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On Becoming a United Methodist: The Opportunities Before Us

This is the third part of a four-part series in which I reflect on my journey toward becoming one of Wesley’s people—a pastor in the United Methodist Church. You can read part one, I’m not Crazy, right here. You can check out part two, Ringside with Calvin and Wesely, right here. Check out the third post, Hurdles to Renewal. 

I recently came across a Wesley quote that I just had to sit with for a while:

I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God’s creational intentions.

As I said when I first read it: wow. As it turns out, Wesley’s dream and prayer is my dream and prayer—not only for the Methodist Church but for the Church Universal. When I think about the Methodist Church, I often have this gut feeling that there is so much potential for us to leverage. 

Sure, that potential might be latent—but if we could recover Wesley’s vision for our movement, we could become a powerful force for spiritual renewal on a global scale. In fact, in some corners, we already are. Here are some opportunities that lie before us, that if we leverage appropriately, could make Wesley’s dream a reality. 

1: There is a United Methodist Church in every county of the United States. OK, so I can’t substantiate this for the life of me, but I hear about it pretty much everywhere I go. I do know that we’re the third largest denomination in the US, with nearly eight million members. But let’s put it this way: there are a whole lot of Methodist Church buildings across the country, and if every one of those churches recovered the Gospel and chose to be others-focused… Wow. In other words, we have material resources up to our eyeballs—we just have to use them appropriately.

2: John Wesley is the original architect for service-oriented small groups. Long before Mars Hill’s Community Groups model took the nation by storm, or Adult Bible Fellowships became a Baptist standard, Wesley was organizing people into class meetings for mutual spiritual growth, accountability, and service. As I noted in my last post, the class meeting has been removed from the Book of Discipline, which was a punch straight to the sternum for our movement. But lying dormant in our DNA is a powerful tool for discipleship and service. If we recover this model and take it seriously, we can really make disciples for the transformation of the world. 

3: The United Methodist Church is globally poised for global transformation. I’m not aware of any other church that only makes decisions as a global body—which means we had a global social network before Facebook was even a twinkle in the world’s eye. Because we make decisions as a global body, we have opportunity to become an international movement of disciples making disciples.

As C.S. Lewis once said, “There are far, far better things ahead than anything we could leave behind.” I often want to plaster this across my forehead when I talk to the man-on-the-street (or should it be, man-in-the-pew) Methodist: sure, we might have to change what church means to you for us to become a vibrant movement, but is that the worst thing that could ever happen? What lies ahead is far better than what we live with now. 

What opportunities do you see the UMC needs to take advantage of? How would you suggest we do it? 

On Becoming a United Methodist: Hurdles to Methodist Renewal

This is the third part of a four-part series in which I reflect on my journey toward becoming one of Wesley’s people—a pastor in the United Methodist Church. You can read part one, I’m not Crazy, right here. You can check out part two, Ringside with Calvin and Wesely, right here.

Having spent less than a year in Methodist circles, my more ‘conservative’ friends often ask me what stands between the Methodist church and a bright future of thriving ministry. 

This, of course, is a loaded question. Like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” it assumes a whole lot. In some corners, the Methodist church is thriving—I happen to be in a church that is, and I happen to know of a few that are doing really well.

Yet, the point remains, and it’s well-taken. When many people think of Methodists, they think of old, dying churches filled with old, dying people—and sadly, that might be true in some places. So where are the hurdles? In reality, they are the same hurdles that have tripped us up for decades—that is to say, the hurdles before us are the same as the hurdles behind us. 

HurdlesMy sense of things—and remember, I’ve been hanging around these folks for less than a year—is that the Methodist church is in decline because in many corners, the church became more about us than it did about them. We became social clubs and community centers instead of a living, breathing movement of God’s people making disciples for the transformation of the world. (Which is the UMC mission statement, by the way.) 

In the face of a rapidly changing world, we turned inward. Many UMC churches represent that in their architecture: sanctuaries that look like a boat turned upside down, reminiscent of an ark that will shield us from the untamable cultural waters all around us. So we became about us, and did the things that feel like we’re being missional while never actually having to be.

The second hurdle is similar but different: we lost the Gospel. This is a remarkably easy thing to do in any church; we just did it a while ago and are finally realizing that we did it. The major contribution of the Gospel Coalition movement has been the insistence on simply using the word ‘gospel’ a whole lot. Sometimes this drives me crazy—if I read another blog post that ends with ‘believe the Gospel’ I’ll scream. 

