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He spoke out of his personal frustration, but his outburst reflected the sentiments of many other laypersons on the Council on Ministries at that night's meeting. "Food closets, yoga classes, youth trips to Disney World, resolutions on Central America-would somebody Please tell me the business of this church?"

After a time of awkward silence, another person said, "If my company did business like the church, we wouldn't be in business for long. What is our product? Who are our customers? What do we offer that no one else is selling?"

Of course, the church is not a business. Jesus Christ is not a product, and those who are unchurched are not merely potential customers, but these frustrated laypersons do have a most valid question. What is the purpose of the church?

Uncertain Purpose

Across United Methodism, there are scores of congregations and their pastors who have become debilitated because of unfocused, unrealistic, unbiblical understanding - or should we say, biblical misunderstandings - about the nature and purpose of the Christian church. The early goal of the Methodists and EUBs to "spread scriptural holiness throughout the land" has become a diffused, poorly defined mandate to be all things to all people. Who are we and what are we supposed to be doing as United Methodists?

One response might be that we are supposed to be everywhere doing everything. "The world is my parish" - Wesley's retort when he was expelled from Anglican pulpits - has been taken as a mandate by latter-day United Methodists to be involved everywhere, attempting to meet every human need. Besides, Christianity is an incarnational faith: "God so loved the world." Our involvement in the world, our pronouncements, programs, resolutions, and breathless activity is our United Methodist way of testifying to the reality of the Incarnation. God loved the world, God came into the world in the Christ, so we also ought to be in the world.

But why in the world and to what purpose? The gospel is not simply a generalized call to be in the world, but a call to be there in the name of Christ. The gospel, rather than the needs of the world, defines the mission of the church. In fact, apart from the gospel, the world does not know what it needs. Many in the world may feel that they need an organization that confirms their innate human values, fulfills their selfish desires, and helps them to be ever more self-centered. The Incarnation does not mean that every human desire is a valid human need, that the church exists to give the youth somewhere fun to go on Friday nights. Many socially desirable activities cannot and should not be the responsibility of the church. The Incarnation is about the invasion into human history of God in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, who came calling people to be his disciples in a new kingdom.

Throughout the centuries, later disciples of Jesus have had to define and redefine themselves carefully. Every reformation of the church has been, in great part, a debate about the purpose of the church. Wesley's own revival was born out of his argument with the eighteenth-century Church of England over its failure to attend to the demands of the gospel for change of heart and life and its unwillingness to reach out to the masses of people. Reformations and revivals, like those led by Wesley, seem necessary for the rejuvenation of the church, perhaps because the church is constantly tempted to forsake its God-given mission in favor of a more socially acceptable and comfortable function. Since religion deals with every aspect of human life, it is all too easy for the church to become lost in harried attention to this and that, breathlessly attempting to catch the next wind of cultural change, rather than to keep its sights on the specific things the Christian faith wants to do for human life.

A denomination that lacks a consensus about the theological purpose of the church becomes compulsive in its efforts to be busy in much activity. It dares not stop to ask itself about the value of its activities, because it has lost confidence that it has the answer. Blown to and fro by each passing fad, this church eventually gives the impression that it is like the Pecos River - six inches deep and a mile wide.

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A Misguided Self-Perception

For a number of generations, The United Methodist Church was able to think of itself as a sort of national church, the nearest thing to a state church that existed in America. We were the largest, most representative, and (so we assumed) the most influential of all American Protestant bodies. It was, therefore, our duty to help run the country, to be a church that, like the medieval Roman Catholic Church before us, sought to permeate every area of life with our influence. It was our duty to speak out on every social issue because, in a sense, this was "our" country. We enjoyed thinking of ourselves as a major force in the society, an organization with political clout. Traditional Wesleyan social concern had become political activism - drafting resolutions to Congress, lobbying for "our" side of some issue, pressuring legislators to vote "our" way, forming caucus groups, and becoming part of coalitions with other church and secular organizations.

Much of this political activism in the name of The United Methodist Church was based on at least two erroneous assumptions about the purpose of the church. First, it assumed that the primary function of the church was to help run the United States. Our political activism was at worst an extension of our imperialistic assumption that this was "our" country and that we represented the consensus of what was best for all Americans. At best it was our attempt to be both powerful and responsible. Looking at our political assumptions from the vantage point of the late 1980s, we see that they seem anachronistic. We are gradually getting pushed out of the driver's seat in American society. If we ever had a claim to be America's national church, that claim is less credible now than at any time in this century. Our resolutions to Congress and to the President seem either arrogant or silly in the new climate. Who is listening to us?

