Yes, We ARE your grandmother’s church

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Yesterday we wondered why 21 of the top 100 United Methodist churches did not include any denominational branding or mention on their websites. It would seem that there’s either a marketing or a theological reason for the intentional decision. But then a commenter reminded me of another reason: ecclesial disaffiliation or dissatisfaction with the mothership church. Let’s explore that one a bit more.

Yesterday’s post hit a nerve, apparently: at least TWO of the pastors whose websites’ don’t reflect their United Methodist heritage or affiliation responded with comments. You can view them here. While I was clearly unfair in the title as Jorge Acevado points out, the driving question perhaps can be better phrased in this way: is it primarily a marketing decision to remove United Methodist references and imagery from one’s online presence or is it an ecclesial decision to distance one from the rest of the denomination?

The former is one for conversation; the latter is a concern as it reflects discontent with the United Methodist tradition or its current doctrinal affirmations or restrictions.

As a comment to the Facebook page, my colleague Rev. Robin Yim recounted the following conversation with a former church appointment: 

In the first week in a new appointment many years ago, I was approached by several leaders who told me at the next church council meeting there would be a motion to drop “United Methodist” from the lawn sign and put up “Bible” in its stead. It seemed they weren’t attracting the right kind of people and thought this would fix it with a change of name. In conversation with people, it became apparent that this was also an issue of purity: they didn’t want to be associated with actions and view of other United Methodists with whom they had significant theological differences.

This would make presenting themselves to the world just about them, not about answering for their denominational relatives.

Robin’s comment about “not answering for their denominational relatives” hits it on the head for some churches, I think. For some of the strongly evangelical and the strongly progressive churches in our wide body, the name “United Methodist” can be seen as problematic for their growth. We are not all in the amorphous Methodist Middle. So is the answer to bury one’s Methodist ties (at least online to be “seeker-friendly”) or is it to engage and show how we are one Church, warts and all, living out the Gospel in a variety of ways?

In his book PrototypeJonathan Martin responds to those don’t want to answer for their denominational ancestors in a way that I find helpful and confrontational to those who disregard their denominational ties because of ecclesial differences with United Methodism, not just marketing or missional reasons:

I’ve grown weary of the cliche church advertising that said  “We aren’t your grandmother’s church.” I understand what they mean by that. It’s a way of saying that our church has electric guitars rather than pipe organs. I didn’t grow up in churches with pipe organs, so I have no reason to be defensive about them now.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with the careless language. The desire to cut ourselves off from those who came before us is no virtue. Even when we are flatly–and perhaps rightly–embarrassed by the behavior or history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church. And this is as it should be.

Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts, but even when it has been very wrong, it still belongs to us. There is no such thing as cutting ourselves off and starting over–even the Protestant Reformation didn’t truly succeed in that. The reality of being the body of christ leaves us deeply connected, even when we want to walk away and do something different.

Of course we would love a clean state from the mistakes and failures of our grandmother’s church, because we could pretend we are without sin. But when we disassociate ourselves from even the negative parts of our respective church traditions, we are no longer starting from a starting place of repentence, and how can that be a good idea?

Chapter 9, audiobook 4:00

Jonathan Martin concludes the section with an extended quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:

Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more that the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificially.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Indeed, we are all our grandmother’s churches. At General Conference 2012, we even spent some time in repentance for the ways in which our ancestors stole land and lives from the Native American people. We cannot live in a dream world divorced from our past.

My hope is for a United Methodist Church that engages its past, repents of its sins, embraces new realities, and continues to bear the brand of those who have marked them in amazing ways. My hope is for my grandmother’s church’s memory to be less about silly hats and gloves and more about a dedication to live out Christ’s ways in progressively different social situations. My hope is for my grandchild’s church to be more about unity in mission even as it may have diversity in belief. If the word “Methodist” doesn’t survive, so be it. But until that time, give me that old rugged cross and flame, because it’s marked me and I can’t disavow its history any more than I can denounce my own name.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. Rev Leah Hidde Gregory says

    I am a firmly centrist Methodist. I believe in keeping all people at the table and keeping the discussions on theological differences going. But I got a lot more from my grandmothers church than hats, gloves and pipe organs. I learned to care for my neighbor through countless casseroles and cakes baked before going to visit. As a result pastoral care is important to me. I learned about the need for service through witnessing my grandmothers church run a tutoring service and give meals on Wednesday night to underprivileged children. Social Justice was a gift I received from my grandmothers church. I saw the dedication in which my grandmother embraced Bible Study, Women’s Society, and Sunday school. As a child I learned scripture and Bible stories at those women’s feet. And on Easter Sunday there isn’t anything more jolting than to here Christ The Lord is Risen on a pipe organ. Was my grandmothers church perfect, absolutely not! But the gifts given to me and countless others should not arrogantly be set aside by a generation that thinks their generation is better than those who went before. It won’t be long til the next generation comes along criticizing our ways too.

