Who is Gonzaga?

March madness is finally over, reaching its frenzied climax in the big NCAA men’s final. Even though North Carolina triumphed, many were amazed that Gonzaga had finally made it to the big NCAA show. This year was the ultimate showdown between the new basketball (Gonzaga) and the “blue bloods” (North Carolina). But now that the dust is settling, perhaps it would be worth looking back and asking, “Who in the world was Gonzaga?” By now, most people know that Gonzaga is a Jesuit university in Spokane. But, few know what the school was named after.

Aloysius de Gonzaga was the oldest son born in 1568 into an Italian aristocratic family. In those days it was customary for the oldest son to serve in the military, and Aloysius was inclined to follow that tradition from the earliest age. However, two things happened which began to turn him to the Lord. First, he witnessed the murder of two of his brothers. Second, he fell ill with a kidney disease. These experiences sent him searching until he eventually felt God calling him to be a Jesuit missionary.

Alousius’ father vigorously opposed his son’s desire to become a priest, because it meant the renunciation of his inheritance, title, land, and so forth. He was even offered a bishopric if he would only become a “secular priest” and avoid the full vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience.” However, Aloysius, after several years of training, took the vows and became a Jesuit. In 1591a plague broke out in Rome and Aloysius volunteered to serve the dying in a hospital in Rome. Aloysius himself eventually caught the plague and he died in 1591 at 23 years old.

He was venerated for many years and eventually in 1729 was declared by pope Benedict XIII to be the patron saint of young students. He was also regarded as the patron saint of plague victims and eventually became the patron saint for all those suffering from AIDS. He is usually shown either with someone suffering from a plague or in the presence of a skull, reminding us of his own early death in the cause of Christ. One of his most famous sayings is the line, “It is better to be a child of God than King of the World.”

Indeed, at this time of the year it will do us well to remember that being “king of the world” or NCAA champions pales in comparison to being a child of God.

The Benedict Option or the Liele Option?

The Benedict Option (Sentinel Press, 2017) by Rob Dreher is a new, best-selling Christian book which caught my attention when it became the cover story of the recent issue of Christianity Today. The subtitle of the book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” What is the Benedict Option? The Benedict “option” is to follow in the path of the 6th century monk, St. Benedict, and set up separate religious communities which allow Christians to create counter-cultural enclaves to survive the “dark ages” which are descending upon western culture. Dreher says that the culture wars are over and, in case you haven’t gotten the memo, Christians lost. There is a rising fundamentalist intolerance among the new cultural elite and, Dreher argues, Christians will increasingly become marginalized in Western society. He goes on to say that “there are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” Thus, the Benedict option is to create new micro-communities of hope and wait out the storm.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to Dreher’s thesis, and this article is not intended to offer either an endorsement or a sustained critique of the Benedict Option. I would only say that the church has been in this situation many times in history and there is a second option which is worth remembering. I will call it the George Liele Option. The story of George Liele is not widely known in our recounting of church history because he was an 18th century slave. He knew first hand what it meant to be marginalized and counted as less than a full person. He managed to work and “buy himself” out of slavery, and eventually became the pastor of the first African Church of Savannah. He later worked as an indentured servant and was able to pay for his wife and four children to relocate to Kingston, Jamaica in 1783, a hub of the transatlantic slave trade. Liele effectively walked right into the heart of one of the most degraded, fallen, and misery-laden places on earth and become a light for the gospel.

When the story of missions is told, it is not unusual to read that William Carey from England was the father of modern missions in the West, or, that Adoniram Judson was the first American missionary to leave the soil of America as a missionary (he went to Burma). However, it is actually George Liele, a former slave, who has the remarkable distinction of being the first American to leave the United States and serve cross-culturally as a missionary. He went to Jamaica a full ten years before William Carey departed for India. Likewise, Judson did not arrive in Asia until 1812, almost three decades after Liele arrived in Jamaica.

The Liele Option is the missional option.  This option is to face the full descent of darkness head on and to bear witness to the light in very public and prophetic ways. Liele formed the first African Baptist Church of Kingston and within ten years the church had grown to over 500 members (For more on George Liele [1750-1828] see, Clement Gayle, George Liele:  Pioneer Missionary of Jamaica [1982] and E. A. Holmes, “George Liele: Negro Slavery’s Prophet of Deliverance,”  Baptist Quarterly 20 [October 1964]: 340-351).

Of course, anyone who knows the history of the monastic movement knows that the Benedict Option is also highly missional. The most dramatic withdrawal from the world is probably associated with St. Simon Stylites the Elder who spent 37 years on top of a small platform on top of a fifty foot pillar in—amazingly—Aleppo, Syria. However, St. Simon became a magnet who drew hundreds to hear the gospel. Many bishops, and even the Emperor, came to him for advice, counsel, and prayer. Likewise, those engaged in overt missional work in the midst of a lost world, human trafficking, or cultural indifference, cannot survive long without being nourished by the Christian community which surrounds them and prays for them.

So, whether we opt for the Benedict Option, or the George Liele Option, we must always remember that we are following Christ himself who commanded us to be “in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:14-18). That command will take radically different forms as we lean towards the “in” side of the equation or the “not of” side of the equation. Yet, both are essential if we are to be faithful in our own time.

Playing the Whole Field

It is not unusual to hear statements which tend to pit social justice concerns against evangelistic concerns. Do we have to choose between “saving souls” and “saving society”? Evangelism, in this usage, is about the proclamation of the good news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sinful people can be forgiven and reconciled to God. Social action, in this usage, refers to the church’s cultural mandate to express God’s love practically through tangible acts of compassion and justice for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the disenfranchised.

Sometimes, though not always, the phrase “social action” vs. “social justice” is distinguished between those who focus on immediate needs (e.g. housing the homeless) and those who focus on larger structural evils and laws which mitigate against the poor (e.g. world bank policies, laws which inadvertently protect sex trafficking, etc.) Is there room in the church for both Mother Teresa and Billy Graham?

Most Christians agree that we must embrace both. The problem comes in the relationship between the two. To put it plainly, is social action a bridge to evangelism? Is social action a natural consequence of evangelism?  What, exactly, is the relationship?

