“I ask you to help me stay focused on this: The movement of God among people is a powerful, transformational experience, and it is always in danger of becoming a calcified and lifeless movement as it transforms from being a movement into an institution,” he said.
It has happened before, as noted in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 29:13 “The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”
Baxter shared his thoughts on the church as a movement rather than in institution during his installation service at La Croix UMC in Cape Girardeau on October 8. He recalled how in his own childhood all of his friends went to church on Sunday morning because it was the expected thing to do if you were a decent person, but he didn’t think any of them liked it. He used to play a game on the drive to church, where he looked at other cars and predicted where they were going. The happy, excited people were headed to the lake or golf course, the glum, duty-bound looking folks were trudging to church.
Growing up Methodist, Baxter was baptized as an infant, got his Bible in the third grade, was confirmed in the sixth grade, and active in the youth group in high school.
“These things were just rites of passage for me that I did out of expectation,” he said. “I thought that I guess when you’re an adult, you just go to church and be bored.”
His life changed in his college years, when he discovered the presence of God leading him into deeper relationship. It was a transformation that too many Christians miss out on.
It’s not just a problem in the pews. Apathy in religion can go right to the top and has from the beginning. Baxter referred to Matthew 23, when Jesus admonished the scribes and Pharisees for neglecting justice, mercy and faith while adhering to minor rules, stating in Matthew 23:24, “You blind guides! You strain out at a gnat but swallow a camel!”
“I’ve made a point that whenever I read ‘scribes and Pharisees’ in the scripture, I say, ‘District Superintendents and Conference leaders’,” Baxter said, as a former Conference staff leader and current District Superintendent.
Baxter considered how the roots of Methodism are a movement started by John Wesley. Wesley broke from convention by preaching to miners in the field, while the Church of England was telling him there was plenty of room for them in the parish, and he should stay put. To that Wesley replied, “The world is my parish.”
That’s not to say the movement should be without organization. Wesley’s friend George Whitfield was a powerful evangelist but recognized the advantage of the methodical ways of Wesley with this statement, “My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.”
That Wesleyan tradition persists in the United Methodist Church today but must be kept in balance with the nature of the original movement.
“Here we are, stewards of United Methodist Church we have inherited. My concern is that we avoid at all cost simply going through motions of being followers of Christ,” Baxter said. “I believe the key is to finding the will of God, not just in what God is calling you to do, but also what God is doing all around you – how God is calling folks to experience grace and forgiveness. As a District Superintendent, I never want to stand in the way of what God intends for us to do.”