The Free Methodist Church Faces Forward
An Address to the 150th North Central Annual Conference
Rev. Brian T. Hartley, Ph. D
June 12, 2009
Permit me to begin by congratulating you on the 150th sitting of your annual conference. I feel a certain amount of kinship with you in that my own great-great grandfather, the Rev. Nathan Thomas Holcomb, began preparing for ministry in the Free Methodist Church about 150 years ago far to the south of here. His grandson, my grandfather, in fact came north to pastor several churches in the old West Iowa conference about seventy or so years ago, and it was there that he met and married Miss Della Marie Ades, the Superintendent’s secretary during those hard-scrabble years of the Great Depression. Within a couple of years they would welcome my mother, their first child, into the parsonage at Shenandoah, Iowa, where my grandfather worked on one of many church buildings to follow. Some of my earliest memories as a child, in fact, were the visits we made to my great-grandparents’ home in Boone, Iowa, where we would visit the little Free Methodist Church for worship on Sunday morning.
When I joined the Oklahoma Conference thirty-three years ago this summer as a Ministerial Candidate, I represented the fifth generation of continuous ministry to the Free Methodist Church and I knew then that I stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before me. Early on, I had a propensity to listen to the “old-timers” to try and discover how I might succeed in ministry. A few years later, when I was ordained a deacon in the church, one of the older ministers whom I deeply admired took me aside to share with me from his fount of wisdom. “Brian,” he said, “the key to success in the pastorate is the mimeograph. It will transform your ministry!” Now, I have no doubt regarding the sincerity of Rev. Martin’s advice. I am sure that he thought, like many of my students do today, that the latest technological marvels are going to significantly change and reshape how we carry the gospel to the next generation. In fact, just a few weeks ago the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried a story about a couple of churches that are experimenting with what is known as “Twittering”—allowing parishioners to send electronic text messages during the worship service which are displayed on a screen for the entire congregation to see. But, I dare say, that when I mentioned a mimeograph machine here a moment ago, some of you are young enough that you probably have no idea to what I was referring. You have never been blessed with the smell of a fresh cut purple stencil rolling through ink to produce a bulletin for the Sunday morning service of worship!
Now, I know that many of you may have come to this session hoping to hear some kind of predictions about the future and what new gizmos and exciting trends we might anticipate. But, as I perused attempts at such projections in the past it quickly became apparent to me that most previous attempts had proven largely incorrect and baseless, partly because of the fact that, like the mimeograph, they tend to take what already exists and project forward rather than asking deeper and more basic questions about the direction we need to move based on our core values as an ecclesiastical community. So, what I’d like to actually do this afternoon is not so much try and predict the future, but rather re-examine where we we’ve come from and where we now stand and then issue a prophetic challenge regarding where we need to go over the course of the next generation if we are to prove true to the inheritance which has been given us.
The Questions of Method and Identity
Perhaps we might begin by asking why we have become so enamored with all that is pragmatic across the spectrum of much of evangelicalism in America. It is representative of what has oftentimes been called an “attractional model” for worship, best illustrated by the phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” During the 1980’s, it was associated with what was called the Church Growth movement and over the last couple of decades it can best be seen in the so-called “mega-church” movement where the basic biblical and theological principles of worship have become subservient to a much more consumerist orientation whose primary goal is attracting as many people as possible into a weekend service and making them feel comfortable. That is, as we have seen attendance drop off and our paradigm for understanding and doing church challenged, we have most often become “instrumentalists” when it comes time for describing our theology of the church, or ecclesiology. If it appears to work, even in the short term, we have scrambled to adopt new methods—no matter what the consequences.
The practical result of this approach, which goes back at least to Charles Grandison Finney in the nineteenth century, has been an abandonment of our theology and a kind of practical atheism in our churches. We no longer typically practice the biblical movements of worship grounded in the historic church and throughout most of our Free Methodist churches you would be hard-pressed to discover folks who know and can articulate the Wesleyan theology which led to our own creation and development throughout America a century-and-a-half ago. Today, much of Free Methodism is captive to the American culture and could best be defined as representative of generic American evangelicalism—a wing of the church that has historically been mostly shaped by Reformed and Baptistic elements (what the historian Martin Marty called the “baptistification of the church”), and today is being strongly challenged by neo-Pentecostalism (which emphasizes private spiritual experience and the outward manifestation known as “speaking in tongues”). Though there exist some elements of diversity between our struggling churches in rural or small-town settings and those located in the suburbs and growing bedroom communities and exurbs, this lack of doctrinal understanding and larger sub-cultural influence remains one of the most salient developments over the course of the last few decades.
