A dry stump longing for water

A long time ago, I wrote a blog post asking whether we still have room for John Wesley in The United Methodist Church.

Here is a part of that post:

People tell me or write to me that the gospel of individual salvation from sin and hell is “not big enough.” But, in subtle and not so subtle ways, what I am often offered in its place is a gospel with no room for John and Charles Wesley. That’s okay for the Lutherans and Presbyterians, I suppose. But I cannot understand Methodists who are embarrassed by John Wesley or dismiss the thousands of lives who were changed by God through his ministry. I cannot understand Methodists who look at the world today and ridicule or dismiss the ministry of those who preach today the gospel Wesley preached.

A lot has happened in my personal life since I wrote those words. This blog has fallen largely silent in the last couple of years because of those personal issues, but the question that animated that blog post seven years ago is — if anything — more pressing today.

As The United Methodist Church creaks and cracks under the strain of dissolution and a global pandemic, the question of who we are presses upon us.

Has the movement within the church catholic that the Holy Spirit raised up in the coal fields and market squares of 18th century England run its course? Has the unique calling of Methodists within the broader church fallen silent? Are We Yet Alive?

One of my favorite passages from Scripture comes from the Book of Job. It comes from a place of deep lament and despair as Job is suffering for reasons he cannot fathom.

For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. (Job 14:7-9, NRSV)

It is hard to look at the broken state of Methodism in the United States and not see a tree that has been cut down, a stump dying in the ground, roots grown old and dry in the earth.

I won’t pretend to be able to say exactly how we got here. I’m just a small church pastor in a small town in Indiana. I don’t have the vision to see in whole what led us here. I’m certain any attempt I made to tell the story of how we got here would be riddled with errors and oversights.

But here is what I do know.

In the early days of my attempts to discern this call I felt on my life into ordained ministry, a wise and kind pastor leading my little class at license to preach school told us that our call story needed to be more than just a statement that we feel called. He said we need to be able to describe what God is calling us to do. Our description of our call does not stop with God calling “Moses, Moses” from the burning bush. It includes God saying “Go to Egypt and lead my people to the mountain.” Our call, he said, is more than just a “hey, you.” It is is a “go do.”

It took me time, prayer, and study to come up with a sense of my “go do,” but here is what I came to at last.

My call is to be a Methodist within the church catholic. My call is to preach, teach, and order the life of the church in the tradition and line of John Wesley, to preach the gospel of grace in my day in ways that are faithful to movement that the Holy Spirit stirred up through the ministry of John and Charles Wesley.

I do not know if the Holy Spirit will fall like water on the dry stump of Methodism in the United States. I don’t know if the scent of water is what is stirring into life this new shoot of Methodism that is struggling to be born as the pandemic delays a formal plan of separation for The United Methodist Church. I hope that is what I am seeing, but I want to remain humble about what I know and cannot know. I hope, but I do not claim to know.

Whatever the path ahead, I remain certain only of my call. God has called me to be a preacher and pastor among the people called Methodist. May there be hope for us yet.

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.”