Early in my ministry, I was more rigid in my beliefs about church and belonging. I remember getting requests for baptisms from folks who really were not looking to be part of our church. They had perhaps grown up in the church and moved away, or did not really have a church connection but their parents or grandparents did and wanted me to baptize the baby, and oh yes, they would like to hold the ceremony in their home or after worship. My answer was most always “no.” I had my theological rationale and it was solid: Baptism is initiation into the Christian faith. The parents and the congregation take serious vows about who we will be and how we will live. Baptism is more than a rite of passage—it is about stepping into community. And if people weren’t signed up for all of that, then they were missing the meaning of baptism.
My attitude has since changed. I did some hard work thinking about God’s intent for people. I listened more deeply to the unspoken yearning underneath this request for baptism, and I recognized that reaching an increasingly unchurched generation was going to require more of a missionary mindset. So one day, after yet another request, I thought to myself: Well, Cindy, you can keep maintaining a wall that people have to climb over and fully say I am “in,” or you can tear down the wall and let people taste and see the living water of Jesus however they come, and trust that the goodness, beauty, and joy they experience will be enough to keep drawing them in. If baptism really is God’s “yes” to us—we are loved, we are blessed, we belong—then who am I to put up roadblocks? Instead, let’s create such a beautiful experience and path to God that baptism becomes the beginning of a new life in Christ even if some people don’t fully know it yet!
When Jesus came on the scene, there was something about him that drew people to him. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, sought him out at night. He was intrigued but did not want the other Pharisees to know he was curious about this Jesus. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, climbed a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. A woman who had a hemorrhage for many years wanted to touch Jesus’ robe because she knew she would find healing there. Crowds flocked to Jesus because they saw in him something they were hungry for. They were not sure exactly what it was, or what it meant when he said, “Come, follow me,” but they knew they wanted it.
I came across an article that talked about church using two metaphors. One was a farmer who had a ranch and wanted to keep his animals there, so he built a fence. The fence created a clear boundary delineating who belonged and who did not. The other was a rancher who had such a large ranch that he could not possibly build a fence, so he built a well, trusting that the cattle would not go too far from that which sustains their life.
I think Jesus took the well approach in inviting people into the kingdom. He drew such a compelling picture of kingdom life and gave them a taste of that kingdom life, and it drew people in. They wanted more. “Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them. For such belongs the kingdom of God.”
Whoever was moving toward this kingdom life, no matter their starting point, was welcomed in. Contrast that with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were all about maintaining the purity codes and laws that defined whether you were in or out. Jesus often criticized them for it; they were missing the point of God’s great love.
So our beloved United Methodist Church is in the midst of birthing something new. Over the many years of our life, we have collected a fair amount of rules about how we should live and act. It is called our Book of Discipline. Back in the early days of Methodism, it was a fairly slim volume. We had three basic rules: do good, do no harm by avoiding evil, and keep the ordinances of God. Now we have paragraphs and paragraphs of how to order the life of the church and the standards for clergy and the principles by which we will live in the world. It is not all bad, but it does seem like too much. It is hard to maintain so many fences and guardrails. I keep wondering: What are we trying to protect?
I wonder if, in this season of the church, God is inviting us to bust it all open. To build some wells, or perhaps more accurately, to trust that Jesus is the well—the living water and the bread of life—and that is enough. Put Jesus at the center of our churches. Help people taste and see the amazing grace and goodness of God. Trust that grace will create a desire in people to want to move closer to Jesus and that, together, as we gather at the well of life, we will discover a new kingdom reality.
Some say it’s the responsibility of the delegates to General Conference to determine the future of The United Methodist Church. I pray that their hearts and minds will be open, that they remember how it is they first experienced the unconditional love of God, and that it shapes their deliberation. But I do not believe they hold all the power.
I think this Sunday and next, and wherever the people called Methodist gather, we are the church, and we can throw open our doors, help people see in us what love is all about, and offer grace in such a way that people say: That is so good. Who is this Jesus? I want more! I want to be a part of the abundant life movement that this Jesus came to bring,
That is the kind of church I long to be part of and am committing to lead. How about you?
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church