We are the Church
“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes we’re the church together.” (United Methodist Hymnal, #558) The words of Richard Avery and Donald Marsh indicate that all who follow Jesus are, in some sense, the church of Jesus Christ. But what do we as United Methodists mean by that?
We need greater clarity about our understanding of church.
The first point to be made is that following Jesus as a disciple means belonging to a church. John Wesley wrote, “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it.” (Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: IV, §I.1). Wesley’s dictum challenges an idea which is often expressed in our culture today, that someone can be a Christian but not be active in a church. By “social” he meant you had to live it with other believers.
Such activity includes worshipping God weekly with other believers; it involves participating in a small group for study and spiritual growth; it involves tithing or increasing in generosity; it involves actions of social service and social justice; and it involves practicing the means of grace to make progress toward being a mature, grown-up Christian.
One cannot be a real Christian without using the means of grace which only the church provides.
We United Methodists insist that church is necessary, but it is also true that we are not the only Christian church. We are ecumenical, meaning that while we claim to be one part of the body of Christ, we recognize many other denominations and non-denominational congregations as Christian brothers and sisters. After decades of ecumenism, much of this is now instinctive to us and we welcome people who transfer their membership from other denominations to ours. We also bless those of our number who find it best that they serve Christ in another denomination.
One of my responsibilities in the world-wide United Methodist Church is to chair the Committee on Faith and Order. This group has written a document entitled “Wonder, Love and Praise” which casts a vision of what it means to be church today. You can find it by clicking on the following link:
This is a draft statement that will certainly be revised over the next two years. Our hope is that it will stimulate conversation and deeper understanding throughout the UMC.
We are facing challenging times as a denomination. Adapting to our world-wide nature, dealing with principled disobedience by bishops and conferences, reaching immigrant populations, and evangelizing young people are all crucial issues that challenge our pre-conceived notions of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps reading and discussing this statement will help us navigate the challenges and opportunities placed before us.