The face of our faith is changing. The shape of Christianity, including United Methodism, is very different today than it was a century ago or even ten years ago. Christians today come in all varieties, with amazing backgrounds, unique faces, distinct theologies and a passion to serve and make disciples. Why do people continue to claim The United Methodist Church as their spiritual home? I’d like to think it’s because they seek grace and a place where they are encouraged to grow in their unique faith and spiritual practices.
Monica became a United Methodist because the communion table is open to all. She was raised as a Catholic and married an alcoholic who was also abusive. When Monica finally gathered up the courage to leave her husband, her priest forbade her from taking communion. After drifting for a few years, she finally found a United Methodist church where she claimed God’s grace, was set free from guilt and returned to spiritual health and wholeness.
Amy grew up in Africa of Indian heritage. Arriving in the U.S. as a young adult, Amy learned about Christianity from her husband. Her children love The United Methodist Church and sing in the choir. Amy believes in the teachings of Jesus at the same time as some of the practices of her childhood religion also enrich her faith.
Ted and Darlene are discouraged with the prohibitions against gay marriage because they have a gay son. They want their son to be able to have a life partner and hope he can stay in The United Methodist Church. Josh and Sally have a different perspective. They are comfortable with our current denominational stance on human sexuality but treasure the richness of the diversity of The United Methodist Church.
Joseph was born in the Philippines, his parents having been converted to Christianity by American missionaries. He holds to the orthodox teachings that were taught to him as a child, yet he also loves to engage others in theological dialogue and desires to preserve the unity of the church.
Emma and Ben are in their twenties and grew up in Germany, studying, working and playing with people of various ethnicities, cultures and religions. They are amused when their denomination seems to draw lines in the sand, yet they stay in The United Methodist Church because Jesus has captured their hearts, and they want to change the world.
Each of these examples exemplifies how societal context shapes who we are as Christ-followers. What we are witnessing today in The United Methodist Church is an amazing diversity in theology and practice, which highlights the changing face of Christianity in our world, including United Methodism. Over the past hundred years, growth in Christianity has shifted from North to South and from West to East, with the churches in the southern hemisphere tending to be more theologically conservative. Consider these statistics from a 2010 Pew Research Center report on Global Christianity.
- In 1910, 35% of the world’s population was Christian. In 2010 it was 32%.
- In 1910, 66% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. In 2010 it was 26%.
- In 1910, 1% of the world’s Christians lived in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010 it was 24%.
- In 1910, 4.5% of all Christians lived in the Asia Pacific area. In 2010 it was 13%, especially in China.
- In 2010, Christians comprised 32% of world population, followed by Muslims 23%;
Unaffiliated 16%; Hindu 15%; Buddhist 7%; Folk religionists 6%; Other 1%.
At every General Conference of The United Methodist Church, the percentage of delegates from outside the United States increases. 30% of the delegates in 2016 are from Africa, 4.6% are from Europe, 5.8% are from the Philippines, 58.3% are from the United States and the remainder are from the Concordat churches.
It is commonly acknowledged that our United Methodist Book of Discipline has not kept pace with the changing face of the church and needs a facelift. A committee has been working on the formation of a “General” Book of Discipline for 2020, which would name the essentials that bind all United Methodists and also allow greater flexibility of expression in an increasingly diverse world. At the same time, a process is in place to rewrite our United Methodist Social Principles to make them more globally relevant.
How is God calling us to change our face as the face of Christianity changes? In an increasingly pluralistic world and global church, how can we claim our own beliefs as followers of Jesus while also embracing the Christian spiritual practices of others? How can we build bridges by seeking the common ground of grace, forgiveness, tolerance and understanding? And how can we restructure our denomination in a way that preserves unity while honoring differences? As a colleague said recently, “If we engage in holy conversation, we can move forward on anything and solve any problem.”
Dr. Gregory Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School, recently published a thought-provoking article titled, “Rethinking Christianity in the 21st Century.” Sterling rejects the commonly accepted model of thinking about the early church: that it started as a single tradition beginning with Jesus, was spread by the apostles and came to fruition in the bishops of the church. Those traditions that were non-conforming were exposed as heresy.
By contrast, Sterling writes that 20th century scholars determined that the early church developed contextually according to location. Christianity looked different in Jerusalem, Corinth, Antioch, Rome, Ephesus and Philippi, and mandated uniformity did not come until the rise of bishops and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
Sterling contends, “Initially there was no such thing as orthodoxy in the sense of a uniform and well-defined movement… In other words, rather than thinking of enforced uniformity, we need to think of diversity within a larger unity. If this is unnerving, we should remember that it was the diversity of the early centuries that helped to give Christianity its vibrancy and allowed it to take root in multiple circumstances throughout the world.”
How does the rise of global United Methodism harken back to the rapid growth of early Christianity? Does the synergy of unique contextual ministry aligning with the broader mission of making disciples in those first centuries provide the impetus for the vibrancy and variety of Christian expression around the world today? According to Sterling, “If we believe experience is a vehicle of theology, we will need to learn to respect the different experiences that shape theologies across the world.”
The history of Methodism in America illustrates the impact of a movement that began in England but changed its face in order to flourish in the American context. The Wesleyan movement grew like wildfire because the Methodist circuit riders did not remain comfortable in the cities. Rather, they moved west with the settlers with a preaching style that not only converted tens of thousands but provided a system of spiritual growth and accountability.
What can we learn from our young adults today, who yearn to express their faith through service and leadership and insist on embracing diversity while making a difference in the world? How do we respond to their impatience with our judgmentalism, lack of grace and inability to engage the world as it is today?
As a denomination that has historically gone to where the people are, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ, do we stunt growth when we demand uniformity? Do we dilute the Holy Spirit’s power when we do not welcome the experiences that shape the theologies of United Methodists in different parts of the world? How do we understand John Wesley’s words, “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” How might God be calling us to change our face?
The United Methodist Church is positioned to make an enormous difference in the religious landscape of our world. We can once again become a passionate movement of the Holy Spirit by acknowledging the diverse roots that gave Christianity its vibrancy and allowed it to take root in multiple circumstances throughout the world.
Monica, Amy, Ted and Darlene, Joseph and Emma and Ben, may God be with you and all of us as we continually seek to understand one another and change our own faces so that we can change the world.