One of the practices I’ve come to enjoy is finding prayers of saints, theologians, and even the most ordinary Christians. I’ve begun a collection of prayer books ranging from the daily offices to simple books written by various authors. I hope to make it a weekly post to share a prayer that I find.
Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of prayer. What an extraordinary thing that we can pray to you, unburden ourselves before you, place our cares, woes and joys before you. I confess I find praying an awkward business. I keep thinking, “Who am I to pray?” But I know that to be false humility, hiding my prideful desire to be my own creator. So we pray a prayer of joy in prayer, asking that we become your prayers for one another. Amen.
[Written by Stanley Hauerwas in his book, Prayers Plainly Spoken, p. 23]
Leadership seems to be one of the new buzz words around the church these days. No matter where I go or what meeting I’m attending, inevitably someone will bring up the issue of leadership. Part of the reason could have a little something to do with the fact that no matter what situation it’s brought up in, it’s also followed by reasons why we need to improve leadership in the church. This recurring topic has led me to ask a question: What does leadership in the Wesleyan tradition look like?
As much as we become enamored with various models of leadership, I would like to advocate that whatever means we use to inform our leadership, we don’t neglect the richness of our Methodist tradition in the process. It’s my belief that our United Methodist Discipline serves as more than merely a book of church law. It can and does offer a perspective into a distinct Wesleyan form of leadership–one that has shape and distinct voice on how one is to lead within the Body of Christ. And this form centers around the various meanings of the Methodist word discipline.
I begin with a list from Russ Richey’s book, Marks of Methodism, which is volume 5 in the series, United Methodism and American Culture. Richey notes 9 different ways we understand the term discipline in the Methodist tradition:
In all of this, one can see that discipline is a book, an exercise of ecclesiastical judgment, a way of living, a set of practices, loving mutuality in oversight, a recognized accountability, the state of being faithful to the gospel, the good order of the church, and the polity or governance of the church.
So what does this say about leadership in the Methodist tradition?
For starters I think our view of discipline offers a temperance of any new, hip model of leadership we might want to adopt. There is a great deal we can learn from business and the corporate world. Corporate leadership models can inform the way we operate efficiently in an ever-changing world. I’m a big advocate of learning from “secular” leadership models. But we have to be careful that in our pursuits of efficiency, we don’t surrender our distinct identity as leaders of a Wesleyan church movement.
Over the last 25 years or so we’ve inched ever-so-subtly into a world that prioritizes functionality over structures that discipline. Rather than discipline that governs we prefer disciple-making and from functional order as our identity we prefer a more fluid form of organization that is contextually informed. None of this is wrong, per se, but we at least have to be honest about what these trends and priorities mean for the church.
For example, we can’t merely see “disciple-making” as the primary aim of the church if we neglect the paragraphs that follow in our Discipline outlining the definition of the local church (paragraph 201) where it’s described what a disciple looks like and how disciples are to live into the character of the church. As leaders we have to recognize that our Discipline outlines specific Wesleyan values in forming disciples. And this orders the way we faithfully seek to help congregations in the journey of disciple-formation. If we neglect these structural points in favor of the more simple approach of merely, “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” we inevitably equate disciple-making with recruitment.
Secondly, we should view our discipline (both the book and the order of life) as an expression of what it means to be the church. In other words, moving too far away from our distinct heritage of leadership will eventually lead us to operate in a way that is not Methodist. Shane Hipps makes this point when he argues that eventually “the medium becomes the message.” He notes this reality in the world of technology but it’s true in organization as well. If we communicate a way of being that is not Methodist for too long, even for the sake of so-called efficiency, eventually we won’t be Methodist.
Finally, we have to see our discipline not only as a way of ordering the church, but also as a means of ordering our leadership. We don’t merely need to exhort discipleship, we have to embody it. We can’t just pull the Discipline out to check the rules on how to order committees if we don’t pull it out to inform us on how to uphold Wesley’s “General Rules” as a means of Christian living. It will take some creative reading because much of the richness of our Discipline has been lost under ambiguous categories that seem to regard the richness of a Wesleyan theological perspective as just quaintly historical.
