A ReStart for the United Methodist Church: The Heart of United Methodism

I long for the United Methodist Church that invited me into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord to continue to do for others what it has done for me because it is a church in which moderates and traditionalists, as well as progressives and centrists, are welcomed, valued and fully included. I believe it can. And I intend to do all I can to make it a reality.

Reality, Important Choices and What’s at Stake

The United Methodist Church is at the proverbial fork in the road. It’s time to choose. We can take the road that leads to a significant exodus of traditionalists and moderates so that the remaining United Methodist Church becomes narrowly defined theologically, which does not bode well for our church or the mission field into which Jesus sends us. Or we can boldly choose the road that intentionally includes moderates and traditionalists as absolutely essential to the future faithfulness and vitality of our denomination.

Actually, this choice should not be much of a choice at all. That’s because there is really only one choice. We need to proactively welcome, respect and fully include all segments of the theological spectrum so that the genius of the Wesleyan spirit is renewed and unleashed in our church.

This will take courage and resilience given the current landscape we find ourselves navigating. The signing of the ‘Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation’ by a group of progressive and centrist bishops and conservative renewal caucus leaders in late 2019 set in motion the inevitability of a binary split in the United Methodist Church. It does not matter that legislation was never adopted due to the cancellation of General Conference. The expectation had been put in place that this is what would happen. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the formation of the Global Methodist Church earlier this year and the disaffiliation legislation passed at the 2019 Special Session of General Conference would lead to significant numbers of congregations leaving, high levels of anxiety, and lawsuits.

The lingering question is whether traditionalists and moderates will feel welcome, included and respected if they choose to stay given the fact that there has been virtually no public conversation engaging in the hard work of curating a future that clearly demonstrates how valuable they are to the denomination. This question has already been answered. Not with words, but by actions. Millions of moderates and traditionalists around the globe and in the United States actually are choosing to remain in the United Methodist Church.

The choice by traditionalists and moderates to stay should not be a surprise since they have been shaped and formed by United Methodist DNA. They are passionate about living faithful lives as disciples of Jesus Christ; embrace a rich orthodox faith that is shared by billions of United Methodists around the world; value our emphasis on grace that is prevenient, justifying and sanctifying; are thoroughly Wesleyan; value their deep connections with those in their congregation who may have different theological perspectives; long to make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives; lovingly connected to the United Methodist Church; celebrate the difference the United Methodist Church makes in lives, communities and the world; embrace United Methodism’s worldwide connection; hold fast to their view regarding matters of human sexuality, but are increasingly convinced that it should not be the single factor deciding the future of the United Methodist Church; and long to say, “I’m a proud United Methodist!”

Moderates and traditionalists need the United Methodist Church, they are needed in the United Methodist Church, and this means all of us – centrists, moderates, progressives and traditionalists – need to be willing to do some things differently than we have in the past so we can be the church God is calling us to be. In other words, we need to move beyond the usual aspirational feel-good talk, and enter into deep conversation about what actually needs to occur. It may be hard and painful at times. But what’s at stake makes it worth it.

There will be some – maybe many – who will dismiss this vision of the future United Methodist Church as an attempt to keep the institution alive, a compromise that splits differences down the middle in order to keep everyone happy or a Big Tent in which people with significant differences simply co-exist. It is none of these things. Rather, it will be a re-formed United Methodist Church that reflects the ‘Heart of United Methodism’.

The re-formed United Methodist Church will welcome everyone. It will not, however, necessarily be a church for everyone because the fact of the matter is that there will be some for whom it is not conservative enough and others for whom it is not progressive enough. Rather it will be a church for all those who want to be part of the broad middle, long for the fighting to cease and desire to focus on carrying out the church’s mission in a world that desperately needs to be transformed by Jesus’ love.

A ReStart Church that Reflects the Heart of Methodism

A ReStart United Methodist Church will be built upon our dynamic heritage. It will gratefully celebrate all the good the United Methodist Church has done and continues to do. It will be composed of the millions of United Methodists around the globe and in the United States who long to be part of a vibrant, faithful and growing denomination that makes disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world so that God’s will is just as real on earth as it already is in heaven. And it will do so by embracing certain key principles that will ReStart our future.

Principle #1: The United Methodist Church will be shaped by Jesus’ mandate for unity.

