It Is Hard to Say I’m Sorry: An Appreciation of Bishop Mike Lowry

Admitting that you made a mistake, especially publicly, is extremely difficult. I suspect it becomes more difficult the more visible your position of leadership is.

It is not hard to find examples of people making mistakes. But it is rare to see someone own a mistake and apologize for it. And this is exactly what Bishop Mike Lowry, the resident bishop of the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church has done.

His apology is direct and unequivocal:

As your Bishop, I erred in my theological judgment by endorsing “online” communion. The fault is mine and mine alone. I apologize for so doing to the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference, and am writing about this because I believe both that confession is important and that my error needs to be corrected and perhaps debated. More importantly, we have a teaching moment and a significant opportunity to theologically learn together by wrestling with the deeper implications of “online” communion.

This is one of the most encouraging acts of both humility and courage that I have seen in quite some time. I want to publicly thank Bishop Lowry.

Lowry’s essay should be required reading for two reasons.

First, it is an excellent example of intellectual virtue. Bishop Lowry stayed with a difficult and complex topic, even after taking an initial position on it. He continued to pursue the truth and sought to understand what was at stake in permitting “online” communion as best as he could.

And once he became convinced that he was incorrect, he acknowledged this and did what was in his power to do to make it right. He explained the reason for his change of mind. He encouraged clergy who had celebrated communion virtually to consider ceasing the practice. But he also acknowledged that some might feel that a drastic change within the local church might do more harm than good and honored his initial statement.

This is an exceptional example of leadership.

Lowry’s essay is required reading, secondly, because it is a deeply thoughtful consideration of communion itself. Here is just one glimpse of what you will find in this essay:

The classic definition of the sacraments is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The actual elements used in Holy Communion are to be consecrated by an ordained elder (or appointed licensed local pastor) who is physically present with the elements (bread and wine/juice). Such action ties together the three-part discipline of Word, Sacrament and Order for which elders are ordained.

This line in particular haunts me:

The way we have handled this issue, both individually and collectively as bishops, highlights the theological poverty of the UMC.

Bishop Lowry succinctly describes why the way permission for online communion has troubled me so much. The disagreement about whether the church can offer communion when it can’t be together in person shows just how fractured the UMC is.

The disagreement over whether communion can rightly be officiated online cuts across an entirely different fault line than the painfully visible disagreement about same sex marriage. The pushback I received to my writing about online communion on social media and elsewhere was fairly evenly split between those who agree with me about human sexuality and those who disagree with me.

This disagreement is visible within the Council of Bishops itself.

One final thing that makes Bishop Lowry’s mea culpa so remarkable: Lowry initially took a step away from the historic understanding of communion and on more careful consideration returned to it. For me, this is a reminder of the continued riches of the living faith of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Thank you Bishop Lowry! May your tribe increase. And may we all learn from your example.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.

Wesley One Volume Commentary: First Impressions

I ordered the new Wesley One Volume Commentary last week and was thrilled when it came in the mail. I remember a colleague mentioning working on commentary for one of the books for the volume a year or two ago, but otherwise didn’t know much about it. Here are my quick thoughts:

1. Kenneth J. Collins and Robert W. Wall are the editors.

This is a big positive.

Wall was a colleague and mentor during my time on the faculty at Seattle Pacific University. He gave a University lecture at SPU on John Wesley’s use of 1 John that is one of the best academic lectures I’ve ever heard.

Collins teaches historical theology and Wesley studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is one of the foremost and most prolific scholars of John Wesley currently teaching. I am frequently asked to recommend an accessible biography of John Wesley for laity and my recommendation is Collins’s A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley.

2. The dedication is to Joel B. Green: “Faithful friend, respected colleague, and biblical scholar extraordinaire.”

It immediately struck me that Joel Green is the ideal person for such a dedication. This is a detail that may not mean much to the average person who buys the book, but it put a smile on my face. A lovely gesture.

3. “Introduction to a Wesleyan Theological Orientation” by Kenneth J. Collins is an excellent introduction to the topic.

While pastors and laity will benefit from a careful reading of the entire essay, the sections “How Sin Is Defined Is Crucial in Understanding the Liberties of Redemption” and “Regeneration Is Freedom from the Power of Sin” are especially helpful.

4. “Introduction to Wesleyan Biblical Interpretation” by Robert W. Wall is another excellent contribution.

Wall brilliantly sets up the purpose for this volume. Here is a succinct summary: “The purpose of the Wesley One Volume Commentary is to retrieve a ‘Wesleyan sense’ of scripture for the reader’s use in worship, catechesis, mission, and personal devotions” (xxii). The clear theological and ecclesial orientation of this volume is a major strength. Wall provides a robust introduction to Wesleyan biblical interpretation that is an important contribution.

