The Church as a Means of Grace

The Church is itself a means of grace to the world. The church extends this means of grace in two ways. One way is through extending the radical, universal, uncompromising call of the love of God for every person on the planet. The other way is through the call to transformation through the power of the gospel, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Someone recently brought to my attention a sign posted at a church. The sign, as well as any church I have seen, captures the radical call of the gospel. Here is the church sign:

This sign is an expression of the prevenient grace of God. It is an expression of the “whosoever” of John 3:16. It is an expression of that powerful text in Isaiah 55:1, “Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” It is this text which Jesus himself draws on in John 7:37 when he cries out in a loud voice at the Jewish festival: “Let anyone who is thirty come to me and drink.” This is the theological point Paul is making when he says in Romans, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

In the language of Ephesians 4:17-5:20 Paul tells the church in Ephesus to joyfully embrace the Gentile converts who were pouring into the church, who had no background in Jewish holiness codes. It must have been shocking. As the sign in front of this church acknowledges, we come to Christ clothed in what Paul calls our “old self” i.e. with dirty clothes on. We come as we are. Paul says we are welcoming those who are deceivers (vs 23), liars (vs. 25), people with anger issues (vs. 26, 31), thieves (vs. 27), people who are bitter (vs. 31), sexually immoral (vs. 5:3), etc. It sounds a lot like this sign, just some of the examples are different. We do come just as we are – but Christ transforms us! Paul’s point is this kind of life is what you were, now you have put off those clothes and you are now clothed in Jesus Christ. The radical call of the New Testament is always tied to repentance and transformation. If we allow the radical, unconditional, inclusive call to be separated from the radical transformation through Jesus Christ, then we have fractured God’s work and slip into what is known as cheap grace. It is “cheap grace” to present a gospel which does not call for transformation. It is “cheap grace” which pretends that the first half of the gospel can be separated from the second half of the gospel. It is “cheap grace” which drives a wedge between justification from sanctification. It is “cheap grace” to presume upon the grace of God while we continue to live in sin. It is “cheap grace” to separate the radical call from the radical transformation.

If you type I Corinthians 13:1 with only the left hand of the typewriter, it looks like this:

f sea te tges f e r f ages bt d t ave ve a a resdg gg r a cagg cba

But, if you use both hands, it looks like this: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Cor. 13:1). The church must “write” with both the left hand of radical embrace, as well as the right hand of radical transformation. If we only extend the radical, inclusive call, we actually speak in gibberish. Even though every stroke of the left hand was accurate, it takes both to speak with gospel coherence. Alternatively, if we focus inward and become separatists and judgmental, we can lose our heart for a lost world. We too, then, speak gibberish and become a clanging symbol. Both of these must be brought together to speak coherently to the world about what it means to be a Christian.

The radical call of the gospel should never be leveraged against the holiness which characterizes the church of Jesus Christ. It is a false narrative that if we speak of holiness we are denying the radical embracing love of Jesus Christ! Paul makes it very clear that those who live in darkness cannot inherit the kingdom of God (5:5). We are a transformed community. As we cross over and become full members of the baptized community of the people of God we are a peculiar people clothed in righteousness and holiness. When we come to Christ we bring with us all the same muddled thinking and unholy lives which the world has, and Christ himself sets out to transform us by his very divine presence. He has chosen the church to be a key instrument, a means of grace, for that transformation. Transformation is not bad news, it is part of the good news, because it is a call to human flourishing.

So, I praise God for this sign posted at the church. What I don’t know is if there is anything on the back of that sign. If so, I hope it might say this: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9)

Looking Beyond Our Pain to the Future of the Wesleyan Movement

I just returned from New Room Conference which brought together around 2,600 pastors, leaders, and lay people in the church for renewal and crying out to God for awakening. It is truly amazing to see so many people who speak theologically with a “Wesleyan accent” from across so many different Christians strands all united before God with one voice, desperate to see the church renewed in our day.

One of the phrases from New Room which will stay with me for a long time came from Jon Tyson on Thursday night. Jon is an Australian and has no knowledge of what is going on within the United Methodist church. Nevertheless, the phrase which really struck me as applicable to our situation as United Methodists was the phrase, “crystallization of discontent.” This, Jon explained, is that point where you say, “Hang on a minute, this is not what church is supposed to be.” It is the point where you realize that it is time for a big change. It is that moment when you realize how wrong it has been to sit and watch the church be dismantled through false teaching. It is that “holy discontent” which comes over you when you realize that you can never again accept the prevailing narrative of decline which normalizes our sad state and blame it on the surrounding culture.

