Monday, October 31, 2022

Why Christianity is More Naturally Suited for Connection Rather Than Independence

In all the talk about disaffiliation within The United Methodist Church, many of the congregations that have left, have chosen independence rather than to be part of the Global Methodist Church or some other denomination.  

As an elder (and district superintendent) committed to The United Methodist Church, I realize that I am biased, but I consider the bid for independence to be more about self-preservation and less about understanding John Wesley's calling to see "the world as my parish."

Independence is attractive.  Leaving behind accountability is often more efficient in the short run but can have unforeseen consequences in the long run.

When I was in seminary at Candler, my wife Sheryl and I lived in Emory's married student housing on campus.  She commuted to work with the spouse of a med school student there and quickly discovered that this couple went to an independent non-denominational church in Atlanta.  

As they had about an hour commute through traffic each day, Sheryl quickly found out that this church was pretty conservative theologically.  In fact, their doctrine was that if you did not attend their church, you were going to Hell.   You would think that a couple paying money for school so that one of them could become a pastor might be an exception to the rule, but you would be wrong!

So, Sheryl, not one to be cowed, started asking her ride share about various people that were considered damned.  Finally, she played the one card she thought would make this woman reconsider.

"What about Mother Teresa?  Do you think she's going to Hell?"

"Well, she doesn't go to our church..."

The sheer spiritual audacity of such a statement seems bizarre to most who hear this story.  How would one possibly get to this position?

I would say lack of accountability.  When a church is independent, the lack of oversight can be apparent if a charismatic figure begins to lead a church away from its roots.

The math of such a position also doesn't add up.  A church that is independent can only reach a certain number of people within its zip code.  I recognize that with online worship and community, there are exceptions, but for the most part, churches impact the people within driving range.  

For the instance above, this church could only bring salvation to the people that were willing to attend, which in their own eyes meant that the majority of the world's population would burn in eternity.  What about all the poor souls born outside of Atlanta?

I grew up at Boston Avenue UMC
and was blessed with a large staff
of clergy which came from many
different United Methodist Churches.
An independent church has staff including pastors that likely come from all over.  They have migrated to this independent church and have found life through being employed there.  Within United Methodism, this is also true of our large churches in that appointments are made to this church from all around the conference.  The difference is that United Methodist congregations pay apportionments which help to lift up churches in other parts of their conference as well as other parts of the world.  

Part of these apportionments support accountability staff such as bishops and district superintendents, which provide for small, medium and large churches alike.  We support missionaries as well as disaster response around the globe.  Part of our apportionments support scholarships for United Methodist seminaries which train future pastors.  Apportionments support equitable compensation for when a smaller congregation has hit a rough patch.  They support monies for new church starts which help to share the good news with corners of our area that we have yet to reach.  And because these smaller churches are supported, they are more likely to reach one in their community who will eventually end up on the staff of a larger church.  Everybody comes from somewhere!

Now, a large church in an urban area could easily say, "Because of our size, prestige and salary support, we will easily be able to attract the kind of talent from other churches that will allow us to thrive into the future."

This is likely a true statement.  But if a church has thrown off connectionalism in favor of independence, they are not helping those other churches thrive.  When this becomes the case, the independent church has actually become predatory.  

They are only taking from the Body of Christ rather than building it up by being in connection around the world.   

The great commissioning at the end of Matthew's gospel reminds us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  

I can't see how going independent allows a church to further achieve this over being in a connection.

When you ask a Christian who has gone independent how they could make a difference to someone living outside their area, they may be forced to answer, "Well, they don't go to our church..."

As I said above, I am biased.  But I am biased because I have been nurtured in the United Methodist connection.  This connection has reminded me countless times of the great commandment of Jesus to love God with all I am and to love my neighbor as I love myself.  Being in a church helps us to do the former well.  Being in a connection of churches helps us with the latter in a way that an independent church can't accomplish.

May God continue to bless The United Methodist Church as we see the world as our parish!

Photo by Ed Schipul via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

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