The gospel embraces the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation claims the whole sphere. Christians can’t simply choose to play in one small corner of the chessboard. We must work strategically on the whole board, or we will lose something precious in the gospel. The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically-laden hymns for the church, etc.

You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel. The New Creation does not simply break into one little square on the chess-board—it crashes into the whole of life! If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us—the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history.

Another way of putting this is that in the New Testament there is a fundamental unity between word and deed. This is most seen in and through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

So, let’s not talk about either one being a bridge to the other, or about one being the natural consequence of the other. Let’s talk about a complementary unity whereby the church of Jesus Christ reflects the very incarnation itself.

Re-Arranging Chairs on the Titanic

The 2016 General Conference expressed its will in no uncertain terms that the majority of United Methodists affirm the historic view of Christian marriage as a divinely sanctioned means of grace between a man and a woman. Other marital arrangements, even if sanctioned by the State, do not constitute, in the view of the majority, Christian marriage. This is the overwhelming view of the church throughout the world, and all through church history. Nevertheless, the General Conference authorized a special commission to study the matter over the next few years in the hope of finding a way to secure the unity of the church in the face of an issue which has severed many denominations.

I know that thousands of Methodists around the country are praying earnestly for God’s blessings to be upon the Commission. One of my prayers is that the Commission will recognize that the episcopal mandate was actually too small. Indeed, the deepest flaw of the commission is in the very question which has been posed to the Commission. They have been charged to look at every sentence in the Discipline related to human sexuality and recommend possible changes which might restore unity in the church. The problem, however, is that those of us committed to historic faith in the wesleyan tradition believe that the question before the Commission is way too tiny to actually address the deep ecclesial angst we are in. My deepest longing is not for the United Methodist Church to merely reaffirm an historic view of marriage, or find some “middle way” which will pacify all groups. This issue, after all, is but a symptom of a much deeper issue.

We are not divided, in the final analysis, over the issue of homosexuality. That is merely the presenting issue. The real question before the church is whether or not we intend to align our life, witness and mission to historic faith, biblical fidelity, Christ centered mission and vibrant church planting. This is not about “going back to the 1950’s” when we were equally compromised with a privileged, white middle class view of the world. The challenges we faced in the 1950’s are different from the challenges we face today. We need now what we needed then; namely a return to our roots than anything in the living memory of any of us.

Such a dramatic turn only emerges out of the fires of crisis. That crisis is now upon us. We have bishops (e.g. Bishop Melvin Talbert and Julius Trimble) who have openly defied the Discipline which is the very symbol of our connectionalism and doctrinal unity. We have other churches, like the Orchard United Methodist Church and Getwell Road United Methodist Church in Mississippi who recently voted overwhelmingly to leave the denomination. The Getwell vote was 95%. The Orchard vote was 99%. We all see the tsunami coming.

The General Conference has, in effect, charged a group of United Methodist leaders to re-arrange chairs on the Titanic, and failed to address the deeper reality that the United Methodist ship has been struck by a fatal blow which, if not addressed, will sink the ship. Our deepest prayers should be far more expansive. It begins with a commitment to biblical and historic fidelity. We must first restore our orientation back to historic Christian faith. Second, we must remember our wesleyan heritage which has also been lost. Third, we must devote our energies to missional vibrancy on behalf of a world without Christ. Without these great pillars of strength restored, all other discussions are merely addressing symptoms of a deeper malady. I am, of course, aware that the progressives in our denomination are convinced that they are being biblically faithful, true to Wesley and, above all, missional to this generation. We are, indeed, at an impasse. This is precisely why the larger conversation is so important.

My prayer is that the Commission and the sheer magnitude of the crisis we are in will result in a “moment of truth” for us which could, in the end, result in our rebirth into Christian vibrancy and missional clarity. As I travel across the country, I am seeing vibrant signs of pre-revival. I am hearing the early strains of a great awakening. The great lesson from the 18th century is the importance of travailing prayer during this crucial time. One of the lessons from the 20th century is that no amount of doctrinal concessions to the voices of an increasingly godless and shrill culture will make us “attractive” to the world. The gospel has power for a lost world precisely because it offers a stunning alternative to the world’s madness. We have nothing to offer the world but a bloody cross, which remains a stumbling block in every generation.

One of the ironies of the Commission is that they met this past week at Grace United Methodist church in Atlanta. There are few greater symbols of our plight than the history of that historic church. It was once a place where evangelical faith rang forth under the ministries of faithful pastors such as Cecil Myers and Sam Coker. I know, because I came to personal faith in Jesus Christ in that sacred sanctuary. It was my home church growing up. In the last few decades it has dwindled down to a mere shell of its earlier vibrancy. It is a story which has been repeated across our nation. The Commission was, quite literally, seated in a case study of the decline of the denomination as a whole.

I am praying for the Commission. I just hope that as they discuss how the chairs might be rearranged, someone will have the courage to notice that the entire ship is tilting to one side.

Our “problem” is not limited to a few paragraphs in the Discipline. We are in a struggle for nothing less than the historic faith. Jude prophetically spoke when he said, “I found it necessary to write to you appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who…pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3,4 ).

Repairing the World through Love

Lord Acton, the great historian and parliament member in 19th century Britain coined the famous phrase, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Indeed, the abuse of political power run long and deep in the storied chapters of human history.

This should not be taken as an indictment against either the concept of political power or the legitimacy of government. Rather, it is the basic reminder that when too much power is concentrated into one place, it tends to produce corruption and evil. The United States was founded by men and women who were very familiar with what can happen when a king is granted unlimited power. Therefore, our system of government involves an elaborate series of “checks and balances” to keep power from concentrating in one area. The legislative branch authorizes the expenditure of money and passes laws, but has no power to enforce any law. The executive branch is responsible for enforcing all laws, but cannot make a law. The judicial branch interprets law and determines if they are constitutional or not. The executive can veto a law, but that can be overturned by congress. Many more examples could be given. This is one of the great strengths of our country.

