The familiar line of Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) in The Princess Bride seems particularly apt as United Methodism is slowly unraveling and the Global Methodist Church is slowly launching. We seem to be moving into the chirping and finger-pointing phase of separation. To add to the dust in the air is the confusion created by United Methodists and Global Methodists using many of the same words, but in some foundational ways having substantially different meanings.
You may have heard or read that the presenting issues of sexuality, gender identity, and qualifications for pastoral leadership roiling United Methodism for the past half-century arise from more fundamental disagreements in theology and doctrine. That’s true. But rather than jumping into the whole bubbling pot of ecclesiastical stew, let’s just focus on something simple and familiar: church membership.
What does it mean for a person to be a member of the local church?
What expectations do United Methodists have of members in local UM churches?
How about the Global Methodist Church?
What expectations do Global Methodists have of members in GM congregations?
Both denominational families speak of local church “membership”. It’s the same term. But the practical differences seem to be significant. You might want to be aware of this if you are considering which denominational family will be home for you and your local church.
United Methodists have vows of membership. You can check these out in The Baptismal Covenant I (United Methodist Hymnal, pp. 33-39). Of particular interest is the question about specific expectations of members’ behavior in the particular local congregation of which he/she is becoming a part:
As members of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service?
Prayer, presence, gifts, service, and (added more recently) witness.
A couple of these behaviors are hard to quantify at all (how much or how often or how long a person prays and in what ways and to what effect does a person witness for Christ). One of the behaviors we can broadly estimate: we won’t have an exact number of how many members are serving on committees, boards, task forces, or in specific volunteer roles, but we know in general it will be less than the number of people attending worship services based on widespread experience across many years.
Which brings us to two areas in which we can see how our expectations are working out: worship attendance (presence) and financial support (gifts). Yes, of course, a person can say they are “present in spirit” and yes, of course, the person who brings canned goods for the annual Thanksgiving food pantry collection is participating in bringing “gifts”. This membership expectation has in view, however, how we “faithfully participate”, not occasionally or mentally but actually, physically, and regularly.
So how are we doing in these areas of worship attendance and personal financial support?
Northern Illinois Conference Statistics:
|Year||Total Membership||Average Attendance||Attendance Ratio|
Of course, these statistics reflect some losses which may be attributable to the impact of the pandemic lockdowns, but overall a member of a United Methodist congregation remains in “good standing” even though actually being absent from worship most of the time.
The NIC gladly reported that apportionment receipts by the conference were MORE than anticipated in 2021. That is good news! But the aggregate of apportionment remittances doesn’t answer the question about regular financial support provided by church members for their local congregation.
The “baked in expectation” related to attendance and financial support for local church members, referenced in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, is that a person can be absent from worship and contribute no financial support at all for a period of two years before his/her/their name is considered for removal from the membership roll of the church. And even at that point, a person can be considered an “inactive member” rather than “not a member any longer.”
What about the Global Methodist Church…what are the expectations of local church members?
In a number of ways, the comparison between the UMC and the GMC isn’t possible. It is like comparing, as we say, apples and oranges. The United Methodist Church is a long-established, mature, worldwide, bureaucratic organization. The Global Methodist Church has not yet had its initial convening conference, though it is a legally recognized organization. It’s sort of like comparing an aircraft carrier to a 14’ fishing boat: they are both boats, but that is where the similarity ends.
However, this month the Global Methodist Church released an outline of its intended catechism. And right there, with a word unfamiliar to most United Methodists, we get a clear understanding of a substantially different expectation related to members of local churches.
A catechism is a formal summary of church doctrine/teachings, usually in the form of questions and answers. In the Global Methodist Church, the catechism is expected to be used for adult membership classes, youth confirmation groups, and included as a backdrop to the preaching and teaching led by pastors.
Why a catechism?
That’s a great question. One of the precipitating reasons for the formation of the Global Methodist Church is a recognition that members of United Methodist congregations in many cases and for many years have not been exposed to the teachings of the Christian faith nor the overall narrative of Scripture. As a result, we hear things like, “United Methodists can believe pretty much whatever they want to believe”. This has left United Methodists largely unequipped to bring a distinctly Christian perspective to contemporary issues as well as the practical matters of daily living and their personal witness to Christ.
The catechism proposed for the Global Methodist Church is intended to undergird the teaching, preaching, membership preparation, and small groups focused on responsible discipleship that will be normal ways of experiencing life in a Global Methodist congregation.
This catechism sounds like just another document to sit on the shelf somewhere, doesn’t it?
That is certainly possible, but one of the organizational dynamics undergirding the launch of The Global Methodist Church is the expectation that most of its members will also be involved in a small discipleship group within the larger congregation, led by a trained facilitator, so that members can pray for one another, study the Scriptures together, participate in the mission of the church, and, as early Methodists expressed it, “watch over one another in love.” This is part of what “responsible discipleship” looks like.
Which are you looking for?
The United Methodist Church is what sociologists of religion call a “lower-expectation organization.” You can be a member largely on your own terms. Participate when and how you want. Pray if and when you want. Believe pretty much whatever you want. The mission of the denomination, “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is largely hypothetical and aspirational. Members can participate if they want, even if the meaning of “disciple of Jesus Christ” and “transformation” are pretty much left up to the individual. In my opinion, this leads to a lot of motion, but not much action. We focus on processes rather than outcomes. The question of whether we are effective in actually carrying out our mission is rarely asked because we have no agreement on what it means, how we accomplish it, or how we will know if we are making progress.
The Global Methodist Church is launching as a “higher-expectation organization.”
All who want to “worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly” are welcome. The focus on teaching, knowing, promoting, and celebrating the broad traditional understanding of the Christian faith as summarized in the ecumenical creeds of the Church as well as solid grounding in the Christian Scriptures provides the practical preparation for making a positive impact in the lives of the church members and the communities and world in which they find themselves.
This shift for United Methodist congregations that affiliate with the Global Methodist Church will likely be a bit surprising, maybe even shocking, for some. For others it will be like an answer to their prayers. For all it is intended to be a significant, though manageable, change of congregational culture.
But for individual Methodists who are considering their denominational home for the future, we will want to consider this: Do we prefer the lower-expectations of the United Methodist Church or the higher-expectations of responsible discipleship in the Global Methodist Church? One is likely more comfortable for its members. The other is likely more effective in fulfilling its mission.
To which is the Lord leading you?