BY BISHOP DAVID ROLLER
More than 150 years ago, a ragtag group of seriously put-out church people organized themselves as the Free Methodist Church.
The rugged pioneer spirit of the early American Methodists had morphed into the comfortable life of the middle class, and our founders refused to accept that the church should also morph into the comforts of sloppy discipleship. They refused to accept the class and race distinctions that divided this new world. They refused to accept the worldliness of ministers who had lost their saltiness. They demanded that the church be more open than a club and insist on much more than a club. Because they were put-out, they were put out.
They decided to walk together, to submit to each other and join forces for their common goal. They found a good place to stand between “Free” and “Methodist” — an interesting juxtaposition that balanced the Methodist intent to disciple every believer with the spunk and expectation that they could and would deliver the whole gospel to every man and woman, regardless of station, race or class.How are we doing now, 151 years later?
Let’s start with the assumption that we’re trying to grow. For much of our history, however, growing was not the goal. Staying pure from the stains of the world was the goal. The sign of “God among us” was that we were a peculiar people. In fact, often the assumption was not many would join us on the narrow road.
Free Methodists have always believed in an activated holiness not a hidden holiness.
But at some point, the church growth movement overwhelmed us with techniques and theories that applied scientific method and American optimism. “Growing” and “planting” became part of our lexicon, and sometimes became the goal — the sign of God among us.
Our goal should be signs of God among us, not growth per se, but being a worthy branch of His people, living to bring Him pleasure and to bring others back into His embrace. Our goal includes being God’s kind of people and doing what God’s kind of people do.
We are growing — compared to ourselves, compared to U.S. growth curves and compared to other denominations. The Free Methodist Church — USA has seen steady, consistent growth from 2005 on, with an exceptional surge of 2.2 percent in 2010. On any given Sunday, FM churches worship in 27 languages. Women comprise 12 percent of our elders and deacons and more than a quarter of conference and local ministerial candidates.
Globally, our story has been incredible. We have nearly doubled our international membership since 2000. We soon will be celebrating 1 million members, only 7 percent of which are in the United States.
There is cause for celebration, but we don’t celebrate because we did better than some other church or because we beat a baseline. We celebrate because in each life represented, Jesus’ wholeness and healing invaded a new disciple.
We should confess that membership, attendance and finances aren’t actually the best things to count.
We’re interested in making disciples, but it’s difficult to measure that kind of holistic endeavor. We don’t really know how we’re doing in things like marriages saved, addictions broken, relationships restored, justice attained, creation husbanded and the kingdom elevated through ministry partnerships. Be encouraged, church. We can’t yet measure all we’d like to, but measurable areas are showing fruit.
But let’s not get carried away with our celebration. How do we report a “victory” of 2.2 percent to Jesus? We can’t. We are obligated to keep leading the church into the brokenness with the message of the resurrection.
DEEP AND WIDE
A large class in American Christianity carries this basic assumption: The pastor does the work of the church and we attend services. These people want spiritual content in their lives. They are hungry for community and love Jesus, but they see themselves as receptors, not as contributors.
Against this lay-clergy divide, the Free Methodist Church sings a different song, the simple chorus “Deep and Wide.” To reach their potential, FMministers must broaden the base of those in ministry (width) and deepen those in ministry (depth).
Church laity has been reduced to mere representation on boards and committees. That wasn’t what lay involvement was originally about in the FMC. Laypeople served on boards because they were leading and planting churches and living exemplary lives of holiness. It wasn’t so much a system of checks and balances as it was recognition that the vibrancy of Methodism has always resided in an activated laity. The FMC champions the ministry of the laity.
ONE IN THE SPIRIT
We see a great deal of suspicion toward denominations today. Fed by the well-earned American distrust of power, many believe the only good church is local church, and communities are where the church plays out.
But the urge to shun denominations is a manifestation of the same urge that built the Tower of Babel. It’s a desire to make a name for oneself. In an age where everyone wants to be a title and no one wants to be a footnote, it’s countercultural to submit to a larger group of believers.
Free Methodists believe that one of the key evidences of God among us is our unity, our ability to sacrifice and celebrate for others, sometimes others we don’t even know.
Denomination can elevate the trajectory of a local church and hold us all to a higher standard. It is the laboratory for demonstrating that we are one in the Spirit, even as we are many across this country.
JESUS LOVES THE LITTLE CHILDREN
Everybody believes that God loves them, just as we believe that God loves us, but we Christians are different. We believe: Act like God loves them through us. Free Methodists have always believed in an activated holiness, not a hidden holiness.
This is a good time to remind ourselves not just where we’ve been, but where our founders were going. “Push on,” they would say, to “maintain the scriptural standard of Christianity and to preach the gospel to the poor.
”We sing: “Jesus Loves the Little Children” — little children who are little and little children who’ve grown old and stale; little children with turbans on their heads or rainbows on their T-shirts; little children in a Lexus with a Darwin bumper sticker.
Free Methodists see everyone as that lovely child — hopeful, with a whole world of opportunity and health before them. Jesus loves the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, gay and straight, Muslim and Jew, legal and illegal, friendly and dangerous, perfumed and smelling like vomit … they are precious in His sight.
These are the songs of the redeemed. Let’s sing them with joy.0