5. The contributors come from a variety of Wesleyan/Methodist faith communities.

There are a number of United Methodist contributors, as one would expect and as there should be. The volume is strengthened by the intentional inclusion of scholars from (in alphabetical order): The African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Anglican Church in North America, The Church of God (Anderson), The Church of God (Cleveland), The Church of the Brethren, The Church of the Nazarene, The Episcopal Church, The Free Methodist Church, The Salvation Army, The Wesleyan Church, and The Wesleyan Church of Russia.

6. My first impression of the layout was underwhelming.

I like the design of the spine. I did not like the layout of the back cover as much. The interior layout did not make a positive first impression compared to comparable volumes. These things are subjective, so you may disagree with me.


My first impression is this a book every Wesleyan/Methodist pastor should have in their library. I also think it will be useful for engaged laity, particularly those who teach Sunday School classes. This is a book I will be consulting regularly in personal study of Scripture and in preparation to preach and teach the Bible. I am grateful to Abingdon for publishing it and to all of the scholars who contributed to it.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.

What Did John Wesley Mean by “Salvation by Faith”?

What did John Wesley mean when he insisted that salvation is by faith? Wesley’s sermon “Salvation by Faith” is dedicated to this topic and remains a powerful teaching for Christian theology. This is my brief summary of the sermon.


Did you know that many of John Wesley’s sermons are part of the formal doctrinal teaching of multiple Wesleyan/Methodist denominations? Wesley’s sermons have particular authority because these were the main way he taught Methodist doctrines and beliefs.

John Wesley preached the sermon “Salvation by Faith” at St. Mary’s, Oxford University as one of the University sermons on June 11, 1738. The date of the sermon tells us that Wesley preached this sermon less than three weeks after his famous “heart-warming” experience at Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738.

This sermon was included with four other sermons Wesley preached at St. Mary’s as the beginning of Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions. “Salvation by Faith” is the first of the sermons in the Standard Sermons that are a key part of the formal doctrine of many Wesleyan/Methodist denominations.

In hopes of sparking interest in Wesley’s sermons and Methodism’s doctrinal heritage, here is my very short summary of “Salvation by Faith.” I hope it will inspire you to read the sermon in its entirety yourself (check out the resources at the end of this post).

Key quote:

[Salvation by faith] is a sure confidence which a man hath in God, that through the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God; and in consequence hereof a closing with him and cleaving to him as our ‘wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption or, in one word, our salvation. (I.5)

One sentence summary:

Salvation by faith is trust and confidence in the work of Jesus Christ to forgive us, reconcile us to God, and enable our growth in righteousness and true holiness.

Scripture passage for the sermon:

“By grace ye are saved through faith.” – Ephesians 2:8 (KJV)

Concise outline of “Justification by Faith”

1. Every good thing we receive from God is freely given by God and undeserved.
2. Sinful people cannot atone for their sins.
3. Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.

I. What is the faith through which we are saved?

1. It is not barely the faith of a heathen.
2. It is not the faith of a devil.
3. It is not the faith the apostles had while Christ was still on earth.
4. It is faith in Christ that involves the head and the heart.
5. It acknowledges the necessity and merit of his death, and the power of his resurrection.

II. What is salvation by faith?

1. It is a present salvation. “Ye are saved through faith.”
2. You are saved from sin, both from the guilt and power of it.
3. First, from the guilt of all past sin.
4. They are saved from fear a. of the wrath of God and b. of falling away from the grace of God.
5. Through this faith they are saved from the power of sin as well as from the guilt of it.
6. People born of God no longer sin.
7. This then is the salvation which is through faith, even in the present world: a salvation from sin and the consequences of sin.

III.   Common Objections.

1. Objection: To preach salvation or justification by faith is to preach against holiness and good works. Answer: We speak of a faith that necessarily produces good works and all holiness.
2. Objection: Do we not make void the law through faith? Answer: We trust in Christ alone, use all ordinances, do the good works he appointed, and manifest holy tempers.
3. Objection: Does not preaching this faith lead to pride? Answer: It may accidentally. The key is to remain focused on salvation as sheer gift that is undeserved.
4. Objection: May not the speaking thus of the mercy of God encourage people in sin? Answer: It may, but the goodness of God will lead the sincere of heart to repent.
5. Objection: If a man cannot be saved by all that he can do, this will drive him to despair. Answer: It will drive them to despair of being saved by their own merit, which is necessary.
6. Objection: This is an uncomfortable doctrine. Answer: This is the only comfortable doctrine! (To all self-destroyed, self-condemned sinners.)
7. Objection: Salvation by faith only ought not to be preached as the first doctrine. Answer: There can be no other foundation than Jesus Christ and that salvation is by faith in him alone.
8. Conclusion: Never was maintaining this doctrine more important than today.
9. The adversary rages when salvation by faith is declared to the world because it alone overturns the foundations of his kingdom.


