by Bob Phillips
I have good friends and know fine churches that have or will disaffiliate from the UMC for independent status, “non-denominational” in identity (even though they finally may align with one of the many ‘non-denominational denominations’ dotting the landscape). In 1950 “Mainline” Protestants such as Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian ruled the cultural roost of American religion. Today the former mainline is less than half its size, holding a membership far below the evangelical/non-denominational groups. They now are named as ‘old line’ (due to the age of their members/clergy) or ‘sideline’ (due to a huge shift toward cultural irrelevance).
Numerous UM churches considering or committed to disaffiliation from the mother church are giving serious thought toward aligning with…no one but Jesus, claiming the culturally preferred status of non-denominational as another way to shed the baggage of denominations and their bureaucracies and ineffective structures. Before going independent, rather than aligning with other Wesleyan Christian churches such as the Global Methodist Church, give heed to the following reality checks and touchy pieces of fact:
Do you want a last name?
For better and worse, a denominational name functions as the last name of the local church. Our personal last names align us with a people, a history, a place of origin within the US and beyond the US, since all but Native Americans are relative newcomers to these parts. All combine to form our identity and sense of self. A Wesleyan last name points to a gospel movement that led to profound evangelism, spiritual revival, and Spirit-led social justice (such as opposition to slavery) that changed the course of history. The Wesleyan way birthed the Salvation Army, produced Nobel laureates in Physics and Peace, and provided more soldiers for the Union army than any other church in the Civil War. Wesley’s teaching on the Holy Spirit birthed the Holiness movement within and then beyond, Methodism, which in turn birthed the Pentecostal movement, now the largest expression of Protestant Christianity on earth. Whatever its foibles and failures, the Wesleyan/Methodist last name has been and remains a bright star in the constellation of Christian witness. Churches that separate to go independent virtually always have lost that distinctive identity. Especially after the senior pastor retires or dies, such churches almost inevitably drift toward a generic self-understanding. Others are like the largest UM church that disaffiliated from the Cal-Nevada conference in the late 1990’s, tired with hypocrisy over disobedience to the Discipline. It went independent and today its fine facility in a major city is a satellite building for a nearby Baptist church. If one loses the name, the power of the historic and biblical family truth behind the name will fade. Often it becomes “Rev. So-and-So’s” church, even if Rev. S&S doesn’t wish it so.
Do you want to be on a team?
What do you call one Marine who hits the beach to attack the enemy? You call him one dead Marine. What do you call the Third Marine Division that hits the beach to attack the enemy? You call it the enemy’s worst nightmare. A healthy denomination, “like a mighty army, moves the church of God.” The key is a healthy denomination, with structure and energy slim, focused and vigorous. When Hitler began the program to quietly exterminate the severely mentally and physically disabled as a prelude to the Holocaust, sending thousands of children and adults to euthanasia as “life unworthy of life,” individuals got wind of what was happening, including individual churches, but lacked the critical mass to speak or act. In 1941, Catholic Cardinal Clemens Von Galen learned of this unpublicized mass murder and preached against the practice from the Munster cathedral, leading to a draw-down (tragically not the complete end) of the murders. Hitler wanted to kill him but was warned by his P.R. point man Goebbels that killing a Catholic cardinal will cause a unified church to drop all support for the government. So he was placed under house arrest from 1941 until Hitler’s death. Clear, coordinated and unified action by the (collective) church in response to natural disasters, emergencies, and moral issues of justice and poverty can break the back of evil. So often the independent alternative is to hit the beach to attack the problem one at a time, with good intentions but predicable non-results.
Do you want to be accountable?
Do you want to be accountable? The woods are painfully full of clergy who have fallen morally or theologically, “without another to lift them up” (Eccl 4:9-10). Sexual sin, financially misconduct, or gradually looping into an unhealthy understanding of Christ and the faith all become painful to manage if serious accountability by the congregation to trusted spiritual authority beyond itself is lacking. To whom you do not answer, to them you pay no heed. From the New Testament onward churches always have been meaningfully accountable beyond themselves. The key is trusted authority in a system of grace-filled and Spirit-led accountability for faith, focus and works.
Do you want to offer a distinct witness?
In the GMC clergy will be encouraged, enabled and supported by the ‘system’ for deep and practical training and ongoing education for quality ministry. Women will be full players at all levels of leadership. The ministry and reality of the Holy Spirit will be a passion, with the Great Commandment love for God and neighbor reclaimed, as Wesley taught, as central to ‘the character of a Methodist.’ Science and modern education will be friends of faith, critiqued spiritually and morally like any human institution but without the innate suspicion so many independent churches tend to show. Healthy Wesleyan Christianity collaborates with other churches and groups freely and with spiritual integrity, to bring about common good for the community, such as the aftermath of a natural disaster. Independent churches overwhelmingly tend to disallow women in ministry, mix right or left-wing political views as Gospel truth, and refuse to partner in anything with those not deemed completely pure in theology. The inertia of time will pull disaffiliated, unaligned Methodist churches in such directions.
Do you want to be responsible for absolutely everything?
The GMC, with streamlined and focused structure, enables and supports churches when clergy are needed, problems with clergy are encountered, congregations face large challenges, and solid recommendations for mission ministry support are sought. A new independent church is on its own in all such matters. The GMC is creating a lean administrative approach that will empower churches in making conversions, discipling converts, and deploying disciples rooted in scripture, worship, prayer and witness. At its best, denominational resources exist as the scaffolding that enables a Kingdom building-ministry to rise and thrive. Getting such help from the want ad section of Christianity Today is a poor substitute.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.