Yet, they have realized something key: the way we talk shapes reality, and by talking about the Gospel we become people who keep the Gospel central in our lives and our churches. I find that I’m one of the only Methodists who uses the word ‘Gospel’ with any frequency, and Gospel-centered ministry is a major part of the DNA of the new faith community I’ll be leading. 

Here’s the freaky thing: Wesley predicted that this would happen. He said, 

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

Scary, huh?

What Wesley realized is this: when you lose doctrine, you lose your identity—instead of being clear about our beliefs, the UMC has taken a stance of “openness,” trying to brand itself as a “big tent” in which anybody can find a place. But the problem with that is when you aim at everything, you aim at nothing. Clarity and conviction are compelling (ooh, sorry for that preacher moment) and there isn’t anything intriguing about being open to everything. 

Further, we left behind the discipline when we decided that class meetings—the small groups at heart of Wesley’s vision for the Methodist movement—were no longer really necessary. Wesley was doing Gospel Communities, Life Groups, or whatever-your-church-calls-them centuries before we decided that was cool—the irony is that we got rid of class meetings right around the time when small groups grew into popularity. When we got rid of class meetings we denied our identity. 

Wesley also comments on the spirit of the Methodists. What is the Methodist spirit? As I’ve alluded to before, it’s the drive to seek out the least, the last, and the lost as a loving community of disciples. In this case, the Methodist spirit lives, albeit in an unexpected way. 

Remember, Methodism began as a fringe movement in the Church of England, and this fringe movement lives on in the Methodist Church. In my corner of the Methodsit world, that fringe movement is expressed through two weekend experiences: Walk to Emmaus and Kairos Prison Ministry. Hang around these organizations, and you’ll find the Methodist spirit lives on in ministries that seek to make disciples who live in community, serving the world together. 

Our ability to become a vital church again rises and falls on our ability to get clear about the Gospel, be others-focused, and return to the doctrines, the spirit, and disciplines Wesley gave to us. It’s a hard road, but in the next—and final—post of this series, I’ll address what opportunities lie before us if we get back on the horse. 

So, Wesley’s movement lives, but maybe not in the way you’d think. What obstacles do you see before the UMC—and how do you think we need to navigate them?

On Becoming United Methodist: Ringside with Calvin and Wesley

This is the second part of a four-part series in which I reflect on my journey toward becoming one of Wesley’s people—a pastor in the United Methodist Church. You can read part one, I’m not Crazy, right here. 

When my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I sent her an Amazon wish list with three items on it: Calvin’s Institutes, Fred Sander’s theological biography on John Wesley, John Wesley: The Heart Renewed in Love, and a collection of John Wesley’s writings. 

Nerd alert!

While at Wheaton, I learned to love reading books by dead people. Throughout my program, I had at least one historical mentor, and it’s a practice I’ve chosen to continue. For 2014, and most likely beyond that, I’ve chosen to read Wesley and Calvin together, in conversation with each other.

As I’ve sat ringside with these men, watching them duke it out with their opponents, I’ve come to appreciate each more and more—and to have burning questions for each, too.

Here are the three things I’ve learned while reading Wesley and Calvin. 

Wesley1: I want to be friends with Wesley. I’d avoid Calvin at parties. Here’s the deal: Calvin is kind of a jerk. He likes to insult his opponent’s intelligence and character, and is kind of reminiscent of the cool kids in high school that were just mean to everyone. (His favorite word for those who disagree with him is ‘miscreant,’ which you have to hand it to him, is a pretty cool word.) But Calvin is a jerk, and I think I’d feel awkward if someone said, “Hey, you’re friends with Calvin, right?” 

Meanwhile, Wesley is just a cool guy. He’s now been added to my list of people that I’d like to eat a meal with if they could come back from the dead. Wesley is intense, but personable; focused, but understanding; passionate, but charitable. Of course, Wesley did just hate Calvinism, but he also once said, “I think on justification just as I have done any time these seven and twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him a hair’s breadth.”

2: Wesley is far more charitable than Calvin. Wesley never wrote a systematic theology—which is why some say, and rightly, there is not a theological backbone in the Methodist tradition. Wesley was a practical man, so the textbook for his movement were his Standard Sermons. Practical theology for a very practical people.

In that, Wesley is a very charitable man. That’s not to say that he’s without fiery retorts for those who differ from him. (OK, so he called Calvinism a heresy once…) But for the most part, Wesley’s fire was for people who distorted the Gospel—mostly preachers who taught a dull morality in churches instead of a robust, Gospel-centered way of living. He was rather charitable toward men and women of other traditions, and you have to remember, wasn’t setting out to start a new denomination as much as he was trying to renew the Church at that time. 

