The New UMC: Making Hope Real

When we envision a “future filled with hope’ for the United Methodist Church, we often do so using renewal language. And while there is “fire” in using renewal language, there is also the danger that the fire will go out. It has happened before.

Beginning with Scripture, we can summarize the loss of renewal fire in these words, “these people turn toward me with their mouths, and honor me with lip service while their heart is distant from me” (Isaiah 29:13 & Matthew 15:8) and “faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (James 2:17). If we are to realize the renewal we need and pray for, we must make hope real.

Doing so requires ongoing attentiveness and sustained effort. In our tradition, John Wesley called it “living faith” and “practical divinity.” This was his way of describing hope in action. He would agree with the sentiment of Gandhi: we must be the change we hope to see. He would “stride toward freedom” with Martin Luther King Jr. He would commend Eugene Peterson’s emphasis on lived theology. [1]

The greatest challenge the new UMC faces is making hope real at the congregational level. If this does not happen, “business as usual” will put us out of business, leaving us an old-wineskin denomination that does not hold or offer God’s wine. But it does not have to be like that. God is inviting us into a future filled with hope. Making hope real includes strategic action—action which congregations should implement immediately.

First, deep rooting. I noted this in the last post. I repeat it because we bear fruit from our roots. As a new UMC emerges, we face an identity challenge. Both among our members and in the larger community/world, people are going to ask, “Who are you?” We must respond, and thankfully we have resources to use. In the next post I will provide a list of resources congregations can use to do the rooting.

Second, locale. The new UMC’s mission must be made specific. That’s always been true. It’s one reason the Wesleys emphasized practical divinity. The word must be enfleshed through concrete and contextualized expressions. There is no “one size fits all” renewal. I will write more about this in a future post.

Third, collaboration. The new UMC must be simpler in structure and ministry. One expression is avoiding redundancy. God’s call will be to join existing ministries rather than creating duplicate ones. In some communities, it will mean having a common ministry (e.g. a community youth ministry) rather than multiple ones. The future is one of ecumenical and interfaith partnerships. But it will produce a more realistic and responsive denomination.

Fourth, adopting a go-to mentality. The Fresh Expressions movement is teaching us this and confirming it through concrete ministries. [2] It incarnates the Wesleyan mission to go outside the walls reaching the marginalized and reforming the nation. The paradox is this: the new UMC will become stronger inside by serving those outside.

Making hope real is not program, it’s a process. It is not an occasional event, it’s a sustained effort. We make hope real when we do church in ways which say, “We are here with you, and we intend to stay.”

[1] Peterson wrote about this multiple times. In his book, ‘Practice Resurrection,’ he used Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to show how God creates a church that acts inwardly and outwardly in ways that give rise to personal and social maturation in Christ.

[2] Discipleship Ministries has its Path 1 emphasis which includes a Fresh Expressions ministry with Wesleyan distinctives.

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.
This entry was posted in UMC. Bookmark the permalink.