The interesting thing about “checks and balances” is that it is a “check” on power. It is a “balance” on power. In other words, our world has long understood that power must be checked, or it will run afoul and unleash injustices, endless suffering and crushing pain. However, we should never forget that there are no checks and balances on the exercise of love. By love, I am not referring to the sexualized and sentimental orientation of the word ‘love’ in popular culture. Rather, I am referring to love as found in the Hebrew word hesed, which appears nearly 250 times in the Old Testament. The Hebrew hesed means God’s covenantal, steadfast lovingkindness towards us. Hesed is the dominant term used to describe the love or faithfulness of God. In the face of whatever obstacles, we remain committed to the gospel and to the great power of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Our Jewish friends, dating back to the Mishnah, have a wonderful phrase “tikkun olam.” It means to “repair the world.” The Jews understand hesed as the means through which God “repairs the world” (tikkun olam). We all realize that our world is in a mess. Our society is broken. We need to be repaired. In the mystery of the gospel, God does not repair the world through the exertion of raw power. Rather, he repairs the world through love. Hesed is God’s covenant commitment to oppose evil in the world, defeat it, and to establish righteousness on the earth. For a Jew to say, “God loves us” or “God loves me” is not an expression of an emotion. Rather, it is an expression of God’s covenantal commitment to stand by his people and, in the end to vindicate them and sets all things right. As Christians we recognize that God’s hesed love is actually rooted in a Person, Jesus Christ. God’s covenant, His loving faithfulness, his hesed, becomes embodied in Jesus Christ. He alone “repairs the world.” It does not take the shape of a sledge hammer. Through the veil of God’s bearing the world’s brokenness and suffering in the world, we see that the shape of hesed is cruciform. It is the shape of love. It is the shape of laying your life down for your enemies.

We are facing many challenges as a nation. However, we should not despair, or become cynical. Our nation is very resilient. Many of our institutions are in crisis, but this should sharpen our resolve to be faithful in our witness to the gospel. As Christians we must redouble our commitment to holiness, to civility, to hospitality, to sacrificial love, to the privilege of serving as ambassadors of the Triune God in the world. We should rejoice that though power needs checking, there are no checks and balances on love. We must unleash a tsunami wave of compassion. We must unleash an avalanche of love. We must unleash a tidal wave of sacrificial service. The world cannot stop that. There are no checks or balances on love. In fact, it is precisely this kind of robust, sacrificial love which “repairs the world.” Thanks be to God.

Fake News in a Post-Truth World

English continues to be the fastest growing language in the world. This is a sign of a healthy, robust language. Newly emerging words also act like a cultural thermometer revealing where we are as a culture. We are aided in this analysis by the Oxford Dictionary staff who each year chooses a “word of the year” because of its emergence and rise in English usage. The 2016 word of the year is the word (or phrase) “post-truth.” It is defined as follows: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.”

The word post does not mean “after” as much as an “atmosphere”—a vague, but pervasive realization that people are no longer swayed by public facts as they once were in reaching decisions. The word “post-truth” had a roughly 2,000 percent increase in English usage and was particularly evident in the US election cycle, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and the rise of “fact checking” which, remarkably, had little effect on the electorates evaluation of their vote.

In addition to the rise of the word “post-truth” we experienced the concomitant rise of what is known as fake news. Fake news is the handmaiden of post-truth. Entire stories were published which were blatantly fake, or mostly fake, but which had a significant impact on the election. One example was the story which circulated stating that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. The story was blatantly fake, but was difficult to quell because so many people wanted it to be true. We are experiencing the subtle shift from “whatever is, is” to “whatever I want to be true, is.” The former is a truth statement rooted and grounded in public facts. The latter is the projection of what we want to be true, even if it has no grounding in public facts at all.

This has long been documented as a weakness in the popular Islamic world-view. A classic example is the infamous statement made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran who said on September 25, 2007, “there are no homosexuals in Iran.” The media didn’t understand that, from his perspective, if there shouldn’t be homosexuals in Islam, then there, quite obviously, are not any. What many of us failed to fully appreciate was that this is not isolated to Islam, but it is, more fundamentally, a human response in the absence of divine revelation.

As the western world slips with ever increasing rapidity into a post-Christian cultural milieu, I am afraid that we will need to be ever mindful that, we are in a post-truth cultural context, which stands in stark contrast to a Christian world-view which affirms truth claims rooted in God’s self-disclosure. Because God is the creator of the universe, the whole of creation is founded on the bedrock of truth. Therefore, we must become the new vanguard of cultural truth-tellers who adamantly resist all forms of demagoguery which shroud truth for any desired outcome, even if it is a so-called “Christian end.” It would be easy if our struggle were simply over who sits on the Supreme Court, without a deeper regard for a broader discourse about the nature of truth itself.

Lesslie Newbigin was prophetic when he alerted us to the sign of the post-Christian malaise when “public facts” are trounced by personal preferences. We are then lost in a sea of ever divisive assertions of preferences—or projected fake news—rather than a serious encounter with public facts. In post-modernity, the pluralization of ideologies grows exponentially, creating a society hopelessly divided by seemingly endless personal preferences which are increasingly difficult to accommodate, but coupled by an ever increasing demand that we do so. It is naïve to think that now that the election is over, things will “return to normal.” On the contrary, it appears we are in a new norm—a post-truth generation. It is not merely a new word, it is an emerging cultural reality which cuts across every sector of society and all our institutions.

The church must find our rightful voice which rises above the din of partisan politics, post-truth discourse and fake news. We are those who are rooted and grounded in not only the truth of God’s revelation, but also we are those who still embrace the very notion of truth itself. That, in the end, may be our most valuable contribution to an ever fragmenting culture. This is also why we could very well be entering a very hopeful phase of Christian witness as we proclaim the gospel through word and deed. Post-truth may be the newest hot word in the English language, but truth will never lose its currency. We may be descending into a world of fake news, but there is plenty of cultural space to share the true news of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.

Advent Reflection: Four Areas of Possible Post-Election Agreement

Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. Millions around the country are rejoicing, while millions of others are in deep lament. Christians, like Americans in general, were also divided about the choices we were presented with. I wonder if, despite the polarization of this election, there might be a few points upon which all Christians could find agreement.