Read “Salvation by Faith” in its entirety here. And then come back and share your one sentence summary of the sermon!

I highly recommend the critical edition of Wesley’s sermons, which has excellent references that show his reliance on Scripture throughout his preaching. There are four volumes if you want every known Wesley sermon. They aren’t cheap, but this is the most important publication by Abingdon since its release. Highly recommended!

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.

Easter Is a Season, Not a Sunday

For some of us it may feel like we missed our chance to celebrate Easter. But the reality is that Easter is just getting started.

Did you know that Easter is a season, not just one Sunday?

One of the most challenging aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic for the church was the growing likelihood, and eventual certainty, that most churches would not be open on the highest attended Sunday of the year.

There was a tension in online services between the words we spoke and the various ways in which these words were spoken.

I missed the opportunity to celebrate in person together. On the day the church expresses its boldest confidence in the life-changing reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we were not able to be together because the simple act of gathering together could reignite the invisible enemy stalking us.

I grieved not being able to gather with brothers and sisters in the faith at my church to celebrate the best news the world has ever heard: Jesus Christ, who was crucified, has been raised from the dead!

Christ is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

But these lines aren’t meant to be said by one person. They are a call and response.

This year is a good time to press into celebrating Easter as a season.

There is a meaningful theological rationale for understanding Easter as a season, not a Sunday. The church prepares for Easter by entering into a disciplined season of prayer and fasting for the 6 weeks of Lent.

The journey starts on Ash Wednesday. We are confronted with our mortality. And how many of us knew how relevant that would be this year?

If you count the days on a calendar from Ash Wednesday until the day before Easter, you will count 46 days. So, why is Lent said to be 40 days?

Every Sunday is a “little Easter.” The church gathers together every week to celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The reality of the resurrection is too awesome and radically world-changing to celebrate once a year. We celebrate Jesus’s triumph over sin and death itself in the resurrection every Sunday throughout the year.

Lent is 40 days because the Sundays in Lent are not fast days. They are days of celebration and rejoicing.

Why does any of that matter for a discussion of Easter?

It’s simple: The good news of Easter is too good to do justice to in one Sunday, much less one worship service. If we prepare and fast for 6 weeks, we must celebrate for longer, otherwise we would spend more time mourning or grieving our propensity to sin than we would spend rejoicing in God’s gift of salvation.

This year there are many things that are out of our control. When will we be able to meet together again? When we do, will we be able to shake hands or hug? What will the new normal be like, and how will it be different than what was normal just over a month ago?

In the midst of the unknown, the anxiety, and even the grief we are experiencing, this is the perfect time to practice a disciplined celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Easter is a season, not a Sunday. May the Holy Spirit lift our hearts in praise and celebration from now until Pentecost. I don’t know if we will be able to join together in person this Easter. But we have 7 more weeks.

I am going to pray for the grace to celebrate well this Easter season. How will you celebrate?

Want to know more about the discipline of celebration? Check out the last chapter of Richard Foster’s classic The Celebration of Discipline. This is a book every Christian should read, highly recommended.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.

How to Quickly and Easily Launch Online Class Meetings

Yesterday I described the benefits of starting online Wesleyan class meetings now. The basic principle of online small groups is: Online is good, but in person is even better. Because we cannot meet in person right now, this is the time to start online groups.

If you already have a vibrant small group ministry, you can also temporarily move them online using the relevant steps below.

Before you read these steps: This may initially seem intimidating. This is a long post. How can it be quick and easy?! But it really is simple. You are going to invite people to join the groups for an 8-week trial. You are going to identify leaders and place those who say yes into groups. And you are going to communicate with them what they need to get started.

Here is the quickest and easiest way to launch online class meetings with maximum effectiveness:

1. Pick up a copy of my book, The Class Meeting. It is available as an e-copy or physical copy. I’d recommend the e-copy if you’re trying to ramp this up as quickly as possible. The Kindle edition is currently only $10.99.

2. Read the first two chapters in one sitting. You can do it! This will give you a basic understanding of what the class meeting is and the reason these particular groups are needed in contemporary Christianity. This is important because you need to be able to describe the value of these groups in your own voice. People will not follow you if you are just pointing to something someone else said they should do. You need to be able to make the case for this yourself, which is why you should read these chapters before you do anything else.

3. Make a decision about what software you will use to host the online meetings. I would recommend Zoom or Google Hangouts. I prefer Zoom. The free Zoom account limits the length of the meeting to 40 minutes, which is a potential disadvantage. Shorter meetings can also be an advantage in this particular time when many people are forced to work remotely and are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. Choose which platform you will use now so you will have seamless communication about the groups when you start them.

