Focus: Form, Function, and Repeating History

Blog Review of Lovett Weems' book

‘Focus’ is a readable book that depicts exactly what type of situation the United Methodist Church is in. He talks about the demographic research and the looming “Death Tsunami” and…you all know those terms already. You know all the doom and gloom. But Weems is much more than that.

In my view, the conflict in his depiction of the UMC is not between past and future but between form and function. He writes:

The survival of any denomination or congregation is not a worthy goal. The continuation of a much renewed and changed manifestation of the Wesleyan witness of holiness of heart and life through the United Methodist Church is a worthy goal. [‘Focus’ Kindle Location 390]

The survival of the “form” of the UMC is not the goal. The survival of the “function” of the Wesleyan witness is the goal. I completely agree. But how?

Weems references Gil Rendle (our next book study topic) when talking about diversity in the UMC:

As Gil Rendle contends, the increasing diversity of the church makes uniformity and conformity impossible but requires a “shared center.” [‘Focus’ Kindle Location 747]

The “form” of a uniform church is in conflict with the “function”-al theology that most United Methodists use. Again, form v. function.

There are other instances. But finally, in the Conclusion, Weems talks about legacy costs and legacy assets. Our legacy costs are the buildings, institutional inertia, and the “form” of the United Methodist Church. Our legacy assets are the theologies, affirmations, and historical “function” of the Wesleyan movement. According to Weems, our ‘function’ works well in many varied contexts while our ‘form’ worked for the 19th and 60% of the 20th century but not, so far, in the 21st.  As Weems notes:

Hope comes not from a nostalgic return to the empire days of a culture gone. Neither does it come from adopting values alien to God’s revelation in Scripture…God’s leaders help write a new chapter for God’s people who have always lived between memory and vision. [‘Focus’ Conclusion]

Weems again contrasts the form “the empire days of a culture gone” with the function “leaders living between memory and vision.”

For being church historians and theorists, they both seem to whitewash over our history of the dialectic between form and function. In the merger between the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1960s, pastors during that time tell of the dramatic shift in the “form” of the worship service that happened during that time. True to what Rendle quoted above, the MEP was very top-down with the church organization being dictated directly from Nashville. But the greatest gift of the EUB to the eventual UMC was the Council on Ministries model where each church was able to self-govern even as they continued to be connectional. There are some people who can better articulate this area of history, but the “form” of the UMC caused dramatic shifts at the local chuch level in the way they “functioned.”

This consideration of form and function seems to be at the heart of this Methodist problem, but at every turn, the “form” is depicted by Weems as irrelevant or holding back the Spirit. In our history, the Form allowed for class meetings, circuit riders, abolitionist movements, and an eventual Council on Ministries model. We’ve had some good forms in the past, and they were high-maintenance and they were highly connectional. So why are we seeking to eliminate some of our major connectional entities?

What I’m taking away from Weems’ book is a re-dedication to hold in tension both form and function. We need a form for the connectional UMC, we need a form or else we drift into congregationalism and not just diversity (which is fine) but chaos (the goal of the renewal groups who seek a “nostalgic return to the empire days”). We need a function, we need a shared center that guides the goals and means that makes our form effective. The only question is how to reconcile these both into a novel form that functions in the 21st century and balances both legacy costs effectively and legacy assets faithfully.

I don’t think the answer is the current bumper crop of Neo-Wesleyans who seek to bring back the Wesleyan “forms” part and parcel are going to work well in the 21st century. Likewise, I don’t think going whole-hog into the emergent theologies and especially Calvinist theologies (though mind-boggling numerical successes) in other parts of Christendom have the same “function” as a time-treasured Wesleyan perspective.  So I’m torn between the form and function again, as is Weems in every page of his book.

Well, there’s the blog post. Thoughts?

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. says

    Instead of looking to fly-by-night emergent groups as a model for the institutional church, or to Kraft Foods (one of their CEOs was a member of the IOT), I contend that we ought to be learning from the PROVEN and sustainable model offered by the Roman Catholic Church. There model would certainly need to be adjusted and tweeked, but we still have much to learn from this GLOBAL church that has survived for millenia.