As a young clergy person I’m excited to see how leadership takes new shape and form in a new century. I’m especially excited to continue growing and learning as a leader. I just hope that in this process, we can take this old book off the shelf, dust it off, and discover the richness of what a Wesleyan leader actually looks like.
As we prayerfully seek where God is leading us, the people called Methodist, in a new era it’s important to become fluent in how we have historically articulated who we are. In exploring our past we can come to understand our present and then, and only then, discern a path for the future.
In his book, Doctrine in Experience, Russ Richey argues that Methodists “spoke to the nation with not one but four voices, four languages” (p.4). He names these historical voices as follows:
3)Episcopal or Anglican
It is my argument that while these are our historical voices, we should separate the “popular” language of our day from the “evangelical” language, thereby creating 5 voices by which we understand who we are as Methodists.
Richey argues that the evangelical language, the language of the sermon, love feast, prayer and camp meeting, were the popular languages of the early days of Methodism in America. The country was in its infant stages and we were looking for both a spiritual foundation to ground us, as well as an emotional fervor to reflect and propel the frontier spirit we longed to embody. Methodism offered just such a foundation and spark, found in the dual emphasis on conversion in campmeeting and revival worship as well as discipleship in class meetings. This evangelical language charted the course of Christian life because it employed words that all could understand resonate with.
While this was the everyday language of the 18th and early 19th Century, one could argue that such evangelical language now comes with the baggage of suspicion. Over the years too many of us have seen such language employed to judge other unfairly, to uphold persecution and oppression, and to demonize that which “good religious folk” don’t understand or agree with. But nonetheless, we as Methodists still understand ourselves with evangelical language–albeit more tame and cloaked in expression. We still preach and teach on concepts like conversion and sanctification through the Holy Spirit. Now there’s also a pretty good argument that we could find ways to employ this type of language in more productive and non-judgmental ways. But that’s a frontier yet to be conquered.
While evangelical, religious language was the popular language of the days of early Methodism, we now have alternative language to employ. Over the 20th Century religious organizations collectively sought to use the language of the wider society in an effort to convey its relevance in a world changing faster than anyone could imagine. The language of psychology and medicine has become popular language in religious circles. For example, whereas sin was spoken of in evangelical terms of a need for conversion in the early days, it’s now more widely spoken of in terms of an “illness” or “condition” from which we all suffer. Conversion, then, could be viewed as a remedy for this illness, a prescription if you will. But there’s also the belief that conditions are better thought of as that we “manage” and not what we overcome. The burden of sin is viewed with many more complexities than it was in the early days of the Methodist movement.
Another popular language employed by religious organizations came about in the later part of the 20th Century–namely, the language of business. The fact that I so easily refer to denominations or churches as “organizations” speaks to the way the language of business has become so prevalent in our religious conversations. As buildings grew we had more of a need to accumulate sources of revenue (i.e. new members). Families can be referred to as “giving units” when we talk about the overall health of our churches. Efficiency has quickly become one of the highest ideals of the ministry of the church. And the Methodist church has seen a sharp rise in our drive to create so-called “mega churches” (FYI: “Mega Church” is the only church descriptor that speaks solely of membership size which is yet another sign of how easy it’s become to use business language). All of this (plus more) speaks to the Methodist affinity in employing the popular language of business in religious/organizational understanding.
In the early days of the Methodist movement we sought to employ distinct Wesleyan language in forming our doctrine. In 1798 John Dickens saw to it that American Methodists had a Pocket Hymn Book, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament and his Sermons. Dickens also saw that Wesley’s Large Minutes, the forerunner to our Book of Discipline, was published and made available to American Methodists. All of these served to instill a distinctively Wesleyan voice in how we articulated our theology and ministry. It should be noted that Wesley himself never intended that these works create a self-sufficient religious identity. Instead they were to be used in conjunction with the biblical text and Book of Common Prayer.
It could be argued that as we grew as an institution, our distinct Wesleyan language became more focussed on organizational needs and less on our theological self-understanding. In a later piece I want to argue that our organizational structure is, in fact, an expression of our distinct theological identity that too often gets overlooked. Nonetheless we have to remember that when we discuss conflicts on issues such as equality, sacramental order and authority, and yes, even organizational make-up we have a distinct Wesleyan voice on these matters. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel as much as we might just need to re-examine how the wheel was constructed in the first place.
