Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Is the Tie that Binds

In a post on another blog several years ago I asked the question "What if the United Methodist Church (or any denomination for that matter) saw itself as a massive multi-site church?" What if we could see ourselves not as separate local churches, but truly as one Church. I still think it's a good question. I still think that's what we really are, even though if this is the case we are a church mired in dysfunction. So a related but distinct question: "If we are a massive multi-site church, what is it that binds us together?"

This question comes from one of the lessons we have learned from large churches. Small churches tend to be homogeneous. The pianist of the first church I served after finishing seminary introduced herself to me as "the only person in the church not related to every other person in the church." Another church I served was in a town with several other denominational churches, all of which were part of the "conservative" wing of the family tree - the Baptist church was Sourthern, the Lutheran church was Missouri Synod. In that town, if you were protestant and moderate to liberal theologically then you were probably United Methodist. There was a degree of theological homogeneity. But in the larger church there is more that potentially divides people than unites people. The large church is not held together by its sameness, but by a common cause.

The church I serve now (St. Paul's in Lenexa) would be classified as a smaller large church - a professional sized church to use Susan Beaumont's helpful language. It is considered by most in the Great Plains Conference, indeed by many church members, as a very "progressive" church. I was told when I arrived in 2010 that this was a church where one would find far more Obama than McCain bumper stickers, which makes for an unusual parking lot in this part of Kansas City. Over the last five years I have discovered what probably most of the church members already knew - we are not all the same. We are old and young, extraverts and introverts, gay and straight, Democrats and Republicans (and even some Libertarians!), fiscal conservatives and liberals, wealthy and not as wealthy, and while we have a long ways to go we have a slowly increasing racial diversity. But, and this is important, when we did a congregational survey three years ago we found that 98% of respondents agreed with our Welcome Statement. A year later when we adopted a new mission statement it was approved unanimously by the Church Conference (there are some churches where everything is approved unanimously - this is most definitely not one of those churches!). These statements, and our commitment to take action on the basis of these statements, define St. Paul's. We are bound together by the belief that our welcome and mission statements faithfully represents the Great Commandment to fully love God and one another.

So, as a denomination, what binds us together? We know what separates us, but what unites us? What defines us? Is it our mission statement "To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?" Is it our doctrinal standards (defined by the Book of Discipline as the Articles of Faith, the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, the General Rules of the Methodist Church, and Wesley's Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament - which, interestingly - are out of print)? I don't see our current debate on same-sex marriage as necessarily contradicting either of these. Are we bound together by a particular mode of interpreting Scripture or by a particular understanding of what we mean by Scripture being authoritative? Then, whether it is a more traditional or more progressive approach, perhaps we have an unequal yoke and need to be separated from each other.

The bottom line is I agree with Jesus in Mark 3:25: a house divided against itself cannot stand. We are certainly not bound by our sameness. Are we bound by our division or by a common cause? The answer to that question tells us the direction we need to move.