‘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?