Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Big Picture III

Continuing the conversation sparked by Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom ...
All this talk about global religious trends gives me pause to consider my own distinctive faith tradition. Is being “United Methodist” a good thing? Is it the right and correct way, as opposed to other denominations, which are misguided and wrong? Is it the only way? Are we really different enough from other Christian bodies that we need to be our own separate denomination, with a separate structure and our own clergy? Are we simply a brand-name in the supermarket of sacred places?
I would argue that United Methodism is a great thing, a good and correct way, though not the only way, of course.

I suppose I have a vested interest in the survival and well-being of the United Methodist Church. After all, it pays my salary, pension, and insurance. I am literally dependent on the denomination, especially as a missionary.

More than that, however, I have no shame in declaring that I believe United Methodism to be the best expression of Christian faith and doctrine in the world today. Otherwise, I wouldn’t stick around.

That doesn’t mean the UMC is perfect; heavens, no. But it’s more perfect than any of the alternatives. And that’s saying a lot!

In the past, I have tended to define United Methodism in opposition to the other Christian denominations: “We’re not like the Baptists, who believe this or that,” or “Thank goodness, we’re not like Catholics, who believe such and so.”

That gets old. A United Methodist is not simply a disgruntled something-else. There may be churches out there with the cross and the flame on the sign that are full of frustrated ex-something-else’s, but that’s not what John Wesley hoped for.

He hoped for the same thing I hope for – a church that spreads scriptural holiness across the land. That’s why I am a United Methodist. I dream of a people who are holy – who are defined, not by their beliefs or creeds, but by the radically Christian lifestyles they lead.

To be theological about it, I am a United Methodist because of the emphasis on the doctrine of sanctification. In simple terms, sanctification is the process that a person goes through in becoming Christ-like. This process is deliberate, intense, life-changing, all-encompassing. Jesus said it was like being “born again”; Paul said that the sanctified person was like a “new creation.” This is what Wesley meant when he spoke of Christian perfection; he believed it was quite possible that a person could eventually reach a state of being in which everything he or she did and said was infused with the divine imperative of love.

I want to be changed; don’t you? I’m not completely happy with who I am right now; are you? I don’t love with God’s complete love yet; do you? I want to be stronger in my faith; don’t you?

The day I no longer pursue holiness, will be the day I might as well call it quits. And the day I leave the United Methodist Church.