4. Decide when the groups will start meeting. If you are able to work through this process this week, I would encourage you to start next week. That may initially seem like a very short timeline. But this is a season where thing change quickly and I’m not sure a launch that is a month away makes sense in the way it usually would. People are missing in-person connections and are ready to respond to a plan for connection now.

5. Write a general email inviting everyone in your church to start an 8-week trial of a new kind of small group that will meet online. Keep this email short and simple. Make the case for the benefit of this group in your own voice. You should think of this email as a pitch. You are trying to get people to say yes to something, to respond to your ask. The focus should be on the positive benefits you believe they will get from being in this kind of group. Here are some things your email should include:

a. A basic summary of what a class meeting is. What you are you inviting them to do?

b. A brief description of what they will need to do to be able to join the group.

i. Set up an account in the platform you have decided to use. Emphasize that this is an easy process that should take about 5 minutes.

ii. Purchase a copy of The Class Meeting. If you’re starting next week, tell them to buy an electronic copy if they can, or they will not receive it in time for the first meeting. If participants buy a physical copy and it doesn’t come before the first meeting, they can read the first chapter here for free.

iii. Read the first chapter before the first meeting, which is only 13 pages.

c. Make the strongest and most energetic ask that you can. Specifically ask them to reply with a commitment to give this a shot and see what God does. Remind them it is an 8-week commitment and there will be a chance to reevaluate whether the groups should continue after 8-weeks.

d. Invite them to contact you directly with any questions that they have. This will give you a chance to remove obstacles to people being able to say yes.

6. Make a list of people that come to mind specifically for you when you think about these new groups. Who would most benefit from being connected to other Christians right now? Who do you think may be particularly struggling with loneliness and isolation and would be blessed by a weekly meeting with other people? Who has been growing in their faith and is ready to take the next step? Who seems stuck and might benefit from a nudge to stretch themselves and try something new?

7. Write a separate targeted email to these people. These emails should be personalized (I.e., “Dear Kevin,” instead of “Dear First Church.”) People often need to see something more than once before they respond to it. Send an initial church-wide email. And then send a second email to specific people with whom you have influence. You are not writing an individual email to each person at this stage. You are writing a general email, but including personal details, most importantly a personal greeting with the recipients name.

8. Optional: Take this to the next level by writing an email that targets each of the different groups on your list. Someone is more likely to say yes if the email inviting them is directed at the particular reason you think they would benefit. This is not required and likely depends on how many people you are reaching out to. If you are connected to a small membership church, you may want to write a separate email to each person you reach out to where the main paragraph is the same, but the introduction and initial invite is tailored to each person as you know them.

9. Buy a copy of the video companion to the book. This will significantly lower the work required of the leaders of the group each week. I would recommend purchasing the digital streaming option. (Click on the drop down box on the right after clicking the link and choose “digital streaming of video.”) Ideally, each leader of a group would have a copy of this and can use the “share screen” function in Zoom or Google Hangouts to share their screen to show the video during the group meeting. (I apologize in advance that my stylist didn’t do a better job combing my hair before I filmed these videos! Also, I am my stylist and am considering firing him.)

10. Identify specific people to serve as the facilitator of the group. A facilitator does five key things:

a. Convene the online meeting by signing in and being present for the entire meeting.

b. Open the meeting with prayer.

c. Sharing first about the state of their soul or how they are doing in their walk with Jesus Christ.

d. Ensuring that everyone in the group has a chance to share.

e. Close the meeting with prayer, or inviting someone else to do so.

Tell them that a facilitator does not have to have all the answers. They are chosen because of their spiritual maturity.

11. Send a final email with a last call for signing up to join a group 2 or 3 days before the groups are scheduled to start. Give a 24-hour deadline for a response.

12. Divide the people who have responded into groups. Ideally, you should have at least 6 people in a group. You should not have more than 12 in a group. Each group needs a facilitator. If you are starting one group, you are the facilitator. And if you are starting one group – celebrate that and do not fall into the comparison trap of what larger churches are doing. Your faithfulness is helping the people in your group grow in their faith and experience connection during this time of isolation. That is a huge win!

13. Ask the facilitator to contact the members of their group. They should tell each group member the following:

a. Where the group will meet (the online platform that will host the meeting).

b. What time the group will meet and when it will end.

c. What they should have read before the meeting (with a link to where to purchase the book).

14. The weekly meeting. The weekly meetings will consist of the facilitator opening the group with prayer and then showing the video for the week (about ten minutes). The group will then use the small group discussion guide from the book which includes discussion of the content of the book and a weekly “Transformation Question.” When the videos and book are used together, this makes preparation for the group meeting as minimal as possible. The group members prepare for the group by reading a short chapter before each meeting and giving some thought to where they are at in their relationship with God.

That’s it! You can use this process to launch new groups now, whether we are able to meet in person in our churches or not.

To those of you who have already moved your groups online, or have started new online small groups since the outbreak of Covid-19, what would you add? What have you found to be especially fruitful in launching new groups?

