How do you preach the gospel in a Wesleyan accent? This has been on my mind quite a bit over the last month. My last two blog posts were about this to some degree. In the first post, I discussed my sense of the current state of United Methodism, arguing that what we are in favor of is not good enough. One of the key arguments of that post was that United Methodism’s common discourse is thin and impoverished doctrinally. Another way of putting it is that there seems to me to be deep disagreement about what we are for. It is more clear that we are confident that we can change the world than that we believe that we are desperately dependent on the Triune God to do anything that matters.
A few days later I wrote another post noting that the Wesleyan message is almost entirely invisible in print and social media in comparison to other expressions of Christianity. The conversation from the initial question I raised has taken on a life of its own, particularly with the use of the hashtag #andcanitbe on twitter. (To be clear, I did not come up with the idea for the hashtag and I do not have any control over what is happening with this conversation, which I’m sure is obvious to anyone who uses twitter – nobody controls what happens there! Please do feel free to follow me [@kevinwatson] and contribute to the conversation.)
Those two posts were more related for me than I initially realized. I am starting to wonder if one of the most significant factors in the decline of the United Methodist Church is an inability to agree on and articulate a clear and compelling theology. Some see this as an asset of contemporary Methodism – there is plenty of room to agree to disagree. But I wonder what the fruit is of this “big tent” vision of Methodism. Relating this to my second post, I suspect that the Wesleyan message is invisible because those who claim to be Wesleyan do not themselves agree on what the Wesleyan message is?
As the #andcanitbe conversation has gained some momentum, I have been asking myself what my hopes are for this conversation. Here are my current hopes:
First, I want to see God show up in amazing ways. I want to see broken and hurting peoples’ lives changed by the amazing grace of God. This is really central to everything else for me. I want to be a part of something where I can say, “God did that” and where everyone knows that is absolutely the case. Not that we did something cool for God, but that the almighty One dwelt among us in tangible ways.
Second, for #andcanitbe more specifically, I hope that the conversation will result in an articulation of the gospel in a particularly Wesleyan accent with clarity and conviction to a broader audience. I really appreciated the phrase Matt Judkins (@matt_judkins) used early on. He spoke of the need to identify “core unifying commitments” of the Wesleyan tradition. I would love to see a result of this conversation be a network of spirit-filled women and men who have clarity about the key unifying beliefs and practices for contemporary Christianity. I would begin by naming the following as core beliefs: sin and the need for repentance and forgiveness; justification by faith; the new birth and assurance; and sanctification by faith, even unto entire sanctification. Another way this has been put is:
All need to be saved.
All may be saved.
All may know themselves to be saved.
All may be saved to the uttermost.
And it will not surprise those of you who are familiar with my work that I think a crucial core practice of any expression of the gospel in a Wesleyan accent would be Christian conferencing (by which Wesley meant small group accountability structures, like the class meeting and band meeting and not “polite conversation,” which is how some UM leaders are increasingly redefining it). There are, of course, other practices that are crucial as well.
Arguing that core unifying commitments are crucial may be a difficult sell in a tradition that not too long ago was best known for slogans like “you can be anything and be United Methodist” or which defined its distinctiveness not by any particular theological commitments, but by a method of reflecting theologically (the Outlerian Quadrilateral). Thankfully, fewer people today seem to want to be known as the church that has no beliefs. Yet, the UMC has recently presented itself to the world with slogans like “open hearts, open minds, open doors” and by suggesting the need to “rethink church.”
For my part, I am increasingly convinced that an inability to clearly and passionately articulate a common message is a liability, not something to be celebrated. I would even go so far as to say that a clear message that people are burdened to share with as many people as possible is of more urgency than openness.
Third, I would like the conversation to be clearly focused on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and not on ourselves. Being in the Pacific Northwest and at Seattle Pacific University where I am around non-UMs at least as often as I am around UMs has made me more aware of the ways that United Methodists (myself included) often talk and act as if we are the center of the ecclesial universe. I have particularly found myself questioning whether the things that people sometimes assert as unique about Methodism would not also be claimed by most of the Church. All that to say, I am less interested in being a part of something that focuses on defining how Wesleyans are different from others, than I am in working to more effectively proclaim the gospel with a Wesleyan accent.
