The most surprising thing I learned after I became a Methodist was that we are evangelicals. I learned this from reading John Wesley’s sermons and paying attention to what Charles Wesley wrote in his hymns. I learned it by reading the biography of Francis Asbury and the autobiography of Peter Cartwright. I learned it when I read Mark A. Noll’s excellent The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys.
I must confess, the idea that I had joined an evangelical Christian tradition was news to me. To the extent that I’d heard about evangelicals as a Methodist prior to this discovery, it was in dismissive or defensive references to how we are not like them. Evangelicalism was suspect and discredited in the Sunday School, the pulpit, and the suggested reading lists at the Methodist churches I had attended.
I can’t really trace how we got from Wesley and Asbury to a place where many clergy and some laity viewed evangelical Christianity with suspicion or hostility. I am grateful that I did not stay ignorant of our roots and identity.
For the sake of simplicity, I will use the four hallmarks of evangelicalism described by scholar David Bebbington to explain what it means to be evangelical. These four hallmarks are:
- A focus on conversion, the belief that lives need to be changed
- A high view of the Bible and the conviction that all spiritual truth can be found within its pages
- A dedication of all believers, not just the clergy, to living lives in the service of God, with a special concern for evangelism and missionary work
- A conviction that Christ’s death on the cross was crucial for providing atonement for sin
These four taken together mark out a broad network of churches and movements far beyond what we know as Methodism. To say Methodist preaching is evangelical is not to say all evangelicals are Methodists. But the very concept of evangelical Christianity in the English-speaking world is impossible to describe without speaking of Methodism. The great revivals of the nineteenth century and the very rise of evangelical Christianity in the English-speaking world were deeply tied to spread of Methodism. The preaching and writings of the Wesleys bear all four of the hallmarks above. To be Methodist in any recognizable way is to be evangelical.
So what does this mean for preachers in the United Methodist Church or other Methodist traditions?
First, it means we should stop including in our sermons or teaching overt or subtle attempts to describe evangelicals as a foreign tribe to our own. I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t like evangelical Christianity. For Methodists to preach or teach against evangelicalism is to be like the man who saws off the limb he is sitting on.
Yes, we might take issue with certain expressions of evangelicalism, but I’ve heard so much preaching in Methodist churches that goes well beyond this. I’ve heard preachers say the church should not be worried about saving souls. I’ve heard preachers spend entire sermons explaining to me that Jesus did not die for me on the cross. I can’t begin to count how many times I have heard Methodist preachers tell me they really treasure and revere the Bible, but there are parts that they think lie to us about who God is.
No one is forced to be an evangelical, but if you call yourself a Methodist you are an evangelical. Don’t take my word for it. Read what John Wesley wrote. Pay attention the words in the hymns by Charles Wesley. If you are a United Methodist, read our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. All the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity are there. Methodist preaching is (or should be) evangelical.
Second, as evangelical Christians, we should be excited. If there is one thing that drives evangelical Christianity, it is the desire to reach people who have never heard the gospel. Right now, American Methodists are living a vast and growing mission field. As church attendance and affiliation continues to shrink in the United States, the opportunity for churches to evangelize their own communities is greater than it has been in generations. You cannot look out your window without seeing somewhere the gospel needs to be heard. The fields are white for the harvest.
Let’s be about our work. Let us talk about who we are in ways that don’t leave the next generation of Methodists surprised as I was when I first realized that Methodists are evangelicals.