Reclaiming our Historic Mission
In contrast to these current prevailing winds, I would like to suggest that if we are to survive as a church, it will only be because we find ways of reclaiming our historic Wesleyan mission—a mission that brings together personal piety and accountability with an emphasis on social ministry and global mission. As Howard Snyder has documented in his writings, including his recent book, Populist Saints, and as Henry Rack and Randy Maddox point out in their books, Reasonable Enthusiast and Responsible Grace, Wesleyanism is deeply grounded in a view of full salvation that extends well beyond a moment of justification to include the entirety of life—from the extension of God’s prevenient grace through sanctification and even into glorification. As Wesleyans, we are heirs to the gospel message handed on by the early church to the Church of England which brought together liturgical practice and evangelical zeal to produce what some labeled as the “via media” or middle way between the Roman Catholic communion and the Reformed wing of Christendom. The theology that drove Wesleyans saw the entire created order as God’s domain and enabled our forebears to articulate an apologetic of identity which led us to boldly engage the culture through the establishment of institutions of higher learning, hospitals and social service agencies, missions and printing houses—in addition to the planting of churches amongst the neediest of persons, whether in urban or rural locations.
Free Methodists took on the most difficult of challenges, whether it was slavery, illiteracy, economic injustice, capitalistic greed, or gender inequity. We dared to live simple, unadorned lives committed to a holistic view of the world and of the gospel and we remained rooted in the historic church and the classical Wesleyan core values. Though at times in the past century we veered dangerously close to sectarianism or fell into the trap of legalism, there remained a dynamism to what a former Greenville College professor, Dr. Mary Alice Tenney, called the challenge of Living in Two Worlds, (a book first published in 1958 by Light and Life Press, Winona Lake, Indiana). I believe that Dr. Tenney’s model is thoroughly rooted in the Wesleyan vision of which I have spoken and I want to return to my own re-articulation of this way of thinking near the end of my comments this afternoon as a means of providing a paradigm for thinking through how to meet the challenges of the 21st century. But before we do that, we need to better understand the nature of what some of those challenges are that will face us in the future—recognizing, of course, that the mimeograph of today may prove to be totally irrelevant within the course of another generation.
What Has Happened?
A couple of months ago, Michael Spencer, writing in the Christian Science Monitor (March 10, 2009), created quite a splash with his article entitled, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” At the heart of his argument is that we have, by and large, sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage in the social and political spheres. But even more telling, I believe, are the charges he lays against the church regarding our inability to hand on the faith to the next generation. He says, “We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures,” (2).
When I was a child in the waning days of revivalism in mid-twentieth century Free Methodism, we still maintained a connectional network within the church in which the education of our youth (what the early church called catechesis) was front and center. It began with an integrated curriculum that came from our denominational presses which infiltrated and underpinned our Sunday Schools and midweek programs (some of you will remember the old CYC and FMY acronyms and nomenclature). We even memorized, as children, answers to questions posed in the Free Methodist Catechism, which remain with some of us to this day. When we reached adolescence, many of us were piled into automobiles and taken off to our denominational colleges—places like Central, Spring Arbor, Roberts Wesleyan, and Greenville Colleges—where we met current students, visited with admissions personnel, and conversed with Free Methodist faculty who sought to build on the unified catechesis which we were receiving in Sunday School, Morning Worship, and the midweek programming. Though, as a preacher’s kid, I knew that I was a part of a holiness minority in my school, I also knew that I was a part of a larger network that stretched around the country and linked me to persons and institutions which shared common DNA and common mission.
