My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Graduating Class of 2016

Brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ, my charge to the 2016 graduating class centers around two Greek words which appear together as a sacred pair—a technical coupling—in the writings of St. Paul. These two words are parelabon and paredoka. They are translated “received” and “passed on” and go back even further to the same sacred pair in the Hebrew tradition (qibbel and masar). This sacred pair comes to us in the NT, for example, in I Corinthians 11 and 15 in reference to the Eucharist and to the gospel itself.

In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul says, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you; namely, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying ‘this is my body which is broken for you.’” It is the sacred mystery of the Eucharist which is “received,” and it is “passed on.” In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul says, “for what I received I passed on to you, as of first importance that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures.” This sacred linguistic yoke of “receiving” and “passing on” is absolutely crucial for how your entire ministry is to be framed. We receive and we pass on; that is the basic rhythm of the gospel: Revelation and response; God’s prevenient grace and our response to that grace; God’s divine in-breaking and our response to that in-breaking. What you have “heard in the presence of witnesses,” “faithfully entrust to others” we hear in 2 Tim. 2:2.

These are important technical terms which highlight an aspect of the gospel which seems to be increasingly forgotten in the contemporary church. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not ours to re-write. We have no charge to peddle a domesticated gospel and publicly pretend as if it is the real thing. Brothers and sisters, we are not the originators of the gospel; we are its recipients. We are not the authors of the gospel; we are its commissioned ambassadors. We have no permission to re-make the gospel into our own liking. We pass on what we have first received. Receiving and passing on—that is the sacred rhythm. The Eucharistic mystery reminds us of the embodiment of the gospel in real flesh and blood—betrayal, scourge, crucifixion, blood—these are not metaphors; they are the embodied signs and seals of the very gospel itself. The gospel mystery is centered on the work of Jesus Christ: his death, crucifixion, burial and resurrection. We must bear these marks in our enfleshed ministries. We receive historically embedded mysteries, and we pass them on through our own embodied ministries.

Graduates of the 2016 class, you are entering a church which has been drinking deeply from the poisoned wells of a market driven, consumeristic, commodified church. We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are, at best, careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally. Indeed, it seems that the contemporary church’s equivalent of the prime directive seems to be “always adapt to culture.” It trades on the unspoken, defining question of the modern church: “What is the least one has to do to become a Christian?” Pastors are often pressed to become the miserly masters of theological and soteriological minimalism, probably best exemplified by the pitiful admonition which sometimes comes to preachers to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” But, that is ecclesiastical light years from Wesley’s admonitions to his preachers.

2016 graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary, never forget that the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need you to help it become “relevant.” The gospel is always relevant! It is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel. Let me charge you by way of sacred remembrance, that you are not being called to be the professionally religious, middle management technocrats in some bureaucratic denominational machinery. Rather, you have been called to be sacred vessels for the faithful transmission of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. May you go forth into the world to faithfully pass on that which you have received. Thanks be to God. Amen.

An Open Pastoral Letter to United Methodists, Part II: A Word of Clarification

Dear United Methodists,

Immediately following General Conference I wrote an Open Letter to United Methodists expressing my long term hope for a renewal in the global Wesleyan movement which was rooted not in ecclesiastical deliberations, but in grass roots faithfulness of the “people called Methodists.” I truly wish that I could have shared that message with each of you in person and face to face because it was written in tears over the intractable situation we are in.

Blog articles are a collection of words, and it is not always easy to convey one’s tone or emotions in a blog entry. Speaking honestly, despite the situation we are in, I would not describe my feeling as “anger” but more as “sadness.” I am a lifetime United Methodist. I love our Wesleyan heritage. Yet, my entire ministry has been conducted within the larger narrative of decline and cultural accommodation. The blog article garnered wide circulation. Some were distressed because I have not supported any movement towards separation. Others were distressed because they felt the letter seemed to have lost hope in the leadership of the United Methodist church.

There are many signs of hope amidst the rubble of destruction. I long for the day when United Methodists will re-capture the vibrancy which once characterized our movement. I am proud of all the ways Asbury Theological Seminary graduates, as well as many graduates from the official United Methodist seminaries, have remained faithful to the gospel in the midst of this massive cultural transition from a church in Christendom, to a church in a post-Christendom culture. I am also thankful for those bishops, pastors, and lay men and women around the church who stand unabashedly for historic faith and Wesleyan faithfulness.

