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.

Can we see ourselves in these?

I apologize for this post’s brevity. True confession: I am writing it mostly so I can hold on to these two links and write another post or two later that references them. Both are about tensions in the Reformed movement known as The Gospel Coalition.

The first is a story about divisions within the movement over the doctrine of sanctification. As a Wesleyan, I think there is fodder here for consideration of where we fall on these issues.

The second is a story about the split within The Gospel Coalition that includes an interesting look back at the split within British evangelicalism in the 1960s. Back then the question was whether to stay within the mainstream Church of England or “come out” and form separate bodies. I think evangelicals within United Methodism have been engaged and will be engaged in the same sort of debate in coming years.

Like I say, there is lots of interesting stuff here. Time does not permit me to delve into it right now. Feel free to share your thoughts, though.

Al Mohler interviews Stanley Hauerwas

Here’s an interesting interview of Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler.

The whole interview is interesting reading, but here is one nugget that caught my eye right off the top:

I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.

This expresses very well Hauerwas’ focus on the church as the center of all the action in our faith. It also raises an interesting critique of our Methodist roots. This would likely be the exact kind of complaint that Church of England bishops had about John Wesley and all those Methodists running around talking about assurance of salvation. Perhaps this is part of the reason Hauerwas is no longer a United Methodist.

It also gets at some of the tension we have within our current church, I think. The question he suggests for us is which is primary: Our personal relationship with Jesus or our participation in the body of Christ?

I bet the answers that various people give to that question would be interesting.

I find I tend to wax and wane on that. I am a mushy modern Methodist and want to say “both/and.” But I think that is evading the question. It suggests Hauerwas is not capable of seeing that both play a role. No, his question is which is primary.

I think if forced to side, I’d have to say the participation in the body is primary because it is the way by which we come to know who Jesus is and what it means to be one of his followers. The Holy Spirit works through means of grace that are in the stewardship of the church.

But then my “both/and” emerges because I also believe that Christianity is not something you get by osmosis. It is not a T-shirt you buy at the gift shop. It is something that changes you. It is personal. And if it is not personal, it is ultimately incomplete.

It is complicated. And each Christian has his or her own story and own understanding of how the personal relationship with Jesus and the corporate existence among Jesus’ people shape us.

I guess that is why I value theologians who raise such interesting questions. They help me see the richness of our faith and they keep me from settling into easy and shallow answers.

If you get the time, I encourage you to read the entire interview. It is thought provoking and sheds some light on Hauerwas’ thought. Hauerwas’ answers to Mohler’s questions about the nature of the gospel and the meaning of the cross were most helpful to me as someone who has puzzled at times over what Hauerwas means by what he writes. I found Mohler’s closing monologue to his evangelical audience itself worth the time spent reading the whole piece.