Identity is huge! Olympians display their identities by their country’s symbols and flags. Children and youth attending new schools or grades establish their unique identities pretty quickly in the ways that that dress or who they choose as friends.
Tattoos speak volumes about identity. Last names carry identity. Red State and Blue State, Republican and Democrat, are labels that carry identities especially in places where you have to register for one party or another. The upcoming college football season will bring out other identifiers like Garnet & Black or Solid Orange.
All this talk of identity has made me think about the identity crisis of the United Methodist Church. It helps me to start with what it used to mean. Having grown up as a Methodist, it meant we were middle to high church in music and worship, loved family night suppers, Vacation Bible School, and were mostly moderate in all matters inside and outside the church. We called our pastors “Mr. _______” more than “Reverend _______.”
There weren’t many “Ms.” or “Mrs.” clergy back then, but it would have been perfectly fine. We were proud to be middle-of-the-roaders. Frankly, what I liked the most about church was light green pistachio-pecan congealed salad and deviled eggs, plus a whole lot of positive vibe. Church gave me hope when my Dad was given 6 months to live when I was 8, and when I had encephalitis and had to relearn how to walk. The church exposed me to faith as a community.
I wonder if you resonate with the way Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame characterizes us:
“We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!
Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other. I do believe this: People, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you can call up when you’re in deep distress.
*If you’re dying, they will comfort you.
*If you are lonely, they’ll talk to you.
*And if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad.
*Methodists believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.
*Methodists like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.
*Methodists believe their pastors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don’t notify them that they are there.
*Methodists usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their away of suffering for their sins.
*Methodists believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate.
*Methodists think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace.
*Methodists drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.
*Methodists feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.
*Methodists are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at the church.
*Methodists still serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color of the season and think that peas in a tuna casserole adds too much color.
*Methodists believe that it is OK to poke fun at themselves and never take themselves too seriously.
+ You know you are a Methodist when: it’s 100 degrees, with 90% humidity, and you still have coffee after the service.
+ You hear something funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can.
+ Donuts are a line item in the church budget, just like coffee.
+ When you watch a Star Wars movie and they say, “May the Force be with you,” and you respond, “and also with you.”
+ And lastly, it takes ten minutes to say good-bye!”
Does our local experience of United Methodism correspond to the macro view of our denomination, or is it the other way around? As much as I have been involved with our denomination at the 30,000 ft. level of general boards and agencies and 6 General Conferences, I am convinced that we are a better denomination when we view the church from the bottom up, not the top down. Everything done at the upper level is far from practical unless it makes the pistachio-pecan salad taste better on the local level.
So, who are we, and who do we want to be? Maybe if we start with answering those questions from the perspective of our thousands of local contexts then we can put to bed some of the things that divide us. What makes your local church unique? Is it having a great choir or sensational band; lively worship and practical sermons; bereavement meals that are unbelievable; an Apple Fest or annual event not to be missed; delectable church meals and scones; social action projects like soup kitchens, ramp ministries, home rehabbing; wonderful support groups of Sunday School Classes, UMW Circles, or UMM; great faithfulness for connectional giving and missions that are both far and near; youth and children’s ministries that excel; a thriving Mother’s Day Out; Bible Studies and/or Disciple; and can’t the list go on and on? In other words, “What makes your church, church?”
My challenge in the impending war over our identity as United Methodists is to let local churches define us more than anyone else. What does our common ethos declare? Let’s name everything that we all love at the local level, then ask what connectionalism looks like from that perspective. Book of Discipline Paragraph 120 sets the tone of what I’m describing as a genuine way forward for the UMC: “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” Paragraphs 132 and 701 are right up there, too. Let’s ask ourselves these questions: “When you recall the church of your youth, what do you remember?” “What do you think will be remembered 30 years from now about your church?” “Are we doing things that are truly memorable and why?” Our answers to these questions will determine the identity of the UMC where it counts in the eyes of God, the world, and our own.