“Too big to fail.”
A few years ago – and it doesn’t matter what your personal political opinion was on the government bailout of American automakers – this phrase rang repeatedly in American consciousness.
These businesses were too big to fail. We couldn’t afford to lose them, no matter the cost. They were essential to our identity and our economic well-being. Of course, the argument itself was faulty. Since when do the merits of saving something – or attempting to save something – rest solely on its size? Nonetheless, Americans were pressured to act with these four words. Too big to fail.
It’s an interesting concept – too big to fail. What about the church? Can a Christian denomination ever be too big to fail?
Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church had immense power and wealth stored up – in the year 1516. The year before a monk hammered a long notice into some wooden doors.
(That’d be Martin Luther.)
And I’ve wondered if a similar sentiment is present behind increasingly urgent calls for unity within the United Methodist Church – that the denomination is too big to fail. It’s certainly been part of the fabric of North American life for a couple of centuries (going back to its origins on this continent, and not just to its most recent incarnation since The Merger of ’68). Before the locomotive connected sea to shining sea, there were Methodists. Before Wilbur and Orville Wright, there were Methodists. Before the stock market crash of ’29, there were Methodists. Before Neil Armstrong left a boot print in lunar dust, there were Methodists. Before the World Wide Web, there were Methodists.
The Main Street Methodist church has an almost Rockwell quality to it, like Woolworth’s used to. And all of these industrious Methodists sent missionaries around the world, and now it’s a global denomination, too, and has been, for years. But even if Methodists are the apple pie on the American religious potluck table – are they too big to fail?
Have we fallen prey to the idea that others can’t do without us? After all, the world – not to mention the Kingdom of God – will continue, UMC or no UMC. It would be egocentric in the extreme to suggest otherwise.
But it is my belief that the Methodist movement has value in the family tree of the faith. And Methodism was a movement, before any Main Street churches ever became a fixture in thousands of communities in our country. After all, John Wesley never set out to create a denomination; he was a Church of England lad, if not quite a proper one.
In fact, Methodism almost had the feel of a religious order in its infancy – the kind that St. Benedict or St. Francis set up within the Roman Catholic Church. There was a strict rule of life (have you read those questions early Methodists had to ask each other regularly?!), and Methodism was a sect in the context of a larger body of believers (originally, the Church of England).
And if the roots of Methodism do have the feel of a religious order, how might that affect how we understand our identity today?
The Methodist movement, as it grew, was an expression of a calling that all were invited to, but few were likely to be interested in.
Wesley organized the movement to maintain a high expectation of lifestyle among members. Methodists served anybody, kept little, and went anywhere. They were teased – or criticized – or violently chased – for always being preoccupied with preaching, the Bible, and prayer (though perhaps less teased for their regular care for the poor and the imprisoned and ill).
Taken together, it’s almost a description of a Protestant monastic order that intersected with public life: a religious order for that beloved Protestant cry, the priesthood of all believers.
This Methodist movement didn’t start out too big to fail – only, perhaps, too eccentric to last. And certainly not mainline.
No historical or cultural expression of the Body of Christ is too big to fail – though it may be too big to survive. And that’s alright. If we perceive ourselves as too big to fail, then we’ve actually already failed – at least in our sense of prevenient grace, and in the awareness of our roots as an odd Protestant religious order.
All I know is, I’m more interested in taking part in the Methodist movement than I am in being a member of a certain denomination.
Which I think Wesley would’ve understood all too well.