Why Remain in the UMC
Much has been written. I believe there are three key points for me.
- The UMC allows us to be an effective local expression of a genuinely global, ecumenical, apostolic, missional Church.
- The UMC allows us the room to try new ways of adapting to our constantly changing social and cultural context. It allows us the space to disagree for the sake of loving our neighbors, particularly those who have been despised and rejected. It allows us the freedom to make mistakes, grow in knowledge, and be reconciled to one another.
- Remaining in the UMC is an expression of fidelity to those who over decades and indeed centuries have been faithful to us, providing material support, intellectual encouragement, spiritual sustenance, and prayer for our well-being and our journey in faith.
In the New Testament we learn that the first local churches, the first Christian congregations, were formed by the apostles as part of their mission to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19, 20) And "to be my witnesses to these things." (Luke 24:48) And "to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7)
As they appear to us in the Book of Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation of John these individual congregations were each an expression of a single apostolic mission.
Realizing the missional and connectional nature of the apostolic church was John Wesley's intention as he began to organize the fruits of his own evangelistic preaching and that of the preachers who associated with them. Over time Wesley set up a structure of interdependent communities continually connected by itinerant preachers, shared resources, and regular conferences (quarterly and annually). As in the time of the apostles, each was a local expression of a single, Methodist mission.
For this reason the property they used for meeting halls, and later formal churches, was held in common and managed by local trustees on behalf of the entire Methodist movement. This allowed for highly strategic church planting. Meeting halls could be constructed in communities far too poor to even afford land, or in places where there was promise of growth in the future but few local resources available in the present.
As local expressions of a single mission they undertook projects too large for a single congregation. This included sending missionaries to the Americas, to India, and to Europe. It included a growing network of schools for children too poor to pay for existing schools. It included a publishing house so that Wesley's works, and others, could be disseminated among the Methodists.
When Methodism came to the United States it continued the pattern of apostolic connection inherited from early church and Wesley's Methodist movement in Britain. While congregations cared for themselves and engaged in local evangelism, their primary purpose was the larger mission of the Methodist church. That is why in our Discipline today the Annual Conference is the basic unit of the church, the basic center of Methodist mission. This is why pastors are members of the Annual Conference rather the local church, and serve its mission through their work in the local congregation.
What this allowed is what we see and experience today: strategic evangelistic growth and the building of critical institutions to serve society. Through the sharing of financial and other resources Methodists have purchased 10's of thousands of pieces of property for either new churches or service institutions in the US and worldwide. They built a publishing house serving both churches and schools. Here in Texas that cooperative work is responsible for seven colleges and universities, a graduate school for training clergy, two major hospitals, two children's homes, and the purchase and creation of hundreds of local churches.
Apportionments fund minimum salaries for pastors serving churches too small or poor to pay a living wage. They fund pensions and medical insurance for pastor's whose churches don't have the means to provide them. They fund training for pastors, hospital chaplains, and US military chaplains. They fund campus ministers and ministries in virtually every college or university in Texas and the United States. They fund scholarships. They fund hundreds of missionaries right now, and over the last 200 years have funded 10's of thousands of evangelists and teachers. My wife's family was converted to Christianity by Methodist missionaries in Borneo supported by US congregations. She was raised in a Methodist children's home with her sisters. And like hundreds of thousands of children worldwide was educated in Methodist Mission schools. All of this was because thousands of local congregations were part of a single mission.
Lake Highlands UMC is an example of this mission. In 1955 the Annual Conference purchased, among other properties, 5.7 acres at the corner of Plano and McCree Roads, one of which was a barely paved blacktop road and the other not even completely graded. In January of 1956 the founding pastor, Ken McIntosh was assigned to build up the congregation. Until it was formed his salary was paid by the annual conference because he was their missionary.
Over the decades LHUMC has used Sunday School literature developed by the Methodist Board of Publications and later Board of Discipleship. It has sung from hymnals of the same source. It's preachers have come from Methodist seminaries. And in turn LHUMC has contributed to planting new churches, building up joint ministries, and sending more missionaries into a world in need of the gospel.
These kinds of shared ministries are only possible because the Methodist movement, from its inception, allowed for what John Wesley, following Augustine called for: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." The essentials for Wesley and all subsequent Methodists and United Methodists are found in the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Articles of Religion, and Wesley's General Rules. These cannot be changed. Beyond these Wesleyans, Methodists, and finally United Methodists have agreed there is room for liberty and continual dialogue. This allows Methodists to respond to new cultures and changing culture, and sometimes to make mistakes in doing so.
For this reason United Methodists, unlike churches such as Southern Baptists, do not quickly exclude pastors and congregations from the UM Fellowship. Wesley recognized that the human capacity for understanding God and how to worship God was limited. He knew, as he says in his sermon "Catholic Spirit," that sometimes "we cannot think alike," or even "worship alike." Thus the UMC has always supported loving and reasoned dialogue about theological disagreements rather than the automatic expulsion of individuals who cannot "think alike."
And this is what allows our Sunday School classes, our charitable ministries, and our whole congregational life to thrive with people of differing personal experiences and understandings of Jesus Christ and his gospel. Because we are saved by grace and not by doctrine or practice United Methodists have trusted that God, and the fellowship of believers, will correct those (both pastors and laypersons) that err. The breaking of fellowship is a last resort rather than a puritanical reflex.
So why remain in the UMC? Because we always have been and will continue to be a local expression of a universal apostolic mission. We can fulfill the apostolic role given to local churches from the very beginning. The UMC provides a framework within which LHUMC can pursue the mission demanded of its social and cultural context, while remaining faithful to the mission that gave it birth by supporting and being supported by an international connection of over 30,000 congregations in the US and nearly again that many congregations worldwide. It allows us to be part of ministries far larger and having a far greater impact than we can achieve on our own, and it allows us to invest in strategic missional opportunities such as church planting, creating ministries to feed the poor, house the homeless, care for the sick, protect the orphan, and raise new generations of pastors, chaplains, teachers, and missionaries.
As importantly it give us, our lay leaders and pastors, the room to fully adapt to our particular context. We have the freedom to experiment and sometimes to fail, knowing that the larger body will always support us and uphold us. We don't have to be perfect so long as we are faithful to Christ and minister in his name.
And finally remaining in the UMC allows us to exercise that which is most difficult in today's world: faithfulness to those who brought us into being, and who over decades have joined with us in Christian ministry. Faithfulness to other UM churches like Highland Park UMC, who in the early years subsidized the pastor's salary and purchased hymnals for worship. Faithfulness to the Annual Conference which purchased the property on which we carry out our work, gave scholarships to train our pastors, sent us men and women as both leaders and servants, and which continues to offer training and assistance. Faithful to men and women down through the ages who invested their lives in the ministry of this congregation as United Methodists committed to being the local expression of the apostolic mission the UMC makes real.