As step-children of the Anglican Church it should come as no surprise that we employ a good bit of Anglican language in our understanding of how we organize the church. The titles of bishop, elder, and deacon are distinctly Episcopal in their heritage. And yet we use them to understand the roles of governance in the church. We speak with a particular Anglican tongue when we articulate the way we celebrate sacraments, identify core doctrines, order our governance, and even ordain our ministers.
republican (Note: “r” and NOT R)
As a product/shaper of early American life, the Methodist church employs a distinct republican language. If you don’t believe me, just look at how much of our structure is based off of an democratic model. We have 3 branches of authority: Judicial Council (judicial branch), General Conference (legislative branch), and Council of Bishops (executive branch). The American expansion across the continent led Methodists to rally around the first mission statement to “spread scriptural holiness across the continent.” It was the joining of national and religious language that strengthened the two All of this offered Methodism a powerful narrative through which is understood itself in the context of a growing young nation.
Today we see this understanding lived out in the presence of the Methodist voice on various social issues. Many argue that Wesley’s quote of “no holiness but social holiness” stands as the Methodist justification for political/social justice efforts. Often one will hear Methodist ministers encourage members from the pulpit to vote while not swaying into partisan politics (some do better than others, mind you). The Methodist emphasis on “holiness of heart and life” continues to find its expression in a life actively engaged both in the church and in the political world.
These are 5 of the major languages of Methodist self-understanding. It may seem like a trite exercise but I think it’s vitally important to become fluent in a language, or languages, in order to employ them to shape a culture. We can’t influence change in the church unless we know the language of the culture. These 5 languages serve to shape who we’ve and who we are today. There are good points and shortcomings to the use of each of these. So maybe the key is to discern how they can affect who we are to be as a 21st Century church. One could only hope…
Which language(s) informs your understanding of Methodist theology? Which one(s) are most in need of correction?
Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going?
All of these are questions we’re asking within the United Methodist Church. Many have come up with solutions or directions to address these questions. The jury is still out on whether or not they’ll sufficiently address the pertinent questions of our sect of the Church. But we ask and offer answers nonetheless.
I’m currently reading some wonderful works by Dr. Russ Richey entitled: Doctrine in Experience and Marks of Methodism. Supplementing my research is a variety of articles and other works on Methodist history and polity.
I’ve come to an early conclusion that, as Methodists, we’re not a lot of things. We’re not denomination built on confessions and intellectual assent to various doctrines (although many would argue that fact). We’re also not a denomination built on the rigidity of religion as a means to shelter one’s self from the cold of the secular world (although some might even argue that fact). But we are a denomination built on the simple and demanding call to faith as the pursuit of holiness of both heart and life. And besides that, we have a history and a structure that, when viewed with the lenses of grace and truth, supports this pursuit. It’s a faulty argument to separate our history and structure from our theological demands–they’re inseparable. Methodist history and polity are, when joined with our distinct Wesleyan theology, the corporate embodiment of this great pursuit of holiness of heart and life.
The design of this series is to ask these questions of who and what we are in light of who and what we’ve been. I’ll be exploring this relationship of our history and polity as they might pertain to our contemporary identity. In other words, if we’re trying to figure out who we’re called to be in a new day and age, it’s probably a good thing to explore who we’ve been in previous ages.
And who knows but maybe, just maybe, our past can actually come to life and speak through the voices of saints who’ve gone before us and paved the way of Methodism over the last 250+ years. In joining our voices with those of our past saints, maybe we can catch a glimpse of a harmonious union of past and present–Lord knows, our future sure depends on it.
In what ways does our Methodist tradition and history inform the way(s) you understand your faith as a United Methodist?
Next Post: Who Were We: The 4 Languages of Methodist Self-Understanding
As I’ve read, studied and thought about this idea over the last few months I’ve found that the more I ask questions, the more questions I seem to have about the practice of evangelism. I suppose that’s a faithful response to a subject one is passionate about–or a stupid one, I don’t really know yet.
