Where is our Church’s Center?

Writing at Hacking Christianity, United Methodist pastor Jeremy Smith quoted Lovett Weems who quoted Gil Rendle (I think). With that train of attribution, I don’t know who actually said it, but the quote that got my attention was this:

the increasing diversity of the church makes uniformity and conformity impossible but requires a “shared center.”

The author and I strongly disagree on many important things, I think, but here we are definitely on the same sheet of music.

I recently had a conversation with a United Methodist bishop from one of the central conferences, and at one point I said something like this:

In the United States, some United Methodist churches largely draw their identity from 19th century American evangelicalism. Others look to the turn-of-the-century social gospel movement. Still others to the liturgical renewal movement. Some look to post-modernism in its various forms. Others try to recapture primitive Wesleyanism. I could go on. There are dozens of ways that United Methodists envision themselves. Is that the case in your conference as well?

Before the bishop could answer, another American at the meeting responded by saying, “I think that diversity is who we are. That’s what I love about our church” There is something to admire, I think, in the diversity that exists within United Methodism.

Diversity, however, is not an identity. There has to be a center. And, I should add, there has to be a perimeter as well. Every functioning institution has boundaries. Boundaries don’t necessarily mean, “Inside good, outside bad.” Boundaries – like my front door – can just mean, “Inside, my family; outside, my neighbor.” But boundaries are necessary.

Our church has no true center to give order or meaning to its diversity. In truth, it has several competing nodes that each claim to be the center.

The bad news is that bureaucratic actions cannot create the kind of center that we need. We will not legislate or program or sloganeer our way out of the mess we’re in. Worse yet, it’s easier to take a vision and build a new organization around it that it is to take an old institution that has no central vision and give it one. I just don’t see the seven-point-something million United Methodists in the United States marching in the same direction under the same banner at any time in the near future.

What we have now is chaos masquerading as diversity. We are orbiting different suns, and we shouldn’t be surprised that we keep colliding with each other.

More later.

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