Why is the church slow to change? One form of an answer may be found in the political realm. One of Andrew Sullivan‘s readers took a class in Political Innovation and offers a thought on American v. European implementation of change:
[O]ne of the things we discussed is that America’s system, due to federalism, local and individual autonomy and other factors, is really great at producing innovation. At the same time, the system is set up to resist change. In Europe, on the other hand, the system is not very good at producing change at all, because those ingredients are not present. But because the bureaucracy has more power, and because there are fewer levels of government, it’s much easier to implement change.
So what you have, ironically, is American innovators coming up with brilliant ideas, and overseas countries being the first to implement them–which explains why, for instance, the rest of the world is now ahead of us on gay rights even when America played a huge role in creating the movement in the first place.
To me, this precisely describes the tension built into the United Methodist Church (along with other connectional churches). Which, since it essentially parallels the US government’s structure, should come as no surprise!
- Because of the connectional sharing-of-pastors-and-resources, fresh eyes offer innovative new ministries at the local level. We hear about these daily in our news sharing, and then when we replicate those ministry successes in our local churches, we innovate again. Innovation and novel forms of ministry are abound!
- However, because of the hierarchical system and four years gap between legislative sessions, change is slooooooow to occur. The system is built so that rash responses are discouraged, but also important stances and witnesses and reflections on society changes are slow as well. Even the local church committee structure discourages change.
- Finally, because other denominations may have simpler polity or more individual church free will (congregationalism), other denominations implement these ideas more easily than we do. Every four years the UMC seems to be old news as the issues we wrestle with, the UCC and other congregational churches has already made progress on. Congregational polity makes change easier, but not always for the better (ie. Baptist takeover and expulsion of female pastors).
I’m not saying connectional churches come up with the ideas first (although that may be a doctoral research project if anyone actually reads this). I’m saying this tension is both a blessing that is keeps us together, and a thick pool of molasses that keeps us afloat but moving slowly.
On the local church level, this is an important tension as the church must reach a level of consensus before acting. It keeps us together, discussing passionately at times, but it makes changing hearts and minds more important than bluster and threats. It keeps us together.
On the meta-level, connectionalism is a blessing and a stumbling block. Novel forms of ministry (be it evangelism initiatives or the sexual identity of clergy) clashes with the structure which resists change. Sometimes clergy can’t stick it out and leave. Sometimes entire churches can’t stick it out and leave. But to the patient, change comes incrementally and doors open slowly but surely.
In short, this post is written to two types of people:
- To you if you feel like the UMC is changing too rapidly…take heart that the slow structural change forces everyone to moderate and be mindful of one another so that we bring everyone together as well as possible (so long as we all play the game fairly…yes, I’m looking at you renewal groups).
- To you if you feel like the UMC is too slow to change…take heart that that it is the messy determination of the heretics, of the outliers, that drag the church kicking and screaming into new forms of ministry.
Connectionalism is messy. But it’s a messiness that’s ours and holds both tremendous potential and devastating setbacks. May we hold this tension creatively and never seek to upturn or dismantle it lest we lose the tension that makes us one.
Thoughts? Discuss in the comments.