First, As Christians living in a post-Christendom country, certainly we can all agree that our hope must transcend whoever occupies the Oval Office. Throughout history, Christianity has learned how to survive, and even thrive, under a wide array of political situations. Our faith was birthed in the context of the cruelty and paganism of the Roman Empire. It has also languished in the context of its full enshrinement by the State. I suspect that Christians will learn how to be Christians in our day, just as we have done throughout our storied history. I take even more comfort in that we are now linked by a global communion of believers from around the world who can give us perspective during this period in our history.

Both major candidates were deeply flawed. The challenges posed by a Clinton administration might have been different than those which will presented to us by a Trump administration, but we faced serious challenges with either scenario. We will thrive if we remember the source of our hope and that, in the end, Jesus Christ is Lord of history. America may be under God’s righteous judgment. If so, we can even learn from Jewish history how to thrive in the midst of Babylonian exile.

Second, it is vital that Christians find fresh ways to affirm God’s redemptive, sacrificial love for all people. There is no place for hate in the church, or in our society. There are particular sectors of our society who are fearful and the church needs to be a beacon of hope, love and refuge. Whether someone is a Muslim, a black, an immigrant, he or she needs to know that they are loved by the people of God. This is as basic as John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” Christians can unambiguously affirm and embrace all people as bearers of the image of God, and objects of God’s sacrificial love. It is categorically wrong, for example, for someone to spray paint a woman’s car with a swastika and “KKK” because she wears a hijab. It is categorically wrong for a man to be beaten senseless because he was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. All Christians should affirm this, regularly and publicly. The church must be a voice of reconciliation. We must be a bridge of hope. We must be a light to the nation.

Third, it is also important to recognize that this election was a reaction against many cultural changes in our country which the vast majority of Christians here and around the world find discordant with historic Christian faith. Christians want the freedom to share the good news of Jesus Christ with our friends and neighbors. Christians want the freedom to believe that same sex marriage and gender reassignment are signs of cultural decline, not cultural advance, without being told that this is hate speech. Christians want the freedom to affirm traditional Christian marriage, even as we stand up for the dignity of those who disagree. Christians want to live in a culture where expressive liberty allows us to be genuine Christians, even in the midst of a pluralistic, multi-religious environment. I do not expect an increasingly pagan culture to affirm Christian values. I do not expect the wider culture to recognize the immoral, destructive abyss we are slipping into. But, I do want the freedom to express my faith on these, and many other points. I am not content to live in a culture where we must all give our full-throated approval of all these cultural changes, or we are dismissed as angry and dangerous demagogues. We should all be determined to live as authentic Christians in the midst of whatever cultural and political context we find ourselves in.

Fourth, we need a renaissance of civil public discourse. The uncivility of both sides of the political spectrum during this election cycle has been embarrassing and deeply abhorrent to Christian values. The emergence of “false news” and “position by Twitter” has degraded the necessary thoughtful exchange of ideas which is crucial to a healthy democracy. To caricature vast groups of Americans as “unredeemable deplorables” is no more acceptable than to castigate all those who work in Washington D.C. as a “cesspool of elitists.” We must move away from broad caricatures and 140 character twitters and, as Christians, engage in deep cultural and issues analysis. Christians must become known as the most thoughtful people in the country. People should turn to us for the most reflective analysis. Large sectors may disagree with us, but we should at least be known as those committed to respectful, thoughtful discourse.

Christians face several daunting challenges in our day. However, perhaps we can find some common ground and begin to create new culture in our day. After all, isn’t this the message of Advent? The world was broken and needed rescuing, and so we needed the first advent. The world is not moving towards a cultural utopia, but towards an apocalyptic rebellion against the rule and reign of God, therefore we long for the second Advent when Christ will return and set all things right. It us upon these two Advents that our hope finally rests.

Christianity and the Public Square

OK, the election is over. Take a deep breath. The sky has not fallen. God is still on the throne. What should we expect regarding the future of Christianity in North America? Let’s devote this blog article to thinking about this.

I grew up in a society which clearly favored and privileged the Judeo-Christian worldview in the public square. Christian views regarding morality, family, human sexuality and so forth were the default position of the wider society. Today, in a post-Christendom society, we are reminded daily that the Judeo-Christian worldview has been expunged from its long, privileged place in the public square. I, for one, do not grieve that, because Christendom tends to produce vast numbers of nominal Christians and domesticates the faith in terrifying ways. The mainline churches in North America are the best examples of the final fruit of compromised, domesticated faith in the throes of a dying Christendom.

The current climate it actually far better suited to produce vibrant, alive, and articulate Christians. Apparently, Christians allow their faith to get sloppy and weak unless there is a fire under our pants. The national election has proven, among many things, that public discourse which wrestles with facts and principled debate has gone the way of the now extinct Dodo bird.

The question before us is this: What does the future of the USA look like for those of us who are firmly standing within the sacred boundaries of historic Christian faith?

There are two options before us. The first is what is known as the Naked Public Square. This option means that no religious faith is allowed to say a single word in any public discourse. The public square is “naked” in the sense that all religions are run out like a horse running from a burning barn. In this vision, all religions are corrupting influences and should be banished from all public consideration on the grounds of the famous Jeffersonian “Wall” which separates church and state.

There are serious problems with the “naked” public square idea. First, Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut where he referred to a “wall” between church and state was actually in the context of protecting the “free exercise of religion” from the overbearing abuse of the state, not the other way around as it is used today. No one who understands the meaning of English words could possible take Jefferson’s letter to mean that the State is now empowered to eliminate all religious considerations or voices from the public square.

Second, the triumph of the “naked” public square is really the triumph of secular, humanistic atheism. But, why would a pluralistic society—yes, even a religiously plural society—deprive Christianity of its solitary position only to give it to the atheistic humanists? In addition to that being a very bad trade, does it make sense to take away one privileged voice only to just give it to another single position? No—it makes no sense.

