In one of the more compelling developments within the United Methodist tradition, the leaders of GracePoint Community Church (a vital and fast-growing faith community in Wichita, Kansas) made the decision a couple of weeks ago to break away from the United Methodist denomination in order to form a new nondenominational congregation.
An article on this development can be found here.
I am not privy to all of the details surrounding GracePoint’s ministry and Rev. Bryson Butts’ decision to surrender his clergy credentials. Therefore, I will refrain from saying more than I should about that situation.
Of greater interest to me is the ever-deepening tension that can frequently be found between United Methodism’s institutional structure and the vision of some of the denomination’s fastest-growing churches.
In the land of blog, many of the responses to GracePoint’s decision to leave the denomination have revolved around two extremes.
The first extreme (and perhaps the most authentically postmodern) is what might be called the “blatantly anti-institutional” response. This response, in essence, goes something like this: “Of course GracePoint church made the right call. After all, the United Methodist institution and hierarchy are far more interested in preserving themselves than incarnating the Kingdom of God in fresh ways. Denominational structures are on their way out. They are dusty reminders of an era of Christendom that no longer exists. Therefore, GracePoint’s decision was inevitable. That church simply had the courage to do what every church that wants to create multiple campuses HAS to do—specifically, break free from the shackles of denominationalism in order to follow the leading of the Spirit.”
The other extreme articulated by many responding to GracePoint’s decision might be called the “blatantly denominational” response. It goes this way: “How arrogant and self-serving of GracePoint church to leave the denomination that paid for its creation in the first place and provided it with its rich spiritual and theological heritage! Without the denominational institution, there is far too much opportunity for a lack of covenantal accountability and theological integrity. After all, United Methodists are nothing if they are not connectional. For GracePoint to break that connection in the name of following the Holy Spirit is as bumptious as it is foolhardy.”
Interestingly, as a District Superintendent, I am currently part of a denominational hierarchy that many consider to be more a part of the problem than the solution. Nevertheless, as we navigate our way through these challenging ecclesiastical times, I cannot help but wonder if it is possible for us to resist two very specific and very prevalent forms of idolatry: Specifically, an idolatry of denominational loyalty that compels us to demonize all who would choose to go outside of the institutional church; and, on the other side, an idolatry of autonomy that compels us to demonize the denomination as nothing more than an oppressive remnant of a bygone age.
How does one avoid such idolatries, especially in light of the fact that the idols are firmly placed in the middle of a couple of well-established camps?
I don’t have an answer. Perhaps you do.
I conclude with a few observations:
Given the growth of churches like Church of the Resurrection, Ginghamsburg, and Western Pennsylvania’s very own Crossroads (three churches that have created radically new and fruitful ministry while at the same time remaining aligned with the United Methodist denomination), I choose to believe that it is still very much possible for evangelical fervor, iconoclastic ministry, and denominational identity to coexist in a meaningful and redemptive way. Of course, there will always be occasions when it will be the RIGHT thing for a pastor or a congregation to sever ties with a particular denomination (for a variety of logistical or theological reasons). I am not advocating a “give me United Methodism or give me death” kind of stance here. I am simply emphasizing the point that an alignment with a denomination’s heritage and institutional structure need not be looked upon as being automatically antithetical to creative growth.
Second, what I have found in my encounters with some of United Methodism’s newest and fastest-growing churches is that, in many cases, those churches are willing to lead the institution (instead of waiting for the institution to lead them). This, I think, is the denominational institution’s best hope for a meaningful survival—assuming that the pastors of those churches are able to maintain their spirit of humility and accountability and assuming that the facilitators of the denominational institution are willing to be led into creative and unsettling new territory.
Third, the “institutional” issues of the appointment system, the itinerant ministry, and mission share cannot be eliminated from this conversation. How does United Methodism create a sense of healthy balance between demanding accountability to these institutional requirements and allowing churches and pastors to develop freely and creatively? That’s a bigger question than I know how to tackle right now.
Fourth, I am glad that I am part of an Annual Conference that allows and perhaps even encourages its churches (like Crossroads) to develop different campuses in the region. I am not blind to the dangers of such expansion. Nor am I blind to the lack of communication that can often exist between the ministry of the new campus and the ministry of the already-existing churches near to the new campus. (We need a great deal of relational work in that regard.) But I am thankful that the institutional church in Western Pennsylvania has seen fit to bless and support creative expansion instead of getting in the way of it.
Fifth, I am still concerned about the theological accountability of some of our newer churches—and some of our oldest churches too, quite frankly. We are not theological orphans, after all. We, as United Methodists, are the progeny of a deeply rich theological heritage that represents an important voice within the body of Christ. We have much to say about justification, sanctification, atonement, perfection, rebirth, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, worship, the life of ministry, and a host of other important theological issues. Believe me, I am no theological prude. But I want for our United Methodist churches to be distinctively Wesleyan in their theology and ministry, not because John Wesley had a monopoly on the truth, but because that is who we are.
Finally, I pray that both the present and the next generation of leaders in the church will commit themselves to helping the church to find a way to minister that firmly stands against both an idolatry of denominationalism and an idolatry of autonomy.