Editor’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series. See the previous column here.
“I was born a Christian, I guess. Or born into a Christian family. And then I was born again. That’s the way we did things.”
My imaginary therapist had asked about my background, trying to get at the roots of the conflict in my relationship with the United Methodist Church.
But I’m a bit uncomfortable. She’s changed the layout of her office since our first visit. The walls are still the color of organic yogurt with the same dark-framed pictures of ducks taking flight off misty ponds. But she’s pushed her desk back at an angle and moved her high-backed chair behind it.
She’s adopted a new demeanor as well: the same kind of forced friendliness you see in church greeters. I wonder if she’s been to evangelism training lately.
“Well, like I said, when I was a kid, my church was a church. I mean, of course it was a church.”
Her dress is different, too, the ultra-professional attire having given way to khaki pants and a denim shirt.
“Slow down,” the therapist says. “Look around. Doesn’t this look like a safe and comfortable place? Don’t you feel at home here?”
The answer is no. Not even close. If I’d wanted a comfortable place to be myself, I’d have gone to Starbucks. I was here for diagnosis and treatment, not an episode of Friends.
“Would you like some coffee?” she says.
Becoming a Methodist
When it comes to religion, I married up.
The church I grew up in was the denominational equivalent of a mobile home: It had a decent foundation with limited floor space inhabited by wonderful salt-of-the-earth folks, but it was always one tornado away from annihilation. Our space in the Bible Belt landscape was cozy, if Spartan.
When I joined the UMC, I assumed I was just moving into a new space. United Methodist theology, as I understood it, was perfectly compatible with what I’d been taught all my life. I was keeping the same spiritual identity, only in a more lavish neighborhood. I viewed the transition as a simple matter of adjusting to someone else’s floor plan and furniture arrangement.
That illusion lasted until my first semester in seminary. A week into the class, I was overwhelmed by the labyrinthine inner workings of the UMC.
I began to understand that the church was defined by something called “connection,” which urged submission to a certain set of spoken and unspoken rules. I had to deal with charge-conference structure, rights and privileges of the various classes of clergy (depending, of course, on which version of the Book of Discipline was in play), and of course, the Process that led to the golden crown of ordination.
By midterm, the cottage I thought I would occupy with my ecclesial bride had morphed into a kind of Windsor Castle, a megalithic expanse of pre-determined roles and rules, with guards posted at every door.
Over time, I learned to navigate the maze of the United Methodist castle with a fair amount of skill. Thanks to a few informal mentors, a handful of books and more exposure (which—I might add—you can die from), I developed the ability to live in the organization structure and political framework of my church without too much anxiety.
But I still wondered: How did we Americans construct such a monstrous castle from the relatively simple principles of early Methodism?
The answer, I think, begins with the understanding that the spatial arose from the spiritual. The immediate heirs to the Wesleys’ legacy created a church that suited the infant United States to perfection. They organized into conferences and met regularly to combat the fierce isolation of their callings and preserve a collective identity.
Over the next 200 years, each generation of Methodists built onto (and on occasion, demolished) the space they inherited. Major construction followed the pattern of culture, fracturing along with society, making amends in times of peace. At times, God was the consuming fire of Pentecost, sweeping across the land with revival fervor. At other times, God was the Rock of Salvation, the ultimate constant in a fast-changing world.
The Methodists built their church to reflect the life that God had infused into the space they occupied. But the spatial also shapes our experience of the spiritual, sometimes blinding us to what is right in front of our faces.
Those of us who are most entrenched in the culture of the United Methodist Church have a hard time thinking outside the castle. The space we’ve occupied for so long has had a deep impact on our ability to see the spiritual.
We have a heavy investment in the castle. We are compelled to protect that investment, which means maximizing stability and minimizing risks. The result is a gorgeous, well-maintained castle that is on its way to being a museum—or worse, a mausoleum.
As numbers and resources dwindle, small congregations can become strict isolationists. Annual conferences and general agencies address the dearth of young adults in the UMC by touting its heritage, a tactic that bores to tears the very people they hope to attract. Restoration movements (usually called “renewal”) sound the trumpet for Methodists to rise and march—back into the castle.
No longer safe
Here’s the really scary thing: Even the loftiest castle is no longer a safe place to hide in time of warfare. The advent of the black-powder cannon meant that armies could batter fortresses from a distance, bringing down walls of defense with minimal risk to their own soldiers. As the castle walls shattered, so did the illusions of safety.
No matter how deep we go into the Methodist castle, we will not be safe from the forces at work outside our walls. The more we look to preserve the past, the longer we delay creative change in our approach to the world around us and the further we will fade from relevance to our culture and usefulness to our Lord.
We have to get out of the castle we live in if we want to stay alive.
“All I did was rearrange my office,” the therapist says. “But the changes seem to have set you on edge and produced a rather lengthy meditation on space and spirituality.”
“Just give me the coffee,” I say.
“I just don’t understand,” she persists. “Can you explain it to me?”
“Tinkering with space is something my church does all the time,” I say. “They change the space to be more welcoming—or so they think—especially for us young adults. Then they scratch their heads as to why we don’t respond they way they’d hoped.”
“Moving into the castle,” I say. “Loving the castle. Promising never to change the castle.” With a deep sigh, I continued. “You know what I wish?”
“I wish that my church and I could collaborate on some new space together. I wish we could find a way to set aside our own agendas and mistrust and build something that better suits us all—and the world around us.”
“Sounds like something we need to talk about further, perhaps in one of our next sessions.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Let’s do.”
The Rev. Van Meter is campus minister for the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Ark. This is an excerpt from his unpublished book manuscript. The full text of this piece is available atEric's blog.