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    Entries in Methodism (3)


    Review: Wesley and the Anglicans

    The Methodist movement is commonly described as an initiative of the Holy Spirit, driven by the zeal of a persistent leader, grounded by the practical innovation of bands and societies, and as yielding a theological distinctive or two. I have heard Methodism described as an ongoing work of gospel renewal begun to instill life in denominations and churches, as well as in individuals. There is some truth in that account, however simplified it might be. The events which gave birth to Methodism are much more complicated.

    Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (IVP Academic, 2016) unearths the strata of early Methodism, revealing the complexities surrounding the movement as it arose. The book is written by Ryan Nicholas Danker, who serves as assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Methodist studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Danker carefully chronicles the Anglican and English contexts that shaped and influenced John Wesley in an effort to help the reader understand both his life and theology.

    Early in his account Danker states that “social, political and ecclesiastical issues have not been given proper weight” which led to  a divide between Wesley, Wesleyan Methodism, and some of the evangelical clergy who were Wesley’s contemporaries. The divisions which occurred during the early Methodist movement are more often described as theological in nature, such as in the case of George Whitefield’s Calvinism and Wesley’s Arminianism. Danker effectively shows that the historical evidence yields a more complex reality.

    Danker first outlines early English evangelicalism and Wesley’s place within it. Danker notes, “Although the term Methodist is now thought to be synonymous with Wesleyanism, at the beginning of the Evangelical Revival in England it was an elusive term.” Evangelicalism was first broadly defined and loosely organized, though it was understood to be evangelistic in nature and stressing conversion. 

    Evangelicalism was also opposed and viewed as dangerous. Even though evangelicals understood their work as yielding revival, established clergy viewed their results as potentially schismatic, particularly when converts were organized into their own small societies quite apart from the Church of England.

    Danker also tells of ways in which revivalists were attacked and criticized, as well as why Methodist structure would draw out opposition. Danker’s description of the Act of Toleration, the Conventicle Act, and the implications of both, as well as the general posture toward non-established religious groups in post-Cromwellian English society is very helpful and revelatory. Danker also describes the tension between Methodist societies and Anglican clergy, who expected all Christians to participate exclusively within the parish structure of the Church of England.

    Danker further analyzes the history of the Evangelical and Methodist movements geographically, showing why certain disputes arose and why they were perpetuated. Some itinerant lay preachers were frustrated by the parish system. Local clergy took umbrage with field preachers and with the organization of Methodist societies. Wesley was urged to channel his efforts into the existing forms of the Church, but for Wesley, the proclamation of the gospel was of greatest importance. This got Wesley into trouble.

    Methodist identity, distinct from Evangelicalism, was solidified through the development of a “distinctive ethos,” and also thanks to decisions concerning the administration of communion. Danker writes, “Attempts by Wesley’s lay preachers to administer communion or gain the right to administer it, either as laymen or after ordination at Wesley’s hands, were seen by many within the Evangelical ‘party’ as the end of their association.” 

    Danker devotes a chapter to the fallout from the controversies between evangelicals and Methodists, highlighting the case of six Oxford students who were expelled for “methodistical behaviour.” He also shows the reasons why Wesley and the Evangelicals came to be distinct. Danker writes, “The Evangelicals, as a group, represented a Reformed vision of Christianity stemming back to the Puritans and the English Reformers, while Wesley represented a restorationist vision based on the church fathers as read through high church Anglicanism and the Caroline divines.”

    Throughout his account, Danker removes some of the polish from Wesley. Many accounts of John Wesley and the early Methodists are hagiographical, rather than historiographical. Hagiography minimizes negatives and hardships, and elevates the person to the status of saint.

    Wesley was far from perfect. He did not always do the right thing. He was human, with his own particular flaws and vices. The Methodist movement was not always received positively, and while it did bring some theological and practical distinctives that are gifts to the church, it created certain political problems within the Church of England as well as within British society.

    The same flaws, however, gave rise to a boldness that should not be forgotten. I think Danker strikes the right balance here. Boldness in many instances should be emulated. Wesley was focused strongly on evangelism. He possessed a love for the church. Perhaps naively, he assumed that his work and legacy could reinvigorate and renew the Anglicanism that had so strongly shaped his life and ministry. Methodism, instead, budded as a new branch.

    We do not always fully anticipate the outcome of our choices. We do not know what disputes may result, what ideas might take root, which friends we might make, and which ones we might lose. We may not fully grasp the weight our social setting or our political milieu places upon us even now, and how that may shape our positions and our actions.

