It wasn’t an “I woke up one morning” kind of thing. It was a slow realization something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing. Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too.
I don’t know how representative Peter Cartwright was. I’m not at all certain he was representative of the hundreds of other frontier circuit riders who brought Methodism to what we now call the Midwest. So, I’m not sure if it is safe to draw any lessons from his life and ministry.
You’ve been warned.
With all that said, when I read Cartwright’s autobiography, I’m struck by just how ornery he was. He was downright combative and went around looking for fights. It was no uncommon for him to challenge Baptists and “New Light” preachers to debates on doctrine and practice. He reports with great glee his besting of them.
He had what strikes me as an American relish for competitive contests. It is not at all surprising to me that he went into politics.
In short, he does not seem much like your typical United Methodist pastor today.
Maybe that is good. Maybe that is bad. I don’t know. I am just struck by the difference.
I was reading John Wigger’s excellent biography of Francis Asbury tonight. Wigger argues that American Methodism took off after the Revolution because the Methodist church connected with the ethos of the country and the nature of the people. It was egalitarian and mobile. Its preachers were men who would have been farmers or laborers had they not preached — so they knew how to speak the language of the people. Thanks to Asbury, the church had a sense of revolutionary zeal of its own.
The account got me wondering what the ethos of our age is and what a church that connects with it would look like. In some ways, I feel like the least well-positioned person to answer this. My range of vision of the wider culture is pretty limited.
What would a church perfectly suited to penetrate American culture look like today?
No one presumes to teach an art that he has not first mastered through study. How foolish it is therefore for the inexperienced to assume pastoral authority when the care of souls is the art of arts. For who does not realize that the afflictions of the mind are more hidden than internal wounds in the body? And yet, how often do they who are completely ignorant of spiritual precepts profess themselves physicians of the heart, while anyone who is ignorant of the power of medicine is too embarrassed to be seen as a physician of the body?
From Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles:
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
How much truth is there in Peterson’s charge?
It is hard not to think of these words of Peterson when I am collecting up my vital congregations statistics — the same ones that some of the largest churches in my conference do not bother to submit — and read the latest encouragements and tips coming out of various offices in the denomination.
Peterson, a Presbyterian square peg, never fits perfectly into the round hole of Wesleyan Methodism. He distrusts our talk of entire sanctification and there lingers in his writing a less-than-robust enthusiasm for the doctrine of “free grace” as articulated by Wesley.
And yet, I find that he says things that arrest my attention and encourage my soul.
But, lest we be unclear, his vision is at odds with certain widespread approaches to being a pastor:
The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does this work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.
From Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule:
No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and act perversely. This is because no layperson presumes to refute the delinquent. Moreover, because such a sinner is honored by the dignity of is rank, his offenses spread considerably by way of example.
My bishop speculated earlier this week that so much talk by church folks about gay marriage might be a cover to avoid talking about heterosexual sins. It is a fair point. So let’s talk.
Here’s the United Methodist Social Principle on Sexual Abuse:
Violent, disrespectful, or abusive sexual expressions do not confirm sexuality as God’s good gift. We reject all sexual expressions that damage the humanity God has given us as birthright, and we affirm only that sexual expression that enhances that same humanity. We believe that sexual relations where one or both partners are exploitative, abusive, or promiscuous are beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior and are ultimately destructive to individuals, families, and the social order. We deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality. To lose freedom and be sold by someone else for sexual purposes is a form of slavery, and we denounce such business and support the abused and their right to freedom.
We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation or use of children by adults and encourage efforts to hold perpetrators legally and financially responsible. We call for the establishment of adequate protective services, guidance, and counseling opportunities for children thus abused.
A fair argument can be made that the book’s content and the book itself violate this social teaching of the church. The book was the fastest selling paperback of all time, creating a new market for “Mommy porn.” The movie will undoubtedly be heavily advertised and make millions of dollars.
What should United Methodist pastors and laity do about this reality? What is our witness in the midst of this kind of culture?
When I was in license-to-preach school, we read a book by Alan Walrath that made the argument that there are churches that are small by nature and need to be led and loved for what they are — small.
Recently, I was reading Jorge Acevedo’s book on church vitality, in which he recounts the story of his church taking over small churches and remaking them in the image of his large and thriving congregation. Small churches, he argues implicitly, are small by circumstance and with the right makeover can grow.
Are these visions complementary? Are they at odds? Do they indicate a different focus or mission?
As a pastor of two small congregations, these questions are on my mind a good deal.
Here is where I hit a speed bump with George Lindbeck:
Thus the linguistic-cultural model is part of an outlook that stresses the degree to which human experience is shaped, molded, and in a sense constituted by cultural and linguistic forms. There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. … to become religious involves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system, of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms. (emphasis added)
The quote above from his book The Nature of Doctrine highlights the language-liked aspects of religion.
What does postliberal or narrative theology mean for people with limited language or no language?
I don’t think this question falls any more sharply on postliberal theology than cognitive-propositional theology or experiential-expressive theology. But postliberalism is quite persuasive to a lot of people. Who does it exclude from the ranks of the religious?
More fundamentally, does being non-religious mean the same thing as non-Christian?
Thomas C. Oden on the meaning of “spirituality” in his book Requiem
I intend by spirituality to point to personal life lived in union with Christ – a relationship with the incarnate and risen Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit, where his death is my death, his resurrection, my resurrection. This life expresses itself in praise of God through loving service to the neighbor. Spirituality in the New Testament sense is not a moral program, not a set of rules, not a level of ethical achievement, not a philosophy, not a rhetoric, not an idea, not a strategy, not a theory of meditation, but simply life lived in Christ.