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.

Should You Have Wesleyan Class Meetings Online?

A common question I am asked is: Should you have class meetings online? This question had particular urgency during the Covid-19 pandemic. If online small groups are appropriate, what is the best way to start them?

This post will do two things. First, I will briefly introduce Wesleyan class meetings. Second, I will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of having these meetings online. Look for a follow-up post that outlines an easy way to quickly launch class meetings in your church. (Want to make sure you don’t miss future posts? Click here to get posts sent to your email.)

What is a class meeting?

Class meetings were small groups in early Methodism that had roughly 7 – 12 people in them. Members talked about their present lives with God. The groups focused on transformation – becoming more like Jesus. They were not information-driven groups. In class meetings, participants answered some form of the question: “How does your soul prosper?”

I love this question! It emphasized the expectation that Methodists would thrive as they met together and invested in community. Methodists were confident that these groups would positively impact member’s lives. And this optimism was not merely wishful thinking. Members of class meetings were confident in the group’s value because they had experienced it themselves. They testified to their own lives being changed as a result of the community they found in these small groups.

John Wesley believed class meetings were so important that he required active participation in the small groups for membership in Methodism. A Methodist was a weekly participant in a small group where they discussed their faith and their discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Of the many programs and curriculum that Methodism has tried over its nearly three hundred year history, the class meeting has been by far the most successful at helping Methodists grow in their faith in Jesus Christ.

Can you do this effectively online?

I have recently argued that there are some things the church cannot rightly do online. But class meeting are actually ideal during Covid-19 and a time of social distancing. Here’s why:

First, the larger the virtual gathering, the more passive the audience will be.

Second, the major need that people have in this time is not for good content to watch on their computer screens, or even excellent worship music. (If this were the major need, that content would largely have already been available online before the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted all of our daily rhythms.) The major need people have is connection to others and space to share with others where they are struggling and where they are experiencing God’s presence.

Third, groups of 7-12 people are close to the ideal size for online meetings on Zoom or Google Hangouts. In this format, you can see everyone’s face on one screen. And it is at a scale where everyone can have a chance to share with the group and feel a sense of connection.


I do think churches should go all in on creating these kinds of groups right now. If you feel like your church is stuck and spinning its wheels, send out an invite to join a group like this today.

However, while online is good, in person is even better. I do not believe that local churches should encourage small groups to meet online in normal seasons of life, though there are exceptions to every rule.

I’ve been in two different small groups that were both very powerful. One is connected to my current church and is now meeting weekly on Zoom. The other has always met online, but we try to be together in person when we can. I think everyone in both groups would agree that it is better to meet online than not meet at all.

I also think they would all agree that it is just that much more powerful when everyone is in the same room than when they are in front of computers in their own homes.

The church should facilitate connection now through online small groups like the Wesleyan class meeting. But they should also remain committed to in person connection as the primary and most effective approach to small group formation.

You should start these groups now

You should start these groups now because nobody knows what the future is going to hold as far as coronavirus is concerned. No one knows when churches will begin holding public worship services on their campuses again. We don’t know if there will be one or more disruptions again before effective testing and treatment for Covid-19 are found and widely available.

If you establish these groups now, they will be in place when we are able to meet in person and they will also be in place if social distancing has to be reintroduced due to a flare up down the road.

You should absolutely start Wesleyan class meetings online in this season. The next post will talk about how to get started. If you want to get a head start, pick up a copy of my book, The Class Meeting and read the first two chapters in one sitting. (It is available in print and digital versions. For this purpose, I’d recommend the immediate availability of the digital download. It is also cheaper!) You will need this basic background to be able to invite people to join a class meeting in your own voice.

I know many of you have already started class meetings in your churches. Have those groups continued meeting online? If so, how is it going for you? Where are you seeing fruit? What are the unexpected challenges you have encountered?

Update: Check out part 2: How to Quickly and Easily Launch Online Class Meetings

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.

This Holy Week Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

In unprecedented and challenging times like the ones we are currently living in, there is an added challenge of applying the gospel to people’s lives. We want to be relevant. But sometimes the desire to be relevant ends up making things harder for pastors, as they stretch and strain to be creative and try to find ways to make connections to a situation that is unlike any they have ever faced before. What is the best approach this Holy Week?

Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

The key is to keep the main thing the main thing. Start by asking yourself what each service of Holy Week is about. Make sure the things that are true and need to be heard year after year are at the center. Current events and reflection on the pandemic will then doubtless play a role, but they should not be the main focus. I was reminded of this when my small group met on Zoom Tuesday night.

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

The highlight of the meeting this week was when the leader of our group ended our time together by simply reading an extended passage from John 12, the passage you’re reading now. We didn’t have an elaborate or complicated discussion of the passage. We just listened to him read it and rested for a moment before he closed us in prayer.

