General Conference and the Future of the United Methodist Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Bell takes his message to the churches

Rob Bell announced this week that his book Love Wins is now being re-released with a companion church study guide as well as a new e-version of the book with new video content. I will not rehearse here my earlier response to Bell’s book except to say that I pointed out several things about the book I liked and several points where I think he remains seriously misguided in his theology. If you go back in my blog you will find the posts beginning March 18 and continuing through March 23. The overall title of that series of posts was “Why Rob Bell Needs to Return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pastors.”

Now, nearly a year after the book first surfaced, I want to say that I stand by what I said then. Since that time Rob Bell has left his position as pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church and is spending his time, among other things, on the speaking circuit spreading his inclusivistic message that, in the end, none will be finally lost because “love wins.”

Since it is highly unlikely that an even busier-than-normal Rob Bell will take time to go back to Seminary, I would like for him to at least attend one lecture which I had in my first year systematic theology class. It was a lecture given by the late Roger Nicole. Dr. Nicole was lecturing on the attributes of God. He began by drawing a big flower on the board with numerous petals. He began to label each of the petals after different attributes of God. One petal he named “justice” another he named “love” and another he named “holy” and so forth, as he worked his way around the petals of the flower. We all sat there taking notes and most of us had beautiful flowers drawn in our notebooks with carefully labeled petals. Dr. Nicole then paused and looked at the class and said, “this view of God’s attributes is unbiblical.”  We all looked up in shock. He then began to demonstrate (and this continued over several days) how each of God’s attributes is informed by the other.  There is no such thing as an attribute of love which is not also fully informed and understood through God’s holiness and justice.  Likewise, God’s justice is understood via mercy, and so forth. God’s attributes cannot be separated out in isolation from one another. God’s attributes are not like separate petals on a flower. God’s love is a just love. God’s mercy is a holy mercy, and so forth.

So, as Rob Bell’s book (with the new study guide and enhanced video messages) begins its circuit through the churches, we should be reminded that there is no logical separation between God’s love and God’s justice. God’s love is not “the last petal” left standing. God never denies his justice in order to demonstrate his love. Rather, part of the way His love is demonstrated is through the just recompense of evil. If the cross teaches us anything it is that the greatest act of God’s love  – the cross of Christ – is simultaneously – the greatest act of his judgment upon sin. In the cross we see the perfect integration of justice and love enacted. Those who spurn God’s provision in Christ are refusing to accept what God has freely offered in love to satisfy the justice of God. Even in the New Creation, the Scripture indicates that there are those who persist in their rebellion against God (Rev. 21:8). However, even these who experience the full weight of God’s justice, do it in the shadow of the cross and in the face of the eternally open gates of the New Creation (Rev. 21:25).