And, there was a certain kind of uniformity to Free Methodist worship across the country. This was held together by the Discipline, the notes regularly disseminated from the Bishops’ Office, the production in the 1970’s of the Pastor’s Handbook, and, perhaps most importantly, by the Free Methodist Hymnbook, the last of which was produced and published in 1976. (In fact, in many earlier editions of the Hymnbook, the “Order of Public Worship” was printed in the front pages for both pastors and laity to see). Some vestiges of this concerted attempt still survive. For instance, the Pastor’s Handbook contains a lectionary of scripture readings carefully put together by Dr. Paul Livermore under the aegis of the Study Commission on Doctrine and Board of Bishops. But as I travel the Free Methodist Church these days, I dare say not one in ten churches actively use the lectionary as a resource for preaching and congregational worship on a regular basis.
Even more disconcerting, however, is the lack of any real musical canon which shapes our congregations and particularly our young people. Throughout history, Methodists have been known as people who “sing their theology.” Each of the hymnbooks put together was a communal effort, drawing on the best of ecclesiastical and academic leadership, bringing together a committee to hammer out a theology in music for the disparate congregations. In the preface to the last (1976) denominational hymnbook, the editors of the Joint Hymnal Commission state, “The hymnal teaches and inspires. . . It is a rich source of biblical theology. It is where we join with the saints of other centuries in a common expression of joy, praise, and worship.” Anyone who looked through that hymnal would be struck by how carefully the Commission had worked to reflect Wesleyan theology. In the opening section, entitled, “The Worship of God,” there is a clear Trinitarian order provided, while in the section called, “The Christian Life,” there are six major sub-headings which moved from gospel, to conversion, to holiness, to discipline, to maturity, to grace.
Here is a clear demonstration of the holistic approach to salvation which I mentioned earlier. Most importantly, at the back of the hymnal were what were called “Rituals,” those central worship events which all Free Methodists everywhere and at all times practiced--supposedly on a regular basis. I can still remember, as a child, sitting in a hot sawdust-filled tabernacle and hearing the bishop read these words that were filled with both joy and solemnity. I had no idea that these rituals were rooted in the early church and came in English form largely from the pen of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, some four hundred years before I was born. I only knew that when we read them, I felt deeply connected to something that stretched beyond the boundaries of that small camp meeting.
Now, I rehearse all of this not in order to lament or to glorify the past. The past is gone and the world we now inhabit almost two generations later is quite different. But I think that it is important for us to be reminded of the fact that not so long ago we had a unified, concerted, and programatic effort to baptize our children, to catechize our youth, to reinforce the connection between our churches and our educational institutions, and to rehearse on a regular basis our core values and common theology. Much, if not all, of this has now largely disappeared and we must be honest in asking what has replaced it. Perhaps most of the shaping of our young people now takes place through the attactional model I mentioned earlier in our worship which is largely driven by music. In fact, when I ask my students to define Christian worship, I rarely hear any of the classical definitions which are organized around Word and Sacrament but almost always they think of worship in terms primarily of the music which they sing—something I have labeled as the “sacramentalization of Contemporary Christian music.”
The Theology of Worship Music
If music has become the primary, if not the only, catechetical tool for passing on our theology, we must ask how well we are doing this. Now before I continue in this vein, I feel it necessary to lay my cards on the table. I am an early practitioner and product of Contemporary Christian music. I brought along my drums to Greenville College, traveled in music ministry groups for the church and college, even performed in some of the earliest Christian rock concerts. Further, I am convinced that bringing a multiplicity of instruments into the church has largely been a good thing and has helped us to understand and communicate the gospel on a worldwide basis in a way we could not before. I also am not inherently opposed to the singing of worship choruses. There are some well-written choruses that, sung alongside hymns, can provide a necessary diversity to our corporate singing. Many of these choruses rightly emphasize the role of praise, though oftentimes they err on the side of being overly individualistic.