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’

These words hit home. They ministered to me. It was one of the most Spirit-filled times I have had with brothers and sisters in Christ since our church closed its doors.

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

If you are a pastor, let me suggest that Holy Week already presents sufficient challenges to you. I remember from my time as a pastor, and I hear every year from friends and colleagues in local church ministry, that Holy Week is the most tiring week of the year for many pastors.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

And now you are having to adapt to doing ministry in a new and different way. Many pastors had almost no experience with Zoom, online worship services, and the wide range of other changes that have come in the past few weeks.

Maybe this year is a year to just let the story tell itself and trust the Holy Spirit to do his work in people’s lives.

This is a year to read Scripture in depth. Preach the text, not your experience or your guess about what others are experiencing. It is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehensively explain the meaning of something, especially when you are still in the middle of it.

One of the great things about Holy Week is it comprehensiveness. This week we will be confronted with our tendency to misunderstand God and God’s will for our lives. Our idolatry will be exposed. Scripture confronts us with our desperate need for salvation, especially when we see that everyone abandoned Jesus on his way to the cross. All need to be saved.

And then, thank you Jesus, we get Easter. We won’t get to celebrate in the ways that any of us want. But we need the message of resurrection now as much as ever. In the midst of a global pandemic, we need to hear that Jesus has trampled death by death. That not only sin, but even death itself, has been swallowed up in victory.

If you are a pastor, my hope and my prayer for you is that you would find comfort and confidence in the old, old story. Don’t put pressure on yourself to find a new take on Good Friday, or preach an original Easter Sunday sermon. This is not what your people need. They need to hear the words of truth and promise in Scripture.

On the evening of the first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20)

This season is difficult. It is ok to admit it. I cannot wait for it to be over. And I am frustrated by my complete lack of control over how long it will last. But, someday we will be together again. And Jesus will be among us.

May you lean into the Bible this week. May you keep the main thing the main thing. Do not make the mistake of spending more time talking about Covid-19 than about Jesus during Holy Week. Let the Bible ease your burden in preaching the gospel. After all, the Scriptures, as my own tradition has affirmed, “containeth all things necessary to salvation.”

The Holy Spirit has an astonishing ability to apply the Scriptures to our lives in every season of the soul, even those for which we were thoroughly unprepared.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.

Top Ten Most Read Posts of the Past Year and What I Learned

I’ve taken some time to look at trends and statistics on my use of social media and blogging. I’ve learned quite a bit, particularly through conversations with people who do this really well. Adam Weber, founding pastor of Embrace, was particularly generous and insightful in an online exchange last week. (Check out his book Talking with God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray.)

Most interesting to me in all of this was seeing a report of my top read posts over the past year. A few quick thoughts:

I was encouraged by how high up a few very recent posts were. The fourth most read post in the past 365 days, for example, was written just last week. Two more were written about a month ago.

I was surprised by how strong some posts I wrote a long time ago are still doing. Four of the top ten read posts in the last year were not written in the past year. And three of those are about a decade old.

The posts I have written that have had the longest shelf life are mostly in the “Wesley Didn’t Say It” series I did years ago. These posts focus on quotes popularly attributed to John Wesley that are not actually in the written historical record.

The most exciting thing to me in looking at this list is the interest in holiness and entire sanctification by my readers. I have just finished a short book on entire sanctification and am encouraged to see interest in this topic!

Here are the top ten most read posts from the past year:

1. Wesley Didn’t Say It: Set Myself on Fire… Watch Me Burn

The comments on this post, and the others in this series, reveal how passionately some people want Wesley to have said these things.

2. Methodism Is in the Details: Moving from Breadth Back to Depth

This would be on the short list of posts I have written that was received by some people in a way I did not intend when I wrote it.

3. Wesley Didn’t Say It: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can…

This post led to one of my favorite memories blogging. Hillary Clinton quoted this in her acceptance speech for the Presidential Nomination of the Democratic Party. As soon as she said these words, my blog got a ton of traffic. But the best part was that she did not attribute the quote to John Wesley! Clinton introduced the quote by saying, “She made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith: ‘Do all the good you can…’” The story I’m making up is that one of her speech writers read this post in the process of writing the speech. That would be about as good as it gets as far as my hope for this series.

4. Brief Thoughts on Online Communion and Resources for a Better Way

I wrote this post last week. Most of you reading this have likely made your decisions about whether to celebrate communion online. I have learned a lot through the conversations I’ve had online and on the phone related to this. It has been fascinating to me how different our assumptions are about almost everything related to communion in contemporary Methodism.

5. John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Methodism

This was the post I was the most surprised to see in this list. And when I read it, I was even more surprised to see how short the post is and how much the quote I cite in this post impacts the way that I frame my teaching of Methodist History. I read this quote on the first day of class in Methodist History and use doctrine, spirit, and discipline as the primary lens for the course.

