At last census, there were 28 states that boasted Amish communities. Sadly, if Google can be trusted, Oregon lost its lone fellowship during the last decade. But friends, do not presume that extinction here reflects a wider national trend. Indeed, the Amish are one of the faster-growing religious communities nationwide. Although they can be found from Texas to Maine, the path of totality clearly cuts through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. At the epicenter of these religious separatist movements are Ohio’s Homes and Wayne counties, which host not only the largest single settlement of Amish, but also stand at the intersection of several competing branches. You have the Beachy, the Andy Weavers and the Swartzentrubers, not to mention the Renno, the Bylers and the so-called Nebraskins (even though they live in Ohio).
Although I went to college in Wayne county and was a religious studies major to boot, I never fully understood the sectarian lines of the Amish who surrounded us. Part of what makes studying the Amish so difficult is that their beliefs are intentionally fluid. Discussions are never concluded, debates are never final, and the community changes its stance on issues whenever the Spirit moves them to adapt.
As a matter of pride, the rules in an Amish community are never written down; to do so would make them that much harder to change. These rules, which to outsiders seem innocuous, are of great importance to those who follow them. Families will up and leave their faith communities over such profound ecclesiastical issues as whether overcoats have four buttons or three, and whether kerosene lamps may use mantles or if wicks are more in line with God’s purpose.
Faith, for the Amish, is all in the details. Spirituality is found in the way you cut beans and the color of your horse-drawn buggy. (In case you are wondering, the Renno say black, the Nabraskins claim white, and — as you can see from our bulletin cover — the Bylers hold firm to a remarkably jaunty yellow.) What is intriguing about the Amish obsession with detail is that even they recognize how their unique lifestyle choices are not, in and of themselves, “morally” superior. I have never known an Amish person, or read an Amish writer, who would claim that cars are immoral or that electricity is anything but ethically neutral. At the same time, they will assert that we are shaped by our everyday choices. Three buttons on the coat, it was once explained to me, draw the mind to the Trinity. Four keep you warmer, and thus less distracted when you pray outside in the winter. It is the role of the faith community to help you weigh costs and benefits, and to choose the path that promotes, as best it can, a closer walk with God.
Where are we in our walk with God? Are we as careful as we should be in ensuring that every choice in our lives moves us closer to rather than further away from the life of faith? Is our spirituality grounded in how often we cut our grass, what shows we watch on TV, or what goes into the glass tumbler at the end of a hard day? Do we spend the energy needed to evaluate our lives, moment by moment, movement by movement, or have we become distracted, as the Amish would suggest, by the impurities of the world?
For decades now, the United Methodist Church has asked us to focus on the world. Our bishops, our district superintendants and yes, our clergy — your clergy — have argued that faith is about our engagement with what’s going on out there. “God wants you,” the Church has cried, “to join community groups, to focus on political change, to throw wide the doors and try to convince others that we are no different than they.” Methodist churches now meet in bars. We open coffee shops. We applaud those ministers who write blogs, not to speak to ourselves, but intentionally to speak to others. But I am beginning to question, At what price? Missional theology may have made the gates to the Church a little wider, but at the cost of a growing emptiness within those gates.
Many of you, I know — because you tell me, and others have told me — are not sensing God as clearly as you once did. Your prayers, when you pray, feel vacant and empty. The bible has become cold; worship has become devoid of meaning. For years now, we were told that reaching out was what good Methodists did, but it may be time to reach in instead. It may be time to take this passage from Romans 12 to heart: to worry less about them out there, and focus more on what’s in here.
This is a daunting task. The world has become safe for most of us. A congregation that looks at what they are doing out there may not feed us, but it is, undeniably, comfortable. To suggest that perhaps we should not conform to the patterns of society, but rather be bold about making our own pattern is to beg the question: What would Montavilla UMC look like? What life style choices could we, together, agree to commit to? And if this line of reasoning makes you feel trepidation, it should. The Church has sometimes overstepped its role in directing people’s personal behaviors. I fear now, though, that the church has abandoned that role altogether.
Something must change. If this community is to exist in fifteen years, something must change. And I’m not talking about evangelism. I not advocating a new path to attract new people. The simple truth is, if you and I are going to bother coming ourselves, something must change. I would suggest that in our stumbling efforts to turn inward, to take seriously the patterns of a more spiritual life, we could learn a thing or two — well, actually four — from the Amish.
Number one: the little choices we make in our daily behaviors do effect our walk with God. Two: a willingness to appear strange to outsiders may just be the cost of discipleship. Three: faith communities are strengthened — not weakened — when they are encouraged to guide us on how we live our private lives. And four: whatever “rule of life” we develop, whatever code of behaviors we agree to here, we need to make sure it is fluid enough to change as situations change and as the Spirit moves. Best not to write it down at all.
The truth is that it has been a long time since we have felt comfortable having the church shape our private lives. It’s been a long time since we pushed each other to embrace behaviors that may seem strange to the outside world. And it’s been a long, long time since we really asserted that shaping our walk with God, and not the world’s, is the most important thing we do. As such, your leadership is not always clear on how to proceed. We need your wisdom and buy-in.
Today at Church Council, your lay leader, Janice Stevens, will ask for a bold change to how we do Sunday mornings. I hope all of you will be in attendance. Janice will ask us to approve a calendar that puts our spiritual growth first, and makes our organizational structure accommodate it, and not the other way around. In one sense it is just a meeting calendar: a list of when committees gather and how often. But spiritual growth starts someplace — and often, profoundly, in the smallest details. It is the little choices, one after another, that will help us deepen our walk with God.
Romans is the last letter Paul wrote. He was taken from the cell where he scribed this epistle, and was executed. Before his imprisonment, he had spent years establishing churches all through Asia Minor. As such, he had gone to many administrative meetings, and we know of various councils he attended. He had been very active in his world: as a church planter and as a missionary out in the courtyards of urban business districts. But here at the end, older and wiser, Paul says, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world,” even the patterns of the old church, I would imagine. “Be transformed,” he continues, “by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is.”
Janice will also ask us to consider a second motion at Church Council. She will ask us to establish an academy: a system by which we covenant with each other to learn together, to study as a faith community, so that we can figure out what God’s will is for us. In one sense, it is just clearing the noise of Sunday mornings so that we can set aside time to study a book together. But spirituality starts somewhere, and hopefully here at MUMC, it will start with a single book about how we read and see the bible.
As we mature into the faith community that God has dreamed for us, it may also mean remaking the patterns of our lives together, patterns that have evolved over decades. It is not, as our Amish cousins would remind us, that the old patterns were wrong or ethically suspect. It is just that they do not serve anymore. A new pattern where our community is grounded on study and intentional faith development takes time, but something needs to change now. And that change, hopefully, begins today. Please plan on attending Church Council.