The New UMC: A Future Filled With Hope

[Note: I have written in the “UMC” category here on Oboedire for years. Today’s post in this category is focused on the new UMC which is already taking shape, but does so more formally on May 1st when the Global Methodist Church launches and some people exit the UMC to be part of it. These new-UMC posts are for those of us staying in the UMC.]

When I think of the future of the United Methodist Church, I do so in relation to God’s promise to Jeremiah, to give the people “a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). This is God’s promise to “the people called Methodist,” who will remain in the UMC. Ours is a future filled with hope. [1]

It is a future with many formidable challenges and unanswered questions. It is a future coming into being through the pruning process Jesus described in John 15:2. [2] We have new potential to bear the fruit of the Spirit through a vigorous declaration that “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11), moving us into the new-Creation of life in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) that not only welcomes and affirms all people, but goes on to offer all people access to the sacraments, ceremonies, offices, and ministries of the Church.

Experiencing a future filled with hope contained numerous experiences for early Methodism. Here are some of the ones that I find especially transferable into today…

First, a Trinitarian theology, emphasizing love. [3] God is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), creating another new Awakening, redeeming us from the things that have prevented us from experiencing it, and sustaining us as we serve Christ as instruments of God’s peace in advancing it. It is summed up in three words: life in Christ. [4] Leading with grace (the outworking of God’s love in our lives), the same order of salvation can transform us today as it did the early Methodists. The future of the UMC is filled with hope as respond to Trinity love at work in us, and aim to be those through whom it flows (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Second, a deeply-rooted identity. For Wesley, the taproot identity was in the Bible, calling himself “a man of one book.” On the heels of Scripture, he found identity with the early Christians (c. 100-600 CE). [5] With these roots, he drank from the wells dug by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the classical Protestant tradition, and the Anglican tradition. All of these gave him the “catholic spirit” which saved him and Methodism from theological arrogance and sectarianism. He found fellowship with the whole Body of Christ, with adherents of other religions, and with those who professed no particular faith but were earnest seekers after God. The non-partisan nature of early Methodism was a hallmark, and it is one that is sorely needed today. The future of the UMC is filled with hope as we root ourselves deeply in this identity.

Third, a reignition of mission. The Wesleys saw the Church of their day too focused on itself. The Methodist mission to ”spread scriptural holiness across the land” ignited a fresh intent to renew the Church in ways which turned its ministries outward in reaching the marginalized and reforming the nation. The early Methodists saw themselves as servants of others for Christ’s sake (2 Corinthians 4:5). Similarly, we too have an opportunity to escape our too-inward focus, which has rendered the UMC (and a lot of institutional Christianity) increasingly irrelevant. We have an invitation to make a fresh start in our mission “to make disciples for the transformation of the world” as we focus our energy, time, and money being a church that exists not for its own sake, but for the sake of others (Philippians 2:4)—the mission modeled by Christ himself (Philippians 2:5-8). [6] The future of the UMC is filled with hope as we give ourselves to this sense of mission.

Yes, the future of the United Methodist Church is a future filled with hope as we follow God’s guidance into the future with our theology in the Trinity, our identity in deep roots, and our mission in the mind of Christ.

[1] Paul Chilcote and I co-authored a book aimed at this, ‘Living Hope: An Inclusive Vision of the Future.’

[2] After fifty-years of increasing turmoil in the denomination, the branches of Christian fundamentalism (which produce divisiveness, legalism, judgmentalism, and exclusion) have been pruned. Our energy can be focused in a fresh way on “bearing much fruit” through a theology of love (John 15:7- that enacts the two great commandments in an “all means all” oneness (e.g. Galatians 3:28).

[3] Thomas Oord, ‘Pluriform Love’ presents a theology of love akin to the Wesleys and applied to today. He connects it, as the Wesleys did, to the larger message and mission of the entire Body of Christ. I also recommend E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘Christian Maturity’ for exploring the life of love.

[4] My book, ‘Life in Christ’ explores this in more detail, using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the lens for seeing and experiencing it. With Christology at the core of renewal, many of E. Stanley Jones’ books are especially helpful. And Richard Rohr’s ‘Universal Christ’ reveals the magnificence and significance of the excarnate and incarnate Christ.

[5] Benedicta Ward’s book, ‘The Desert Fathers’ shows the major themes of early Christianity: progress in the perfection, quiet, compunction, self-control, overcoming lust, possessing nothing, fortitude, nothing done for show, non-judgment, discretion, sober living, unceasing prayer, hospitality, obedience, humility, patience, charity (love)y, and visions. We these themes reflected in Wesleyan theology and the early Methodist movement. Emphases from the Rule of Benedict are also found in the Wesleyan tradition.

[6] Elaine Heath has developed the Philippian passage in her book, ‘The Mystic Way of Evangelism,’ 66-70, making kenosis a paradigm for our life and witness. Similarly, Thomas Oord sheds further light on kenosis in ‘Pluriform Love,’ 154-160. Both authors reference others who saw kenosis as paradigmatic.

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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