What can Spener teach United Methodists?

I have been reading Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria. It is one of the foundation stones of Pietism, a movement that has had vast influence on both the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley and on the founders of the communions that would come together in the Evangelical United Brethren. Therefore, it is a book that should be read with humble and open hearts by United Methodists. It is a root from which our mingled traditions spring.

As a result of my first read through the book, I wanted to share some short observations about Spener’s method and his prescription for the church.

His method was exceedingly practical. He called upon clergy to examine themselves and the church carefully for signs of sickness and turn to God in prayer for the light to see the proper remedies. He urged them to do this task in writing to each other and in meeting together as they were able. He saw reform, in other words, as rising up from networks of clergy who shared a sense that something was not well and reached out to one another for discernment and encouragement in treating the illness of the church.

Having proposed some remedies, he urged them to put them into practice in their own congregations, but not with blindness of heavy-handedness. He urged clergy to first aim at those most ready to receive and be edified by what is useful and necessary to true and healthy Christianity. Aim first and exclusively at those who are “tractable.” As those efforts bear fruit, Spener argued, others would be drawn into the circle by their example.

Even as we do this, however, we must not expect instant results or immediate fruit. Spener urges patience and hope, knowing that the seeds we plant often bear fruit we do not see. He writes, “If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.”

As I read these words, I find Spener both pastoral and practical in ways that draw me into deeper study.

So what are the tools by which Spener urged clergy to cultivate these seeds? What is the medicine he urged for the sickness of the church and the people?

He offers six proposals, which I will list here but hope to expand upon in later posts.

  1. Extensive use of the Word of God both by individuals and in small devotional groups
  2. Diligent exercise of the priesthood of all believers
  3. Emphasis on living faith beyond mere knowledge of faith
  4. Engagement with non-believers and heretics in a spirit of love rather than bitterness or competition
  5. Reformation of training of clergy toward the practical arts of ministry and inward formation
  6. Promotion of preaching aimed at producing faith and fruits

Each of these items requires further explanation and each bears examination, but as a United Methodist, I find some encouragement that there may be a program here that fits our spiritual heritage and practices. I want to study these more.

The creeds – a view from the pew

One of the great things about writing a blog is that people write comments on it that teach you things.

In the midst of the current Methoblog flurry about the creeds of the church, I wanted to highlight this comment from the pew by one of my frequent comment writers:

A practical view from the pew: After a life time of reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I came to the point as an adult that I realized I did not truly understand what I was saying “I believed”. Unfortunately hard on the heels of that realization, things went south for me at church and I ended up distancing myself from it. I finally stumbled on the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it that fleshed out the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. Over a space of a few days Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable and “even I” was folded into God’s story of salvation. I was left wondering why nobody had never shared this information before.

Bottom line is, clergy and theologians tend to over think things when it comes to creeds. Reality is, reciting a creed every Sunday has a practical use for the person in the pew if it is fleshed out elsewhere. It is a very good “jumping off spot”. And, when fleshed out properly, the Apostle’s Creed is very much a Trinitarian creed.

‘Methodists are free church Catholics’

Methodism could make a real contribution to our common life as Protestant Christians if we took seriously the ecclesial implications of Wesley’s stress on sanctification. I think Maddox is quite right to say that Wesley understood that without God’s grace we cannot be saved; but without our (grace-empowered but uncoerced) participation, God’s grace will not save. Wesley, of course, was not unique in this emphasis — thus Augustine’s observation that the God who created us without us will not save us without us. Participation is, of course, signaled by baptism, by which we are made members of a community in which we are made accountable to one another. In short, Methodists are free church Catholics.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The End of Protestantism,” in Approaching the End

Stanley Hauerwas follows the statement above with an admission that very few United Methodist Churches would offer much support for his claim that we are “free church Catholics.”

I take his point to be that our tradition holds to a view of sanctification that requires a community to nurture us and hold us accountable. To “participate” with God’s grace requires the presence of other people. As Wesley would say, there is no holiness without social holiness.

I hear Hauerwas asserting that because of this there is no salvation without the church, not because the church has grip on the magic beans that get us into heaven but because it is impossible to grow in grace without being part of a community around you.

I’m not convinced I understand Hauerwas properly. I’m never convinced of that. I wonder how his quote above strikes you.

Methodism as a spiritual order?

A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection upon the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology.

This is how Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells begins. I am still trying to figure out whether I agree with him.

Is theology what emerges when we reflect on the experience of following Jesus?

In Gutierrez’s book, he describes the various schools of the Spirit within the Roman Catholic Church — Dominicans, Franciscans, Ignatians, and so on — as arising out of particular experiences that become theologized. The experience comes before the theology.

Gutierrez argues that liberation theology is the theology that emerges when people seek both to be followers of Jesus and committed workers for liberation from material and political oppression. Liberation theology is what you get when you have the experience of following Jesus in the midst of the struggle.

If I am understanding his argument, then we might conceive of Methodism as the theology and practice that emerged as followers of Jesus sought after an experience of total sanctification — perfection in love — in the context of early industrial Britain. Although John Wesley would argue that Methodism represented true Christianity, Gutierrez would argue that it represents a way of being Christian.