Finally, while I think unity matters, I am not arguing for homogeneity. My sense is that if the Holy Spirit brings renewal to United Methodism, or the broader Wesleyan tradition, the Spirit will bring together a variety of voices from miraculously different backgrounds, who feel a common leading to articulate a message that is theologically in harmony and not a cacophony. In other words, I expect that if God does show up in miraculous ways, one fruit will be that people who have not been working together will start working together. People would become deep partners in ministry with people they have never met before and would not have met if God had not sovereignly brought them together. A sign of revival would be the Holy Spirit bringing people together from different cultures, races, ethnicities, and genders. I am thinking of Pentecost. I am thinking of early American Methodism. I am thinking of Azusa Street. And I am thinking of Revelation 7:9-17:
After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. They cried out with a loud voice: ‘Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.’ Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
Now that, I want to be a part of! Come Lord Jesus.
Kevin….I love how you articulate your thoughts. For the last 2-5 years I have been asking myself why I’m dissatisfied with the Methodist church. You have so profoundly described what I have been feeling. At this time I am not even attending a Methodist church and moved to a church that has more a sense of the Wesleyan accent than any Methodist church I have attended. I do miss Methodism but I am more interested to developing spirtually than staying in a denomination that has a hard time spreading the good news and is more interested in the social issues. Well that is my take on it.
Gary Holdeman said:
Great thoughts, Kevin! I preached on that passage in Revelation in Monrovia, Liberian in February and in our church in Guymon, last Sunday. In a town which had the first Hispanic majority population in the state and in which there are 27 different languages spoken in the school system…we are challenged by reaching out to other cultures and also being welcoming to people who are very different than us. We now have a strong Spanish-speaking Worship Service every Sunday and an Ethiopian Church meets in our facilities (free of charge) every Sunday afternoon.
I have discovered that many UM’s know about as much Wesley as they want to know in order to try to support their own theological positions. Many read from secondary sources and never from Wesley, himself, in context.
After 20 years in a Wesleyan denomination (not U.M) before becoming U.M. I have found a hunger for historic Wesleyan Spirituality as well as an incredible desire to minister to the poor and needy (especially in my present church).
I like to remind myself that in Wesley’s day…..the Church of England was in pretty bad straights! And yet, God used Wesley to bring incredible Spiritual renewal and revival…and all without the use of an “altar call”. 🙂
Keep up the good work, Kevin! We desperately need your Wesleyan scholarship in our midst! Blessings, Gary Holdeman
My apolgies in advance for th length of this response!
You have been tracking this disillusioned, pew-sitting Methodist in these recent posts. A;though technically I am not exactly pew-sitting–I have had to distance myself from all things church in an attempt to gain some perspective. This has led me to write a piece about my life and the UMC’s role in it–it’s title is “Walking the Edge” because, of the way things were, I was walking somewhere between darkness and the light of God’s salvation, never fully in one or the other. What follows is an excerpt that details the sum total of “what I learned being a good methodist for more than a few decades”:
Going to church, becoming part of the Body of Christ was my only salvation.
I journeyed with the Church, centering my life in her, trusting her
Church was the only place God was real on a regular basis.
He was not in my home as a child.
Whatever faith I had in God was rooted in church practices
I was well schooled in “how to worship”
it was the one thing I knew I was “getting right”
The only way I knew to “bring Him home” was in the ritual of the Advent wreath.
Tell me the story of Jesus…
My faith was a blind one based on the fact there was obviously a history and others believed
My knowledge of God was sketchy:
what I knew was far less than what I did not know.
What I did know was gathered in tiny fragments in random fashion;
from liturgy and hymns and brief glimpses into the lives of others
There was no cohesive “teaching”
It all depended on “who crossed my path” at the moment
My knowledge and understanding were random snapshots.
I made sense of them as best I could;
tucking each away, patiently waiting for the whole picture to emerge.
Tell me the story of Jesus…
I knew the Church is the Body of Christ
a unique entity — to be treated and viewed differently – always respected — never questioned
elements of worship anchored me in the long enduring nature of what I was doing
confirming its importance
I knew there is a Trinity:
The Father had some substance from Old Testament stories;
The Son, Jesus, was in the shadows, murky
There were stories of wonderful things He did while walking this earth
We celebrated his birth
He rose from the dead
I knew He died on a cross, but that was never directly addressed:
Church went directly from Palm Sunday to Easter;
leaving me to wonder, “What is so Good about this Friday?”
The Holy Spirit was something “I believe” when I recited the Apostle’s Creed.
It had more to do with “that church” over there.