The second option is the Pluralistic Public Square. This vision of the public square invites any and all religions into spaces of public discourse and allows them room and space to influence or shape public policy. Are Christians prepared to accept this option? Well, this depends on what is meant by the “pluralistic public square” because this option actually comes in two flavors. The first is what I call the “pluralistic mush.” This view is that all religions are allowed into the public square, but once there, they can only say things which resonate with all the other religious voices in the square. There is this head long rush to “find common ground” so we can only say things which are agreeable to all others. The statements which finally get uttered are so weak, so bland, so lifeless, that they end up reflecting the living faith of no one.

It is really, to be blunt, the triumph of Ba’hai. Ba’hair is a global religion with over 5 million adherents. The vision of Ba’hai is to blend all the religions into one harmonious whole. But, once again, why should we remove privileged Christian discourse from the public square, only to replace it with “secular atheism” (Naked Public Square), or with Ba’hai (the pluralistic mush option). I know secular atheists and I even know a few Ba’hai, but why should they get the privileged seat in the public square?

Thankfully, there is a second version of the pluralistic public square which Christians can embrace and, indeed, welcome. It is what is known as the Expressive Liberty option. Expressive Liberty is a version of the pluralistic public square, but it allows each religion (or no religion) to fully advocate their positions in a way which reflects the actual, historic views of that faith. In other words, Muslims have the freedom to express and explain the distinctively Islamic view on whatever issue is being discussed. Likewise, the Christians, or Buddhists or Atheists can make their views known, but in the robust way which honors the integrity of their faith. In such a scenario, Christians will thrive and, indeed, prosper!

We need not fear the honest exchange of ideas. The current climate wants to either remove the Christian witness completely (naked public square), or make us say foolish things which no actual Christian in the history of the church would ever say or think (pluralistic mush square). So, brothers and sisters, let us joyfully move forward with “expressive liberty“ into the public square.

New Room and the Wesleyan Covenant Association: Streams in the Wilderness

“Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).

As United Methodists we have been in a spiritual desert and wasteland for decades. We have slowly watched our beloved Wesleyan heritage erode and then, the very gospel itself. We found ourselves fighting a two-front battle: Fighting for the historic Christian gospel, the unique claims of Jesus Christ, and the authority of Scripture (to name a few), and the less heralded, but no less real battle: Fighting for our Wesleyan heritage. Wonderful themes like prevenient grace, sanctification, Trinitarian salvation, divine synergy, discipleship, and so forth have also been lost by many in the church.

In the last few months, particularly since the United Methodist General Conference, many of us realized that we have finally arrived at the end of the fighting and the struggle. We are at the end of our rope. The blatant disregard of the Discipline of the Church has severed our covenant. The ordination of Karen Oliveto coupled with the silence from the Judicial Council served to powerfully remind us that our hope is not to be found in church structures or church deliberations, with all due respect to the special Commission on human sexuality which will unfold over the next few years. We will not be rescued through our cleverness any more than through forty years of open warfare. Only God can save the United Methodist Church.

The question which has been hanging over our heads for decades has been, “But will He?” Many of us were wondering if the 45 year slow motion schism would just continue for the next four or five decades until the church shut its doors and our witness finally fell silent. Those affirming historic faith would continue drifting to other movements, and the church left behind would gradually just become another service organization like Rotary, Lions, or Kiwanis. But, in our darkest hour, when all seemed lost, God began to move. Now, the clouds are lifting and we are sensing the fresh winds of the Spirit blowing across us.

Over the last three years, our New Room Conferences have drawn larger and larger responses, beginning with 300, 700, and more recently, over 1,500. Each time we have experienced a clear movement of God in our midst. The breakthrough, in my view, came last September on the last day of the New Room gathering. We were led into a season of travailing prayer which, in my view, transformed the whole event. We moved from a “let’s-learn-about-Wesley-and-celebrate-our-evangelical-faith” to a “let’s-repent-of-our-sins-and-ask-God-to-do-what-we-cannot-do.”

I sensed a spiritual breakthrough taking place in our midst. This past conference witnessed a powerful move of God on Thursday night which went well into the late evening. We believe that as many as 400 pastors were restored from sin. It is a sure sign of God’s presence when no one was looking around trying to blame this or that group for our plight. Instead, we were repenting of our own sins and asking God to do a new work in us.

We are just as culpable for the loss of faith and witness in the United Methodist Church as any of the groups who have so publicly worked against historic faith. New Room and, more recently, the Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting (WCA) demonstrate that God is leading us to a new place. He is bringing renewal to the church. The purpose of New Room is to link all vibrant Wesleyan movements in the world together and resource them as we sow for a great awakening. The purpose of WCA is to provide a faithful witness for historic faith and Wesleyan witness within the United Methodist Church. God is moving in a powerful way, calling us to follow His lead. He is restoring our covenant. He is renewing our heritage. He is giving us the gospel back in fresh and powerful ways.

I think we are finally at the edge of the desert. Our feet are still standing on the hot desert sands, but we can see a stream in the distance. Let us keep praying. May a true spirit of travailing prayer fall upon all the people called Methodist. The hour of renewal has come. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:12). I can hear the water flowing! Can you?

My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology

It was in the Spring of 2005 when I received a phone call from my friend and colleague Robert Coleman. Robert, his friends call him Clem, taught evangelism here at Asbury for many years and is back here now as an adjunct teaching once again. But, in 2005 we were colleagues together at another institution. I was professor of World Missions and Indian Studies, and he was the Distinguished Professor of Evangelism. He is, perhaps, best known to many of you as the author of the best-selling book Master Plan of Evangelism which has sold millions of copies in many languages. This is what he said to me that day on the phone: “Tim, I don’t know what your plans are on Easter Sunday, but I thought there would be no better way to spend it than to go down to Harvard Square and preach the gospel in the streets.”

I have spent my entire life preaching and teaching the gospel here and abroad, but I had never in my life just preached the gospel in the streets. I had never just put a box down on the sidewalk and started preaching. I felt scared, apprehensive, and, to be honest, a little foolish. But, I thought to myself, if I can’t preach the gospel in the streets, then the power of the gospel has become domesticated in me, so I must say yes. So, I said, “Clem, I’ve never done this before and I’m a little scared, but I’ll do it.” So, on Easter Sunday 2005—still very cold in New England—we made our way down to Harvard Square, in the heart of Boston, specifically Cambridge, Massachusetts.

