Throwing fish at hamsters

Francis Chan is not a United Methodist, but reading some of the marketing materials produced by our denomination make me think of a Bible study he once taught.

Chan was teaching about how he has a hard time reading in the Bible about the church of the New Testament and then looking at the church as it exists in contemporary America. He describes his experience as being like walking into an ice skating rink and seeing people throwing fish at hamsters that are running around on the ice. When he asks them what they are doing, they say, “We’re playing soccer.”

Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

When I read through the #BeUMC website materials produced by United Methodist Communications, I’m not sure where to start. The points of emphasis in the messaging have that unique quality that marketing language often has. It appears to say something without actually saying anything.

Take, for instance, this statement: “We embrace the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition and dedicate ourselves to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

There are words here that sound specific, but they are empty containers that people can pour into whatever they desire. I have no idea what they mean by “the fundamentals of the Wesleyan tradition,” and I suspect that is the point. If we were to identify what those fundamentals were, we would start to draw lines and make distinctions that are not useful if your goal is to say “you can believe anything and be a United Methodist.”

What is most interesting to me in the overview materials is that they miss something that absolutely jumps out of some of the supporting research. I dug a little deeper — and it is hard to get too deep here — and found this nugget. In the research that supposedly supports the #BeUMC messaging they asked UMC laity what they thought should be the primary focus of the church — saving souls or advocating for social justice.

Go read the overview of the #BeUMC messaging again. Based on that page, what do you think the underlying research would say. Just take a guess. Based on what is written as a summary of their research, how important do you think UMC laity say saving souls should be?

Just as a reminder, John Wesley told the early Methodists we have no business in this world except the saving of souls.

What answer did you come up with?

Would you be surprised to learn that 70% of UMC laity said our main focus as a church should be saving souls for Jesus Christ?

Seven in ten.

And yet, in the materials about the #BeUMC message there is not a word about salvation.

Consider this for a moment. A website produced by the communications and marketing arm of a Christian church makes no reference to salvation, even though the supporting research behind the website notes that 70% of UMC members think the salvation of souls should be the main focus of the church.

As Francis Chan said, “I don’t even know where to start.”

Helping Christians be better Christians

Recently, I picked up a small book about Jacob Arminius‘ theology of election and his criticism of predestination. The strain of Reformed Protestant theology advocated by Arminius in the 17th century would have deep influence on the development of Methodism.

One hallmark of Arminius’ theology is an appreciation for the practical aspects of theology. Theology is not meant to be a series of abstract ideas. It is meant to have practical application and impact. The author of my book puts it this way:

Genuine theological knowledge (harkening back to St. Augustine) was a habitus, a way of thinking that could not be separated from a way of living. It touched the heart, enlightened the mind, and made one charitable … Arminius understood well that doctrine (doctina) had connotational roots in the history of the church as religious teaching that enables one to be a good Christian.

Christian doctrine exists to help Christians be better Christians. This idea is something Methodists have little difficulty affirming. I find it helpful to realize that this conviction locates us with a grand tradition of the church catholic that can be traced back to Augustine and the early church fathers.

For me as a pastor, then, the question is this: Am I teaching and preaching in ways that are not merely correct but also helpful to Christians seeking to live out their faith?

Methodist preaching is evangelical

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.