The United Methodist Church will embrace a new understanding of unity rooted in scripture, affirm its essential nature and let it shape our self-understanding. This will require a significant pivot because it changes decades of how we have approached church. It moves us from our wants, comfort zones and echo chambers to a willingness to begin with Jesus’ imperative for unity that we seem to have forgotten in the midst of our desire to be comfortable.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23 NIV)

It’s tempting to remain in a comfort zone of like-mindedness and never venture into a new kind of relationship with those who are very different in their understanding and living out of the Gospel. But Jesus remains absolutely firm that his imperative for unity is operational, not merely aspirational. In fact, he is clearer about its necessity than he is about so many of the things we want to claim are much more important. Certainly, those on both theological edges of the proverbial bell curve may desire a parting of the ways because of what they believe are irreconcilable differences. And this is to be respected. But it’s not an issue for those who live in the ‘Heart of United Methodism’.

We are eager to embrace and live boldly into the unity Jesus calls for, even if it seems difficult in light of our recent history. This is why it’s crucial for all United Methodists –  progressives, centrists, moderates and traditionalists – to be willing to actually do what Paul says is essential to unity in 1 Corinthians.

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:1-3)

Paul makes it clear that we can live in unity with anyone who says “Jesus is Lord” because the only way someone can utter these words is because he or she has been enabled by the Holy Spirit to do so. This may seem to be a difficult task, if not impossible, when there are significant theological differences in play. But quite simply, if this requirement alone is good enough for the Holy Spirit, the only option we have is to set aside our personal issues and immediately start living it out in our relationships with others.

Principle #2: The United Methodist Church will be a church in which moderates and traditionalists are truly welcomed as valued, welcomed and respected members.

It is not enough to say there is a space for everyone, there needs to be an intentional welcoming of moderates and traditionalists that involves words, but more importantly actions. The worst possible thing that could happen would be for moderates and traditionals to receive the message, “You are welcome if you stay quiet and pay your apportionments.” The United Methodist Church needs to seek out moderates and traditionalists, value the gifts they bring and fully welcome them into leadership in congregations, districts, annual conferences and the general church. This is not some simplistic version of theological pluralism. It is the essence of the living Body of Christ the Apostle Paul describes and an essential part of our Wesleyan identity.

Church leaders will have to make sure this welcome is clear and unambiguous, and offer specific reasons why moderates and traditionalists are a valued part of the church. One of the most helpful ways this can occur is for the Council of Bishops and individual bishops to proactively articulate why the United Methodist Church needs moderates and traditionalists. However, this alone is not sufficient. It is also the work of laity – centrists, progressives, moderates and traditionalists.

Centrists and moderates will need to welcome traditionalists and moderates with their beliefs and convictions. Their place in the church cannot be contingent upon embracing a particular sexual ethic or simply remaining quiet on matters of human sexuality. They have as much right to help shape the future of the church as anyone else. At the same time, moderates and traditionalists need to respect the attitudes and opinions of progressives and centrists in the same way they wish to be respected. Perhaps most importantly, everyone will need to be committed to being part of the future of the United Methodist Church without any contingencies.

Principle #3: The United Methodist Church will embrace a living orthodox faith and lifelong Wesleyan faith formation. 

Something that is quite concerning, but probably not as surprising as we might expect given our history the last several decades, is the weaponization of orthodoxy. Moderates and traditionalists claim they are orthodox, and centrists and progressives aren’t. Centrists and progressives push back to make it clear they are orthodox, and accuse moderates and traditionalists of making unfounded and untrue statements.

It is important to set the record straight. The Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church are a powerful expression of Christian orthodoxy and will remain so. The creeds and historic understandings of the Christian faith will remain as the core of our faith. Contrary to unfounded rumors, the United Methodist Church will not change traditional Christian faith beliefs.

The challenge for the future, however, is not whether everyone who is part of the United Methodist Church claims orthodoxy. It’s how committed we are to intentionally embracing a living orthodoxy that robustly shapes us. The vast majority of United Methodists, be they more liberal or more conservative, must be willing to take a deeper dive into the rich treasure of a living orthodoxy. We have to stop merely talking about the idea of orthodoxy and start letting it profoundly shape us. This ongoing exercise of Christian formation is essential soul work in the midst of a culture that increasingly relegates Christianity to the edges.

