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 Prototype, Jonathan 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.