As I think back to my experiences of UMC people and churches since 1988 I’m reminded of these typical, exceptional features:
Ø We are contextual faith communities that aren’t closed in on ourselves, but very outwardly oriented toward the community with a lot of freedom to be the church we need to be in our community. Whether urban or rural, in the United States or in any number of countries or contexts, the dynamic faith community is open and engaging of our community. A UMC person and congregation can relate positively to a variety of neighbors in shared lives and witness as a community church. There is a strong flow of the church into the community, and community into the life of the church. At our best we are not controlled by a particular system of power, personality, politics, or race, and instead are more of an outpost of God's peculiar redemptive work which crosses many boundaries and defies easy description. Congregations in the US are particularly encouraged to get after the work and left to our own with appropriate support to be the church for that place, so there is plenty of room for some variety of expression.
Ø We are rooted in tradition and dynamic, classical Christianity with strong interest in current, practical expression. We have a history, yet lean into the future, trusting in Holy Spirit. We have a variety of theological and practical threads in our tradition, and in many ways benefit from the strength and tension of those threads. This aids us on a journey to the Promised Land, adaptive, and trusting in God for what is next. My experience has always been that we are a large ship, a big tent, an open table type church. So, we may look more like the variety of disciples Jesus attracted in the Gospels as an unlikely, mixed group. Or perhaps like the church of Acts learning and growing each day. We expect and work for a growing family, involving new and different people of varied backgrounds, with some variety of opinion, yet give room for that variety without getting lost in a dysfunctional family fight. We do not shut the door on people, and are much more likely to swing wide the door to allow more people in. Such churches are also able to reach a more people in the community and are drawn to the edges of community, people crying out for help and for justice, and those who God sees and typically people overlook.
Ø We allow and encourage deeper levels of thought and questioning in an environment which allows for variety of opinions. We bring our whole life to the Gospel and into the faith community. This also allows a congregation to reach the variety of people in a community, and grow in depth of relationships that fit our context. We focus on the essentials with interest in grace and unity, and recognize opinions and non-essentials of faith as secondary and not worthy of priority. The essentials would be a very short list, and the non-essentials could fill volumes and are often what we focus on when we don't live up to our best. We understand Scripture as God's word, yet focus on God's Word as revealed in Jesus Christ. So, we aren't biblical literalists as we take the Bible seriously enough to appreciate the variety, the complexity, and the abundant life it points to. This engages people in scripture from a standpoint of community and conversation. In this we don't confuse our place with God's in the conversation, i.e. none of us are God with final say and ultimate truth. While theologically motivated, we are not narrowly doctrinally driven. If there were a driving doctrine it would be around God’s grace and our continued response and growth in Christ. In many places the UMC people once had other faith or no faith, and as their old faith or belief system failed they turned to a place of incarnational relationships which allowed for a growing, abundant life. God has often used the UMC people to show another way of life and faith that was healing and redemptive to those who most need us. These approaches stand out favorably in contrast to other religious groups.
Ø We have a strong sense of mission and justice. This continues to make us a people with grassroots tendencies with desire to continue growing in expressing love of God and love of neighbor (as we love ourselves, and neighbor as Jesus defined, so that we are always challenged). We have a strong sense of gratitude and giftedness to be a blessing to others with our time, energy, giving, and going in service. We are a church living for others, and get involved from relief to empowerment, with a sense of holistic Christian living that hopes and acts for all to live an abundant life. Our gratitude is shown in our schedules and the ways we use our funding to be God’s blessing to others. We recognize we are stewards of grace, partners with God, and this legacy isn't ours to hoard but to freely share and give away. Such things are both an individual and family lifestyle as well as a congregational culture.
Ø At our best we also move beyond only congregational faith life, and experience more and grow more by deepening connections in the larger Church. This might first be at a district or conference level, but then may grow regionally, nationally, and internationally, with focus on healthy mission and ministry (not just meetings). Such a broadening of our life, and knowing and engagement with other Methodist Christians from other places with other experiences, will challenge us theologically and practically. The great good in this is that it can help us get beyond narrow experiences and understandings of God, beyond provincialism or nationalism, and beyond our thinking we have all the answers of life and faith. It helps us experience the ever deeper waters of God’s grace, God’s larger Church, and other Christians who can teach us much about following Jesus. In these redemptive relationships we might also have opportunity to share our lives in a respectful, mutually beneficial, transformational way that helps all of us experience more of God’s Kingdom and offer glimpses of heaven on earth.
These are just a few of the exemplary characteristics I've seen consistently in my years in the UMC. These are not only the property of the UMC, though as I reflect upon the best of our United Methodist churches over the last thirty years, I’ve seen them repeatedly as features of healthy, vibrant Christians and congregations. It's been this way of connectional United Methodist spirituality that has helped me to grow, and continue growing, as a follower of Jesus Christ. The worship, discipleship, praying, serving, and whole of my Christian journey has been framed in this healthy, fruitful context.
It is this sort of UMC that I love, and that I will continue to support, so that the next generation will have similar opportunities to grow in faith from this sort of transformational theological and practical perspective. As I reflect upon how God has transformed my life through the UMC, a deep gratitude forged of many decades wells up within me. With that I also sense a deep responsibility to both the past and the future, and a greater resolve to help others know and experience such churches and Church as I have known.