Tell me the story of Jesus…
I knew there should be “more” but I could not quite grasp it
One Sunday evening long ago, there was a moment of “something”—
A touch by God? I had no clue “what it was”/”what to do about it”
I knew nothing about God wanting to be part of my life
S. Michael Craven describes my experience best
“In the absence of an incarnational experience, [or possibly the understanding of one?] one is left with an understanding of being Christian is merely following a set of do’s and don’ts—a life of self-reliant sin management”
I call it putting a good face on who I was so I could be a Christian
I knew just enough to know what the better alternative for my life was.
Tell me the story of Jesus…
The “rest of the story” is the wheels came off big time for me at church as well as in a personal way back to back which has left me scrambling–because I did take this seriously–I thought chruch was my life line to “something better”. I have had an amazing reading journey that involved montitoring The UMC and learning about Wesley and early Methodism as well as the state of Christianity in America, as well as some spiritual reads, some of them off the wall ().
I learned I was “methodist to the core” but that had very little to do with The UMC. I include reading about Wesley and early Methodism in the category of “off the wall reads”. I have coined the phrase “The gospel and its impact on my life is the best kept secret for those of us who have no other way to hear it, see it lived out”.
Via a UMC pastor’s blog I was introduced to The Heidelberg Catechism originally written in the 1500’s; things have never been the same since. I am going through it along with M. Craig Barnes book, “Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism”. I have learned more about “what this is about” in the last week and a half than I have in decades. The problem is what Wesley fashioned grew as Methodism grew, so his thoughts are hither thither and yon in all his writings. I also have the impression that his “practical theology” was so eclectic, that depending on what you read you can get only “part of the story”. We do not have a “catechism”. As a “genetic methodist”, catechism was a “bad word” until I delved into this one. Overall it appers to hit the “high points ” of “mere Chrisitanity”. It develops “My Faith” as well as “Our Faith”; it illuminates the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the 10 Commandments–it even gives meaning to the word “Amen”. And Barnes’ easy, conversational discussion of Jesus and how he is the Savior have been almost overwhelming after “muddling in a grey area” for the vast majority of my life. I am rebelling against it right now because I am having to use words like wicked and perverse to describe myself. But the reality is,as modern Methodists, we gloss over that part of it. It brought to mind what you wrote in “What We Are For…” that we do not realize how much we are beggars in need of grace.
I have assembled an “all I want ” (the words are not all mine; different things I read brought these wants to the forefront–they have been there a very long time):
All I want is to go to church and learn there is a bigger and better story than mine going on.
And then I want to learn how to fold myself into that story.
And since redemption begins with knowledge:
Who is this God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit?
What has He done?
What is He currently doing?
Who am I in relation to Him?
How do I become a Christian?
How do I remain (and thrive/grow) as a Christian?
Let’s quit talking about “how to fix this” and start “doing it”.
Although I realize the above is not necessarily “simple” I have this from Steve Jobs for UMC leadership:
“Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean, make it simple. It’s worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
And from the gospel according to Weight Watchers:
“If things are not going so well, sometimes you have to go back to the beginning and start over.”
Andrew C. Thompson said:
Kevin — You are continuing to advance the conversation with this post. Thank you for your thoughts. Since you, Matt O’Reilly, and others have prompted me over the last few weeks with your excellent writing, I have tried to be more regular and more forward in the way in which I am utilizing my own voice in expressions of social media. (I do agree with you that the Wesleyan voice, particularly in online forms of media, is lacking in visibility to a distressing degree.)
One of the things I have encountered that has been bothering me since that prompting began is the way in which there is such an anti-intellectual undercurrent in contemporary Methodism. That isn’t the case everywhere, but it is certainly the case in social media (where message is often truncated due to the medium). There are some fascinating dimensions to this issue: for instance, I think some of the anti-intellectualism comes originally from the kind of pietistic tradition out of which Methodism arose (even if Wesley himself is not a good representative of a heart-without-mind version of it); but the current impatience with any kind of substantive theology doesn’t come as much from the conservative wing of the tradition so much as it does from the liberal wing (which is often perceived to be the least pietistic in the traditional sense).
I’m not sure what to do with what I mention above, except to keep making theological arguments. If ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’ is the best expression of the Wesleyan theological tradition on offer, then that tradition is doomed. Ultimately, a faith must be intellectually accountable both to those within its own tradition and to those outside of it. And as Wesleyans, we are no less accountable to this truth than any others.
– Andrew Thompson
P.S. — I appreciate your use of “Outlerian Quadrilateral.” We ought rightly to call a spade a spade, in this case both because it involves a better reading of the history of Wesley’s own theology and of the circumstances that have led to the church’s current infatuation with this clunky concept.