While we have been, are and will be orthodox, there will be those United Methodists who are outliers in terms of their understanding of the Christian faith. Consequently, we will have to be more intentional about the necessity of maintaining appropriate theological boundaries. This must be done with deep humility since it all too easily can morph into a judgmental, even demonizing, approach to others. But boundary setting is essential. When faith begins to resemble Unitarianism or new age spirituality, it must be quickly and seriously addressed. Likewise, when faith begins to show signs of becoming an expression of fundamentalism or Christian nationalism, it must be confronted as well.

Our rich Wesleyan heritage provides concrete ways of entering into living orthodoxy. The Wesleyan emphasis on class meetings, bands, the means of grace and holy conferencing provide a path that helps us to move more fully into the holiness of heart and life that is the hallmark of mature Christians. Moderates and traditionalists entering into these kinds of disciplines with centrists and progressives may just do more to exhibit the reality of unity more than anything else we can do.

Principle #4: The United Methodist Church will have to find a way to reach an understanding about matters of human sexuality that is based on ‘may’ and not ‘shall,’ and all who are part of the United Methodist Church will need to be comfortable with this creative tension. 

Matters of human sexuality must be resolved in order for the ‘Heart of United Methodism’ to hold. This will not be accomplished by focusing on which particular stance the church should embrace. Rather it will happen only if the denomination crafts a new and faithful way to live with these significant differences.

The United Methodist Church currently is accountable to The 2016 Book of Discipline as amended by the 2019 General Conference concerning matters of human sexuality. The church’s stance may or may not change in 2024. If it doesn’t, the church will continue to be accountable to it and those in The United Methodist Church will need to uphold it.

Eventually, however, a new understanding will take hold in the United Methodist Church concerning human sexuality because of the consensus that our differences cannot remain the single issue that continues to shape the United Methodist Church as it has for the past 50 years. Quite honestly, this will involve traditionalists, moderates, centrists and progressives all being willing to act differently.

This will be possible because a new dynamic is rapidly emerging, at least in the United States. While many moderates and traditionalists will continue to embrace the church’s current position regarding marriage and ordination, increasingly they also are willing for others in the denomination to address human sexuality in a different way. They just ask that nothing be mandated for them or their congregation that forces them to act contrary to their conscience.

It’s quite possible our future will look something like this. Moderates and traditionalists will acknowledge – and become comfortable with – the reality that the stance of the United Methodist Church concerning human sexuality will change at some point in the future. At the same time, centrists and progressives will be willing to respect the position of moderates and traditionalists, and not force them to act in ways concerning same sex marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals that their conscience will not allow them to do. This is why ‘may’ and not ‘shall’ language will be our denomination’s language in matters of human sexuality. This is not a trivial matter. Nor is it easy. It will only be possible if everyone is willing to approach a heartfelt issue in new ways.

A word of caution is necessary at this point. The manner in which human sexuality is handled is not the most important issue in the ReStart United Methodist Church. However, if it is not handled carefully and intentionally, it will be nearly impossible for the United Methodist Church to embody the ‘Heart of Methodism’. It won’t work if moderates and traditionalists insist that the discipline cannot change. Likewise, it won’t work if centrists and progressives still hold as an ultimate goal changing the discipline in such a way that it mandates ordination and marriage of LGBTQIA persons by all bishops, clergy and congregations.

It is wrong, perhaps even sinful, however, to assume that finding something that works in the U.S. context will settle the matter for a church that is truly global. The parts of the church not in the United States or western Europe most likely will hold onto a traditional perspective concerning matters of human sexuality. This was made abundantly clear by the recent announcement from the Africa College of Bishops as they made it clear that they are both traditional and United Methodist.

United Methodist leaders in western Europe and the United States will have to enter into a relationship with these brothers and sisters to jointly explore what the church will like on this and a multitude of other matters if a new form of colonialism is not once again to be imposed on them. This may well result in a brand new way of being the globe-embracing United Methodist Church along the lines of the Connectional Conference legislation presented at the 2019 called session of General Conference or the more recently proposed Overlapping Regional Conference Plan.

Principle #5: The United Methodist Church will be uncompromisingly connectional. 

Connectionalism is part of United Methodist DNA. At its heart, this connectionalism is not institutional, structural, or a set of rules, procedures, and protocols. Sadly, this has too often been the case in the past.