You must picture the place. Here is Harvard University in all of its glory, just over there is MIT, the engineering hub of the universe (Cambridge is essentially the little plot of land between Harvard and MIT). Harvard Square is the Cambridge stop of the Massachusetts Transit Authority subway where dozens of people emerge in ten minute intervals from the bowels beneath the city like a volcano belching forth lava. There we stood waiting for them on this little concrete island preaching the gospel. Clem and I took turns—5-7 minute messages—interspersed with a little Salvation Army band which had joined us and they would play for a few minutes between preaching to help gather the crowd. It was an amazing and memorable experience for me and put me in touch with the gospel and our own Wesleyan heritage in a powerful way. For few things mark the distinctiveness of the 18th century Wesleyan revivals than this strange practice of open-air preaching.

At the center of our Wilmore campus is a statue of John Wesley, his hands to the air, a Bible in his left hand, and his hat at his feet. This is not just a modern depiction of Wesley, but a representation of an 18th century lithography of Wesley preaching in the streets, in the open air, from a Market Cross in Epworth. Think about it: At the center of our campus is a statue of John Wesley preaching in the open air. Depicting an open air preacher in the center of an academic institution like Asbury is, in itself, an important lesson for us. You will recall that Methodism was not born in the fields with lay preachers and open air preaching. It was born in the hallowed halls of Holy Clubs in the esteemed rarified academic air of Oxford University. That is their version of Harvard and MIT. The movement from John Wesley, a Charterhouse and Oxford University trained and ordained minister in the Church of England, to a Methodist movement fueled by street preaching and lay, non-formally trained ministers is one of the great chapters of our wesleyan heritage. There are so many lithographs of Wesley preaching in the open air – famously on top of his father’s grave, or in the open market as is depicted here on our campus, or in the brick yards and coal mines. When you see this, you must understand that Wesley was at the heart of a spiritual movement which forced him to think differently about preaching the gospel.

Our statue here on this campus has its origins in February, 1739 when George Whitefield began preaching in the outdoors to coal miners in Kingswood near Bristol. By spring time, George Whitefield was preaching to large crowds of thousands of miners and brick makers in the open fields. Whitfield preached outside for two reasons; first, he was barred from preaching in the pulpits of the church of England. Second, the crowds were far greater than could be physically accommodated in a building. One of the most dramatic scenes of the day, described in several journals, was the face of miners, blackened with soot and coal, but with what they called “white gutters” down their face – lines drawn from the falling of tears—right through the coal soot—under the preaching of George Whitefield. God was moving in a mighty way, but Whitefield had preaching engagements over in Wales, and he also longed to return to America to attend to his ministry here as well as his orphanage work, so he called upon a 36-year-old evangelist, a friend from Oxford who led his Holy Club. That young man was John Wesley. Wesley was invited down to Bristol, England to do something he had never done before: preach in the open air. Bristol was one of the largest cities in Britain in the 18th century. They made bricks there and they mined for brass and zinc. Wesley felt about open air preaching kind of like I did back in 2005 when Robert Coleman called me on the phone. Wesley was a bit uncomfortable with the idea and, in his case, he was not convinced that it was right to preach in any place other than a church building set aside for such a sacred purpose. Wesley was so uneasy about going, he put the problem before the Fetter’s Lane Society to which he belonged. They cast lots and it fell to saying “yes”, so they agreed that Wesley should go!

Wesley famously describes this in his journal, saying, “I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, having been all my life, till very lately, so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church.” Later when he preached to several thousand in the open air, he decided to preach from the Sermon on the Mount, remarking that that sermon of our Lord was a “pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching.”

Over the next few days he preached around Bristol: Baptist Mills, Hanam Mount, Kingswood, Rose Green, Bath, and Pensford. These were not planned events with a lot of Billy Graham type organizational machinery, but they all drew between 1 to 7 thousand people. His favorite venue for preaching was graveyards and market places. Graveyards were chosen because a tomb could be used as a pedestal, and the church building turned out to be an excellent sound backdrop for amplification in the days before speakers, and it was a nod to the historical ecclesiology out of which they came. Markets were good because there was often a cross at the market. In 18th century England it was not unusual for a cross to be placed in the trading markets as a sign to remind people of the importance of honesty in public trade. So, Wesley could be outside in a very public place, and yet preach under a cross. Local clergy opposed them as an unwarranted and, indeed, illegal intrusion into their parish. People threw mud on them, threw stones at them, jeered at them, set herds of pigs loose to disperse crowds, and so forth, but they kept on preaching knowing that on that final day their preaching would be vindicated. Wesley’s famous line, “All the world is my parish” is rooted in these new realities: Closed pulpits and their decision to move beyond formal parish lines to embrace a rather bold ecclesiology.

A movement was born. A movement which slowly became known as Methodist. This movement had major challenges. Those who were coming in masses were mostly the uneducated poor. Wesley, like Asbury here in North America, eventually had to realize that they were witnessing a whole new church planting movement, but this would take time. At this point, Wesley only knew that an open door was given to him and he was determined to “organize to beat the Devil.” The genius is not found in the fact that they became field preachers per se, but actually in their joining that with discipleship bands and class meetings and truly remarkable peaching, what we call homiletical theology. That is, the content of Christian theology conveyed not through textbooks, but through public preaching and, indeed, through every public expression of their ministry. I want to focus this, my 8th convocation address, on homiletical theology. It was homiletical theology or catechetical preaching which turned a popular spiritual stirring into a major church planting movement which has transformed the world.

An excellent book on this topic comes from the pen one of our own professors, Dr. Ken Collins in his book: A Faithful Witness: John Wesley’s Homiletical Theology. When you begin to examine carefully the content of Wesley’s sermons, what we discover is that today’s preaching in the Wesleyan tradition bears almost no resemblance to the preaching of John Wesley. I believe that this is one of the most important gaps in our homiletical practice today and you, the future leaders and preachers in our wonderful tradition, must take note and re-examine what we have lost. For those students who are not preparing to be preachers, all of this fully applies to what is said in a counseling session, to how we think about church planting, or youth ministry, or a formal teaching ministry. All your future vocations should be expressions of thoughtful reflection which is theologically rich and biblically faithful.