  2. says

    Growing up in a United Methodist Church and now being a candidate in the ministry process (got the best mentor there is!)… I have always had a fondness for the cross and flame… As a way for the church to evolve it’s logo, churches should be encouraged to display their own cross and flames… Maybe a new design for a church as a whole could be found amongst the designs displayed by individual churches… Similar to how Ronald McDonald came to represent the whole of the McDonald’s fast food chain.

    My home church uses the standard cross and flame, but it hasn’t stopped us from expressing it in different ways. Maybe this, one of the designs we’ve used ant our church, would be good for the UMC as it grows into something new: http://www.westdanvilleumc.org/images/greenUMC_sm.gif

    Explanation of the logo (link above), as well as another one we’ve used can be found here:
    http://www.westdanvilleumc.org/churchlife.html

  3. says

    A couple of reactions. First, I’m not so sure that Jonathan Martin understands as well as he thinks he does what is meant by a phrase like “not my grandmother’s church.” He thinks it’s about aesthetics. About whether guitars or organ are prominent in worship. Your own commentary, Jeremy, has to do with hats and gloves. But how about:
    –emerging adults who are looking for belonging before doctrinal belief, who are skeptical of creeds and proclamations of Truth with a capital T, who are looking instead for a place to safely question?
    –new people who aren’t interested in being recruited to a committee?
    –a missional model of doing church rather than the attractional model that worked so well in the 50s and 60s but is largely failing us today?
    –flatter ecclesiology, with a greater focus on the authenticity and vulnerability of pastoral leadership as opposed to clergy as the authority figure behind high pulpits?

    These are differences in theology and approaches to mission, not just endless debates about contemporary worship. Yes, absolutely, the next generation will come along and criticize our generation. But we need to be doing ministry that is relevant to this generation, and while much of that ministry will be passed down from my grandmothers’ churches–casseroles and meals for families with new babies and small groups–much of it will need to adapt and change, just as in the future it will need to adapt and change again.

    A final comment: Bonhoeffer is a heroic figure. He has so much to teach us. He’s also a German Lutheran. If we want to stay true to our Methodist heritage, we won’t so quickly dismiss the role of emotion–i.e., the role of experience.

    • Kristin says

      This. It’s not about trappings. All of my problems with the traditional approach deal with deeper philosophical issues–being open to questions, problems with the creeds, and lack of inclusivity.

  4. says

    And . . . Jonathan Martin, a pastor in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee, not Anderson, Indiana), founded and leads a great church in our area called, simply, Renovatus.

  5. Chris says

    I’ll say what I said on Facebook. I am proud of these churches… almost all of them in the top 100… who are seeking to put Jesus above ALL else. I am grateful for what these churches offer not just for the UMC but for God’s Kingdom. Without them Grandma’s church may be talk about “that church my grandma used attend… what did they call it? Methodists or something like that?” I’m sure each of these church has a story that answers the “why?” question. Like each of us has a story about “why” we are or are not United Methodist.

    And Let’s be honest about it: Grandma is dying. These churches keep her alive. Thanks Jorge and Talbot and Mark and all the others who are doing what Scripture teaches.

    Let me add another aside: a couple weeks ago while on vacation I worshipped at the church my cousin attends. It was Hawk Creek Church. Plain and simple. When I asked about it’s history I was told that it is “technically” a SOuthern Baptist Church. And I could tell form the preaching it was a SBC. But the pastor and leaders are distancing themselves from the SBC label because they don’t want it to take away from anyone who may choose to visit and get to know Jesus there. Sounds familiar. It’s not about being ashamed of the roots, necessarily, it’s about doing EVERYTHING possible to reach people with the Gospel.

  6. says

    For the last five weeks our church has been working through our lectionary lessons from the Old Testament, notably focusing on the the times and trials of Elijah and Elisha dwelling among an Israelite nation that didn’t want to adhere to doctrine. One of the things I love about the Hebrew Bible, and later the letters from Paul, are the mistakes that are preserved for all to see in people trying (some very unsuccessfully) to live godly lives in a world that doesn’t want us to.
    Problems go back much further than United Methodism, and maybe some day there’ll be a book of denominations outlining what have and haven’t done right. They are there in writing for us to overcome, today.
    But it’s interesting, at NCLI, our facilitator Jim Griffith talked a bit about naming new churches. In his research, dropping “United Methodist” from the moniker doesn’t really do much to further the cause. Because the UMC brand is still a brand to be believed in in the US. And by and large, people of younger generations these days would rather know what they’re getting in to (more or less). Dropping the UMC implies a bait and switch tactic that’s a MAJOR turn-off for younger generations when it comes to the church.

    • Walter Little says

      It’s a side issue and not the point of the article, but I just don’t understand, “. . .we even spent some time in repentance for the ways in which our ancestors stole land and lives from the Native American people.” Can one show repentance for the wrongs committed by others? Implicit in the word is not only regret but also amendment of life. How can one repent for the wrongs committed by others, even one’s physical or spiritual forebears? Isn’t doing so an expression of self-righteousness? Doesn’t each of us commit enough wrongs to repent those? Let us feel sorrow for the muddled image we all share and reserve our repentance for our own expressions of our bent toward evil.

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