UMC: The Future United Methodist Church….Is Now

Note: I posted this on Facebook on March 5th. Given the inquiries I have received the past three days related to resources, I am posting it again here on Oboedire…

I received the announcement that the Global Methodist Church will officially begin on May 1st with multiple thoughts and feelings. Knowing this has been the end game of the Traditionalists from the outset, their announcement came as no surprise. For them it means actually enacting their separation, not just threatening or telegraphing their intention to do so.

For those of us who will remain in The United Methodist Church, it means navigating an evolution. In a different way, the UMC has as much work to do as those who will constitute the GMC. The future UMC requires a new phase of identity formation. The society at large, the general church, and Methodism as-a-whole will be asking, “Who are you?”

The question engages us on multiple fronts simultaneously. It’s important for us to stay in our lane as we cooperate in the way forward for United Methodism. My lane is that of an older adult who will not live to see the new UMC in its fullness, a retired Elder who has no official role to play as the next UMC comes into being, and as someone who has lived for decades at the intersection of Spiritual Formation and the Wesleyan tradition. This post is written in this context.

The future identity of the United Methodist Church will be rooted in our Book of Discipline. The 2024 edition will be the first step in a longer process of identifying ourselves as-a-whole. At this level things move slowly, in four-year segments, step-by-step.

The more continuous and concrete identification occurs at the congregational level as 32,000 worldwide outposts of the denomination tell their communities who they are. It is a formidable task.

Congregations who intend to remain United Methodist should begin right now (not wait until 2024) to develop and declare their identity–first to themselves and then to the communities they serve. From a spiritual formation vantage point, there are some key elements in the identification process….

Milieu

We are living in a time of a New Awakening, just as the first Methodists did in the 18th century. God is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). Making disciples for the transformation of the world requires us to “serve the present age.” [1] We must define ourselves in relation to this reality or we will be an antique rather than an advocate. Here are resources to help congregations recognize the New Awakening and be instruments in its advance…

Phyllis Tickle, ‘The Great Emergence’ (2012 edition)

Brian McLaren, ‘The New Spiritual Migration’

Steve Harper, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing’

Conrad Kanagy, ‘A Church Dismantled: A Kingdom Restored’ (first volume in a series)

There are many other means for understanding to the New Awakening. The Fetzer Institute has published valuable studies. The Barna Group has many helpful reports. I have provided others in my Oboedire series entitled “New Awakening” archived on the Oboedire home page.

Movement

Early Methodism was a movement before it was a denomination. It was a spiritual order akin to the third orders (e.g. Franciscans) that engaged laity and clergy in a variety of ministries in the world We must have a movement identity and expression more than an institutional one. Here are some resources to help congregations develop a movement mindset…

Be UMC (umc org/beumc)

Kenneth Carter and Audrey Warren, ‘Fresh Expressions: A New Kind of Methodist Church for People Not in Church

Alan Hirsch,‘5Q: Reactivating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ’

Leonard Sweet & Michael Beck, 'Contextual Intelligence'

The Wesleyan movement is further resourced by the Share Church ministry offered by The Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, and through ministries provided by The General Board of Discipleship.

Message

When John and Charles Wesley launched early Methodism (as a third-order movement), they included foundational aspects: a Constitution (“The Character of a Methodist”), a Rule of Life (“The General Rules of the United Societies”), Covenant community (“The Covenant Renewal Service”), and Means (Instituted and Prudential means of grace). Happily, Abingdon Press has published a series that brings these foundational elements to life in the present. Congregations will bear fruit in ways akin to early Methodism by rooting themselves in these resources…

‘Three Simple Rules’ by Rueben Job

‘Five Marks of a Methodist’ by Steve Harper

‘One Faithful Promise’ by Magrey deVega

‘The Means of Grace’ by Elaine Heath

The Wesleyan message is further resourced by Amplify Media in its “ Wesleyan Resources” category, as well as other formative resources.

Mission

Early Methodism called it “spreading scriptural holiness across the land.” We call it “making disciples for the transformation of the world.“ However we say it, we mean the Church exists for the sake of others. This part of our Wesleyan DNA brings everything above together, and it is a crucial facet of our identity if the future UMC is to reach, receive, renew, and send the “nones and dones” who have walked away from institutional Christianity. Here are some resources to help congregations shape this part of their identity…

Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, ‘The Shaping of Things to Come'

Kay Kotan, 'Being the Church in a Post-Pandemic World' (contributors to this book are all UMC leaders)

Daryl and Andrew Smith,‘Discovering Your Missional Potential’

The future of the new United Methodist Church is now. We must be intentional and engaged in the formation of our identity. Every congregation that intends to remain United Methodist should establish a task force of leaders who will actively develop its identity and then move to declare it to those inside and outside its walls. I hope this little post will inspire you to do this, and give you some places to begin. To be passive in these days will make congregations impotent and irrelevant, even if they remain in the UMC. The phrase “United Methodist” is a verb.

[1] From Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘A Charge to Keep’

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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