The New UMC: Becoming a Movement (Again)

The UMC resources I listed recently in this series have revived my conviction that the way forward for the new UMC includes recovering a movement mindset. I am in agreement with those who believe the Wesleys intentionally designed Methodism as a Third Order. [1] The term is not used much in Protestant Christianity, but it has a rich and formative heritage in Christianity. [2] In this post I offer some overview thoughts about the future UMC as a third-order movement.

First, the UMC will never be a pure Third Order because it must necessarily be a denomination. That requires a different structure. Nevertheless, I believe that keeping a movement mindset can help determine a structure that is less bureaucratic and top-heavy. Third-Order thinking can enable us to revise our structure (general church and congregational) in helpful ways. Third-order thinking can keep the formative principle of simplification in play. [3]

Second, the early Methodist movement was a Third Order expression. It is in our DNA. [4] Drawing it out can benefit us today. Three dynamics shaped third-order Methodism: reaching the marginalized, renewing the church, and reforming the nation. If I continue this series, I may write more about these missional elements. I mention them today only further to confirm the Third Order nature of our heritage. The reignition of these elements will enliven our movement mindset.

Third, because Methodism was a movement before it was a denomination (Christianity was too), we can follow a good renewal path for the future UMC by starting with a movement mindset. If nothing else, this kind of thinking calls us from the get-go to envision the future apart from the conventional institutional categories that have become second nature to us. Without being more radical than I intend to be (for we are a denomination), a movement mindset gives us a new place for responding to the question, “What might a different kind of Church look like in the future?”

Putting it all together, we have the opportunity to discern the will of God in the creation of something new. We have had Third Orders and denominations in Christianity. We have the opportunity to envision a third-order denomination, and work to bring it to pass. That’s exciting and in keeping with Wesleyan theology’s convergent nature: “a Third Order…and…a denomination,” resulting in a reality larger than the parts. I am praying that the new UMC will become such.

[1] I did not originate this idea. Dr. Melvin Dieter first called it to my attention. I have confirmed his insight through similar thoughts provided by Colin Williams, Frank Baker, Ted Campbell, and Elaine Heath.

[2] The Catholic Encyclopedia has a good summary of Third Orders. The New Monasticism is a contemporary expression. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, ‘New Monasticism’ is the place to start in learning about it. The movement’s ‘Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals’ provides the daily liturgical energy for the New Monasticism. Within the Wesleyan tradition, Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins have provided excellent insights in their book, ‘Missional, Monastic, Mainline.’ I use the New Monasticism as a paradigm for renewal in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing.’

[3] Richard Foster’s book, ‘The Freedom of Simplicity’ is an excellent resource to see the importance of simplification. If nothing else, the previous institutional model of the UMC is financially unsustainable. Simplification will be a forced necessity. But we can make it an educated and formative necessity—a freeing one, to use Foster’s term.

[4] Three books have helped me recognize our movement DNA. (1) Leonard Sweet, ’11 Genetic Gateways to Spiritual Awakening’ (Abingdon 1998), (2) George Hunter, ‘The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement’ (Abingdon, 2011), and (3) Gil Rendle, ‘Back to Zero: The Search to Discover the Methodist Movement’ (Abingdon, 2011).

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 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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