionally or not, that’s exactly what Wesley created. His love of the truth of Christ led him from his tradition to work with Moravians and Calvinists, to a theology that pulled from numerous other sources and to be an early proponent of abolition. His love for the mission led him to play fast and loose with tradition by seeing the world as his parish, by commissioning lay preachers and ordaining Coke, Vasey and Whatcoat for the American mission and by sending with them 24 Articles and revised prayer book.
What has resulted is a “vile” UMC that is big and varied, made up from the union of different denominations and congregations with differing views all doing much good together and separately.
Is it stressful? …yes.
Is it Can it be beautiful? Yes. Even at it’s most stressful, I can still see the beauty in it.
I’ve seen and been in restrictive, tribalistic movements. There is certainly a deep love for the mission of Jesus, but they’re also tied to the strict boundaries for reasons that they’re blind to and I’ve watched it bring the mission down. Only a fluid and porous movement can be solely tied to the mission of Jesus. Because only in a fluid and porous movement can the varied eyes point to the movement’s blind spots. (This doesn’t mean everyone will look or see…)
The mission of Jesus forces us beyond restrictive, tribalistic boundaries, beyond concern over secondary and tertiary particulars. It forces us to be pragmatic and pragmatism works best with fluid and porous boundaries.
I love the UMC because at heart it cherishes this fluidity and porousness of pragmatism, because it cherishes more than anything else the mission of Jesus.
And that’s why I’m a Methodist.