All that being said, I have become convinced that the mass adoption of Contemporary Christian music into our churches as the primary, if not the sole focus of our worship, has wrought horrific theological consequences which we must no longer ignore and must begin to address. First, music, which John Wesley believed in and used on a mass scale, was always to be about unifying the church and was, thus, to be done corporately. The model, however, which is at work in many of our churches is a performance-based one which divides the church, sometimes generationally and most often into two separate services, while operating via tunes designed for soloists which do not function well in terms of congregational song. Many of them arise out of what are called “rock ballads” prepared for soloists and are dependent primarily on emotion and a spirituality that verges on the sexuality of the rock concert. I have been reminded of this quite often when I have found myself behind some scantily-clad coed swaying rather lasciviously in front of me, her hands held high and her hips gyrating in something of a sexually provocative motion—much like one would expect in a hip-hop video on MTV. Whenever I broach the issues of performance or such sexually-laden movement with my students, many of them are horrified and stunned that I would dare attribute such meaning to either their singing or their response. Yet, such a reading is in concert with much of the scholarship currently being generated which examines such symbolic-making behavior in religious ritual.
But perhaps even more disconcerting are the lyrics being sung in our services of Christian worship. Here, again, the literature is overwhelming and can be read in such popular studies as Marva J. Dawn’s Reaching Out without Dumbing Down or John Witvliet’s collection of essays, Worship Seeking Understanding. As Dawn points out in her book, the church’s worship is meant to turn the culture’s perspective on its head, teach an opposite set of values, and enable believers to make authentic differences in the world (17), but oftentimes both the musical genres and lyrics capitulate to cultural values and proclaim a version of the gospel virtually indecipherable from the culture. Further, much of the music is, at best, theologically inadequate and, at worst, outright heretical. In his study of the top 300 Praise & Worship songs over the course of the last generation, Professor Bert Polman at Calvin College discovered just how skewed our presentation of God is and how theologically bereft much of the music is of classical Christian theology.
Lest you think I am overreaching, let me simply cite as one example the study done by Dr. Lester Ruth, Professor of Worship at Asbury Theological Seminary. In the opening paragraph of a recently-published essay, he says: “. . . my study of the most used contemporary worship songs in the last fifteen years shows that there is a danger our songs reflect love for a god who does not fit the message of the classic, scriptural Christian faith. I grow fearful that our songs disclose intense feelings but do not worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. We are in danger of losing the Father and the Spirit in our worship. If songs have the power to form a people’s faith, then we stand at the edge of losing scriptural worship,” (“Lex amandi, lex orandi: the Trinity in the most-used Contemporary Christian Worship Songs,” The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer, 342).
I have grown particularly concerned about the theological shaping that occurs with congregations where the majority of what is sung corresponds to what I call “happy-fun-ball theology.” By continuously singing songs that only talk about the cheerfulness of believers, we create a false impression that if Christians experience struggles or difficulties in life something must be wrong with them or with their faith. This leaves them particularly vulnerable to the neo-Pentecostalism to which I referred earlier, with a false belief that participation in the natural human predicament is not a part of our calling. This flies in the face of the words of the Psalmist or the writings of the apostle Paul who suggest that pain, sorrow, and struggle are a part of what it means to be human, to search for God in the complexities of life, and to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
Marva Dawn points out why this full-orbed Christian theology embedded in our music is essential to our everyday human existence. “Last year,” she writes, “when I was very ill from chemotherapy I found it extremely difficult when my freelancing took me to congregations that sang only ‘happy’ songs. I could respond with Joy when we sang about God—those truths encouraged me in my struggles with the constant pile of physical afflictions I’d been facing for several years—but I couldn’t enter into songs that spoke only about wonderful feelings, (Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, 176). Dawn goes on to complain that there is a general lack of room for lament in most of our worship. Lament is important, she suggests, because it “forms the believers’ character by providing the means for worshipers ‘to reflect upon and articulate their sense of God’s hiddenness.’” Churches must assume responsibility for assisting congregants in making the distinction between “music appropriate for private enjoyment and music suitable for public worship,” (176-177). Unless we begin to do so, we are not taking seriously our call to Christian formation. “Shallow music,” she points out, “forms shallow people,” (175). And, shallow people, it is my contention, will not be able to face the complex challenges and the difficult ethical issues which will confront us in the next generation.