There is no need to rehearse how many of our episcopal leaders have not “held firm to the trustworthy word as taught,” nor have they “rebuked those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Tens of thousands of us across the nation have reached that crystallization of discontent. Let’s just name it: We are in chaos, the Discipline is not being adhered to, and we have been plunged into division, and an almost certain divide. It is heartbreaking. I meet people all over the country who were born and raised as faithful United Methodists who, with great anguish and tears, have moved to other denominations where the Word of God is more faithfully proclaimed. These United Methodists simply express their grief quietly, without fanfare, with their feet – 500,000 members per year. This has been happening year after year, after year, after year. They are leaving the church, and no one is telling their stories. It is wrong for a young person who is genuinely struggling with their sexual orientation, or experiencing some form of gender dysphoria, to be shamed by their peers. But it is also wrong for someone to be publicly shamed for seeking to be faithful to what the church has always taught. It has been painful for millions of Methodists around the world who are seeking to faithfully adhere to a position that continues to remain the official position of the church (and one which Christians have embraced since the first century), and yet be called a “virus” needing extermination, or the embodiment of “evil, injustice and oppression.”

It is increasingly clear that the 2020 General Conference will not be focused on “if” we will have a separation, but the “terms” of that separation. Across the denomination delegates are already reading the details of the Bard-Jones Plan, the Indianapolis Plan, and the UMCNext plan, all efforts to separate the United Methodist church into two or three different expressions or denominations. I will speak to the pros and cons of these various plans at a later time. However, for now, I would like to remind us to not forget the big vision which awaits all orthodox Methodists who will, at some point, wake up to the birth of a new church, the precise name of which we do not yet even know.

We have a wonderful opportunity which awaits us, but we must not be set free from one trap, only to fall into a new one. The new church cannot just be the old United Methodist Church with no more fights over a few lines in the Discipline. If we only emerge as a group of disillusioned post-United Methodists, we will miss the future opportunity which awaits us. Our future will depend on tens of thousands of new Christians who will have no memory of these sad, tragic days. The entire Discipline needs to be re-written, dramatically reduced in size, and cast to reflect a far more missional, apostolic mindset. (If we want to “start” with an earlier Discipline, then perhaps we should start with the original 81 questions and answers in the first Discipline created at the Christmas Conference in 1784!).

We must have a clear strategic map which sets forth what the first ten years of the new church looks like. We will finally have the privilege to plant new churches from one end of this country to another. We must also have a clear strategic plan to plant 4,000 new churches (approximately 400 per year) over the next ten years between 2020 and 2030. Those 4,000 new churches should also, from the start, be planting fresh expressions as well. From the dawning of our first day as a new church, we must not even think of ourselves as a new national church, but as a globally-networked church that is closely tied to our brothers and sisters in the Majority World (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). Those churches, in turn, will end up spawning tens of thousands of new believers (not just transfers) into the church of Jesus Christ. I envision a church where no one can serve as a bishop unless they are also the pastor of a church. In the early church, all the bishops were also pastors. In fact, all bishops should probably simply be known as presiding elders. I envision a church where most pastors are also overseeing at least one new church plant. This new post-2020 General Conference church must function more like a “network” or a “fellowship” than a denomination laden with bureaucracy.

In short, we must think differently. We have much ground to reclaim, so we must be nimble, looking more like a “movement” than a “denomination.” From the start we have been distracted into thinking that this was a struggle over human sexuality. This struggle, despite the presenting issues, has always been about revelation, Christology, and mission. So, our “goal” is not merely to re-affirm the biblical definition of marriage, as important as that is. I wish it were that simple. Rather, it is a re-affirmation of our entire Christian identity and all of the rich textures which have marked us as Wesleyan Christians. Our goal is nothing less than the complete revitalization of the global pan-Wesleyan movement. The greatest tragedy of the last fifty years of United Methodism has not only been the inability to articulate a biblical vision of the body and human sexuality, or even the inability to teach and preach out of our blessed tradition, but the full blown erosion of so much of what identifies us as Christians.

So, if you are feeling tired and beleaguered, or your hope has grown dim, please hold on a little longer. You are reaching that “crystallization of discontent” moment. There is a new chapter about to unfold. The “faith once for all delivered to the saints” will again be preached from our pulpits. The spiraling decline in membership is about to hit the nadir point, and there will be a day when every region of the country will be reporting how many new Christians have come to the faith and how many new churches have been started. Some of these new churches will be found in coffee shops, Home Depot break rooms, homes, store fronts, school cafeterias. These expressions reach beyond what will be happening in the buildings we may be able to retain. But, the main point is that we will have had a rebirth as a movement.

As one of my colleagues here at Asbury Theological Seminary said after the 2019 General Conference, “That cracking noise you hear is not just the sound of a church breaking up, but the cracking of an egg which is giving birth to something new.” May this hope sustain us through the days ahead. The last 75 years of Methodism has been challenging, demoralizing, and deeply disappointing, but we have reached the seam point. The next 75 years will be astonishing, multiplying and glorious. Buckle your spiritual seat belt!