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks for the comments so far. Betsy, I particularly wish you the best as you continue to pursue Christ!
And Andrew, thank you for your very kind words. I thought you might appreciate the reference to the “Outlerian Quadrilateral.” The more I think about the OQ, the less valuable I find it to be. And the idea that using Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience in theological reflection is something distinctly Methodist strikes me as an excellent example of the denominational arrogance I mentioned in the post. And it is all the more frustrating because I often find that those who are the most desperate to see this as the key distinctive of Methodism often have the least appreciation for the Christian tradition.
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Richard Heyduck said:
I’m a Christian first, a United Methodist only afterward. I’ve been committed to doctrinal renewal in the UMC for a long time (wrote my dissertation/book on it). Since my career didn’t follow the track I’d expected I’ve spent most of my time on the practical side of the issue (i.e., pastoral ministry). Not only is recent UM culture against the idea of functional shared doctrine, but so is the broader culture. After all these years I’m still convinced that eschewing substantive doctrine is deadly to the church.
In the leadership book Built to Last the authors claim that great institutions are committed to being utterly clear regarding their mission and entirely flexible on their method. I often fear we METHODists have had that exactly backward. I’d rather JW had chosen the insult “Bible Moths” to name his movement – it might cause us less trouble.
You wrote: “First, I want to see God show up in amazing ways. I want to see broken and hurting peoples’ lives changed by the amazing grace of God. This is really central to everything else for me. I want to be a part of something where I can say, “God did that” and where everyone knows that is absolutely the case. Not that we did something cool for God, but that the almighty One dwelt among us in tangible ways.” I really like this. Sounds like what I keep praying for, in my life, through my ministry, and in the church today.
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One thing that I understand about Wesley is that his faith was very much a *lived* faith, not a purely theological one. So, when there’s all this discussion about theology and doctrine, admittedly some of it does get a bit heady for me, but my *real* question is “what does this mean for how each of us lives our faith every day?” I hope that isn’t seen as anti-intellectual, but rather attempting to get at the praxis of belief and action. Didn’t Wesley encourage people to do works of piety and mercy with the understanding that their faith and relationship with God would grow alongside? As a layperson who has been in an accountability group (covenant discipleship) for a few years, it has certainly been my experience that there has been a positive feedback loop between my actions and my faith–seeing myself as a conduit for God’s grace in the world (on a good day!).
So, for example, Wesley’s theology of grace is obviously bedrock, but isn’t it just as important for us to *be* grace in the world? I don’t see these both stated in the core beliefs you mention above, but maybe you’re considering the lived-out part as implicit and are having a conversation at another level. I fully agree a better understanding of Wesley has a lot to teach us, but personally, I’d like to see a more balanced approach to a “Wesleyan gospel” between theology and practice. I think that would have a deeper resonance for the people in the UMC. (FYI, I’m coming from a Catholic background, and am relatively new to Wesley, so hopefully I’ve got my facts straight above!)
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks for your comments Richard.
Brad, I completely agree that faith must be lived. Wesley reacted against the idea that faith was only intellectual assent to propositional truths. Most of my writing for the church is working to help people actually practice what they say they believe, especially my book, A Blueprint for Discipleship and my forthcoming book on the class meeting. One of my critiques of Sunday School is that it does not help people become practicing Christians, but mostly helps them have ideas about Christianity.
You make a good point, Wesley started with a focus on formation and not systematic theology. I guess I’d say that I think that is where my work has begun as well. But I am increasingly finding that there are some persistent myths that doctrine did not matter to Wesley or that Methodism should not be concerned about doctrine. My reading of Wesley is that his “method” was deeply informed by key doctrinal beliefs from start to finish. Indeed, sanctification and entire sanctification are doctrines that would be almost impossible to seriously hold to and not have them be expressed in practical ways. I think the pendulum in the UMC has currently swung too far in the direction of doing stuff, in some cases almost to the total abandonment of a clearly Christian rationale for why it is being done.
Brian Felker Jones said:
Kevin, as United Methodists in an almost wholly evangelical community (Wheaton, IL and Wheaton College, my wife is a systematic theologian at the institution), it has made us appreciate that we UMs are not the center of the ecclesiastical world. It is refreshing and I am hopeful that the #andcanitbe discussion can help us UM’s learn from our Wesleyan and Methodist brothers and sisters. Sometimes, looking outward and being willing to learn from others is the best way to grow instead of always looking inward! I am looking forward to the discussions . . . thanks!!!!
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