    But good historians can help us to perceive the present more clearly by initiating us into the complexities of the past. One result may be a greater understanding of ourselves, and what our moment requires. In this way, Danker’s history of early evangelicalism and John Wesley is a helpful and worthwhile offering.


    Deep Church, Part 2 :: Evangelism

    This post continues a series I kicked off yesterday on Jim Belcher's Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional.  As I have stated, I think Deep Church is an important book.  Scot McKnight has called it one of the best books chronicling the emerging movement, of which there are few.  As an additional surprise, among the books endorsers are both Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell, two contemporary Christian leaders speaking from very different corners.  The book engages with other important voices making waves within North American (and wider) sectors of Christianity, including Brian McLaren, DA Carson, Kevin DeYoung, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and Dan Kimball.  For many of you these are familiar names with just enough diversity to pique interest.

    This diversity of voices should reveal that Belcher is sincerely listening.  He is taking a variety of voices seriously, considering himself an insider and an outsider in both traditional and emerging camps.  He sees the "emerging" leaders protesting against the following: (1) the traditional church's captivity to Enlightenment rationalism, (2) narrow view of salvation (how you become saved, not the life one lives as a Christian), (3) belief before belonging, (4) uncontextualized worship, (5) ineffective preaching, (6) weak ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), and (7) tribalism.  Keep in mind that the answers provided by emerging churches vary greatly.  Belcher classifies these different emerging groups as: (1) Relevants (theologically conservative, updating worship styles, leadership, etc.), (2) Reconstructionists (more orthodox, but rethinking church form and structure), and (3) Revisionists (question key doctrines and offer alternatives to accepted dogma).

    Hopefully introducing these categories helps to provide a little bit of context.  Belcher's survey of the emerging and traditional landscape is helpful, as is his treatment of "Mere Christianity," obviously a takeaway from C.S. Lewis, but more fully understood through Thomas Oden's The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity.  Belcher finds the heart of Christianity within the creeds (Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian) and establishes a common ground for unity therein, a move which has its critics.

    Now, I'll discuss Belcher's discussion of evangelism within Deep Church.

    One of the problems I have encountered among the connections I have made within United Methodism has been a great discomfort with evangelism and a shying away from identification as "evangelical."  Many seem to be asking, "How is the good news about Jesus to be announced within my ministry with integrity, remaining true to the biblical story, inviting conversion, yet spoken humbly?  How do I persuade, and not coerce my hearers to believe the gospel?"  Many I have met do not want to be associated with the political connotations the word evangelical carries within the United States.  Others are very uncomfortable making any exclusive claims about Jesus, thinking that being a Christian has more to do with advocating for the right social causes rather than any doctrine or dogma of salvation in which such practices might be rooted.  My friends will know that I see this as an immense problem.  I stand with John Howard Yoder in believing that the term evangelical, however problematic, cannot be abandoned (see discussion in Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World).  And I believe that the word itself should say something concerning both our message and our way of life.

    So, how do we communicate the gospel, demonstrating content and lifestyle?  How do we bring people into contact with our communities so that they can hear, witness, believe, and live in accordance with the good news about Jesus?

    Belcher notes that one of the protests of the emerging church concerning evangelism is the idea that someone must believe before they are able to belong.  He puts it this way, "Simply put, the emerging church does not like the traditional church's insistence that belief (adherence to certain doctrines) must precede belonging (being part of the community)."

    I've noticed this problem among leaders I speak with.  Younger leaders are reluctant to mark out boundaries for the community that establish "in" and "out" groups, wanting everyone to equally belong.  Older leaders have wondered why there isn't more emphasis on hard and fast boundaries between who is "Christian" and who is not.  One group wants everyone to feel welcome.  The other wants clarity concerning who is committed and who is curious.  Both emphases have merit.  

    As a former youth leader and current volunteer, I have been fairly comfortable leading a group that has permeable boundaries, mixing students who have made commitments with those who have not, inviting everyone equally into a deeper and deeper relationship with God.  Distinctions are not always hard and fast; commitments sometimes ebb and flow.  But this never stopped me from loving everyone, and never has stopped anyone from feeling a shared sense of adventure.  More fixed forms of ministry with older persons do not seem to have this type of comfort.

    How does Belcher deal with the tension?

