Too Bland for Our Own Good

By Robin Russell

Jon Stewart got a big laugh recently on “The Daily Show” when he said the United Methodist Church “is like the University of Phoenix of religions”—inferring that being a United Methodist is as easy as getting an online diploma.

In other words, you don’t have to show up in person. You don’t have to work very hard at it. And as long as you pay your dues, you stay in good standing.

Please, no e-mails telling me that your church is not like that. I know there are many thriving and healthy United Methodist congregations.
But considering how the joke resonated with Mr. Stewart’s television audience, we all just might have to admit that the United Methodist Church has a bit of an image problem.

Notwithstanding the hip, new “Rethink Church” ad campaign (which doesn’t always translate down to the local congregation experience), the perception of United Methodism seems to be a rather lukewarm version of Christianity.

You know what I mean. The place where you and your spouse from another denomination can find “neutral” ground. The place where no one tells you what to believe. The place where the Christian journey is self-paced, and where questions are better than answers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, as Seinfeld would say.

But if you are seriously seeking Christian faith development and an engaged, authentic community, some of our United Methodist churches would undoubtedly fall short (as would any number of churches in any denomination—but this is about us).

Check out the findings from an exit poll of people who attended a seeker study from 2003-2006 at United Methodist churches, and walked away disappointed. Among their comments:

• “You don’t know your own story. You don’t know who you are and what you believe.”
• “You believe some of the lamest, weirdest stuff and ignore the simple, kind, and helpful stuff.”
• “Methodists are all over the map. I spent almost a year finding out that they don’t have a clue what they really believe.”
• “It feels like a time warp—like 1984, but from the other side.”

Respondents felt the church was lacking in prayer, reading the Bible and spiritual conversation, says Dan Dick, director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Conference, who posted these comments on his blog, “United Methodeviations.”

“People are disappointed that we don’t seem to know why we do the things we do; why we believe the things we believe; why we say the things we say,” Dr. Dick said. “People feel we are out of touch, behind the times, and disconnected. People discover that church doesn’t offer them value in their spiritual journey.

“Jon Stewart is not the only person who thinks you can believe and do anything and be a Methodist.”

Straying from roots. So what does it mean to be a Methodist? How many people sitting in the pew could easily answer that question? I am amazed at how many readers of The United Methodist Reporter write in each week to thank our “Wesleyan Wisdom” columnist Donald Haynes for explaining the basics of United Methodism (and in a shameless plug, see www.umportal.org for information on his book, On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals).

This sense of spiritual mushiness is a far cry from John Wesley’s approach when he launched the Methodist revival movement in the mid-18th century. There was no mistaking Wesley’s take on the importance of the spiritual disciplines—fasting, prayer, Bible study, Communion, worship and small-group accountability—and reaching out to those outside the faith.

Can the average United Methodist explain Wesley’s grace theology?

I find it interesting that John Wesley, the father of small-group ministry, is a hero of the faith even to many outside the Wesleyan traditions. Whatever they’re called today—lifegroups, cell groups, home churches—these gatherings for study, fellowship and accountability are a hallmark of most growing nondenominational churches.

But glance at a typical United Methodist church bulletin and you’ll see more announcements for Zumba classes and senior citizen outings than for Bible studies or accountability groups.

So what’s a spiritually minded person to do?

Perkins School of Theology professor William Abraham describes the current malaise as “doctrinal amnesia.” The General Board of Discipleship’s Taylor Burton-Edwards takes it a bit further in a comment on Dr. Dick’s blog: “I’m wondering if it has not advanced to doctrinal and practical dementia.”

Membership vows. Persons who take membership vows promise to “uphold this congregation of the United Methodist Church by [their] prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.” All too often, however, there are few expectations beyond serving on a committee, showing up on Sunday and making a financial pledge—and certainly no follow-through or consequences.

Yet churches that ask something of their members tend to have a more engaged and active laity who feel empowered for the work of the ministry. Young people, in particular, are eager to invest their lives in something bigger than themselves.

To be sure, it’s not always easy to describe the theological nuances of the Christian faith journey as Wesley understood it. You can’t quite fit it into a neat and tidy gospel tract or a pithy slogan.

But offering a path toward spiritual formation shouldn’t be beyond our capabilities. We’re supposed to be about making disciples, after all.
And isn’t that what people are looking for in a church—a place where they can learn how to become a Christ-follower?

“They want to know how to pray,” writes Dr. Dick. “They want to know how to read and interpret the Bible. They want to be able to talk about Christian beliefs and practices. They want companions on the journey.

“People are seeking depth . . . and they reject those places where people don’t know their own story—the story of the church, the faith and God.”
Can the United Methodist Church rediscover and share its distinctive story? Or will Comedy Central have the last laugh?

Robin Russell is the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter. Reprinted with permission of The United Methodist Reporter (www.umportal.org).

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