How failure led to fruit

When Philip Spener wanted to bring renewal to the Lutheran churches of Frankfurt, Germany, he started in the way that sounds familiar to me. He started by putting a focus on catechism and church discipline. He thought these measures might stir up the passive and nominal faith of the Christians in his charge.

They did not.

Frustrated by his failures to lead renewal from the top down, Spener eventually turned to the formation of small groups in response to a request from some of his more devout laity. They wanted a means of meeting with others who were longing for the kind of spiritual conversation and building up that they never could get in their world of work and secular relationships.

The groups that were formed in response to this request would set the model for devotional and edifying small groups that would be central to Pietism and later Methodism.

In the book where I read of this bit of history, the author did not mention this explicitly, but I assume those men came to Spener because his preaching and other actions had made it clear that he was passionate about a deeper and living faith. They came to him because they saw in him a kindred spirit.

As I think on that, I recall John Wesley’s account of the beginnings of Methodism. It was his preaching that led people to come to him seeking more opportunities to learn and grow in their faith. He formed the societies and classes as a response to those requests.

I hear two lessons in these examples.

First, if I want laity to reveal their longings for a renewed and vibrant faith, I should preach as if living faith is the norm or expectation of the Christian life.

Second, I cannot herd people into wanting a living faith, but I can remain attentive and open to those who show an interest or longing for it. It is okay to be reactive.

Neither Wesley nor Spener — nor for that matter Jesus — won everyone over to their views about Christianity. Indeed, they all made a number of enemies. But they also did help some people find a true and living faith that changed their lives.

I wonder if we can’t still do that.

I see a vision of United Methodist renewal that is worked out not from the top down but from the bottom up, a renewal based on scattered pockets where men and women are seeking a living faith in Jesus Christ. I see such a movement marked by preaching aimed at transformation and renewal of the heart, small groups with a focus on devotion and accountability, and the expectation of a living faith that shows forth in the outward lives of people.

Growth in a barren land

Hoosier pastor Scott Pattison recently shared this reflection on his Facebook page. I repost it here with his permission.

I have been reflecting upon my various experiences spending 10 days in a highly secular culture that is about 20-25 years ahead of the US in secularization – where there is less than 1%-4% church attendance (0% in some areas of the UK and Europe), and most churches on a Sunday (as they say) have “20 or so old people attending Sunday worship in large empty church buildings.”

I had the chance to meet, observe, experience, and interact with church leaders and their people, along with other para-church ministries (The Message Trust, the St. Thomas Churches {Crookes, Philadelphia, Kings Centre, and City Base Church}) that are effectively reaching those under 40 years of age (particularly teens, college students in secular universities, and young families) who are genuinely transforming lives and being and making disciples – and they have been doing so for decades.

I heard from watchers of worldwide Church trends (Kent Hunter, Peter Brierly) and modern day movement leaders (Andy Hawthorne, Mick Woodhead, Mike Breen, and Paul Maconochie), talked and interacted with various church planters and pastors (from the UK, Ireland, Australia, The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Germany), and other movement leaders, pastors, and staff.

I found that these churches and ministries that have seen a consistent pattern of growth (St. Thomas Crookes alone grew from 150 to over 2000 on the original site since the 1970’s, and a growing network of churches around Sheffield since the early 2000’s with around half under 40 years of age), with various vicars or pastors (not personality driven as we often see in the states), with the same guiding doctrine, spirit, discipline, and principles of renewal and revitalization of the early Methodist that I discovered and identified in my doctoral research.

Upon returning and reflecting upon my experiences, I find that at a time that we are battling growing decline of the church in North America, when a portion of the UMC is wanting to loosen its hold on the “doctrine, spirit, and discipline of which we first set out,” the churches ministering in the secular irreligious setting of Europe that are growing and transforming their communities (and the people in them) are tightening their grip on the historical faith delivered through the fullness Scripture, salvation through the Justifying Grace of Jesus Christ, and the sanctifying transformative power of the Holy Spirit as still real and necessary today.

These churches and ministries in England and Europe, hold the same foundation of our Articles of Religion and principles of early Methodist revival, and they are applying them in the UK and other places in Europe. They embrace the arts and the “priesthood of all believers,” with a strong witness to the salvific faith in Jesus the Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit actively working – and they are growing in numbers and community impact, by doing more than social action and good works, but by offering faith in Jesus as seen in the early church, and a community of faith empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit that reaches and is transforming all stratas of society – with a particular focus on the least and lost.

My fear is that we in the US church are standing at the tree of what we believe to be new knowledge listening and believing the whisper of the garden – “Did God really say ….?” “Did God really mean …?” – then we will have as John Wesley feared, a church “having the form of religion without the power.”

Some things I’ve been reading

An assortment of things I’ve read recently that you might find interesting:

A story about my seminary and how it has changed in recent years: A Roadmap for Renewal. The story has these lessons learned about renewal from the story of the seminary that has grown 400 percent in recent years as many other seminaries have been shrinking or struggling.

Clearly, United Theological Seminary not only emphasizes renewal, they model it. In striving for renewal in local churches or the broader denomination, several take-aways can be lifted from the United story.

• United is saturated by prayer.

• United is committed to the historic, orthodox faith and understanding of the scriptures.

• United honors the faith of the saints who have gone before.

• United was desperate for God to do something supernatural. This seems like an essential characteristic in the study of genuine revivals of the past and present.

Speaking of the need for renewal, here are a few things touching on the hot-button story of the week in the UMC.

Two critiques of the recent Connectional Table meeting: AmyDeLong Promoted to Chair of United Methodist Connectional Table and Trust Betrayed — Again.

The blog of Love Prevails, where the group has posted correspondence with United Methodist entities, including the Connectional Table and the General Board of Discipleship. Included on the blog is this statement:

The time for polite persuasion has passed. To ensure discrimination no longer flows uninterrupted, we will protest and disrupt local, national and global events. We will undermine all policies that limit or deny the full participation of LGBTQ United Methodists in the life of the church. Through our media campaign and physical presence, we will stand in the way of business as usual.