Re-Imagining the Gospel

Many of us will remember the 1993 Re-Imagining conference held in Minneapolis which drew so much national attention.  The central purpose of the conference, as I recall, was to help the wider church more fully support the role of women in leadership in the church.  This was, and continues to be, an important conversation in the church and I, for one, support the full participation of women in the life and work of the church.  However, the conference (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) quickly became a time to “re-imagine” the doctrines of God, church, salvation and so forth.  So what could have been a careful reading of Scripture and the history of the church in light of new and real challenges, became an open denunciation of historic Christian faith.  Songs were sung to a God/dess Sophia.  One of the plenary speakers was famously asked about the doctrine of the atonement.  She replied that we “don’t need a theory of atonement” and then went on to say that “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping and weird stuff.”  That statement speaks for itself.

It is perhaps time for a new Re-Imagining conference, but this time a call to re-imagine a church faithful to the gospel and historic faith. Perhaps this General Conference, or a future one, could truly become a re-imagining conference.  I would like to re-imagine a few things by invoking our collective memory of the following:

First, let’s remember that the United Methodist Church is the greatest church planting movement in the history of the United States.  No other denomination in our history has planted a church in every county in the country.  That is an astonishing feat.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great new church planting movement?

Second, let’s remember that our movement has produced some of the most effective, reproducible models for Christian nurture and discipleship in history.  Our very name, ‘Methodist’ was a reflection of the strict ‘method’ we used for discipling new believers.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great discipling movement?

Third, let’s not forget that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was fully Trinitarian.  It wasn’t enough to be justified by Christ.  One must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t enough to be “declared righteous” (alien, imputed righteousness), we must be “made righteous” (imparted righteousness).  The linking of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying grace in the writings of Wesley remains one of his great legacies.  We have a message of transforming grace.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a movement of grace and life?

We live in a day when the church seems to work overtime to erase every possible distinction between the world and the church.  However, the world needs Jesus Christ.  The world needs to hear the gospel.  The world needs the wonderful ministry of the church as an embodied community living out all the realities of the New Creation in the midst of a broken world.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves with a prophetic imagination.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves as a gospel proclaiming, church planting, disciple making, grace filled movement bringing life and hope to all!

Is this possible?  Do I have hope for the United Methodist Church?  Yes it is.  The very Christ we proclaim in the gospel is the greatest impossibility made possible. In fact, the gospel emerges in the context of two “impossibilities.”  As someone once noted, He entered the world through a door marked “no entry” (a virgin womb).  He left through a door marked “no exit” (a tomb).  Two “impossibilities” made possible in Jesus Christ.   Yes, we can imagine the “impossible” made possible again!

General Conference and the Future of the United Methodist Church

In a matter of days delegates from all over the USA and the world will be arriving for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This gathering, occurring only once every four years, is intended to be a time of “holy conferencing” where the church focuses on theological, organizational, procedural and strategic matters so that the church might more faithfully serve Christ in the world. The last general conference which was characterized by a fresh wind of hope and optimism was the 1968 “uniting” conference held in Dallas, Texas which brought the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.  The eleven general conferences since then (1972 until 2012) have been characterized by an increasing sense of despair and doom.  After all, 1968 was the last time the Methodist movement posted a net growth in membership.

We were once a powerful evangelistic movement.  Now, we are forever searching for new ways to manage our decline.  Endless studies and reports and commissions and re-structuring and new slogans (Open hearts, open minds, open doors) have ensued over the years.  None of these well intentioned initiatives have halted – or even really understood – the nature of this decline.  It will probably take a least three more cycles of general conferences before the following suggestions can be heard.  Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions to consider:

First, the University Senate of the United Methodist Church must insist that all United Methodist Seminaries (official and approved) embody a truly Wesleyan ethos and theology which is faithful to our history.  If you take time (as I have on many occasions) to talk to the pastors and lay people within the larger family of the Wesleyan tradition (e.g. United Methodist, Wesleyan church, Free Methodist, Nazarene, etc.) you will quickly discover that the United Methodist pastors and lay people are the least familiar with the core theological perspectives of John Wesley, including prevenient grace, sanctification, holiness, etc…  Most United Methodist Churches must reclaim what it means to be a Methodist church.  This begins in Seminary training and then must be reinforced in the life of the church.  Millions of dollars from the MEF fund goes to fund United Methodist Seminaries (Just for the record, not a penny goes to Asbury) without any concomitant insistence that the “product” of these seminaries is formed by a Wesleyan perspective.

Second, the bishops must certify that all pastors are historically orthodox.  It is essential that we remember that Methodism is a part of the great stream of historic Christian confession.  We resonate with Christians all over the world in our confession of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  We have permitted far too much doctrinal latitude within the church.  Men and women pastors who, for example, can no longer affirm the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and so forth should not be permitted to continue as ordained clergy.   We shouldn’t forget that Church discipline is one of the three historic marks of the church.

