When I was about nineteen, I destroyed a car engine. I was young and despite my father’s warnings and protestations, I was bad about auto maintenance. I went much longer than you should go without changing the engine’s fluids or tuning it up because I’d rather spend the money on having fun with my car rather than making sure the car ran well. Turns out, an internal combustion engine will only put up with so much before it stops itself.
My car stopped itself on I-285 near the Bankhead Road exit just before the I-20 interchange on the west side of Atlanta. The car convulsed, screamed a mechanical death wail, locked up, and I rolled haltingly to a gas station just off the interstate. At that point, it died completely and no amount of turning the key would bring it to life. I called my father who in turn called a guy he knew to have it towed. The car was taken to my cousin’s garage and he told me that I should have changed the oil and the other fluids or at least refilled them about eight thousand miles ago and proceeded to show me a handful of shredded ball bearings that were found in my oil strainer (for those of you not mechanically inclined, that’s bad, really bad).
Engines are systems. They require maintenance and upkeep in order to function properly. The engine systems in my car were not maintained and the system failed, spectacularly and with great wailing and gnashing of gears. The United Methodist Church/Methodist Episcopal Church (regular or South)/Methodist Movement is and has always been a system. We don’t like to think of churches this way because it sounds nicer to say family, fellowship, community, etc. but the truth is, they are all systems when it comes to it. These systems have certain parts to them that keep them running most notably, systems of structure, safety, and sense of purpose.
The system of structure in Methodism is The Discipline. From our infancy, Wesley saw the need for order, a need that will always exist when the two or more that gather to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit become numerous enough to have more than one opinion. The order essentially exists so that there are people to make and enforce the rules. Without it, we devolve into anarchy, chaos, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.
The system of safety that exists in Methodism is connectionalism. Through our connections at the district, annual conference, and general conference levels, we have a safety net that allows us to rely on another for support and encouragement through the most trying of times. We have resources to help one another deal with everything from natural disasters to man-made disasters by our connection to one another through these organizations.
The system that provides a sense of purpose is in our historic mission as part of the greater Church. Like all other churches of the historic faith, we have a general mission that involves leading people into a relationship with God. Our particular expression of the divine ecclesial mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This purpose is the one that is purported to be the driving factor in our system.
The UMC is, despite these wonderful attributes, still a system and systems do certain things. First, all systems are artificial constructs. We can talk about being led by the Spirit and God working behind the scenes but when the rubber meets the road, this is our creation. We may be attempting to have such a creation be an expression of divine leadership and under divine authority but this system (church systems in general for that matter) are systems we made. Second, systems exist for the propagation/promotion of the system. If the system is going to survive it must be promoted as a good system, even the best system by the system itself. Otherwise, why be part of it. Third, systems are self-protective. All systems at some point will begin to defend themselves from threats both within and without. The system will revert back to the second point as a basis for how vigorously it defends itself, even to the point of destroying part of the system to do so. Finally, all systems, like all of the natural world, is subject to entropy. All systems, no matter how well thought out, will fall into disorder naturally because the individual parts fo the system, even with the best of care, will wear out.
Now, back to my adventures in automotive disrepair. When we got to my cousin’s garage and he got the engine apart it became apparent that the damage I had done was far beyond just pulling out a few components and replacing them. My neglect of the engine had left it so badly damaged that the only thing to be done was to completely replace the engine. My cousin told me that by the time he finished with it, it would be like I had a brand-new car.
For years we have been trying to replace and move components around in the UMC engine to keep it running, at this point, the equivalent of my entire life (46 years). We created this system, adding rule after rule to the Discipline to protect this doctrine or that ministry or some agency or another, making it more and more unwieldy. The system did what systems try to do and promoted itself in order to survive but what to promote. There was no clear, concise consistent message getting out to people beyond the system. The system has tried to protect itself by more legislation, more caucuses, more think tank committees and groups but none of them have found a way to get out of the morass that the system has sunk into. And in the process of all this, the system has slowly been losing parts and pieces as people and churches leave to join other systems with their own issues.
And now we have to figure out how much of the engine that we call the UMC needs replacing. Not only that, but we also have to figure out whether the engine we are putting in it goes with the car. A friend of mine responded to this article saying, “…one of the major problems is that the system was designed for an age that is no longer here. You can’t dump a 2019 engine into an ’87 Buick, for example, and get good results.” General Conference 2019 has given us choices but if we look closely each of them is simply an attempt at replacing some of the parts without getting at the guts of the engine. We can no longer pretend that such solutions are going to last for any reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, the church will stay on blocks in the garage, continuing to go nowhere.
What is the better solution, the new engine if you will? I’m not sure. Wiser people than I have tried to come up with it and failed. But I will say this, I believe it has certain components that will be necessary for it to work. First, it will be simpler. Looking at Wesley’s first Book of Discipline and the current one is like looking at a copy of a Dr. Seuss book next to Infinite Jest (if you don’t know it clocks in at around 1100 pages). Second, it will be a smaller scale. The annual conference is about as large an area as I think could reasonable to enforce doctrinal standards with respect to the social and cultural connection. Finally, it will have to embrace a different relationship with the cultural forces in our communities. This last part may drive many of us to be tent-makers again or start house churches in order to practice expressions of a church community that actually meet people where they are.
Let’s just hope when the key is turned, whatever engine is in it, starts and we get back to doing what we were called to do.