3: There is something to be said for organization, clarity, and yes, systematic theology. Calvin’s contribution in the Institutes is an ordered, systematized theological way of thinking for Christians. Wesley’s lack thereof makes some of his thinking hard to understand; even the most intelligent Wesley scholars struggle to see what he means by ‘Christian perfection.’ (See Sander’s book for an excellent chapter on that!) It’s also hard to grasp what he was trying to go for when he teaches on works of righteousness. 

Sometimes a book with bullet points and an outline is just easier to think through. I think the lack of a systematic approach, a blueprint, if you will, leaves the Methodist movement prone to theological wishy-washy-ness. (It may also explain why The Book of Discipline, our guiding document as a movement and a church, is so vague!)

So there you have it. If you haven’t, I’d again challenge you to read something by Wesley. A suggestion: try Wesley’s sermon, The Lord Our Righteousness, which is number 20 in the Standard Sermons. Don’t cast a stone without giving him a chance, and this is a sermon that, I think, far outweighs most of the historical sermons I’ve read in the Reformed tradition. 

What do you know about John Wesley? Have you ever read anything by him? What has stopped you from reading him? 

On Becoming a United Methodist: I’m Not Crazy

This is the first of a four-part series in which I reflect on my journey toward becoming one of Wesley’s people—a pastor in the United Methodist Church. 

True confessions: when I tell people I work at a United Methodist Church, I feel a great urge to quickly follow it with, “But I’m not crazy.” 

For many who know me, and many who don’t, I am an anomaly. Raised in a conservative Evangelical home, trained at two conservative Evangelical colleges, for many (including me) there is something wrong with this picture. 

How did this guy become a Methodist?

People who know me, and people who don’t, often have a lot of questions. As well they should—it’s no secret that the UMC is in decline, and that it is a strikingly different tradition from the one in which I was raised and the one in which I studied. There are, rightfully, many concerns about the denomination’s stance on well, more issues than I’d like to admit (chief of which is the definition of marriage, and in some places, issues of biblical authority).

I often wonder if people think I went off the deep end. You might feel this if you knew me in years past, and now see that I’m pastoring in the UMC. You might feel this if you’re in the UMC and see me through more mainline eyes, and find out where I went to school.

So why become a pastor in the UMC? I could write about this for ages, and of course God’s leading had something to do with it. But if I were being honest, I came to the UMC not because of where I wanted to work, but for whom I wanted to work. 

Rick and Brigitta at Our Wedding! My boss is one of my closest friends and most trusted counselors. I interned for Rick throughout my years at Moody, and he performed my wedding ceremony. We’re close, and had always talked about working together—though to be truthful, I never thought it would happen. But it did, and I really enjoy working for him. 

Oddly, I’ve also grown to love being a United Methodist. In a culture of Evangelicalism that is inundated by the Reformed thinking of John Calvin and others, it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing a Wesleyan tradition. But I’m choosing a Wesleyan tradition, not necessarily because of his soteriology (read: his theology on how a person is saved) but because of his ecclesiology (read: his theory and practice of what it means to be the church). 

I’ll write more on this later—I’m spending this year reading Calvin’s Institutes and a collection of Wesley’s sermons and other writings at the same time, and coming to surprising conclusions. But for now, here are three things you might not know about the United Methodist Church, and why I’m coming to love it. 

1: The United Methodist Church is an explicitly global church. Unlike other mainline denominations in the US, the UMC can only make practical or theological decisions when gathered as a global church every four years at the General Conference. This is why the UMC hasn’t ‘officially’ changed their policy on marriage—Conferences in the Global South, especially in Africa and India, refuse to go with the West’s cultural flow. 

2: The United Methodist Committee on Relief is an incredibly effective organization. Hang around the UMC long enough and you’ll dissever we can out-acronym any Bible college in the continental US. UMCOR is one of the largest relief organizations in the world (I’ve heard it’s the largest, but I can’t substantiate that fact yet). It serves more than 80 countries—and get this: 100% of money given to UMCOR goes right to those in need. If you know anything about relief organizations, this should stun you as much as it did me

3: A rich tradition of Gospel-centered ministry expressed in a deep concern for the least, the last, and the lost. Anyone who balks at the Wesleyan tradition, Arminian theology, or just thinks that they are a Reformed smarty-pants hasn’t read Wesley’s A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists. No one, and I mean no one, in the history of the church developed a more robust, relational, Gospel-focused movement of discipleship. From the earliest moments of the Methodist movement (which began as a renewal movement within the Church of England) there was a concern for those in need—spiritually and materially. 