Third, the Seminaries who train United Methodist clergy must reclaim biblical preaching.  We were once known for powerful, biblical preaching.  Today it is not uncommon to sit in a Methodist church and hear very weak sermons.  They are weak theologically, intellectually, biblically and homiletically.  They are often based on bland moralizing and a few cute stories, but not the kind of robust Christianity of the New Testament which is powerfully proclaimed, intellectually compelling, theologically sound and biblically rooted.  Having spent most of my life in theological education, I am convinced that students can be trained to preach and teach well.

Fourth, United Methodist churches across the nation must learn how to engage a post-Christian culture. The Millennial generation self identifies as approximately 7% Christian.  This is only 2% from being eligible to be classified as an unreached people-group.  This means that all churches in North America must regain their missional footing.  We are a people on a mission.  North America is the fastest growing mission field in the world.  This, of course, involves social action, healing, evangelism, apologetics, radical service and much, much more.   But, we can no longer assume that we are at the center of Western culture.  We are now on the margins prophetically helping this new generation imagine the even greater realities of the inbreaking kingdom.

Finally, we must be a people of prayer and repentance.  The true church is always characterized by prayer and a spirit of repentance.  We have not been faithful to God.  We need His grace in our midst.  I was in Costa Rica in December and had the privilege of preaching at a general conference of all the Methodist pastors, District Superintendents and the bishop (Bishop Palomo).  It was truly inspiring to see all these men and women on their faces before God weeping for the sins of their nation, asking God to have mercy on his church.  I witnessed Bishop Palomo moving from pastor to pastor, praying for them and anointing them for renewed ministry.  I felt like I was in the middle of a movement again – it was the 18th century all over again, but in Costa Rica.

Return to our roots, remember the gospel, re-engage the world and stay on our knees – that is the simplest advice for the delegates of the General Conference to remember as they engage in the “holy conferencing” in Tampa, Florida.  It may be a few more years before the wider church can hear this, but keep planting those seed!   Let’s prepare for renewal today.  I, for one, have not lost hope.  Let’s expect God to do, as He did in Ezekiel’s day, a great miracle by breathing His life into these dead bones again.

Jesus Christ is Risen! An Examination of Creeds and Confessions

As we celebrate Easter we are all reminded afresh about what lies at the heart of Christian faith; namely, that Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead, triumphing over evil, sin and death.  St. Paul declares that if Jesus Christ is not risen we are still in our sins and our preaching is useless (I Cor. 15:12-20).  This is why it is so important that Christians regularly confess the historic creeds of the faith (Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).  These creeds remind us of the heart of the Christian faith. I am amazed at the quiet disappearance of Creeds in many worship services today.

To see the value of a creed we must first understand the difference between a creed and a confession of faith.  A creed is a historic declaration of the faith which unites all Christians throughout the world and across the annals of time. It is, if I can use the word, an ecumenical statement, i.e. it is for the whole “house of faith.”  A confession of faith, on the other hand, may emphasize certain beliefs that a particular group of Christians want to emphasize but does not unite the whole house of faith.

Take, for example, the collections at the back of the United Methodist hymnal.  The UMC hymnal has nine “confessions” all under the general heading “Affirmations of Faith.”  What follows, more precisely, are the two creeds (Nicene and Apostles), four confessions of faith (United Church of Canada, Korean Methodist church, a Modern affirmation and the World Methodist Social Affirmation), and, finally, there are three affirmations from three passages of Scripture (from Romans 8, Colossians 1 and I Timothy).  It is rather unfortunate that no explanation is given as to the vital differences between these.

The United Church of Canada statement has a rather vague statement of the incarnation, is not explicitly Trinitarian, and totally omits the ascension of Jesus Christ.  The Korean Methodist church statement boldly confesses that Jesus Christ is the “redeemer and savior of the world” but curiously omits the crucifixion of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the ascension of Christ.  It would be hard to reconstruct the meta-narrative of the New Testament if one only had the Korean Methodist Church statement. The Modern Affirmation likewise omits the crucifixion, resurrection and the ascension of Christ.  The World Methodist Social Affirmation confuses the two uses of the word “confession.”  It begins as a “confession” meaning a declaration of faith, but then drifts into a “confession”  about how we have not lived up to the truth of the gospel through our sin, violation of human dignity, exploitation of people, etc.  It is, of course, a good thing to confess our sins publicly (see earlier blogs on this point), but a confession of faith is supposed to be about what He has done, not what we have not done.  The Scriptural affirmations are, of course, wonderful and should be used in public worship.  We need more Scripture read, not less.

Thus, my word of advice on this collection at the back of the United Methodist Hymnal is that United Methodist churches should politely avoid using any of the four confessions in public worship.  They are simply too weak theologically to sustain the faith of the church and they do not unite us with the church throughout the world and back in time. Instead, we should include as a normal component of worship a creed, Nicene or Apostles, or a Scriptural affirmation (Romans 8, Colossians 1, or 1Timothy).