I want to sincerely apologize for anything I said in that Open Letter that cast any indictment or disparagement on our episcopal leadership. I intended to express sympathy for their situation. The Council of Bishops can only speak with one voice, yet the makeup of the Council is so polarized it is difficult for a clear voice to be heard. I am, myself, under the appointment of a bishop who has been a great stalwart for historic Christianity. Indeed, I have great respect for many on the Council. I sincerely apologize for any hurt I may have caused any bishops who have given their lives to bringing faithful leadership to our beloved church.

I do know that in the wake of General Conference there are millions of United Methodists around the world who need to know that we have a future. In closing I want to reiterate my invitation to consider the New Room Network as a way of linking Wesleyans around the world. I believe that the millions of United Methodists who are distraught and discouraged may find in the New Room a new space for hope. The New Room Network has nothing to do with dividing the church and everything to do with uniting Christians around the world in the work of awakening and renewal in the classic Wesleyan way. I think we can all agree we are in need of a great awakening in our time. That’s what the New Room Network is all about—gathering, connecting and resourcing the global church to sow for a great awakening. You can learn more about that here.

Finally, while I am a seminary president, I write as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. Like so many others, I am in pain. I feel betrayed. We have been in slow schism for decades, having lost millions and millions of members. I long to see us regain our focus on mission, discipleship, church planting and evangelism. That was the heart of my Open Letter. I also know that I am a “frail child of dust.” I am a sinner, desperately in need of the grace of God. I have never advocated separation from the United Methodist Church, though my reasons for that will have to wait for another time. I have never wavered in my faith that God is not through with us yet. May God’s grace grant us a future and a hope.

An Open Pastoral Letter to United Methodists

Dear United Methodists,

Another General Conference has ended and you are feeling betrayed, angry and sad about the brokenness of the church. Is there a way forward? Have the Bishops provided it with the document by the same name? Are we hopeful about the future?

First, as much as we might want to be angry with our Episcopal leaders, we should reflect on what a difficult place they are in. Just imagine what the country would be like if both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were both sworn in as President. Imagine further, if Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz also became President. Also sworn in the same day would be Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan, and so on until, eventually we had—simultaneously—66 Presidents of the United States. Are you sweating, yet? This is analogous to the situation we face in the United Methodist church. We have 66 bishops (46 episcopal regions in the US and 20 areas outside the US) who serve as the episcopal leaders over the United Methodist Church. Is it any wonder that we are deadlocked with no leadership? In the past the system managed to work reasonably well because, despite the numbers, there was a broad agreement concerning the gospel, the Wesleyan message, and there was, frankly, more integrity about covenant keeping. All of that is gone today. The church is left without leadership. The covenant which binds us is in tatters. The gospel message has become dim. The Wesleyan distinctives have long been reduced to a few predictable sound bites which have been ripped from their original setting and meaning. We are in a tough spot.

Second, we need a little truth telling about what happened at General Conference on the issue of human sexuality. The “leadership” move by the bishops was as predictable as it was lamentable. Appoint a commission to study the issue of human sexuality and kick the can down the road for three more years.

1. This episcopal document, known as An Opening for a Way Forward, is the final triumph of Rule 44. Like Rule 44, it will place in the hands of a few carefully selected people the privilege of drafting legislation about human sexuality. We have been given Rule 44 back in a different form, but it will unfold over three years rather than three days. I would rather be shot in three days than slowly tortured over three years, but that’s just me.

2. This motion expects that two or three more years of discussion will change things. They will not. The voices “chosen” for the evangelical position will likely be the weakest, most conflict adverse people they can find. But, even with that, the Scriptures will not change over the next two years. No amount of blue ribbon commissions will change God’s Word.

3. The time frame allows for three more years of cultural shift in post-Christian America. Because many of the leaders of the United Methodist church still foolishly envision our church as occupying the cultural center, it is hoped that more United Methodists will finally get on board this path of cultural accommodation. Let me be clear: I am not going to get on that boat. Because it will only lead us to more missional drift, more staggering membership losses, and more silencing of the Wesleyan message.