Here is what I find appealing in this — assuming I am understanding Gutierrez at all.

First, it helps me think through the continuing ecclesiastical and vocational problems presented to United Methodist clergy by the fact that our church emerged as a holiness movement within the Church of England.

I can envision in this a bifurcated role in which the pastor is both leader of a church body committed to the broadly ecumenical and orthodox — the small ‘c’ church catholic if you will — expression of the faith and shepherd of distinct groups within the larger body of those who wish to delve into Methodist spirituality. (I see here something of the two kinds of Christian Wesley describes in “The More Excellent Way.”)

The United Methodist pastor would not have to be so troubled or defeated by the fact that so many in our congregations do not opt to pursue Methodist spirituality, so long as they do attend to the orthodox faith, but we would continue to provide and even view our role as being guardians of a Methodist spirituality that aims at a perfection in love, a holiness of heart and life, as the Holy Spirit’s promise to all who seek it.

Second, Gutierrez’s approach puts life in front of books. Theology is usually taught and presented as a collection of ideas and concepts knit together into elegant systems by brilliant thinkers. As a rather bookish guy myself, I don’t begrudge theologians any of this, but I do find that it can lead to theology that has no connection to life as lived and experienced by people.

I also find in my own life that theology only gets developed when it becomes the focal point of some lived problem or joy. The areas where I have thought through and wrestled theology to the ground the hardest are those places where experience makes those theological questions pressing.

Now, for all that, I am wary of making experience the touch stone of theology. I’ve seen first hand how we can use experience to justify anything we want to gut the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of tradition. And so, I’m wary of the prominence Gutierrez gives to experience as the crucible of theology. Perhaps this is why it is important that all these various spiritualities and ways of being Christian remain linked under the broader umbrella of the body of Christ.

Cautions noted, I do find myself coming back to this book again and again. I keep wondering if these words are not the best way to understand the nature of Methodism within the wider church:

Every great spirituality begins with the attainment of a certain level of experience. Then follows reflection on this experience, thus making it possible to propose it to the Christian community as a way of following Christ.

How do we mold leadership teams?

Patrick Lencioni defines a leadership team as a small group group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving results for their organization.

Do our churches by this definition have leadership teams? Do we have a groups that understands themselves to be collectively responsible for achieving results?

I find these questions challenging. They challenge me because I wonder if we could even define what we mean by “results” in many cases. They challenge me because I am full of doubt about my ability to pull together such a leadership team. They challenge me because I sense that as pastor, the ministry of order calls me to do what I most doubt my ability to do.

What stories can you share about creating groups of leaders in church?

Going all-in for mission?

The latest E-pistle from my bishop. I added highlighting to one paragraph that really leaped out at me:


Our Extended Cabinet team of 14 District Superintendents, Directors and a couple of spouses has just returned from our trip to Mission Guatemala. That ministry is led by Rev. Tom Heaton, a clergy member of our Indiana Conference who began this mission work just four and a half years ago. Already that ministry has grown into several communities, helping provide health, nutrition and education for some of the poorest people in Guatemala. Our team visited ministry sites, worked hard on a couple of projects and learned from the passion, creativity and energy of Mission Guatemala. Truly Mission Guatemala is helping to transform the world in the name of Christ.

During one of our daily devotional times on our trip, Jennifer Gallagher, our conference treasurer, observed: “We need to be Mission Indiana when we get home.” We all agreed. We are not sure what all that means, but we sense this is our role as conference servant leaders:

  • We need to see Indiana as a mission field, even to realize that Indiana is a land that is underdeveloped spiritually, as much as Guatemala is an underdeveloped country.
  • We want to help every appointed pastor to see his/her appointment as an assignment to a community and not just to a church.
  • We hope that every congregation will see itself as a mission station to serve others, and not as a religious club where the members expect to be pampered.
  • We are ready, as the Extended Cabinet, to lead the way, to model a new sense of being on a mission for God and to seek nothing less than a transformed Indiana.

Our mission remains the same: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That mission begins with each of us, and it extends to Mission Indiana.

“Imagine Indiana” helped us to form a new Conference over the past five years, and so “Mission Indiana” may be the next logical step. Indeed our Annual Conference sessions the past two years have already focused upon the themes “Be a World Changer” and “The Outwardly-Focused Church.” Our theme this year will be “Sharing Our Story.” Many churches and many of our pastors and people have already caught this vision of being a church on a mission, making disciples and transforming the world.

Maybe it is time to release those who don’t want to be part of a mission movement – allowing them to go in peace. Maybe it is time to close any church which is not making disciples or reaching its community – and use those assets to start new ministries. Maybe it is time for us to help any pastor who is not “all-in for our mission” to leave with dignity and with support to find another career. Maybe it is time to get serious about our mission and to become Mission Indiana.

I invite you to think and pray about this, to consider whether or not you are “in,” and to discuss this in your congregation, cluster, and clergy covenant group. Are you ready to be a part of Mission Indiana?