In a previous post, I argue that the primary aim of evangelism must always be proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world. This is in response to our compulsion to saddle the practice of evangelism with other exterior, yet important, goods such as conversion, discipleship and membership growth. All of these work with and are even sometimes dependent upon the practice of evangelism. But they are not the primary aim of evangelism.
Today I’m let to another caveat in rediscovering the practice of evangelism. If the primary aim of evangelism is proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in the world, then who is the primary actor in this practice?
Have you ever noticed how much of our faith life is devoted to the individual Christian? We set up our organizational structure around meeting individual needs. Churches become one-stop-shops of small groups, mission opportunities and programs all designed to be at the whim of any individual who might grace the doors. I’m a United Methodist and we gave ourselves over to this mentality when we crafted a mission statement declaring: “The mission of the church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world.” Worship wars continue to rage in local churches and communities over which style of worship is most “effective”–nevermind that effectiveness in the church has been reduced to what can attract the most people at a given moment. All of these would point to the idea that church culture seeks to promote the idea of being in the business of meeting individual needs in Christian community. And evangelism is no less subject to this trend. Think about what evangelism looks like in your community. Is it simply a marketing campaign designed to attract people to worship? Is it a one-on-one campaign of meeting people in the community? Is it the measurement of new members in your local church?
The problem with this individualistic view is not so much that we’re willing to use worship, authentic relationship, and mission as “tools” to “assimilate” persons to our way of thinking–though that’s pretty bad. The real problem with these methods of evangelism is the priority it places on human effort in carrying out the practice of evangelism.
For instance, take the example of one-stop-shop church programming. At what point do we offer so many programs that we stop doing anything well? Churches live by the example set by mega-churches who portray utopian church communities where all the needs we’ll ever have can be met under one roof. This “Willy Wonka view” of church becomes tainted when we use it as a means of separating ourselves from the world we live in. Church can quickly become an elitist community where one must “belong” to be welcomed. This all points to the compelling narrative that we must first be “attractional” to be “successful.” Unfortunately we often miss it when this takes the place of being faithful.
Secondly, look at the example of my denomination, The United Methodist Church, and our mission statement. It sounds well and good to consider the primary role of the church being the “making of disciples.” The problem with this is that it places evangelism in the place of searching out new people by those already in the church. It creates a binary world where you are either churched (disciple) or unchurched (not a disciple yet). In this world we become consumed with evangelism as corporate growth. If you aren’t churched, we’re coming to find you. And the life and breath of the church becomes reduced to the simple ideology of producing new products.
Finally, consider worship wars. Again this is rooted in the obsession of being attractional as the primary goal of the church. The practice of evangelism is measured by its “relevance” in the greater society, thereby defanging any hope of pointing to God’s presence as something different or counter-cultural. Proclaiming the reign of God becomes the candy-coated task where one hopes not to offend anyone while trying to be appealing to everyone. The gospel message is portrayed as one that hopes to make people feel good through a worship “high” (contemporary worship) or feel safe through a harkening back to “the good ‘ol days” (traditional worship). The sharp edges of evangelism as the proclamation of something new and challenging are smoothed out in order to make it easier to swallow and digest.
Therefore, I argue that God must always be the primary actor in the practice of evangelism. All hopes of human ingenuity, work ethic, and narcissism are put into proper perspective in light of God’s transformative presence in the world; a presence that comes not from within, but from without, as a gift of grace. This type of perspective would seek not to create a message of hope but rather simply point to the existence of hope in world. The evangelist can, at best, hope to discern God’s activity in the world and then boldly point to it for all to see. It’s not our message to craft. It’s not we who “make disciples” and it’s not us who sit at the heart of the life of the church. Church survival need not be a goal of evangelism because as our United Methodist Baptismal Covenant declares, “the church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.” Evangelism is the art of boldly proclaiming this narrative to all who would have ears to hear and eyes to see.
The primary actor in the practice of evangelism is always God. The message is that God in Jesus Christ is reconciling the world and making it new. Our best hope as evangelists, then, is to boldly witness to this message in all that we say and do.
One of the great misconceptions in the church is that evangelism is a practice that is saddled by what I call “para-practices.” It is my evolving argument that if evangelism is to be practiced with both integrity and effectiveness, we must understand what it is and also what it is NOT.