Broadening Our Vision
Furthermore, we need to embrace both different genres of music as well as music that will help our people develop a sense of community that extends beyond the parochial borders of our typical parishes. As Philip Jenkins has pointed out in his writings, particularly his ground-breaking book, The Next Christendom (Oxford, 2002), the face of Christianity is changing in the 21st-century with two of every three Christians now living in countries south of the equator. There, amongst the poor and persecuted, the Christian narrative is challenging allegiance to secular nation-states through culturally-located worship combined with strong social outcomes. The music from these communities has the potential to “widen our vision of Christ’s church, as these are offered in solidarity with those indigenous communities from which they arose—just as ancient psalms, canticles, and other liturgical songs bring us close to universal praise among the saints and in heaven,” (Elise S. Eslinger, Upper Room Worshipbook, 375). In our own college chapel, we are attempting to introduce examples of this music to broaden our students’ understanding of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. Whenever we sing prayers from the Taize community in France, chant a South African praise tune, lay claim to a sung piece of Chinese liturgy, or introduce a Guatemalan hymn, we extend the vision of our young people beyond their own restrictive cultural lenses and assist them in seeing themselves as part of a church that stretches backward in time as well as forward in space.
But, make no mistake about it, college students from the “Me Generation” who have spent much of their lives dictating their own musical tastes and have avoided much theological stretching, do not always appreciate what it is we are attempting to do for them. And parents and church leaders, many of whom have likewise been shaped by an attractional model to ministry that focuses on comfort and safety, oftentimes don’t understand why this approach is necessary. In fact, most often when I share some of this material with Christian leaders, the initial response is that we should simply teach more Bible—that the Christian college should attempt to do with “twenty-somethings” that which the church has failed to do with its charges at a much earlier age. But, the long-term results of this lack of catechesis, ecclesiastical vision, and dependence on popular Christian music to carry our theology is not only a deficiency in biblical literacy when our children become adults, but a culturally-captive faith imbedded in a stunted or warped theology—all of which appeals primarily to the heart and the affections and denigrates the life of the mind. Such people are particularly prone to doubt a faith which inhabits both head and heart and which challenges many of the presuppositions they have come to embrace in their music.
One clear example of this is in the way we try to lay out for students in chapel and in the classroom a call to a faith that is both personal and communal. For many of them, they think of their faith in merely private ways, separate from the church and from the Christian tradition. They are shocked when they encounter Christians who attempt to practice corporate responsibility with one another or who challenge the primary values of American culture. Further, when we couch the claims of the gospel in cosmic terms laid out in the Scriptures they find this befuddling because they have come to so embrace a view of the gospel that is solely private and is wedded to a dispensationalist theology of the rapture in which God’s creation is meaningless. As N. T. Wright points out in his book on the importance of the theology of the resurrection, Surprised by Hope, many of our young people are both dualistic and Gnostic, more like the secular Gentiles Paul portrays than their Christian forbears.
The Myth of Technology
This, then, brings us back around to the mimeograph comment with which I began. If any one category might need examining by the church, it is the myth of technology which has come to so dominate our culture. Today, electronic devices are ubiquitous and if I would suggest to my students (as I do when I take seniors on a monastic retreat) that they should leave their computers, cell phones, and other various and sundry devices behind, they absolutely begin to panic. In fact, I compare our senior retreat to a weekend detoxification in which we can only begin to hear God individually and corporately as we learn to “turn off” the other voices around us. Now, mind you, I am no Luddite and I am not calling for us to abandon technology. When used appropriately, these devices can expand our worlds and assist us in the spread of the gospel. But, all technology brings with it both gain and loss, and when we blithely adopt the latest technology without examining the consequences of such use we fall prey to, at the very least, distorting the message of the Gospel.
This particular subject needs much greater discussion in our local congregations and at the denominational level. Oftentimes, technology needs seem to drive our local budgets in ways that go unquestioned. Ministry to people and care of our pastors oftentimes are moved to secondary considerations because of the felt need to purchase ever larger and more costly sound systems and projection equipment. I was reminded of this just last year when one of my colleagues was asked to go and hold the final service at a congregation within our home conference that was being closed. He told me that he was met at the door proudly by a lay leader who proclaimed to him with much joy that the conference would no longer need to close the church since they had just spent thousands of dollars on new equipment which was bound to attract more people into their church building.
It would be quite easy for me to continue this litany of lament across various aspects of church ministry, from evangelism to discipleship. The loss of theological identity, the lack of training for most of our pastoral leadership, the identification in the culture between evangelicalism and political conservatism are all issues that should concern not only our bishops and superintendents but those of you who are lay leaders, as well. Some reports in the last year or two are already predicting wide defection from evangelical churches, with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Pentecostal churches in the ascendancy. Perhaps this is the case, and I certainly would not want to denigrate my brothers and sisters in these other wings of the church who bring other voices to the table that are equally important. Certainly, recent statistics for our denomination should have all of us wondering if we can weather another twenty years and, if not, how we might be preparing our churches to be enfolded into other denominations.
Forging a Working Model
But before anyone pronounces the death-knell of the Free Methodist denomination, I would like the opportunity to suggest a model for the future and to ask how it might assist us in adapting to certain changes of the 21st century. As you have heard, I have spent much of my time so far in contrasting the so-called “attractional” model of the last generation or two with what some would call a more “missional” model we inherited from John Wesley and B. T. Roberts. And, as I mentioned with Dr. Tenney’s book, I think that there was an understanding with our Wesleyan-Holiness fathers and mothers in the faith that at the heart of this vision was the willingness to sacrificially give of ourselves to a broken world so that God’s Kingdom might begin to be made manifest in our midst (not just in the “sweet by-and-by”). Drawing on the work of Dr. James I. McCord, I have tried to flesh out my reiteration of this model in my teaching and writing through what I have come to call “riding the barbed-wire fence.”
The essence of the barbed-wire fence metaphor is two-fold: it demands that we be willing to have our feet firmly planted in two very different worlds and it requires us to remain open to the world and one another in a position of radical vulnerability. The two worlds to which we are called are spelled out in Dr. Tenney’s Preface to her book in her description of the Christian: “He is not other-worldly, for his chief concern is for this world and its need. So he lives in two worlds, maintaining the vertical upreach to God who has transformed him, and the horizontal outreach to men, whom he loves as never before,” (7). This is mirrored in the model attributed to the theologian, Karl Barth, who infamously spoke of the preacher doing his work with the Bible in one hand, with the newspaper in the other (though, given the precarious nature of the newspaper business these days, we may need to amend that image a bit!).
I would maintain that this imagery is inherent in the cruciform nature of the gospel itself with the cross serving as its most powerful image. If one reads carefully the Pauline epistles, it becomes clear that the Apostle to the Gentiles understands the cross not just as representative of past sins forgiven but of the very calling to which the believer has given his or her very life. As my best friend from seminary days, Dr. Michael J. Gorman writes, “For Paul, Christ’s cross is both the source and the shape of our salvation. When we respond to the gospel, we embrace the cross not only as gift but also as demand. To borrow the language of Jesus, we ‘take up the cross,’ beginning a life that can be best described with one word: cruciform—cross-shaped. Our devotion to God, our love for others, and our hope for the future are all grounded in and shaped by the cross,” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 585). I believe that it is the reclamation of this vision that will help sustain our church in this century—and only if we reclaim this vision. We must come to understand that, “in such a cruciform spirituality, sacrifice, difficulty, and suffering are not to be seen as intruders, but as part and parcel of the arrangement, sustained by the presence of the Spirit as the foretaste and guarantee of a future resurrection similar to Christ’s,” (Gorman, 585).
Preaching the Scriptures
That is why a reclamation of the theological significance of worship, though not our sole focus for the future, must be our primary one. For it is only as we worship rightly that we will have a compelling vision to share with our broken world and which will inform all other aspects of our individual and corporate Christian lives. And, I believe the place to start with the reclamation of this vision is with our reading and teaching of the whole counsel of God as discovered in the Scriptures and in the tradition of the church. Instead of arguing over the nature of the biblical witness, we must incorporate its story into our worship and into our very lives. Unfortunately, it currently serves primarily as a convenient backdrop for bulleted points on our PowerPoint slides—not as the majestic narrative which beckons us towards Christ, his cross and resurrection, and the new creation in which God is engaged through his primary instrument of redemption, his church. Whether we “twitter” or not is inconsequential. What is important is that we begin to preach from the entire canon of the scriptures, not for the formation of some private, detached spirituality, but for the restoration of the communities of faith in which we live out our lives.
As we begin to allow the scriptures to speak to the church (instead of bending the text to conform to our predetermined message), we must bring alongside them the god-given means of grace through prayer and the sacraments. In particular, we should consider the place of corporate prayer in our churches. In his little book, Patterned by Grace, Methodist pastor, Daniel T. Benedict, Jr., points out that daily common prayer “is quite different from solitary prayer or ‘daily devotions,’” (40). “Communal prayer goes on around the world through all the hours of the day,” he points out, with liturgical prayer occurring in every time zone day by day by day. “Part of the gift of the daily office and occasional immersions in its practice,” he claims, “is the discovery that even when we pray alone, we are not alone. . . This practice enculturates a sense of solidarity among all the baptized as a priestly community before God. It also draws us into the life and heart of God,” (41).
Though this practice may seem somewhat “Anglicized” or unfamiliar to some, as Mark Stamm reminds us, “Methodist piety and its language of prayer is rooted in the prayer book tradition. . . the roots of the movement are clearly within the Church of England,” (Let Every Soul be Jesus’ Guest, 66). In fact, many evangelicals are looking to this ancient practice as a way out of an overly-privatized faith. My first-year students know, because I read with them last fall a new text entitled, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things—a book organized around the eight hours of corporate prayer. In it, the author, Leighton Ford (who, by the way, is the brother-in-law of famed evangelist, Billy Graham) uses the practice of communal prayer to probe the various seasons of the Christian life and the kind of attentiveness that each calls us to. Ford, an elder statesman in the evangelical community, says: “For me, discovering these new practices has not meant in the slightest jettisoning either the foundational beliefs or the spiritual disciplines that I have followed since my youth. It has meant exploring other ways: silence, stillness, art and poetry, reading Scripture not by going through great chunks but by meditating on smaller portions, listening carefully to God and my own heart, having a trusted spiritual companion as a friend on the journey,” (14). Corporate prayer, which is thoroughly grounded in the practice of the apostolic church and developed by our Anglican forebears, provides our congregations, and particularly our youth, with a means of moving outside of their own solipsistic existence and of being united with the saints of old and the church worldwide. It forces us to begin to see ourselves in light of the church both past and present, as well as on a more global scale in which our connections with Christians around the world forge a common identity which transcends ethnic and nationalistic boundaries. It compels us not only to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world, but to act on those prayers.
Restoring the Sacraments
And alongside a reclamation of the ancient practice of communal prayer, we will need to restore the place and importance of the sacraments to our worship. Especially in an age when there is this Gnostic tendency to speak of a disembodied existence or of a dualistic view of the universe between the natural and supernatural, the reclamation of God’s creation as a means of grace (celebrated in our historic Free Methodist rituals) will become an all-important means of catechetical training for all who take up residence in our pews—both young and old. (In fact, I understand from Erick Ewaskowitz that over the course of this past year he has implemented the practice of communion every week with his high schoolers.) Recovery and regular practice of the Lord’s Supper is particularly important because it offers hope and healing via a therapeutic understanding of grace. This particular theology was captured by John and Charles Wesley in their 166 Eucharistic hymns through such tunes as “O, the Depth of Love Divine,” in which mystical union with God is encountered in the reception of consecrated bread and wine.
That is why John Wesley spoke so passionately in his sermon, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” to his followers, reassuring them that “it is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can.” He challenged those who partook infrequently, or even monthly, to communicate more often in order to “come to a better mind.” Like Luther and Calvin before him, Wesley understood the power of sacramental reception and communed himself, on average, at least once every five or six days. At the very heart of Wesley’s understanding stood a commitment to the open table, something written into the opening invitation. He believed “that all Christians are guests of Jesus, than none deserve their place at the Gospel Feast. As guests at that feast, Methodists believe that they speak for Jesus as they invite all people to join them,” (Mark W. Stamm, Let Every Soul be Jesus’ Guest, ix).
