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.