I remember talking with the leadership at the local church where I serve as I was coming on board as the Associate Pastor of Evangelism. Through our conversations it became very clear that this title was to be understood in terms of recruiting new church members. It’s a fine practice to seek to grow the church. But if evangelism is riddled with membership growth alone, then one is judged by the measurable growth of the local congregation. Growing a local congregation is a very worthy task that we should take seriously. But it’s NOT primary to the practice of evangelism.
To combat my apprehension to embrace the “church growth” mentality, I’ve worked to intrinsically link discipleship to the practice of evangelism. Before one joins a local church it’s vital that they are linked into some sort of small group that focusses on discipleship. However, we have to be clear that discipleship, while incredibly vital to the life of the local church, is NOT primary to the practice of evangelism.
A third misconception of evangelism is rooting it in the practice of initiation into the Christian community. William Abraham makes a wonderful case for this in his classic textbook, “The Logic of Evangelism.” But this view inherently goes against the Wesleyan belief in prevenient grace. If God is already present and active in the world and in the lives of all people (universality of grace), then evangelism is not properly defined if initiation is the primary concern of evangelism. Initiation begins the process of recognizing one’s self as the person God intends them to be and then learning the language of life in the world of faith lived out in the church. But initiation is always a secondary concern to the practice of evangelism.
Another misconception of evangelism is riddling it with the primary concern of converting others. This is a classic idea of what evangelism is and it always comes with countless destructive stories laced with judgment and misplacing the importance of the gospel as an assurance (insurance?) of where a non-believer will spend the after life. Conversion is very important in the life of faith. One must learn a new orientation to life if one is to grow in discipleship. But this is not a primary concern of evangelism.
So what is the primary concern of evangelism?
The root of “evangelism” is the noun “evangel.” This word comes from the Greek word, “euangelos,” meaning “messenger bringing good news.” This root stakes the claim that the primary concern of evangelism is two-fold: 1) Know the story; and 2) Tell the story.
My new friend, Dr. David Lowes Watson, told me the story of his work with a church evangelism team. He said that this team met on a weekly basis and had a single task that they observed each week. They were to find two examples: one example of God’s kingdom breaking forth into the world and one example of God’s kingdom being stifled in the world. The group would meet and choose one example of each type every week. These examples were printed in the church’s weekly newsletter. This practice eventually raised the consciousness of the local congregation in that it helped them develop a lens to discern the presence of God around them as well as ways that presence is ignored or stifled.
On a larger level this story has challenged my perspective on the primary concern of evangelism. Too often I’ve allowed the practice of evangelism to be saddled with issues of discipleship, initiation, church growth, and conversion. While these are important, it’s equally important to treat these areas as secondary to the practice of evangelism.
Evangelism is at its heart primarily concerned with announcing the reign of God in the world as a means of identifying God’s vision FOR the world. Therefore the role of the evangelist, or the evangelizing community, is one of discernment. If evangelism is to have any integrity at all it has to separate itself from a transactional understanding that seeks to convert others to a particular way of believing through the means of manipulation. We also haveto be suspicious of linking the practice of evangelism too closely with growing and sustaining the organization we call the church.
Evangelism is, first and foremost, an announcement. Plain and simple evangelism announces to the world the good news that God, through Jesus Christ, is reconciling the world and making all things new. That’s a high and holy call to tell that sort of news through word and deed. We have to trust that the Holy Spirit will be present and work through this pronouncement in ways beyond our finite imaginations. This isn’t about growing the church, although the church’s growth ensures that more and more can be empowered to tell this story and participate in God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. This isn’t about deepening people’s faith in discipleship, although people will surely be called to a deeper understanding of faith upon hearing this kind of news. This isn’t even about converting or initiating others to a particular way of believing and living, although through the power of the Holy Spirit this kind of good news compels others to see their lives in a new way–through the eyes of a loving and holy God.
What’s the primary concern of evangelism? Learn the story of God’s mighty acts of reconciliation with the world and find ways to live and tell this incredible story because it’s of vital concern that the world hear this story. That seems to be a good place to start to me.
It seems as thought I need to clarify some thoughts from my previous post where I declared: Congregations can’t make disciples. Apparently this phrase was a little offensive so let me offer some follow up thoughts to clarify my point: