By Bill Mefford
Having worked most of my life either at the local or national level of the United Methodist Church there were five words I heard often that literally made me ill, “that’s not who we are.” These words were usually spoken by either long-standing members in control of the committees in the local church or by long-standing bureaucrats at the national level; both groups fully invested in the continuation of the organizational status quo and corporate-styled vertical hierarchy. And they were most often spoken in response to a creative idea or proposed innovation that was offered as a way to make the church more missionally effective, egalitarian in its leadership, and socially responsive to some injustice or form of suffering.
“That’s not who we are” was joined with the also oft-mentioned, “We have never done it that way before.” Both statements, in fact, function as a kind of moronic tautology. These statements preserve power and the status quo and they identify the innovator as someone who does not fit; who is not good for the organization because the goal of the organization is maintain it’s current structure.
While those in positions of power believe that getting rid of innovators preserve their absolute hold on power, this is actually not the case. Getting rid of innovation and rigidly maintaining a death-grip on power is how the organization begins (or continues) its long descent into irrelevancy. Let me offer an example.
Years ago I was a pastor of a small United Methodist church in a small town in West Texas. The church had been growing in the months since I had arrived and one of the greatest areas for potential growth were among young families in the town. There were many who some of our families knew well who had no desire to go to church on a Sunday morning, but who were very open to some kind of fellowship outside of a formal church service. No other church in town was offering anything like this.
So, I began to meet with the various groups within the church to discuss taking one Sunday night per month and hosting it at someone’s house where we would have food and fellowship and just hang out. I proposed we not create a big agenda, but instead, see who shows up and see what they might like to do; what would give them the most meaningful experience. Our usual schtick on Sunday nights was a Bible study and singing really old hymns so taking one Sunday night out seemed to me, and most people in the church, a small sacrifice.
So after having multiple conversations with everyone, listening to peoples’ concerns and sharing the vision and seeing buy-in from everyone I talked to, we set a date for our first home gathering. I was convinced that everyone had been heard and we were fully on board with moving ahead. Yet, the morning of the first home gathering that night, when I showed up to church and before I even stepped out of my car, a few people in the church came bursting out of the front door, almost yelling my name, and launching into why gathering one Sunday night a month in someone’s home was a threat to the life and future of the church.
And yes, you guessed it, the moronic tautology of “we have never done it that way before” and “that’s not who we are” were spoken long and loud. Thus, the home gatherings never happened. I was gone a year and a half later and the church closed down within three years. Now, I am not sure the home gatherings would have saved that church, but shutting them down certainly stopped the momentum we had been building and it showed me and everyone else that trying something new that was hardly revolutionary was so threatening that the people in the church were more comfortable slowly dying than in risking losing their death-like grip of control.
This story taught me that the church in general and the United Methodist Church in particular is simply unable to save itself, though it will continue to believe that it can. The UMC refuses to listen to its own innovators or prophets or change agents. The UMC is in denial. The UMC will pour - will continue to pour that is - millions of dollars and countless hours of energy into convincing itself that it is trying something new all the while maintaining the same vertical power structure because those in control have the arrogance and audacity to believe that they know best, even though they have clearly proven themselves incapable to bring about renewal or reform.
But before we are too hard on them (though I am convinced that we really can’t be too hard on them), we must remember that practically every reform movement in the historical life of our church has come from outside the organizational power structure. Old wineskins truly cannot hold the new wine of revival and reform, much less revolution. Looking at a brief overview of renewal movements in our church - movements that draw the church closer to Jesus and more sacrificially engaged in missional justice - and as far as I can tell, there has never been a renewal movement begun by the denominational leadership. Renewal movements come from outside the power structure. Always.
This why the church must look outside of itself, specifically its top-heavy, arcane power structure, for renewal and reform. Hearing new voices calling for new expressions of faithfulness is at the heart of who we are. Trying something new, listening to new voices is exactly who we are. This is where we began. Recall the birth of the church and Peter’s sermon when he quotes the prophet Joel,
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
Looking outside our current structures and traditional experiences is EXACTLY who we are. We are followers of the revolutionary Jesus, the great Rule-Breaker and Tradition-Buster. Instead of listening to the voices of those in power telling us who we are not, let’s leave them behind and go outside the walls that those in power insist on proclaiming are there to protect us and let’s see them for what they are: prison walls that keep us hidden from the glories of God’s unknown and beautiful creation. Let’s try new things - even things that do not make sense and that have never been done before.
This is who we are.