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Denominational vs Non-Denominational

My wife and I have had several discussions recently about apportionments in the United Methodist Church. For those of you who are not Methodist, apportionments are funds paid by the local church to their conference or other higher authority to support the work of the broader church. Many of these funds go to administrative functions that are just not very sexy. Others go to agencies whose mission (or lack of it) concerns us.

But at the same time if one claims membership in an organization, then one ought to support that organization. For us personally, that means tithing. We don’t ask each time we put a check in the offering plate whether we would personally vote for every project to which the money goes. That’s the money we give to the local church, and the church as a whole is responsible at that point for how it is used. Similarly, since our congregation has a sign out from that shows the cross and flame, and reads “United Methodist Church,” we owe something to the organization to which that name and logo belong.

Sky Lowe-McCracken (Hat Tip: Locusts and Honey MBWR #85) talks about this issue in his post The United Methodist Connection – Plus or Minus?. He weighs various points about the connection, which he says has been very good to him, as a pastor. But what about the laity?

He says:

My hunch is at present, the United Methodist Church needs local churches more than local churches need the United Methodist Church.

The reason for this?

Like most organizations and organized entities, it may be that the United Methodist Church has become self-serving, rather that serving in the capacity originally intended. Our understanding of the truth, our mission, and the way we live out our faith is dictated by popular vote. The problem with that is that I’m not sure Christianity affirms democracy nor acknowledges it as the truth. This loss of authority ends up affirming mediocrity and adding to the already pervasive individualism that is running rampant in America.

To a certain point, I agree. But I would also add that from where I sit in the pews, I’m not sure that the democracy is working all that well. There seem to be two basic problems. First, I see almost two churches at the local level. The first consists of the people who are focused on the local congregation and their ministry there. They may even look to overseas missions, but they’re going to get involved in mission trips through local organizations or groupings of local churches. They are only marginally aware of any of the things that go occur in Nashville, except when something happens that annoys them. Then there are those who are involved in the Methodist structure. They seem to get involved in church events and to care about denominational affairs. Often they have very little contact with the other half of the church. But second, even when things are voted at General Conference, it is not clear to me that the agencies of the church actually listen and behave accordingly. I would be more inclined to blame our problems on democracy if I could first be confident that demoncracy was working.

I think there is a problem of authority in the United Methodist Church because we have made sure that central authority is very weak. There is no single person or reasonable size group that speaks to or for United Methodists. On the one hand, we may think this is good, leaving more to local churches, and limiting the damage a single leader can do. But the other side of this is that when things go wrong we have no one person to hold responsible for those actions.

My mind immediately turns to the idea of local, non-denominational congregations. Why not simply join a local congregation that is not so connected, and thus not have to worry about all this denominational structure and how to pay for and control it?

Well, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I find it interesting that I feel more favorable to the SDA structure and leadership now than I did when I was a member. As a United Methodist I have been a member of three different congregations. Each of those congregations has strengths and weaknesses. Each looks better from outside than from the inside, though I didn’t move for those reasons–I already knew that would be the case. Each is made up largely of people who are truly trying to serve the Lord, even when their idea of how to do so is opposed to mine.

In the same way, going to a non-denominational congregation also presents “greener grass.” But there is also a great potential for danger there. With a pastor who is subject solely to the church board, or whatever group is put in charge, he often has a great deal of difficulty exercising spiritual leadership. His accountability is often non-existent or very weak. A small number of people can lead a congregation to ruin, and there is nobody to step in and correct problems. I have seen higher authority in the United Methodist Church step in to such situations, sometimes for the good (in my view!) and sometimes for the bad. Such an unconnected congregation may make the necessary connections independently to broaden their impact and their mission, but then again they may not, and if they don’t, there is no accountability.

There is a need for some kind of authority structure beyond the local congregation. I’m not convinced yet that I should jump to some independent small group. And yet in my view, the United Methodist Church is failing to provide the kind of accountability that the membership should expect. Some people are happy when a resolution is not enforced; others are annoyed. Generally this depends on what each one thought of the resolution in the first place. But I cannot see how an organization can be effective that declares one thing and practices another, or that declares one thing in one part, and another elsewhere, as when the General Conference says one thing and an agency or committee, or a selection of Bishops says another.

I suspect, over time, that we will come to the point in the United Methodist Church when people in the pews will no longer support the broader church at the conference, jurisdictional or general conference level, because they no longer see the connection and the accountability. That will be a sorry day spiritually for the local congregation, because we will proclaim one thing–that we are United Methodist–with our sign, but we will live another thing in practice.

Can our church as an organization begin to live out the meaning of the cross and flame–Jesus Christ as Savior, Healer, and Lord, implemented with the power of the Holy Spirit? If we can, then we will have to communicate it to the membership, and the membership should support it. But if we are serving self on either end of that connection, it’s going to fail. To be honest, in that case, a good number of us need to quit lying by simply finding another church congregation.

Despite my complaints about the United Methodist Church, I like to think that I’m living on faith and hope, and not merely lying to myself and others. But somewhere, somehow, we have to have a connection that works, or we will simply be getting the worst of the denominational worlds–control from above where it isn’t needed, but no real accountability.

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