I consider the passing of the Episcopal initiative a failure for the church. It continues our agony for three more years. One of the closing sentences from the document best sums up the agony which awaits us: “We will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

What exactly does this mean? It is language which has become all too familiar to those of us in the rank and file. It throws us all back into the fog. Everyone can read into this whatever they want. But, let’s be clear what it really means. This statement gives official episcopal “space” for further disobedience to the Discipline (avoiding complaints, trials, and harm) while, in a masterful stroke of double-speak, says “while we uphold the Discipline.

What is the Way Forward?

Despite all of this agony, I have not given up hope in the power of the historic Wesleyan message. I believe that God still has a plan for the “people called Methodist.” I am not planning on leaving the UMC, but nor can I hope that anyone in leadership can lead us to a place of health. So, what do we do? We must realize that the future of the church is in our hands. We cannot expect our church to be rescued by endless meetings of Annual or General Conferences, episcopal deliberations, or costly blue ribbon study commissions. We must turn the volume off on the “general church” deliberations and focus on preaching the gospel, discipling believers, and living in holy covenant.

This is why we created the New Room Network and the New Room Covenant. We have zero interest in starting a new denomination. We are not even interested in arguing for separation. I’m tired of all the “solution” for a “third way” and a “way forward.” None of this will help us. We don’t have time for that. There is too much gospel work to be done. There are too many people dying without Jesus Christ. The purpose of New Room is to enter a new space which is joyful and missional. We are uniting evangelical Wesleyans from all around the world in a restored covenant. Thousands of United Methodists are joining. Thousands of other Wesleyans who are either former United Methodists or who belong to other Wesleyan movements like the Free Methodists, the Wesleyans, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and Salvation Army are joining from all around the world. This has nothing to do with “getting out” or “staying in” the UMC. This is for everyone who longs for the day when the gospel is again clearly proclaimed, God’s Word is affirmed, the Wesleyan insights are embraced, and our covenant is restored. Please join us.

I will never forget last September at our last New Room Conference. The conference ended with hundreds of United Methodist pastors on their face before God in travailing prayer. I had never seen anything like it. God is not through with us. We do have a future and a hope. Come to our next New Room Conference (Sept. 21-23) which will draw over a thousand of us together. We have created a space for hope. We have created a space for mission. We have created a new room for Wesleyan identity. Let’s join together and remember our first love, shall we?

Learn more about the New Room Network.

United Methodist General Conference and the Unity of the Church

General Conference was originally designed to celebrate our unity as a connectional church. Today, it has become the public testimony before the world of how utterly divided we are as a movement. But, let us remember that when Jesus said, “I will build my church” He was not referring to the institutional survival of a particular denomination called United Methodist. Many of the proposals before General Conference will focus on keeping the structural unity of the church at all cost, without any proper consideration of the real basis for unity which is the gospel itself. I neither fear our demise, nor hope for our dissolution. This is because the New Testament teaches that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. It is indestructible because He has promised to build it – and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The Lord does not need any of our us to “save the church” from extinction. Our death as a church – as with any church – comes only by separating ourselves from His Headship. If we remember the gospel faithfully then nothing can destroy us. If we forget the gospel, then nothing we do can save us, or should.

Legislation in a Post-Modern Church

One of the proposals which will come before General Conference is to keep the current Discipline language which states that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian practice.” According to the proposal, this language is retained and remains the official position of the United Methodist Church. Then, in a strange legislative vision, it goes on to create a second level of legislation which would allow Methodist churches to legally disobey the Discipline and, with the support of their pastor and a 66% vote, formalize same-sex marriages. Likewise, annual conferences could vote and choose to ordain and appoint gay and lesbian pastors. So, legislatively, the UMC would be put in the unenviable position of having to write legislation whereby, on the one hand, a law was established, only to be followed by another law which would allow people to disobey the earlier law. We end up with two completely different “orthodoxies”—one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One part of the church would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other part would teach that it is a sacrament. One part would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other part, a sign of wholeness. One would be referring to homosexual practice along with all other sins when we say in the Creed, “we believe in the forgiveness of sins” the other would be teaching that homosexual marriage is a “means of grace.”