Second, our political activism of the last few decades has made an erroneous assumption about the historic Wesleyan concern for the wider society. Early American Methodists and EUBs founded some of this countrys earliest schools, colleges, homes for children, and hospitals. These institutions were founded, not to do something socially worthwhile for American society as a whole, but to preserve the integrity of the church within a society that, while seeming to be generally congenial to the goals of the Methodist movement, was a decidedly mixed blessing. The best way to serve this new country was to build a vibrant, self-conscious, clearly defined church. Methodism founded institutions to strengthen the church. Today we have inherited responsibility for institutions whose relationship to the church is at best tenuous, at worst nonexistent, other than their financial dependency.

Of course, if American society as a whole is judged to be roughly contiguous with The United Methodist Church, then there is no real need to worry about the integrity of the church. Being American is equal to being Christian. How can that claim be sustained? We are no longer a powerful, socially dominant institution that is able to speak with one voice to American society. We are a church that, in its tireless efforts to lean over to speak to American society, may have fallen over, engulfed by the predominant values of our society. Our church's colleges do not appear to be decidedly different from their secular counterparts. Our mission has been reduced to politics, our Social Principles mirror, to a great extent, to political opinions from one part (generally the left) of the secular political spectrum. When our church speaks, it speaks mostly in political terms rather than religious ones. The programs of many of our local churches appear to be a mix of activities from the Y.M.C.A., the Garden Club, and the League of Women Voters. When our boards and agencies take it upon themselves to speak for and to direct United Methodists, divisiveness is created not only because many United Methodists disagree with the opinions of these boards and agencies, but also because many of the laity believe that these opinions are more influenced by secular ideology than Christian theology. Our internal squabbles over which political stand is most Christian resemble the factionalism of a national political party.

The United Methodist Church has fused and thereby confused its peculiarly Christian values with the dominant values of American culture. Consequently, it tends to align itself (on both the left and the right) with political policies. Because of this, there is a two-fold danger: either the confusion of religious and secular values is uncritically accepted, or an attempt is made to separate religious from secular values by those who fear the secular politization of the church. The church becomes either the mascot of society or a cowering escape from society.

The church has integrity; it has its own worship and mission, which is expressed through its life in society. The relation of the church to society is one in which the worship of God sends one out in service. Both sides are needed; each complements the other. The uniqueness of the church is in its worship, worship that is not a time of the week, but a way of life. In worship, we hold fast to Christ; to everything else we can hold loosely. No other policy, value, or person may challenge Christ's preeminence. By holding fast to Christ, we are freed to pursue the moral implications of service in Christ's name.

We are in the world as Christians. This means that we may take political stands; but they must be amenable to our prior commitment to Christ. We contend for justice, but justice that is continually reinterpreted by our commitment to Christ. We may challenge our, or any other, nation in so far as loyalty to Christ commands. Commitment to Christ and the world are both present, but the order and the level of commitment are important to maintain.

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A Need for Boundaries

The United Methodist Church must recover a sense of its own integrity as a distinct phenomenon in American society. Integrity implies boundaries, limits, a discernible identity and focus of activity. The church is more than a society to provide social activities for its members, more than a platform for political agitation. The task of the church is much the same as the task Wesley gave to his societies: to form a community of faith and practice that responds, in its life together and witness to the world, to the presence of Jesus Christ. Formation of a visible people of God is the radical imperative preceding everything else the church is about. In a sense, the first "business" of the church is to be the church.

To some ears, this may sound introspective and isolationist. But the issue is not the simplistic alternative of whether the church will be "in the world," or whether we shall "serve the needs of the world." The questions are How? and For what ends? Christians are people who have been converted into a particular community with a particular world view, which recognizes Jesus Christ as Lord. This world view is generated by the stories, values, insights, and rituals that are reenacted and celebrated within the worship of the church. Because we know a story about one who was born in a stable, preached good news to the poor and the captives, healed the sick, was persecuted by the authorities, was crucified, and was raised, we find that we may have some peculiar notions of right and wrong, of just and unjust. In other words, our Christian political and social attitudes arise from the peculiar story that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our political task is not to be conservative, liberal, practical, or even American. Our task is to be faithful to the gospel as a church.

Perhaps one reason the world has difficulty in taking our social pronouncements seriously is that we have reduced our historic Wesleyan social concern to public posturing and slogans, pronouncements and resolutions, rather than the tougher task of building faithful, visible congregations that embody, in our life together, our dominant convictions. Rather than simply developing slogans about justice, we are to define Christian justice by our care of one another in the church. Rather than pleading with Congress to do right, we are to build a people of righteousness in our local congregations. This is how the church serves the world and affects the wider society - by being the church.

