The New UMC: Movement Locality

Thinking of the new UMC as a third-order movement gives us the opportunity to combine two key dynamics: locality and networking. Early Methodism expressed both, and so can we. In this post we’ll look at Wesleyan locality. In the next post we will explore Wesleyan networking.

When John Wesley said, “I look upon all the world as my parish,” he was stating his vision. That vision was realized at the local level through bands, classes, and societies. The Methodist movement operated close to home, reflecting the nearness of the kingdom of God and incarnational ministry. This commitment to locality must be a hallmark of the new UMC. As Will Willimon put it, we must “learn to love the local.” In this post I offer thoughts about what this might look like.[1]

First, place. Congregations should identify their “ministry zone.” Nothing makes mission more concrete than this. [2] Establish a radius (e.g. one mile in all directions) and name it as your holy ground for service. Put up a map with your ministry zone encircled, as a visual reminder. [3]

One of the learnings may be how many of the congregation’s members live outside the zone. No wonder the church seems distant and invisible in relation to its locality. Many members are never there. They don’t work in the zone, shop in the zone, go to school in the zone, or have relationships/friendships with people who live in it. Establishing a ministry zone is one way to see this and begin to take steps to change it.

The band and class meetings (some societies too) were geographic, within walking distance. The people who met together for spiritual formation had other interactions to strengthen their relationship. Locality keeps this potential alive in our minds and methods.

Second, proaction. Become familiar with your ministry zone by walking the beat, getting to know the people and listening to them. This is a reignition of the parish concept, and it is a “back to the future” understanding of ministry the Church needs to recover.

Early Methodism had a go-to mentality. Class leaders knew their territory and visited from house to house. Their meetings were attractional because their context was missional. They asked, “How is it with your soul?” not only in their group meetings, but also in their neighborhood contacts.

In my course on Social Spirituality, one of the assignments was for students to interview someone proximate to the congregation they attended or pastored. It might be city council member in whose district the church was located. Or maybe a public safety officer in that area, or a public school principal, community social worker, health-care provider, business owner, etc. Someone in the zone.

The interview could vary, but it was generated by two questions, “What is not around here that needs to be?”…..and…..”What could our congregation do to improve things?” Needless to say, the responses were revealing.

But the most surprising thing was how often interviewees said, “You’re the first person from that church to ask me these things.” A doctor who was interviewed by one student seized the moment to add this note, “The thing that bothers me most about preachers is that they act like they have all the answers, but they have never asked any questions.” Wow! Ouch! Being proactive is one way to change that perception.

Third, partnerships. The future church (not just the new UMC) will be collaborative. It will avoid redundancy by joining with existing ministries (ecclesial and civic) that are serving in the identified ministry zone. Most of them need workers. The future church will not reinvent the wheel, it will grease the wheels already there.

The ecumenical nature of early Methodism made it colaborative. The vision was to “offer Christ’ through various means, and if those means already existed, the Methodists joined in.

I think back to one church I served. Like the others in the community, it was small. One of the things we fellow pastors lamented was insufficient youth ministry. None of us could afford a full-time youth minister. One was able to hire a summer youth worker. But the rest of us muddled along.

Ironically, we could have had someone year-round if we would have had a community vision rather than a denominational one. But because we were siloed, we were unable to respond to a need we agreed we all had. Even now there are places all over the land who could do things if they partnered in doing them.

Fourth, pieces. This point connects to the interviews mentioned above. Students received specific ideas. They carried them back to their congregation to become part of a discernment process with the spirit, “We cannot do everything, but we can do something.” They knew that discernment includes choice, and doing a few things well.

With nearly 400,000 congregations in the USA, that adds up to a lot of pieces, a lot of specific ministries (“in the zone”) that could make things better in each locale.

I recently read about a congregation who found two pieces in their zone. They discovered people nearby needed affordable health care and access to food services. They used empty space in their building, partnered with existing organizations, and began operating a free clinic and a food distribution site. Learning to love the local, they became the hands and feet of Jesus in two specific ways that were not there before.

Fifth, perpetuation. The future church will make investments, not just have events. Programs will emerge from processes. The long-haul will govern the short-term. Congregations will establish “zone teams” to keep asking, seeking, and knocking—keeping informed and being responsive.

Eugene Peterson coined what he called the pastor’s question [4] It is also the congregational question—the question which makes hope local: “Who are these people, and how can we be with them in ways that they can become what God is making them?” This question gives us eyes to see and ears to hear.

This is the locating question that congregations need to ask in the new UMC. Pastors will come and go. Members will move away and die. But the congregation will remain, saying in each locale year after year, “We are here for you, and we intend to stay.” [5] The new UMC will thrive by learning to love the local.

[1] When I was a local pastor, I did not know most of what I am sharing in this post. If I would have, my ministry would have been better. I have learned these things from pastors who knew and lived the principle of locality. I am grateful for their wisdom and witness. Alan Roxburgh’s book, ‘Joining with God in the Great Unraveling’ (recommended by a friend) connects renewal with the recovery of locality.

[2] Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” One meaning is that it is near. Nearness is always specific. Incarnational ministry is tangible with respect to a people and a place. Eugene Peterson wrote about this in his book, ‘The Jesus Way,’ 4-6.

[3] Visualizing locality does not eliminate a world mission. The general church connects us to the world, offering a variety of ways to connect with and serve it. But it is the congregation that knows and names local mission. The general church cannot do that for you.

[4] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor,’ 11.

[5] Michael Beck and Leonard Sweet’s book, ‘Contextual Intelligence’ is an excellent resource for understanding the importance of locality.

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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