6. The Treasure God Has Entrusted to Methodism

This is a sermon I preached in Tupelo, MS and Tyler, TX recently. (Wow, just writing that hits me with a wave of grief at how much I miss being able to gather with brothers and sisters in the faith for corporate worship.) The strong interest in a sermon on entire sanctification has been very encouraging to me.

7. The Pastor I Hope My Children Will Have

This was a really fun post to write. It was also great because it is one of the few posts I have written that got an almost entirely positive response.

8. Full Salvation Now: The Reason for Methodism

This post was one of my first attempts to argue that the doctrine of entire sanctification is the reason God raised Methodism up. And, Methodism will have no future that is not built upon this doctrine.

9. Growing in Your Faith in a Time of Social Distancing

I was delighted to be asked for permission to publish this in a variety of places. My favorite was seeing the piece translated into Spanish.

10. Wesley Didn’t Say It: Unity, Liberty, Charity

Another quote commonly misattributed to John Wesley. I’m grateful every time I see these posts in my views, as I hope they are helping people be a bit more precise in their use of Wesley. The point of this series was not that I dislike or disagree with these quotes. It was simply that we have no historical evidence that Wesley actually said them, so we shouldn’t say that he did.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.

Brief Thoughts on Online Communion and Resources for a Better Way

Should United Methodist pastors celebrate communion online? The question arose for me when I received an email from my bishop announcing that he was granting permission to “celebrate the sacrament of holy communion through a recorded or online worship service to which people are invited to gather as a congregation from a distance.”

From what I gathered a significant majority of United Methodist bishops in the U.S. have granted permission in similar ways.

My intent here is not to find fault or take cheap shots at our bishops. I recognize that this is an unprecedented time in the life of United Methodism. I also realize that our bishops are working extremely hard and are being pulled in a variety of different directions in this season. They are having to make rapid decisions in a variety of areas, for which no one was really prepared. I do not fault them for this. And I believe they are doing the best that they can.

I write this post to share a handful of resources that I implore you to consider before you choose to open the door to online communion. The fact that your bishop has given you permission to celebrate communion online does not mean that you have to celebrate communion online. The challenge in the current moment is that the recent actions are in tension with the most careful consideration about communion in times of less tension and stress. Put as simply as I can, the move to permitting online communion is a dramatic departure from the teachings of Methodism. (There are also a host of ecumenical challenges that arise in the wake of this that are beyond the scope of what I can speak to here.)

If you choose not to celebrate communion online this week out of an abundance of caution and to give careful consideration to what is at stake, you can always choose to do it later. A practical concern I have at this stage is that if you take this step Sunday, you will have a very difficult time walking it back later.

Two quick thoughts before I share the best recent resources I’ve seen from United Methodist scholars:

First, online communion is either really communion or it isn’t. The COVID-19 crisis has no actual bearing on whether communion can be celebrated virtually by people who are not able to be together. I think it will be impossible for bishops who have permitted this for only this particular season to justify withdrawing permission to do so after the church is able to gather together in person again.

If online communion isn’t really communion, and that is why the permission is only given for this season, we should not call it communion and we should look for other ways to engage the hunger that people are experiencing for God’s presence.

Part of what you are deciding right now is whether you are willing to normalize online communion going forward. Are you comfortable with someone watching this Sunday’s service at 2am in the morning two years from now and having communion?

Second, the well-intentioned move to permit online communion actually does the opposite of what is intended. Will communion come to have greater value within the church by celebrating online? Or will it be further trivialized?

Part of what has surprised me about this whole conversation is that I have experienced United Methodism as generally fairly disinterested in communion. I know there are exceptions. But I think the sad truth is that few UM churches with ordained elders see communion as absolutely essential to the church’s ministry. I worry that we are overreaching to try to fix things we can’t control in the midst of this crisis. The hard truth is that we can’t fix coronavirus and its drastic impact on the church.

Let me try to express my concern by asking a different question: Will United Methodists be more likely to find renewal in sacramental practice through practicing online communion throughout the coronavirus pandemic (however long it lasts)? Or, will United Methodists be more likely to find renewal in sacramental practice by allowing the longing to be together and receive the body and blood of our Lord and Savior to build in intensity, as it should, until we are able to meet again?

I have a strong suspicion the second is more likely to lead to renewal than the first.

I already feel strong anticipation for the first week my church comes back together and I am able to receive the sacrament in the midst of a mass of humanity. I am longing to kneel at the altar to pray, as I am nourished again by the sacrament of Holy Communion. Sometimes it is better to wait, even when expectation builds and there is a gnawing hunger for God, than to force an alternative practice that cheapens the thing itself.

This is one of those times. The United Methodist Church would be wise to allow the desire everyone is experiencing for incarnate connection and community to build until it can be experienced fully again.

