Monday, July 31, 2006

The Methodist Glaze

It happens every time.

Whenever Leah and I meet other American missionaries (usually of the evangelical variety), we introduce ourselves as “United Methodist missionaries.” Instead of a big “Howdy!” or hugs all around or even a “Praise the Lord!”, we get a blank, glassy-eyed stare, which we refer to as “the Methodist glaze.”

It’s as predictable as a Methodist potluck on a Sunday night. We get the reaction from SIL/Wycliffe translators, Campus Crusade-types, Catholics, and charismatics, too.

Now, I know exactly why this happens; I know what prompts the Methodist glaze. Let’s be honest – whenever we are introduced to American missionaries, one or more of the following thoughts runs through their minds:

1) “I didn’t think Methodists believed anything, much less tried to convert anybody.”

2) “Liberals send missionaries?!”

3) “Oh, poor souls. I hope to get a chance to witness to them, so that they will be born again/filled with the Spirit/vote Republican/___________ (fill in the blank here).”

4) “Well, that John Wesley dude was pretty good, but it’s all been downhill since then.”

Shall I go on? I know that this is exactly what goes through people’s minds – heck, I used to be one of them! It’s sad that we get stereotyped in this way. Sure, any church as big as the United Methodist Church is prime for potshots and criticism.

But it does disturb me that other Christians can make such blanket judgments on us simply because of outdated and false notions of our theological and ecclesiastical leanings.

What really irks me is that these judgments are based on irrelevant and inessential features of our church: yeah, Methodists have been struggling with the issue of homosexuality, but isn’t it simply because we want to know how to love the way Jesus loved? And yes, there are liberal Methodists, just as there are conservative Methodists, but aren’t we all trying to follow Christ down the road of discipleship in integrity? And of course, we do a lot of social work, but didn’t someone say that when you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned, you’re doing it to him?

Which leads me to a simple conclusion – our common bond is Jesus. This is what links me to Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, and all the other varieties and stripes of Christians. The bond is not politics, ideology, culture, or worship practice. It’s simply Jesus.

So why can’t we get the “Jesus glaze” when we mention that we are missionaries for the United Methodist Church?

The United Methodist Church that I belong to is not a dead church; nor is it a pale imitation of the founder’s original vision. The church is full of evangelical faith, of pious good works, of enthusiastic action, of cutting-edge theology. This church is leaning forward to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sheesh, I’m beginning to sound like such a company man here … So let me acknowledge that, of course, we struggle, we bicker and argue. We can have some pretty awesome church fights. But we’ve never claimed to have cornered the market on theological truth. And we certainly don’t demand political uniformity.

Again, let me say that the center of our faith and practice … is Jesus, and the love which he came to share, display, and impart.

Let me close with an extended quote from “that John Wesley dude,” who published a famous “Letter to a Roman Catholic”:

If we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike. Herein we cannot possibly do amiss. For of one point none can doubt a moment: “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him” (I John 4:16). In the name, then, and in the strength of God, let us resolve, first, not to hurt one another … secondly, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other … thirdly, to harbour no unkind thought, no unfriendly temper towards each other … fourthly, to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God.