Handling New People

I’m working my way through Samuel P. Huntington’s latest book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. Chapter 8 deals with the challenge large scale immigration poses for modern industrialized nations. Huntington identifies three possible responses to the challenge. Nations can restrict immigration, allow immigration but work to assimilate newcomers, or allow immigration and make little effort at assimilation.

This is an important issue not merley for the USA, but is also analogous to the church. We have a mission from Jesus to make disciples of all nations – to help people come to know Jesus. If we have people in our communities that do not know Jesus or who are not living as part of the Body of Christ, we cannot be comfortable with the numbers we now have, since numbers reporesent people. Out of love for God and people we are compelled to seek to add to our number. Thus it would seem that Huntington’s first option, limiting new people, is ruled out as an explicit strategy for the church. I say “explicit,” because I have seen a large number of churches for whom non-growth has become an implicit strategy. Growth requires work. Growth requires change. Growth, especially in a church, requires that we give up our privileges and include others.

A more commonly chosen option for churches has been bringing in people in. But what do we do with them once they’re here? In many UM churches with which I am acquainted, there has been a history of decline. The membership is aging and it appears that the younger generations – if they go anywhere – are going to Baptist & non-denominational churches. Fear sets in. “Will we survive? Who will maintain the church when we’re gone?” Fear of the loss of our insitutional future leads us to a stance of encouraging growth without assimilation. Assimilation into national citizenship puts demands on would-be citizens. They have to learn a new language and a new culture. They must learn new ways of doing things. They must meet certain requirements or citizenship is denied to them.

But in the church we are often loath to put requirements on people. We need them so much. Our fear leads us to believe that if we put requirements on them – which effective assimilation strategies will always do – they will not come. So when we hear of churches that do require membership classes or similar assimilatory structures, we gasp in dismay. How could they be closed to grace? How could they be so exclusive?

Ever since its beginning the United Methodist Church and its major predecessor denominations have been unclear as to whether we are a church or a parachurch orgranization when it comes to doctrine. The Methodist movement under Wesley was clearly a variety of what we today call a parachurch movement. Though Wesley and the Methodist majority were Anglicans, they were not exclusively so and sought to include people from a variety of eccesial groups and to bless all, individually and as a nation. As a parachurch movement, Wesley was able to look to the doctrine of the Church of England as his doctrine and the background doctrine of the movement, without enforcing a dogmatic conformity on the movement as a whole.

In the US at least, Methodism is no longer a parachurch movement. We cannot look to other churches for our doctrine. In our Articles of Religion and the Sermons of Wesley we have a body of doctrine identified by the Book of Discipline. In the centuries since Wesley, new challenges have arisen to this basic Christian doctrine, not merely from the world outside, but from within the church itself. I believe that one reason this challenge to our doctrine comes from within the church is that in denying or downplaying our doctrinal identity, we have failed to work toward the doctrinal dimensions of assimilating new people, whether they come from outside the church or are our own children. This lack of doctrinal identity led us to the place where normative doctrinal pluralism became our central operational doctrine, though since the 1988 Discipline is has no longer been the official position of the church.

In the place of a doctrinal identity, Methodists have tended to emphasize life and lifestyle. Methodists are measured not by their doctrines but by their holiness. This important aspect of our identity has also broken down in recent generations. Two factors contribute to this break down. First, the belief that doctrine can be divorced from life – that we can choose the latter while being fluid on the former – just doesn’t work. The picture of the Christian life we see in Scripture is rooted in the person and actions of God, especially in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As pictures of Jesus, God, the Kingdom, etc. change, so do pictures of what holiness looks like and ideas of what it consists in.

Second, we have allowed a hyper-nonjudgmentalism to become central in our belief systems. A combination of the Enlightenment traditions of free-thought and radical individualism, have led us to see the Golden Rule as the best expression of Christian morality, and Jesus’ “judge not, lest you be judged” as its most important corollary. When combined wiith a loss of the doctrinal roots of holiness, the result has been a loss of a shared vision of holiness. We now find ourselves in a place where we are reluctant not only to call for people to change their beliefs, but also to change their ways of living.

Just as Huntington sees the centrality of the question of national idenity in our national future, the question of UM – and Christian identity – is central to our future as the church.

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