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The Business of the Church

The church is the business of the church, not only because it is the place in which we learn Christian points of view, but it is also the place in which our point of view is embodied. The church's most significant political act is not some resolution we send to Congress or our participation in some boycott, but it is in being the church. Wesley believed that the church could be an alternative community, a visible, concrete, counter-cultural protest against the dominant social structures of the wider society. In their class meetings and societies, early Methodists pioneered new social structures based not on power or on abstract definitions of justice or on social or economic status, but on their members' common commitment to Christ and to his kingdom. Early Methodists indicted the established political order and challenged the social status quo by example rather than through resolutions and pronouncements.

The church is always judged by the sort of people it produces. If we cannot achieve justice and peace in the church, then there is no wonder that the rest of the world fails to take us seriously when we pontificate on some national concern. Why should the rest of American society listen to our bishops when they speak on nuclear war, unless the world can see that we have first, in The United Methodist Church, created those structures and relationships that make us a people of peace, a people who are willing to suffer for the cause of truth? Do we accept money that is earned from investment and work in defense industries? What specific, supportive guidance might we give United Methodists who work for and are economically dependent on the vast complex of military-related industries? Resolutions are cheap. Institutional embodiment is costly. We must again be a people whose political opinions are backed up by something more than self-congratulatory posturing. Unfortunately, rather than risk self-sacrifice or engage in mutual discipline of one another (the historic vision of Wesley), we have chosen to make pronouncements.

The church is a global, multi-national organization. The most important thing that we can do about the evil of South African Apartheid is not to offer advice to Congress about the specifics of governmental policy toward South Africa; Congress has shown little inclination to listen to United Methodists and little ability to understand why we hold our values. We already have a strong link with the Methodists who live and struggle in South Africa. Let us be supportive and in communication with those churches. Our church can be expected to have certain definite opinions about U.S.-Soviet relations because of the knowledge that we have many fellow Methodists in the Soviet Union. Our communication with them and our care for them in their struggles are more important to us even than the demands of the United States Department of State. The church's most effective political solution is the church - an alternative community that, by the quality of its own life, demonstrates that God, not nations, rules the world.

The church has the sometimes unpleasant task of noting that even those who are blessed with peace, freedom, and justice are sinners in need of Gods grace - people whose time on earth is terminal; people whose innate fear, self-delusion, and insecurity often make them pervert even such noble words as peace, freedom, and justice. Therefore, the church will have a somewhat more expansive notion of what people need beyond the limits of politics.

When we lack a clear notion of what we are supposed to be doing as a church, we attempt to do everything. We succeed at little and appear to fail at everything. Our social concern becomes a shopping list of current causes, without thought to what the church does best.

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The Pastor's Responsibility

"We asked our pastor to teach a church-wide Bible study," one layperson told us. "But he said that he was too busy. If he would let someone else manage the church gymnasium, and if he were not so consumed by his duties on the local school board, then he might have more time to be a pastor."

A generation ago, pastors were expected to preach, to teach, to visit the sick in the congregation, and to evangelize unchurched persons. Today our pastors seem unsure of what their job is, despite (or because of) the current Discipline's listing of twenty-one pastoral responsibilities.1 Persons who were once called to preach the gospel and to guide the church have become exhausted by the drudgery of managing a large volunteer organization with a round of diverse activities. Or the pastor becomes the resident political activist and free-lance community worker, serving on community boards and fighting political battles, jobs that are better done by the laity rather than the pastor. The pastor is ordained to empower the laity for ministry. He or she is to minister to the ministers, and is not the one whose frenetic clerical activism becomes a substitute for lay activism. The less clearly defined are the pastor's specific functions, the more pastors take over the roles of the laity, thus driving the laity out of their baptismally bestowed duties for ministry.2

Lyle Schaller has observed that after a couple of decades of much rhetoric about the need for The United Methodist Church to "serve the community," most of our churches need to expend more effort and attention in helping the church to be a community. It is much more difficult to form a faithful congregation, even in these democratic United States (perhaps especially in these United States), than to do good works for the entire town.

Every United Methodist congregation would do well to spend time composing a "Statement of Purpose" for itself. This would be a purpose that the local people would own, not simply a statement handed down from a distant agency. All programs, budget items, leadership, and parish activities should then be judged on the basis of this statement of purpose. Our mandate is to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). This is what the people called United Methodist must do.

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  1. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 1984 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1984), par. 439, 440, 441.
  2. In a book that pleads for the revitalization of lay ministry,it is noted that the attempt to address global needs has diverted us from addressing people's needs: "The liberal religious establishment ... has abandoned the family to the therapeutic. It steadfastly ignores the moral, ethical, and lifestyle dilemmas of everyday living. It pursues a political and social agenda of issues so global and complex that most citizens despair of either comprehension or solution. Ordinary members, clergy or lay, are left to their own devices in addressing the stuff out of which they must spin the web of daily life." James D. Anderson and Ezra Earl Jones, Ministry of the Laity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 21.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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