By the Rev. Clayton Childers
Recently, one of our interns with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society came across a perplexing discovery that was difficult for me to explain.
Compiling information about large-membership churches in United Methodism, intern Nicholas Grainger found a dozen or so of these churches made little or no mention on their Web sites about being United Methodist. Though still part of the United Methodist connection, these large congregations evidently chose to "disconnect" by not claiming the name.
Nicholas’ question, which I have been wrestling with ever since, is: "What is so troubling about United Methodism that pastors and congregations would no longer want to claim the name?"
From an outreach standpoint, it is hard to explain, let alone justify. People who do branding studies have found that United Methodist is one of the top two religious "brands" in the United States. Our denomination’s logo, the cross and flame, is one of the most readily recognized symbols. Furthermore, the positive response to our "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" advertising is paying dividends. People are identifying the church with the positive, hopeful message portrayed in the ads.
So, I cannot believe that the name United Methodist is itself the problem. Consequently, I have to believe it must be a problem of local church leadership. Could it be that some church leaders are simply not comfortable identifying with United Methodism and do not want to give their hearts and lives to the development of a United Methodist congregation? For whatever reason, they want to step away from the connection.
"What is so troubling about United Methodism that pastors and congregations would no longer want to claim the name?"
Unlike many faithful United Methodists, I cannot claim a long Methodist pedigree. For all intents and purposes, I am a Methodist immigrant. I was raised by faithful Christian parents, active church members, but of another denomination. I was even ordained in that denomination and served for eight years as one of its clergy members before transferring into the United Methodist South Carolina Annual Conference in 1990.
You may wonder what happened. Simply put, I came to a point where I realized I no longer fit. I didn’t believe the same things that denomination espoused. I wanted to be part of a denomination of which I could be proud.
I began to read about other denominations — their history, doctrine, theology, practices and beliefs. I talked with pastor friends. I talked with friends at the hospital where I was working as a clinical pastoral education resident. I thought about my own theological leanings and social commitments and compared them to what I was learning.
Eventually, I determined that The United Methodist Church was where I wanted to be. I know United Methodists do not always live up to our slogan "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors," but I do believe it is an accurate reflection of who we aspire to be. That is the kind of person I want to be as well — a person of gracious hospitality and generous orthodoxy.
In making my transition to United Methodism, two experiences stand out for me. In 1988, the Southeastern Jurisdiction elected the Rev. Joseph Bethea as bishop. An African American from North Carolina, he was assigned to serve the Columbia, S.C., area. This was a significant appointment in a state that was still flying the Confederate flag on the dome of its capitol.
"I know United Methodists do not always live up to our slogan 'Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,' but I do believe it is an accurate reflection of who we aspire to be."
It was not common for a person of color to be placed in such a prominent position. This act was a witness by the denomination against bigotry and for racial justice.
I was dismayed, but not entirely surprised, to hear comments about Bishop Bethea by some United Methodist pastors stopping by for coffee as they made their rounds at the hospital where I worked. "This is going to be the death of the church," they said. "Our people are just not ready for this."
I told them that I thought it was a great witness. I encouraged them to be proud of it. I asked, "Who else is doing anything like it?"
This one prophetic action left a mark on me. I remember thinking that those United Methodists are willing to take a stand, even if some may disagree.
I also was touched by the quiet witness of a nurse who was a member of a local United Methodist church. She was the nurse supervisor for one of the critical care units at Richland Memorial Hospital and was always a delight to visit. On her bulletin board was a picture from a Salkehatchie summer service mission trip she had gone on with the youth of her church. She told me about what they had done to help a family in need have a better home to live in.
I remember being impressed by her commitment, the picture of youth she worked with, the vitality and sincerity of her faith. I remember thinking that those United Methodists don’t mind rolling up their sleeves.
The cross and flame
I love our cross and flame logo. It says so much in its simplicity. When I see it, I see a church centered on the love of Christ expressed supremely on the cross, and the living power of the Spirit expressed in the flame. I’ve seen that Spirit alive in United Methodist churches in so many memorable settings.
In my position as director of conference relations for the Board of Church and Society, I have led training events for pastors and congregations in conferences and local churches throughout the world. I have also been blessed to meet many United Methodists across the globe as they visited Washington D.C., and dropped by to tour the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill.
One particularly memorable experience began with a somewhat frantic call from our building receptionist: "The president of Macedonia is downstairs in the rotunda, and he wants to talk with somebody." Because our board's top executives were traveling that day, I was it. Very quickly, I found myself giving a tour to President Boris Trajkovski, an active United Methodist and a lay leader in his church. I was so impressed. Here was a man so proud of his denomination that he made a point to visit the United Methodist Building while he was in Washington to visit President Bush and other U.S. leaders.
In 2007, I visited Zimbabwe. I saw the pride of connection the people there have. Zimbabwe is struggling, but the church people I met there love to claim the name United Methodist. They proudly display the cross and flame. I went in numerous local churches. All of them had a cross and flame displayed in the front of the sanctuary. Some of them had four or five.
I attended a funeral service in Zimbabwe for a dear pastor of the conference. I was struck by the number of tombstones in the cemetery that displayed the cross and flame. Many people in Zimbabwe wear clergy shirts and wraparound dresses decorated with the cross and flame. This is the visible pride they have in being part of our global connection.
I was also blessed last winter to visit churches in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Leadership there is young. Many of the pastors are 35 and younger. Their worship services are casual with a lot of lively singing, often led with guitar. The faith is alive there, and their eagerness to learn more about our Wesleyan heritage is evident. I was impressed by the vitality of the worship linked to a commitment to being a witness for Christ through practical ministries addressing the needs of youth. In the second most atheistic country in the world, this denomination is alive and growing.
Claiming the name
I was a member of our agency's team leading training for pastors in the Philippines. One afternoon, church leaders took us on a trip to a huge squatter village at the edge of Manila. They told us that 30,000 people lived in this area. Houses were made of tin and straw and bamboo and anything else they could find. We visited a local church member and sat on the bamboo floor of his house. His baby lay sleeping next to him.
"God is using United Methodist Christians bound together in an amazing web of connection to accomplish great and beautiful things. We all can and should feel honored to be part of that marvelous work."
He told us about his life selling a milk-like drink on the streets of the city. He would go to work as soon as his wife returned from her job. On a good day, he would make the equivalent of $2.
As we drove down a dusty road leaving the area, we came upon a rugged structure made of nothing but poles and a thatched roof. It was an open-air sanctuary with the United Methodist cross and flame prominently displayed on the front.
This is The United Methodist Church. Even there in a severely oppressed area, the church is alive.
I do not intend to say that God’s spirit is not working in many other congregations and in a wide variety of settings throughout the world. And I would not say that I agree with every position or action this denomination takes. Who does?
But I am very aware that many of us do not know of the good things God is doing in and through The United Methodist Church. Because we have not had an opportunity to hear or perhaps didn’t listen, we remain uninformed.
I am not offering this reflection as a blind celebration of The United Methodist Church. It is offered more as a celebration of the Spirit of God at work. God is using United Methodist Christians bound together in an amazing web of connection to accomplish great and beautiful things. We all can and should feel honored to be part of that marvelous work.
Childers is director of conference relations for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.