Connectionalism in the ReStart United Methodist Church will manifest itself primarily in a complex variety of relationships that arise out of being part of the Body of Christ. This starts in the local church between individuals and continues through district, annual conferences, and general church agencies. More importantly, it will exhibit itself most clearly as people work together to share Jesus’ love through words and actions.

In many ways, the connectionalism we know will be turned upside down. It will not be imposed structurally from the top down as codified in The Book of Discipline but will grow organically from the ground up. Interestingly, local churches have figured out how to stay together while the denomination seems to be ground zero for the division that is taking place. People in local churches are connected in worship, study and service even though they are very different from each other. It is where moderates and traditionalists can enter into deep relationships with progressives and centrists. And here’s the beauty of it all. No one has to wait for some pronouncement from a bishop or the latest program from a general agency. It is something people can start doing right now.

Principle #6: The United Methodist Church will be shaped from the inside out by our mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world so that God’s will becomes just as real on earth as it already is in heaven. 

This could have been, and perhaps should have been, Principle #1. It is placed here, however, as a visible reminder of why we are involved in the work of crafting a re-formed United Methodist Church. It is not unity for unity’s sake. It is essential if we are to more fully and faithfully engage in the mission Jesus has given us. It is the reason the United Methodist Church was given birth and is now experiencing a new birth. And now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs the “Heart of United Methodism’ to proclaim the fullness of the “Good News of Jesus Christ.” Even if it does not know it yet.

Our mission can only be fully understood, strategized, and lived out when moderates, progressives, traditionalists and centrists come together to engage in it because this is necessary for its wholeness. This fullness of participation from all perspectives within the church ensures that there’s not merely one part of our mission that is emphasized to the exclusion of others. Rather, the fullness of the mission is lived out. This is why three endeavors will be at the heart of the ‘Heart of United Methodism’: evangelism, discipleship formation, and acts of compassion, mercy and justice. These will not merely be messaging points. We will organize our life around them because we are organizing our life around the mission Jesus has given us.

One endeavor in particular will need to be at the forefront of our work: dismantling the sin of racism and building God’s reconciliation. Regardless of theological perspectives, United Methodists will band together to address this sin that continues to exist in opposition to everything Christians proclaim as holy. This is not another set-aside program. It is embedded in everything we will do.

What’s Next?

The ‘Heart of United Methodism’ is certainly counter-cultural in a world of echo chambers and algorithms. It probably threatens those who assume our future is a simple matter of dividing the United Methodist Church in two halves.

It can’t be said it’s the next best thing since sliced bread, a slam dunk done deal or suddenly emerge in full bloom with little change on everyone’s part. It will take prayer, hard work, and a willingness to hold onto a vision many have not yet been captured by. It will involve change on everyone’s part that may leave them feeling uncomfortable. And it will involve a willingness by everyone to not undermine the church when it does something different than expected.

Moderates, traditionalists, centrists, and progressives all have to come to grips with a fundamental question. Am I only willing to remain United Methodist if my view on certain critical issues, including human sexuality, prevails? If the answer is “yes,” you will have to consider whether you sense God calling you to a different spiritual home. If the answer is “No,” you may well find a spiritual home in the ‘Heart of United Methodism’.

We have a choice.

We can be like almost every other mainline historic Protestant denomination and simply split. And if that’s what we choose, particularly if we do it unthinkingly by default, then we will get the same results as every other mainline historic Protestant denomination that has split. We will experience a long, slow, albeit comfortable, death of relevance.

It’s time for the United Methodist Church to choose. We can take the road that leads to a significant exodus of traditionalists and moderates so that the remaining United Methodist Church becomes narrowly defined theologically, which does not bode well for our church and the mission Jesus has given us. Or we can boldly choose the road that intentionally includes moderates and traditionalists as absolutely essential to the future faithfulness and vitality of our denomination and what Jesus is calling us to do.

May we embrace this kairotic opportunity to make a powerful witness to the world. It is what is needed to show the difference Jesus makes. It’s what is needed when the United Methodist Church has lost our passion for our mission. It is what is needed when the church continues to do church the way we have always done church, even when we attempt to convince ourselves we are really doing it differently.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

Gary E. Mueller, Bishop

Share this: