Mission, Movement, and Church

At our Cabinet retreat Professor Ted Campbell offered some fascinating insight on the relationship between being a religious movement and an established church.  Dr. Campbell reminded us that the original mission of the Methodist movement from the General Minutes was (is?): “Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nations, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”  At the 1784 Christmas Conference establishing the Methodist Episcopal Church in America the phrase was changed slightly.  “To reform the Continent, and to spread scripture Holiness over these Lands.”

He (Professor Campbell) shared that religious movements typically 1) have a strong, cohesive sense of distinctive vocation or mission typically enunciated by charismatic leaders, often oriented around reform of existing religious institutions; 2) have separate structures from those existing religious institutions (not necessarily opposed to them, but at least in addition to them) designed to fulfill the group’s calling or mission; 3) exhibit fluidity, mobility, “liability” (by
liability he wasn’t referring to the laity  but the ability to be molded to fit situations); and 4) they are not tied to existing, static structures (a typically “outward and visible” sign” of a religious movement according to Dr. Campbell was  “their lack of significant [valuable] property.)”

There is more, much more to his fascinating contrast of movements and the established church, but I found myself stuck on the concept of having a strong and distinctive sense of their mission.  I heard echoes of Tom Locke’s (President of the Texas Methodist Foundation) phrase that he was “sold out on the concept of purpose” or mission.  I’m sold out on mission or purpose.  The Conference is to “energize and equip churches.”  Churches are to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

To movement and mission add the concept of established church as a positive (not a negative!).  Campbell pointed out how quickly an established ecclesiastical structure was added to the missional movement of early Methodism in America.  The established structure involved (involves) ordained ministers, the Superintendency (bishops and presiding elders/DS), and the Sunday Service (a regular style of worship – added as early as 1792).  The constitution with restrictive rules and a delegated general conference was added in 1808.

We (the United Methodist Church) are a mixed culture of movement and church.  The crucial issue is to keep the mission (in Locke’s term “purpose”) at the forefront.  So convicted of this truth were the early Methodists that the early Discipline ruled out “fine structures.” Francis Asbury was against having steeples.  The mission took precedent over property!

One of our core strategies is to engage and develop Wesleyan spirituality and theology.  We need to go back to the future.  We are (and should be!) a mix of movement and church focused on mission.

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