    Belcher turns to the ministry of Jesus, and fleshes out his revelation within the context of a conversation with a friend of his named Steven Cooper.  In discussing Jesus' ministry, Cooper notes that there appear to be three major movements within each of the synoptic gospels.  First, Jesus walks with his disciples in Galilee.  Second, Jesus travels with his disciples south toward Jerusalem and prepares them for what is to come.  And thirdly, Jesus enters into Jerusalem, marching to the cross.  Jesus doesn't take his disciples to Jerusalem until they have been well formed and trained to know his identity.  In the first movement, Jesus is training his disciples so that they know who he is.  Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and sinners.  They are part of his community.  He performs miracles, tells stories, challenges the authorities, and eats with people.  But before heading south to Jerusalem, Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and hearing their answer, prepares them concerning the death he is to die and the actions they are to take following his brutal end.

    What does this mean for ministry?  What does this look like?

    Belcher uses "centered-set" thinking as a model.  Jesus is at the center--the Well from which we are directing people to in hopes that they will drink deeply.  The boundaries of the community are wider.  They include those who are Christian and those who are not.  Jesus began his ministry with a large number of people, and as they followed him, he would challenge them to be not just fans, but committed participants in his kingdom (John 6).  Belcher illustrates it this way, using the spiritual journey of a member of his community, Jason, as an example:

    For almost three years at two different churches he hung in the outer circle of the centered-set church.  He learned about Jesus, his mission, his life, his power to save and the call to be part of the kingdom.  He experienced Jesus' love in community with Jesus' authentic followers.  As he came into contact with Jesus in the sermons and the lives of other believers, he was challenged by the Word and the Spirit to decide who he believed Jesus was.  The full gospel was clearly laid out before him each week in the service and small groups.  Eventually, Jason stepped in to the inner circle.  When exactly this happened, I don't know.  Neither does he.  But at some point he moved from just belonging to believing.  And when he did, he became a member.  He made promises to the community, we made promises to him.  As he moved deeper into the inner circle, he joined the leadership team and sought training and discipleship.

    This sounds ideal.  And I'm sure this is something most people reading this blog perceive as common sense.  But one thing that is critical in cultivating this type of environment concerns what stands at the center.  In your ministry, is it Jesus?  Or something else?  A political cause?  A social justice initiative?  A particular hermeneutic or approach to reading the Bible?  A pet doctrine?  Your denominational identity?  Or your ego?  What stands at the center?

    When I return to thinking about evangelism and my experiences with church leaders, particularly within Methodism, I think all of the above questions cannot be missed.  Let's invite people into a relationship with Jesus.  This, of course, will require a fresh reading of the gospel.  It will require not just a return to John Wesley, but a return to the New Testament.  When we do so, I think our people will find themselves moving in unexpected directions.  They will begin to seek out the marginalized and the outcast.  They will also begin to see that their friends, family, and neighbors have deep needs that only Jesus can meet.  They will feel compelled to share Jesus with others, not just with an evangelistic or doctrinal formula, but as a way of life.

    Read the book.  Check out the chapter.  And think about how you invite others into the community--how you announce the good news about Jesus and invite others to believe the gospel.  It's part of our mission.  And we have much to learn from both the emerging and traditional camps concerning our approach to evangelism.


    Hidden Treasure. (Or, Being Called to Turn and Love)

    Ever labored through a book?  Ever had a collection of essays stay on your stack for months, only because you don't want to give up on it and put it aside, suspecting it may contain a nugget or two of wisdom?  Ever had a work hang around because it pertains to a subject matter you are interested in, even though every time you give it a read you find it mediocre, but you fear that if you put it down for good, you will have missed what would've made enduring worthwhile?

    This happens to me all the time.  The Wesleyan Tradition: A Paradigm for Renewal, edited by Paul W. Chilcote, has been residing in my collection, and it is this type of book.  It has been near my desk since last fall.  I picked it off the stacks of Watson Library at The University of Kansas.  The title intrigued me, and, being among Methodists, I felt that it might be good to know where some find hope within their heritage.  The central threads running throughout the book were not surprising.  In his opening essay, Chilcote notes that the following are found within all renewal movements:

    • The rediscovery of the living Word and the rekindling of saving faith,
    • The promotion of holistic spirituality,
    • The development of various forms of accountable discipleship,
    • The community's reorientation around formative worship, and
    • The affirmation of a missional vocation.

