By Linda Green
SRINGMAID BEACH, S.C. (UMNS) - The president of the bishops of The United Methodist Church is calling on the denomination to reclaim its heritage as a Christian movement.
Bishop Janice Riggle Huie told her colleagues on the Council of Bishops that the church "must be led more by a clear vision and mission than by rules and regulations" in order to make disciples for the transformation of the world.
In her April 30 address, Huie said John and Charles Wesley's Methodist movement began by ministering to people with no economic, religious or political power and helping them become what God intended. "They made Christian faith simple and practical," she said.
The denomination's membership is growing throughout the world but shrinking in the United States at a time when 50 percent of the U.S. population has no ongoing relationship with a faith community. There are almost 14 million members in 50 countries, including almost 8 million in the United States. Much of the growth has been in Africa.
Huie reflected on the energy and excitement she has witnessed in the people of Africa and other parts of the world working to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
"There is a movement of God's spirit that is transforming the world and we are witnesses to it, and you and I are blessed by it in this community of faith called The United Methodist Church," she said.
Church in 21st century
Huie's vision of the church in the 21st century is one "that is guided by more movement than by institution" and offers a holistic vision of salvation: body, mind and spirit.
Noting that movements are not easy but are "downright chaotic and messy," she said they often begin with a few people on the margins of culture rather than from the centers of power and authority. The message of a movement is to change the way that things are in the dominant culture, Huie said.
"The United Methodist movement invites belief in Jesus Christ over the cultural gods, the practice of forgiveness over hate, peace over violence, a better life over poverty, health over sickness."
The invitation or vision for a United Methodist movement begins with a few people who - through prayer, study, worship, holy conversation, justice and mercy - reach out to others and make connections so that, "finally, the body of Christ starts to move, together."
Historically, Methodists were known for their ability to move and empower ordinary people to express their faith and were called "the church moved with the spirit."
Referring to a description by Methodism historian Nathan Hatch, Huie said early Methodists were "nimble." While the church had four ministers and 300 lay people early in American Methodism, nearly one in five Americans were associated with Methodism by 1850, making Methodists the most extensive national institution other than the federal government.
By the 1960s, the church was identified by its institutions and agencies rather than the prompting of the Holy Spirit, as its founders were. The institutions "brought permanence and stability" to a world that had engaged in two wars in a half century, she said.
"Functioning like mighty, well-oiled machines, they were created to endure, to order the church and to offer Christ's ministry forever," she said, noting that agencies remain today that benefit the church and world because of their emphasis on health, education, mission and ministry to the poor.
Ordained as a United Methodist deacon 37 years ago, Huie said she rarely has "experienced" a United Methodist church or seen the denomination in the United States with a sense of mission and vision that galvanized people into a movement. "I have never been a part of a church in the U.S. which was making more new United Methodist disciples of Jesus Christ than it lost in the previous year," she said.
Hie said the platforms that helped launch the church's movement in the 19th and 20th centuries should be used as the foundations for today's new initiatives.
"I don't know about you, but I'm ready to loosen up a little. I'm ready to move. I'm ready to follow Jesus. I am ready for The United Methodist Church to rise up and dance before the Lord. I'm ready for The United Methodist Church to step forward into God's reign on earth as it is in heaven. I believe this Council of Bishops is ready to lead that movement."
Saying movement already is happening across Africa and the Philippines, she said the Methodist "DNA" is one of radical hospitality, passionate worship and extravagant generosity in responding to God.
"Sometimes it is as though I am - to paraphrase (poet) T.S. Elliot - arriving at the place where we first started and to know the place for the first time," Huie said.
She praised the church's work to partner with other organizations to combat malaria in Africa and its response to the bishops seven "pathways" to reshape the way the church carries out its mission and ministry. Such efforts, she said, are getting the church moving again.
"It is the sound of collaboration and communication. We feel it in our own conferences - a new spirit welling up from the grassroots of the church, 'Move on out, church. Get going!'"
Huie said the bishops should be leaders in the journey. "The task of this council is to lead that movement of God. It is our task to lead the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," she said.