One of the things that I have always appreciated about Wesleyan Evangelicals is that they have always resisted the alternating social quietism and tunnel vision to which their fundamentalist brethren are tempted. While there are tensions in the Wesleyan tradition as to where to place the emphasis between winning souls and offering material ministries to the poor and oppressed. It has always been a mark of Wesleyanism, whether conservative or progressive, that one cannot set aside the social dimension of the Gospel.
Recent discussions, however, have challenged this claim. In discussions about unity in the Church, some Wesleyans have begun to treat our commonality in social ministries as only “superficial unity” or perhaps not even worthy of the word “unity.” Note: what I am most worried about here is not simply the claim that the importance of common social ministries to the poor, etc. in the church is overridden by the divisiveness of our position on homosexuality (which I do take to be wrongheaded on its own). What concerns me the most is that some have, in the heat of the argument, begun to write off our social ministries as a real ground for unity at all.
So, let’s look at some of what I am talking about. (If you are familiar with these ministries, skip down to past the numbered section).
1) Since 2008, the Church’s mission Imagine No Malaria has raised $68 million in cash, pledges and commitments. It is one of the largest non-Governmental contributors to the Global Fund to The United Methodist Church. Its Nothing But Nets campaign has engaged United Methodists across the United States. In 2015 alone, over 1.2 million people benefited from the programs. And Imagine No Malaria has contributed to cutting in half the number of malaria deaths in the past decade.
3) In 2015 UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief celebrated its 75th anniversary. It is run on donations, primarily from the One Great Hour of Sharing which is organized across the United Methodist Connexion. This allows UMCOR to avoid the advertising expenses of similar groups like Catholic Charities and the Red Cross, so that donations can go straight to the ministry of the organization. UMCOR has served vitally in over 100 countries across the globe, and has served a central role in responding to natural disasters in the United States.
4) The 2016 General Conference commissioned 29 new missionaries for the Church. These missionaries will join the other 350 United Methodist missionaries across the globe who develop churches, serve as chaplains, help develop farming, teach, administrate, and offer health care. In addition, the Church sponsors Global Mission Fellows (the United Methodist parallel of Americorps), Global Justice Volunteers, and Mission Volunteers for shorter terms. The programs allow members across our connexion to participate directly in our global ministries beyond their local churches.
5) The United Methodist Church is currently associated with 119 undergraduate schools in the united states. This grows out of the call in the 1800s for all annual conferences to build their own colleges to make good on Wesleyan aim of joining knowledge and vital piety. Many of these schools have gone on to do the yeoman’s work in opening higher education to first generation students. The Church also has 13 schools of theology in the United States, including some of the best in the nation and Duke. Beyond this the Church relates to over 700 different educational institutions globally, including Africa University, which has become a powerful institution in the rise of United Methodism in Africa.
Ok, those examples only scratch the surface of what we do together. But hopefully they do start to fill out a picture of a Church which is not only doing something together, but reaching out in vital ministries together.
So, what should this count for? Well, such common ministries may not be sufficient for establishing Church unity. But if you don’t see how they get us a great deal of the way there, I am willing to say that you are not very Wesleyan at all.
First, these are not simple things we do. They are ways of living the Gospel together. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus suggests that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The Connexion of the United Methodist Church allows us to reach out to the least of these (which includes ourselves) on scales that no individual church can dream. Through these ministries, through our unity in these ministries, we come to approximate the Kingdom of God on a scale that no non-denominational conglomerate can. One imagines the believer, on the day of the judgment of nations, explaining to God that she or he thought that saving God from a death at the hands of malaria was really superficial to the kind of unity in the church he or she was looking for.
Second, it is particularly true that as United Methodists our social ministry to the poor and oppressed can be played off against our common beliefs. The practice of social ministry to the poor and oppressed is central to Wesleyan orthodoxy. Wesley famously claimed that there is no holiness but social holiness. Feeding and clothing those in need, and seeking justice are two of the means of grace. Our ministries with the poor and oppressed ought properly to be seen in the Church as a means of grace through which the Church as a whole is invigorated by the work of God. Further, our corporate ministries as a church are one key part of the central concept of our polity: connexionalism. To treat our shared social ministries as superficial is heretical for a Wesleyan.
In fact, I would suggest that our connexional ministries are THE ONLY ministries that can be offered as distinctive to the unity of the United Methodist Church. Any non-denominational church can offer you a Wesleyan theology and an open communion table. If you are only after strict adherence to a set of beliefs, it would be much easier to find yourself a small community of like minded people and worship together without all the committees, conferences, and Global Boards. But is only the connexion that can offer a way to live that theology out globally in the way that we do.
Now, before anyone gets too hot and bothered, let me answer my original question. Is what we do together sufficient for Church unity? No. I don’t think it is. It is, as one would say in philosophy, necessary but not sufficient. In addition to it we need a common core of theology, liturgy, etc. which I believe we also have. But that is an argument for another day.
At the very least, today what I want to do is to get us to stop being so un-wesleyan in the way that we treat our common social ministries. I do not mean to claim that we are the only ones who do such ministries, or that we are the best at them (though there are some areas where we are the only ones, and some areas where we are the best). All I am claiming here is that are common social ministries are important. What we do together is not superficial. It is not unsubstantial. It is not insignificant for the unity of our Church. And, whatever the significance of our disagreements about homosexuality, we should stop killing our own tradition by minimizing the significance of what certainly does contribute to our substantial unity.