    These five keys are not surprising.  What follows from Chilcote's skeleton outline of renewal are essays that put flesh on these bones.  Contributors provide their thoughts on Scripture, Salvation by Grace through Faith, the "Dominion of God," Works of Piety, Mercy, and Disciple-making, Holiness, Sacrament, Music, and Evangelism.  Most of these essays were good reminders, yet, sorry to say, lacked fresh insight, rhetorical force, biblical exegesis (most of the essays did little direct grappling with the story of Scripture, whereas I see a need to go through Wesley back to the text), or radical engagement with contemporary expressions of Wesleyan faith, that is, with one exception.  The final essay in the collection, Amy Laura Hall's "'The Law of Love': Repentance and the Restoration of Love" proved to contain all of the above: keen insight into historical Wesleyan (and, more broadly, Christian) theology, critical assessment of "church growth" strategies, and a strong challenge to deeper and more truthful discipleship.  Her essay struck me as a hidden treasure, one I would have never discovered if I had given up too soon.

    I regard Hall's essay a treasure because it challenged me to be transformed, and reminded me to regard my ministry as an occasion to evidence fruit of the life of faith, among which are the fruit of love and humility.  Hall plainly states that "A church experiencing a Wesleyan renewal should...bear the fruits of a loving community," and by loving, she does not mean, "nice."  She challenges our contemporary setting by applying an insight of Wesley himself, being that although our avoidance of real Christianity is universal, there are "occasions for sin that are particular to context."  Hall recognizes that within the American context, those sins are pride, self-centeredness, and a propensity to seek after our own pleasure.  These propensities tempt us, as church leaders, to "cater to the shallow, selfish 'loves' of a people whose desires are shaped by shopping malls and television," and, when "we do so cater, Christian love becomes little more than sentimental fellow feeling for those similarly trapped in the American way of pride and the pursuit of pleasure."

    Hall wants us to be more than "nice."  Hall wants us to be transformed in the way of Jesus.  In order to do so, she argues that "we must retrieve Wesley's emphasis on individual and social holiness, recover the means of grace," as well as possess the expectation that we will be changed by God's extravagant love.  This comes with risk, however, as Hall states that "We must be willing to offend and even repel the very middle-class, upwardly mobile seekers and choosers we otherwise hope to attract...We must be willing to require prospective (and present) members to turn away from their false loves before the church can be reestablished in God's law of love."

    Of course, such a statement will be offensive to many, particularly those who advocate many popular church growth strategies.  Some will charge Hall with denying the call of The Great Commission, or say that she wishes to withhold our efforts among persons who need the gospel just as much as the poor and oppressed.  To do so would be an error, as Hall, identifying as an evangelical and one who is supportive of church growth, does none of those things.  Hall argues for responsible evangelism and discipleship, and has taken the time to parse our culture, noting those sins that disrupt or pollute an environment wherein God's love can flourish in our lives, and rightly notes that our preaching, if uncompromised , may indeed offend those who are more upwardly mobile.  She does not say that these people do not need the love of God.  She simply notes that these people, within our culture, present unique challenges to our calling to preach and form these persons in a manner consistent with the way of Jesus.

    Hall provides an historical example to strengthen her case, noting that Methodists have faced a similar situation before.  In 1745, The Methodist Conference, "decided to try broad-reaching evangelism in every possible venue, even in places where corresponding societies to foster discipleship did not exist."  This decision was rescinded three years later, as Methodist people discerned that apart from catechesis, prayer, mutual accountability, study, and repentance that the Methodist class and band structure provided, real, transformative change could not take place.  Where the church was not equipped to disciple those who were converted, the church came to recognize that they could not succeed in training people to live in accord with the law of love.  As Hall observes, "Church is a place where we are conformed to a totally new way of loving."

    Hall does provide some clues as to how we might be called to love in our particular context, citing Wesley's sermons "The Circumcision of the Heart," "On Charity," and "On Riches" as examples that challenge our contemporary mindset.  Hall reintroduces Wesley's emphasis on a renewed heart with new desires, particularly our desire for God, which moves us away from our American self-centeredness and towards a life of self-giving love.  This love will be humble, and inclined to serve, rather than prideful, and inclined toward power.  This type of heart propels us toward community and shared discipleship, and places God at the center of our movement.  As I read Hall's comments on Wesley's sermon "On Riches" I was compelled to read it myself, and as I did so, I found words that would challenge the current American mindset to accumulate, to give occasionally but not sacrificially, and to find worth in our possessions rather than in our God.

    I know many people who are passionate about renewal, and I am glad to know them.  Hall's essay thankfully reminds us that a renewal which moves beyond some form of numerical success must include costly, intentional, responsible discipleship.  Our ministries must move beyond appealing to the fancies of our upwardly mobile, middle-class culture, and must challenge those elements of our environment that prevent the flourishing of the love of God in the lives of those that hear the gospel.  I concede that such a task is not easy, but it is necessary.  And for that, I thank Amy Laura Hall for a firm reminder.