This open invitation incorporates a culture of mission inherent in Wesleyan Eucharistic spirituality. As we, as a people gather, we pray for the hungry, the homeless, the abused, followed by praying with our feet, “working to feed the hungry and provide a safe place for others in need,” (157). Celebrating the Lord’s Supper regularly, then, becomes not only therapeutic for ourselves or even the congregation, but extends the healing ministry of the church into our communities and around the world. The bread and wine act to convey to us the divine love of God, reconsecrating us individually and the church corporately for service to the world, reminding us that God’s ultimate goal is nothing less than the reconciling of the entire creation to God’s self. As one of our graduates, the Rev. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc, put it in a recent e-mail to me about her own Free Methodist congregation in Southern California: “I have experienced the community of Jesus Christ as the most determinative marker of my identity (when) I received a piece of bread and dipped it in a cup, celebrating Holy Communion together with my Mexican brothers and sisters.” Maureen and her husband, Bryan, represent, I believe, examples of the bright hope for our denomination as they weekly feed about a hundred day-workers at their church and put feet to the faith they discover at Christ’s table.
This same therapeutic, cleansing element, which has evangelistic and missional outcomes can also be seen and experienced in and through the sacrament of baptism. Will Willimon points out that baptism is “the principal, primal, initiating, and continuing way that we experience our Christian identity,” (Worship as Pastoral Care, 148). Baptism is not dependent on me or my ability to lead a holy life, but upon God and God’s promises. While it does call forth response, it is always a response to the saving activity of God. Baptism reminds me that I never cease being dependent upon the rest of the community—that there is no such thing as “lone-ranger” Christianity. My primary identity is given to me, just as I do not name myself but am given a name by my parents. Baptism, as Willimon says, “is an action done to me and for me, rather than by me,” and always occurs in the context of community. It never takes place in private because the identity it confers is socially structured and communally derived. It is an identity not only given to me by the community but that is forever responsible to and dependent upon the community.
Forming a Missional Community
I believe that in order for us to move forward as a people we must come back to that sense of community which was so operative in the early church, which permeated the sense of distinctiveness for early Methodists, and which bound together these odd folks in the nineteenth century who chose the moniker “Free Methodist” with which to forge a new identity in a rapidly-changing world. During my own adolescence, I was privileged to work as a hospital orderly at Deaconess Hospital, then one of the premier social service institutions of the Free Methodist Church. In those days, the slogan for the hospital was, “where care comes first”—something that I learned firsthand as I emptied bedpans and cared for the bodily and spiritual needs of my patients. That hospital, however, existed only because there were a handful of women, “Deaconesses” we used to call them, who had given sacrificially year after year to carve out a place for healing in the relatively new state of Oklahoma at the turn of the last century. For them, the cruciform life, a life lived riding the barbed-wire fence with absolute vulnerability to God, to one another, and to the broken people to whom they ministered, was not some abstract model. For them, it was a way of life.
My late friend and mentor, Dr. Robert Webber, suggested that, “the leadership of the younger evangelical is not shaped by being right, nor is it driven by meeting needs.” Instead, he claimed, “it arises out of a missiological understanding of the church, theological reflection, spiritual formation, and cultural awareness,” (The Younger Evangelicals, 2002). That being the case, I have great hope for reclaiming our ecclesiastical mission in the first half of the 21st century—beginning with our youth. In fact, I hope what I’ve said today is of particular interest to those of you who are serving in smaller or even struggling parishes. The good news is that you don’t have to have the latest sound system or rock-concert worship band to begin to train your youth and empower them for ministry. Instead, you should focus on the celebration of our core values which led to the establishment of our denomination and, indeed, of the Methodist movement, as a whole in order to, as Bishop Marston once reminded us, “serve the present age.”
This begins, I would like to suggest, by recognizing our primary responsibility to tell the story and to tell it right; to baptize our babies and catechize our youth; to celebrate the good news through scripture, prayer, and sacraments; and to sing the songs of Zion in a way that does not distort or detract from the faith once delivered to the saints—a faith that transcends categories of gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In short, the vision that we are compelled to cast is that of “one faith, one Lord, one baptism.” Finally, we are called to embrace the cross, to plant our feet firmly in two worlds, and to open ourselves up to the needs around us—as did our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If we will do this—if we will reclaim that ancient vision and these time-tested tools—we can once again face forward with confidence that the one who began a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.