    According to this model, clergy are essentially PRIESTS who officiate at the sacraments for the community. Clergy are NOT primarily the CEO’s of a corporation. Laity can be hired by the church when necessary to accomplish most of the administrative and much of the missional work. I don’t think United Methodist clergy should be expected to take vows of poverty like priest do (since our clergy are generally married with families to support). However, I do think they should be expected to live a modest, middle class lifestyle. My equitable compensation petition a model for how this might be accomplished. (The annual conference should establish a fair salary RANGE for clergy with the maximum compensation level no more than twice the minimum level–see 1 Timothy 5:17 for a scriptural rationale for this.) If we want to have LARGE institutionalized congregations, this model is worth taking a look at.

    I really think the church gets into trouble when we start paying high salaries to attractive, celebrity preacher/CEOs to build a kingdom around their own personality (or even a purpose-driven vision). If we restore the centrality of the Eucharist to our worship and our life together, then we begin to have a sustainable model.

  2. says

    Our willingness to deal with our fear of change and fear of loss is what will determines our future.

    It’s hard to tell where we should go if we don’t know where we are. We have to identify the current church culture, as seen through the eyes of those who have been in it for 30-40 years and ESPECIALLY those who are just now coming into it. The problem I see is that younger clergy from a divergent culture are being sent into churches that are 30-50 years older (avg age of leadership), which are institutionalized convergent (sameness) culture. Many younger clergy want things to be different, to be dynamic (much like our generation). We want to change things while the institution wants to stay the same. This is much of the tension and fear resides. For clergy it seems, the big leagues wait until you act, think, and look the same, and to prove your worth. This works out that many appointments are institutional churches that don’t know how to act or work differently and work with or invite a new generation, so it is nearly impossible to change anything at the lower levels, as the institution continues to lose contact/relevance with younger generations. The churches or groups within those churches most willing to be dynamic/and appealing for younger generations seem to have the fewest denominational ties, and have more young and/or rebellious people, a more dynamic risk taking culture. In this way a Prairie Chapel or a New Church Start, or small groups within a larger church may have more in common with many young pastors than an institutional church eternally mired in staying the same. The cycle has to be broken for this to change. Churches must want to change, to go against their fears of things being different, they must ask for younger clergy (and allow them to be young and dynamic). Cabinets must change and look for dynamics and independent thinking, and encourage experimentation and innovation. The BOOM must look for people who have a modern/postmodern Wesleyan Theology as well. The future needs a United Methodist Church, and Wesleyan theology but that does not happen until the cycle is broken and we take more chances and allow for a plurality of forms, with dynamic people to lead it.

    If GC and the Book of Discipline can do anything it is to allow for and encourage more dynamics, and if it doesn’t, we still have to be DYNAMIC on every level, if Wesleyan Theology and Ethics are to exist and make a difference in the future CHURCH we must change.

    The fear of changing the institution and loosing the good the institution does in the world may hold back the change that must happen so that Wesleyan theology (which convicts the church of our faithful obligation to do good) lives on and makes a difference in the future.

  3. Tom says

    If you are going to judge by results then. . .

    “the greatest gift of the EUB to the eventual UMC was the Council on Ministries model where each church was able to self-govern even as they continued to be connectional. ”

    means this “greatest gift” was a disaster. The focus as some point stopped being about starting new churches and groups to an internal focus of the church.

    I don’t think the priestly model for pastoring is the answer at all. I would lean more toward the rabbinical model of clergy being teachers/mentors. The clergy don’t make good CEO’s in general.

    Early history, I don’t know when it ended, the elders were paid their cash salaries by the Annual Conference. I could see where this would make us all much more connectional.

    I would agree that there is a significant danger of us drifting toward congregationalism and I feel that the Call to Action pushes us that direction.

  4. Kirk VanGilder says

    I’d argue that the greatest contribution of the EUB to the merger was the refusal to merge unless institutionalized segregation in the form of the Central Jurisdiction was ended.

    But that aside, I think there’s a need for practical theological examinations into early forms that don’t ‘proof text’ them into the current era like the late 80’s early 90’s movement of covenant discipleship groups did. Instead of recreating the past, we need to examine what worked in the past and why it did and what we have now in our current contexts and engage in a mutually critical correlative project to see where connections might work and where they’d fall apart and revise our current practices and understanding of how to employ older practices in new ways.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *