A United Methodist lay woman recently shared a story with me about her experiences in the church. She discovered after many decades in the church that something had been missing from her faith experience. I’ll share her words directly:
As a life long Methodist, I have struggled with “something is missing.” However, being extremely loyal to the Methodist Church I had not seriously questioned any deficiencies. However, I went through a series of events that left me at rock bottom, and with a very strong urge to understand what was missing/what went wrong. I recently read Donald Haynes On the Threshold of Grace and he gave this take on Methodism that spoke to what I was feeling and has rocked my world; the title of the section is “From a ‘conversion theology’ to ‘gradualism’”; immediately prior to this he dealt with Wesley’s encounter with Bohler and Aldersgate: “Actually a different faith journey began in Methodism as long ago as the 1880′s. Methodist Sunday School literature began to emphasize the stories of the Old and New Testament and almost censored any references to the Cross and experential conversion. The philosophy of the religious education movement replaced conversion with ‘gradualism’.”
The concept of “almost censored” hit me hard–that is what I experienced growing up in the Methodist Church in the 1960′s. Experential conversion was a definite “no-no”. The crucifixion was “there” but never addressed head on. We always went from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Resurrection of Easter. For me, Good Friday remained something of a mystery. Finally in the mid- 1990′s we had a pastor who introduced the Tennebrae service and that was my first experience of going through the crucifrixion of Good Friday to get to Easter–it made a huge difference. It was during his tenure that I got to the point of “Jesus did die for our sins”–this is after a lifetime in the church! I was in my early 40′s! Unfortunately, before I could internalize all that, we had a change in pastors that was absolutely disastous for me and the wheels started coming off.
I am at the point I am tired of “gradualism” and randomness in my faith walk. I actually believed I was on a “path somewhere”–I was, but it certainly was not where I expected. After reading Haynes’ summation of “what went wrong” with the church, it feels like I was destined for a “crash and burn”: “While the church is God’s mission to the world, we err to see it as an end in itself. The sad mistake of the 20th century was to develop a sophisitcated ‘church-ianity’ that was not synonymous with ‘Christianity. We developed ‘churchmanship’ (male and female) rather than discipleship. We assimilated new members by placing them on finance committees and program teams when they were babes in Christ looking for soul nourishment.”
Haynes’ book was not the first thing I have read about “what’s wrong with the UMC,” his mode of expression spoke to me on a personal level. I am the living walking proof “gradualism” is not the way to go. I also suspect, reflecting back prior to the “crash and burn” that is why people just “wander away”– they get stalled in their faith walk.