I recently began the process to become a candidate for ministry in the UMC, the first step toward ordination. These reasons, and more, have compelled me to become one of Wesley’s people. There is a tradition here that still lives, in some corners, to be about the Gospel and about the business of saving souls. 

That’s why I’m becoming a United Methodist—not because I’m crazy. Or, maybe, because I’m just crazy enough. 

What has been your opinion of the United Methodist Church? How does this post inform the way you think of the UMC? 

Social Media, Controversy, and “Love Wins”

Scot McKnight has just put out a great piece reflecting on Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which created quite a controversy amongst Evangelicals a few weeks ago. He has put together ten reflections not only on the book itself, but also on the discussions that took place across the web during the weeks that followed the book’s release.

An interesting quote:

First, social media is where controversial ideas will be both explored and judged. We no longer read books patiently, type out letters to denominational offices, find common agreements and then summon the Christian leader behind closed doors to ask questions and sort out concerns. It’s all public, it’s all immediate and everyone weighs in because social media is about as radical a form of democracy as exists. To be sure, this means the uninformed heavy-handed can weigh in as easily as the patient, careful, critical and balanced reader. But social media is not going away so we should realize what we are getting into before we walk into the room.

Interesting to compare this quote with another by Quentin Schultze, from his book Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Baker:2004):

For all the rhetoric about cyber-community, the Internet is less a forum for shared public life than an arena for individuals to express their egos and find information in tune with their personal needs and desires. (180)

These two quotes don’t at all oppose each other, but actually go hand-in-hand. McKnight notes that social media create a “radical form of democracy,” in which anyone and everyone (including me!) can weigh in on anything and everything. The problem is, according to Schultze, that this “democracy” is less about community and more about expression of ego. This is far more true of the “uninformed heavy-handed” than the “patient, careful, critical and balanced reader,” because the former spouts off (often via Re-Tweet) before ever actually engaging in the arguments going on, or for that matter knowing, exactly, what the book is about.

I must confess that I have never read the book, and so I would like to point out that my interest in this post has very little to do with Bell or Love Wins, but has very much to do with social media, shared “community” and controversy.

Thoughts? Do social media help or hinder thoughtful conversation? Or do they simply create controversy?

HT: @RELEVANTmag

What Their Own Fingers Have Made

They bow down to idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.

–Isaiah 2:8

Since January, I’ve been using a reading plan to get through the whole Bible (actually, the OT once and the NT and Psalms twice) in one year. I started Isaiah yesterday, and came across this verse today. As I read it, hazelnut-infused coffee in one hand, and  my Sharpie pen in the other, I scribbled it onto a post it note, to add to the verses that make me think of a theology of technology.

I’ve spent most of this week frantically doing homework, busily preparing my talk for this evening, keeping up with the blog, and doing a million other things. The common denominator of these tasks is the computer screen I’m staring at right now. Someone told me with concern yesterday that my eyes were bloodshot and red–I realized that it was probably because I’d spent about five to six hours staring at the screen.

So then comes this verse: “they bow down to the works of their hands.” I’m fascinated by my honest need to stare at this screen all day (I do have things to do) with such intensity and such focus. Rarely do I have such concentration elsewhere. I’ve had this netbook for two years now, and the keys are worn, familiar to my fingers.

I can’t say that I use this thing which was made by man’s fingers with lust and idolatry in my heart. I can’t say that I ever bow down into my heart. Yet, as Postman points out, we often end up being used by our technologies more than we use them.

What do you think? Are we the users or the used? If someone with no technological background observed us and our devices, would they use Isaiah’s words to describe us?

Sam Storms on Forgiveness

Here is a great piece by Sam Storms, “Forgiveness: What it Is and Isn’t.”

A good quote:

The point is that forgiveness does not mean you are to ignore that a wrong was done or that you deny that a sin was committed. Forgiveness does not mean that you close your eyes to moral atrocity and pretend that it didn’t hurt or that it really doesn’t matter whether or not the offending person is called to account for his/her offense. Neither are you being asked to diminish the gravity of the offense, or to tell others, “Oh, think nothing of it; it really wasn’t that big of a deal after all.” Forgiveness simply means that you determine in your heart to let God be the avenger. He is the judge, not you.

This is especially helpful as we deal with people who have undergone abuse and harm by loved ones or strangers. A good friend of mine was told by his church that he needed to forgive his father, who had sexually abused him for years, and move on with his life–to the point of sitting in the same pew. Forgiveness does not invite us to ignorance, but to a deeper kind of knowing that places the pain firmly into our story.

If you are engaged in caring for souls, this is a must-read and a healthy reminder.

HT: Justin Taylor