The genius of Wesleyan theology, among other things, is its capacity to bring into a holy synthesis truths which are often thought to be in conflict: the head and the heart; law and grace; divine sovereignty and human free will; depravity and divine/human synergy; personal evangelism and social concerns, etc. The deep capacity of our tradition to hold all these rich biblical truths together is one of the reasons I find our tradition so compelling and rich. It is known as the Wesleyan synthesis which keeps biblical paradoxes paired and powerful, not parted and prioritized. While several of these themes like – divine sovereignty and human will or head and heart are widely discussed and appreciated, I would like to focus on a theme which has not been explored as thoroughly as it should. That is, the synthesizing relationship of theology and preaching in Wesley. This is really one of the crowning jewels of the Wesleyan synthesis. John Wesley was fundamentally a preacher of the gospel.

He was also a very thoughtful, insightful theologian. It is interesting that the sermons of Wesley are as rich a source of theology as is his formal theological writings. Indeed, for Wesley, the theological task and the homiletical task were not, in Wesley, two things, but one thing. Wesley, we might say, is one of the giants of what we are calling ‘homiletical theology.’ For Wesley, theology was not primarily intended to resolve various philosophical problems – which has been the driver of many standard works of theology. Rather, theology was designed to serve the church. Randy Maddox points out that we should not think that because Wesley did not produce a systematic theology like, for example, John Calvin’s Institutes, he was, therefore, disinterested in theology. We must delete that file! Rather, Maddox says Wesley understood that his preaching – what Maddox calls “catechetical homilies” actually served to restore theology to its proper place; not merely resolving conceptual biblical structures or theological systems, but as a handmaiden to the church for the purpose of the salvation of the world. It is soteriologically-driven theology!

To understand Wesley’s approach to preaching and empowering the early Methodist movement we must go back to the 16th century. When Henry VIII died, his only son Edward VI (1537-1553) became King. He has the distinction of being the first English monarch raised as a Protestant. Edward VI opened the door to the Reformation in a full way. Most of you will be familiar with the most famous publication under his short reign, the Book of Common Prayer published in 1549 and the Thirty-Nine Articles derived from his work which was finalized in 1563. You must understand that pastors in the 16th century had no precedent for preaching sermons as we know it today. They only knew the Latin Mass and the short exhortations which might be given at Lent, but no real robust tradition of weekly preaching. It was Edward VI who authorized the preparation of a set of sermons which could be used in the church to teach the faith. The recovery of preaching—preaching as public catechesis—exposition of Scripture for the laity – was at the heart of the Reformation recovery of biblically formed faith. Thomas Cranmer produced 12 sermons which became standard sermons to be used in church. These sermons—known as the Edwardian homilies—laid out the key doctrines of the Reformation. For example, the first four sermons reinforced the theme of sola scriptura—the authority and trustworthiness of God’s Word. Other sermons set forth the doctrine of justification by faith, the role of works in the Christian life, sanctification etc. In 1547 Edward VI issued a Royal Injunction which required every parish church in England to have the following:

  • Whole Bible in English (Tyndale’s NT published in 1526)
  • Erasmus’ Paraphrases on the books of the NT (esp. Gospel and Acts) 1517-1524
  • Cranmer’s 12 homilies (1547)

There was a short supply of trained, ordained preachers, which later happened again with Francis Asbury here in the colonies and, arguably, we are there again. These homilies provided the “grammar of evangelical doctrine and life.” In 1571 Bishop John Jewel added 21 more sermons which were more practical: prayer, sacraments, fasting, marriage, gluttony, drunkenness etc.

The 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England mandated in article 35 that certain homilies or sermons be delivered in the churches. John Wesley was very influenced by the Edwardian homilies of Thomas Cranmer and how they were used for faith formation. Wesley produced a slightly revised version of the 39 Articles and a revised version of the Book of Common Prayer and, most importantly, Wesley, following the example of the Edwardian homilies, produced a collection of sermons in 1746, 1748, 1750, and 1760.

Wesley’s 1760 edition included 43 sermons, but a 44th was added in a later publication of the 1760 edition. These have become known as the canonical sermons. In 1763 Wesley adopted what is known as the Model Deed which would de-frock any pastor who taught doctrines inconsistent with the Christian tradition as set forth in Wesley’s Notes to the New Testament and the Sermons of John Wesley. Today, tragically, all such doctrinal boundaries in Wesleyan preaching have evaporated. Indeed, Methodist preaching is generally speaking not particularly Wesleyan. It is often not particularly driven or framed theologically or even attentive biblically at a deep level. We even have quite a bit of preaching which falls outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. The 43 sermons were required to be preached by all Methodist pastors. This would assure a basic doctrinal content to all preaching and serve as a formation guide both for these unschooled, un-ordained lay pastors, but also the newly emerging Methodist societies and bands which were emerging across the country. By Wesley’s death he had published 151 sermons. Again, two of our Asbury professors, Jason Vickers and Ken Collins, have republished Wesley’s sermons, arranged not chronologically, but soteriologically so you can easily see how careful Wesley was to insure that his sermons, and therefore the preaching of the entire movement, was framed biblically and theologically. Wesley scholar from Duke, Richard Heitzenrater, is correct when he says that Wesley’s canonical sermons were designed to provide a solid doctrinal basis and boundaries for uneducated preachers and newly emerging congregations.

This morning, I am publicly calling our movement back to doctrinally-oriented preaching. Like Wesley’s day, our post-Christendom context has spawned vast numbers of church goers who have no real understanding of the Christian faith. Their knowledge of the Bible is weak and their ability to think theologically is almost non-existent. Therefore, this stands as a fresh mandate for us to put aside the light hearted, casual preaching which has become so characteristic of our movement. As noted, this is not about rhetorical style. Whether you preach topically, narratively, exegetically, or expositionally is not the point. In fact, Wesley’s written sermons as found in the canonical sermons are not the same style as they are presented under a tree, or on the edge of coal mine, but the content was the same.