The fact that this kind of legislation is before the church demonstrates how far we have fallen. We are now being asked to read the Discipline the way post-moderns have been reading the Bible itself. The Discipline would become a document with no objective vision of truth, or standard of morality. Instead, it invites us to formally legislate permission for each church to live in their own personal narratives and construct their own edifice of meaning and “private interpretation,” not because we do not agree on the objective truth of the Bible, but because we have abandoned any sure knowledge that such objective truth can even be known. Let’s not forget that there has been precious little haggling over the meaning of actual texts in this struggle. The loss of energy for the real serious exegetical work has demonstrated the new meaninglessness of such an endeavor in a post-modern world where everything is possible and nothing is certain.

Truth as truth (revelation) has been deposed. We are left with seemingly endless shades of personal opinion and personal preferences, all equally legitimate, with no way to adjudicate anything. So the only thing left to do legislatively is to legislate endless accommodations. The tragedy of this epistemological collapse is that not only can we no longer read the Bible with confidence; we can’t even get guidance from John Wesley.

But, take heart, the church has seen much darker days than this. In times of difficulty God always raises up better hearers of the gospel. Whether a movement called United Methodist survives is not nearly as important as if the gospel itself prevails among the people called Methodist.

The Deeper Issue Facing the United Methodist General Conference

Every four years the United Methodist Church comes together for General Conference, a time for “holy conferencing” and for discerning the future of God’s mission through the “people called Methodist.” Social media is ablaze with defiance as protestors are determined to shut down the conference over the issue of homosexuality. It seems like every four years this issue dominates the headlines. I am not among those who say that this issue is “much ado about nothing.” This is a central issue that is profoundly related to the Christian view of the body. I have already published (between October and December of last year) fourteen separate blog articles outlining a Christian theology of the body, drawn largely from the remarkable work of John Paul II.

What is clear is that as North America moves more rapidly into a post-Christian phase, we are experiencing the beginnings of a radical reassessment of the body which renders the body morally neutral. The church has been profoundly short-sighted in thinking that if we just accept homosexuality, then we will finally be “at the end of something” and we will finally return to a church which can focus on its mission to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.” Beloved brothers and sisters, we are not at the end of anything. We are only seeing the first-fruits of changes which we cannot, as yet, even imagine.

However, in a broader sense, one of my prayers for General Conference is not about this issue at all. As a church, we cannot even begin to move towards a trajectory of hope unless we first realize how profoundly broken we are as a Christian movement. Our problems will not be solved if we just manage to cobble together enough conservative votes to maintain the church’s current view of human sexuality. Our problems run far deeper. As important as it is, our inability to speak clearly on the issue of homosexuality is but a presenting issue of a far deeper malady.

Our brokenness as a church is in two main areas. First of all, we are increasingly disconnected from the global Christian movement and the historic faith of the church through time. We, of course, love to discuss our global connections. However, ecclesiastical connections are meaningless unless they are rooted in our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We seem to be losing our capacity to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ and the historic confessions of the church with clarity. One of the persistent myths among United Methodists is that our denominational decline is just part of a larger narrative of Christian decline in North America. This is a myth. The percentage of Americans who consider themselves evangelical, affirm the authority of the Bible and are committed to historic Christian faith has not declined in the last half century. It has remained at about 25% of all Americans. What has declined has been the affiliation of those Christians and the general “falling away” of millions of “cultural Christians.” The United Methodist Church has suffered declines because, like other mainline churches, we had a disproportionate number of cultural Christians (Christians in name only). Our public stances against clear biblical teaching have made evangelicals less inclined to join our churches.

Second, we have nearly lost our Wesleyan heritage. The great themes of Wesley such as prevenient grace, the means of grace, the call to holiness, the Trinitarian soteriology, and the profound rooting of social responsibility in the gospel have all been lost. Wesleyan preaching has been lost for a full century now among United Methodists, but at least we had the hymns of Charles Wesley. However, even that is slipping away. We need about 50 years to reclaim the gospel and our Wesleyan heritage. Oh, that we would, once again, be known as a “people of the book.” Oh, that we once again would have “nothing to do but save souls.” Oh, that our motto would, once again, be “holiness unto the Lord.”

The greatest challenge of this General Conference will be whether the people called Methodists will return to our vibrant evangelical history, or continue along a path of decline. There are huge swaths of the church arrayed against any renewal as an evangelical movement. They want a more progressive future whereby we can re-make the gospel according to our liking. They want a church which is disconnected from both historic faith and historic Wesleyanism. I long for a church which embraces both.