The above thoughts are mostly pragmatic responses I’ve had as I have been wrestling with this. Here are three crucial resources that provide insight and guidance for thinking theological about ministry in this season. Please make time to check these out!

Justus Hunter, who teaches at United Theological Seminary, has written “Communion in Chaos in the UMC” at that explores the initial rationale for online communion and provides helpful background.

Andrew Thompson encourages us to “Celebrate a Eucharistic Fast” in his piece at Ministry Matters. I’m grateful for Andrew’s contribution. He wrote his dissertation on John Wesley’s theology of the means of grace at Duke Divinity School.

Ministry Matters has also developed a section of their site focused on Christian Worship and Devotion During Social Distancing: A Resource for United Methodists. I highly recommend reading through the variety of articles and resources there. They address different aspects of faithful leadership in this challenging season.

This is a difficult time to be in ministry. I am praying regularly for the church that I love. We have good options for ministering as effectively as we can in this era of “social distancing.” And we can do this in ways that actually increase a desire for gathering together to worship Jesus and receive communion when the current restrictions are lifted.

For those of you who are pastors in this season, you face a variety of very difficult decisions. May the Holy Spirit guide and direct your steps and enable your faithfulness now and in the days to come. Amen.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.

What the Church Can Learn from My Neighborhood

There is a lot that the church can learn from my neighborhood. If you live in a neighborhood, I bet you are seeing many similar examples that could further illustrate the point I’m making here. Let me start with a story:

On Saturday my wife and I were sitting outside while our kids jumped on the trampoline (which is worth its weight in gold right now). We noticed one car after another driving past our house, more slowly than normal.

Are people really so bored that they are just cruising the neighborhood?! At one point, Melissa observed that she had seen the same car go by multiple times. Weird.

Later that day, we went for a walk and visited with neighbors who were out in their yard. We visited with them for a few minutes and learned that there was a bear hunt in our neighborhood. Word had spread through Facebook and we had missed it.

A bear hunt? Some of you may have already seen this or had it happen where you live. Basically, people hid bears (think the cuddly stuffed animal variety) in various places where people could seem them by simply slowly driving by their house. Maybe in the blinds of a bedroom window. Or peeking out of an open mailbox.

In the midst of social distancing and orders to shelter in place, people in my neighborhood found ways to connect and be together without being together in the usual way.

People are finding creative ways to be together as much as possible in this season. I think the pull to virtual spaces is causing people to crave in person interactions all that much more. Here are a few other ways I’m seeing this:

There are way more people than normal walking and jogging in our neighborhood. When I have been exercising, I’ve also noticed that people are greeting each other more frequently and in more depth than they ordinarily do. Maybe social distancing is making even introverts extroverted, at least for a season.

We have another neighbor who bought an awesome looking inflatable slip-n-slide. They have been out in their yard almost every single time I have been by their house. And they live on a corner, so they are in a kind of hub of our part of the neighborhood. They are connecting really well in this season with their neighbors.

I’ve also noticed that more people than normal are working in their yards. (I know that this is the season, so I could be wrong. But it feels like it is more than ordinary.) This is not only an opportunity to see people who are out and about, it also feels like a way in which we are being reminded of what is real and physically present in front of us in a season where so many normal physical interactions have been taken away from us.

I’m not sure our flower beds have looked this good since we bought our house! And if that hasn’t been true for others, I think it has been the case for us.

So, here is what the church can learn from my neighborhood:

People want to be together.

They will find beautifully creative ways to connect (bear hunts!) if the ordinary ways of connecting are removed from them (Saturday youth baseball games and birthday parties).

Many churches are rightly doing everything that they can to help people connect as best as they can online in this season. Churches are holding online worship services. Many pastors and other leaders in the church are creating video messages and updates to stay connected with people. People are even *gasp* using their phones to call members of the church and check in on them!

All of these things are to be commended.

I have even taught Sunday School on Zoom the last two weeks. I didn’t know I had it in me! And I have been surprised by how many people have showed up and how much I’ve loved connecting with them in this way.

At the end of the day, people want to be together. And the gathered community is ultimately where it is at. It is what people (Christians and non-Christians) need.

This week, as I have been at home and more attentive to what is happening around me, I have found myself hoping and praying that churches will begin preparing now for the next time they can be together. I hope that we will not try to push every single thing we do when we are together to virtual space.

I hope that at some level we will let the pain of not being able to gather together just be. I hope we will let it serve as a reminder of what a blessing it was (and will be) to be able to drive to church and gather together with brothers and sisters in the faith. Give hugs and handshakes. And just be in the crowd.

There are creative ways we can try to be together as fully as we can until we meet again. But the truth is none of those ways are able to replace the real thing.

And believe it or not, that is actually good news.

Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you.