Your preaching classes here will help you to flourish in a range of styles, but you will also be taught the deeper point which is the driving content which finds its locus in solid and rich, biblical and theological sermons. We must cut as a cancer out of our homiletical vision the 
“I-just-put-the-cookies-on-the-bottom-shelf” approach to preaching. Preaching is not “infotainment.” A post-Christian culture will not be transformed by light hearted fluff with a sprinkling of vague spirituality and God-talk. If the truth be told, the congregations you will serve are tired of being spoken to like children. They are tired of going into a sermon with low expectations. They are tired of hearing sermons which were cobbled together on Saturday night. They long to be fed! They want to be challenged! They want to think deeply about things. They actually want to know what passages of Scripture mean and how it applies to our context. Is it any wonder that we have encouraged people to come to church in shorts and baseball caps and drink coffee during the service – because we ourselves have almost lost our memory that corporately assembling into the presence of the living God is a holy, sacred enterprise. We have almost forgotten that proclaiming the Word of God is a high calling and the most sacred discourse in any culture in the world.

In the wider culture, our social and political discourse has been coarse, crude, and infantile. Civil discourse has been slain, and demagoguery is on the throne of public discourse. Most media outlets have succumbed to this and it has become difficult to encounter thoughtful, principled reflections on almost any topic that confronts our society today. We must position ourselves as a striking alternative to what goes on in the broader cultural discourse. We must be thoughtful and insightful and prepared, because preaching and, indeed, all ministry, is a holy and sacred responsibility.

Despite the popular narrative that “no-one-goes-to-church-anymore,” the number one corporate activity of Americans in any given week remains church attendance. Between 25% and 37% of Americans attend church regularly. The NFL, in contrast, which has passed baseball as the most popular sport still only draws 17% of Americans to an event. With apologies to Ellen Marmon church attendance even outranks NASCAR! The point is, we still have an enormous privilege which we collectively assert in the life of our nation. This privilege is also present for our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Oceania. Preaching remains at the heart of Christian worship all over the world, and it must be taken very seriously.

Wesley’s canonical sermons were designed to equip the church and form the church in faith and practice. Although Wesley was preaching to largely uneducated masses in the open air, his sermons are filled with rich, powerful and thoughtful content. I am not suggesting that we at Asbury create a canon of 43 sermons which every graduate should preach. However, I am suggesting that as a part of our homiletical process we think more deeply about what great doctrine of the faith we are seeking to communicate. If our sermons and other expressions of ministry are not richly reflective of and shaped by the doctrines of creation, of redemption, of soteriology, of Christology, of the work of the Triune God, of ecclesiology, or biblical ethics, of the global mission of the church, then, perhaps, we need to start rewriting our sermons and re-thinking our ministries. We should certainly familiarize ourselves deeply with Wesley’s sermons, noting carefully the rich theological foundations found there. We also need a more intentional overall plan in our preaching and ministries which, over the long haul, accomplish the purpose of the sacred trust which we have been given.

We have our own work to do as a theological community. This is not a burden which can or should be borne by our homiletics department alone. We need a holy alliance between IBS, and exegesis classes, and church history, theology, praxis classes, our homiletics department, our Chapel, conferencing, life long learning, the Beeson Center for biblical preaching and church leadership, life-long learning, and Seedbed’s preaching collective. We must see this as a shared goal in keeping with our mission statement. When I was a seminary student I took, for example, an exegesis course in the minor prophets. It met three hours in a single session every week. The first was spent translating the passage from the prophets from Hebrew to English and wrestling with various textual and translation issues. The second hour was spent examining the historical setting of the passage and understanding theological import of the passage. After a fifteen break we would come back and the professor would preach a 20 minute message on the passage and we would discuss how the passage applied to the life and witness of the church. So, in three hours we went from Hebrew to grammatical, historical exegesis to homiletics all in one class. I still had preaching classes, but they were being supported by the larger enterprise. Because the homiletical collapse of the Methodist tradition is not a simple technical problem which can be solved by our fine homiletics professors. This is an adaptive problem where we all come together to change the DNA of Methodist preaching.

Brothers and sisters, there are serious flaws in the foundations of contemporary evangelical preaching. Our theological underpinnings are too weak, our knowledge of church history is too vague, our understanding of the text of Scripture too superficial, our being formed in the practice of ministry insufficiently reflective, and our sacramental life too weak. This is why you came to seminary. Every day invested here will pay you back 100 fold for the rest of your life. Don’t miss this. Our faculty, under God’s care, is leading an entire new generation of Christian leaders back to the fountainhead of sustained, theologically formed, biblically faithful, historically rooted ministries. In the midst of the twitterization of all knowledge, we need profound, thoughtful, nuanced, men and women who are, to use the language of our mission statement, “theologically educated” and who will bring that to the service of Christ’s holy church. We need sustained theological reflection, in contrast to Thomas Friedman’s description of our digital world as “continuous partial attention.” Without this deep reflection, the gospel will simply be one more commodity on offer in the marketplace of autonomous choices at the smorgasbord of spirituality and personal fulfillment.

If you could go back in time and visit the Foundery where Wesley lived and had his London base you would find a large room which could seat 1,600 people, dedicated to the preaching of the word. There were smaller rooms dedicated to 60 class meetings per week for theological and formational instruction. You also would find a book salesroom, like our Seedbed, distributing materials. There was a school for 60 needy children, and an infirmary for medicine. It is a pattern, not so much in size, but in scope which provides the basic grammar of what it means to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.” All these diverse ministries were held together by a shared commitment to homiletical theology. It was a biblically framed and theologically robust movement. That is our mission and we cannot fulfill our mission unless and until we are committed to a rebirth of homiletical theology. So, when you pass John Wesley’s statue which stands at the heart of our campus, let it be a daily reminder to you of the important role of theology in preaching. That statue is our permanent reminder of the central role of homiletical theology—doctrinally rich but practically aimed for the life and faith of the church and the salvation of the world. Amen.