The UMC – A Renewal Movement Instead of Denomination?

Allyssa loves history. I’ve never cared much for it. She has the “context” strength, which means she is energized by looking at the past. It explains why she was a museum major once. I have the “futuristic” strength. I’m not interested in where we’ve been, but where we’re going. 

I mention this so that you can realize just how strange it is that I’ve been reading history. A lot of history. American United Methodist history to be exact.  

The book I’m currently perusing is “The Story of American Methodism” by Fredrick Norwood. 

I’m not entirely sure why God has me so engrossed in history, but I can say this: the Spirit seems to be using the past, to energize my vision for the future. 

This morning, I encountered some quotes that illustrate what I mean. 

Norwood talks about how the Methodist, Brethren, and Evangelical movements (the three movements that now form the United Methodist Church) were slow to see themselves as formal denominations. 

They were born out of the renewal movements in Europe, and continued to operate as such. They were comfortable being a “society” or a “conference” or a “brotherhood”, but hesitated to be a “church.” Even when they became a “church” they operated as a renewal movement. 

Norwood explains, 

They had become a church and were independent, but they were still in society. While continuing to think of themselves as members in a voluntary association within the church – which is the original meaning of society, they were now going about the business of organizing those societies as if they were a church.

In other words, even after they became a formal denomination, they still looked at themselves as a renewal movement within the wider church. 

As he explains, 

This same maintenance of dual loyalty and membership was to be found among early methodists, who liked to think of themselves as a kind of leaven in the lump for the edification of all Christians. 

They “liked to think of themselves as a kind of leaven in the lump for the edification of all Christians.”

Wow. I was struck by this idea. Instead of a church that pushes it’s own agenda towards self-preservation, they sought to increase the faith of all Christians. Something about this seems both radical and completely obvious. 

It’s radical because I would have to re-define what we mean by a “renewal movement”. For now, as a devoted United Methodist, I think of renewal movements as movements that might renew the UMC. I have never envisioned the UMC as a renewal movement that might renew the wider Church. 

Yet, it’s obvious. Of course we exist as a church, a denomination, to transform the world, which obviously doesn’t just mean the people who attend Methodist churches. Certainly it means the whole world, and especially other brothers and sisters. 

What might happen if we leave behind the practices and attitudes that are adequate for pushing the UMC agenda for self-preservation but do nothing to support other churches? What if we devoted our lives entirely to raising up new disciples who God will use to transform the world – the entire world, not just the United Methodist world?

It might do little to save our church, and I wonder if that isn’t the point. 


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