A Missional UM Future: Lovett Weems, Provocative Question 1

Entry 1 of 21...

In good missional and postmodern fashion, I'd like to begin this series by looking at questions rather than proposals or solutions, and so with the 10 Provocative Questions that Lovett Weems posed to the Council of Bishops and that they, in turn, asked those who gathered for the Extended Cabinet to consider at Lake Junaluska in early November of this year.

Here's his question, and really two questions:

Issue: Theological Grounding and Spiritual Vitality
Provocative Question: Can we capture the Wesleyan power of being an evangelical church in a liberal tradition?... Could such a vision that is both deep (in faith and piety) and open (to new needs and possibilities) sustain us over the years ahead?

Dr. Weems didn't try to answer this question at all, and neither will I-- well, not right up front at least! What I'd like to do here is try to understand it and find, perhaps, other ways of framing it from an explicitly missional perspective.

And to do that, I might need to work at some deconstruction. Dr. Weems noted as a basis for asking this question that United Methodists have affirmed a deep theological agreement on the "core issues" of the Christian faith. What are the core issues and core beliefs to which he is referring? The State of the Church report identifies those as beliefs in "God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit," in complete dependence on God, in salvation by God's grace, and scripture as the primary source of Christian teaching. Importantly for our purposes, United Methodists in the US were substantially less convinced of the importance of mission and service to salvation than their counterparts in Africa.

Some further questions, then. Are these shared core beliefs sufficient to identify United Methodists as Jesus-followers? Are these beliefs more beliefs ABOUT than identification of any relationship (other than a sort of unspecified dependence) WITH God, and more specifically with the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ? Is there anything in these identified shared core beliefs that is particularly missional-- especially given the relative reluctance of people in the US (and especially in the Western Jurisdiction) to connect missional engagement with personal salvation? Indeed, is there much there one can particularly identify with the moniker Wesleyan, evangelical or even liberal?

There appears to be some disconnect with belief ABOUT God, our understanding of personal salvation, and participation WITH God in God's mission. If we in the emerging missional movement understand salvation to be the process and result of participating in God's mission as we follow Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, where does this put us in the UMC?

Perhaps it puts us in a place of having to define the other terms Dr. Weems uses-- evangelical and liberal, even as we may be seeking actively to reclaim the third one, Wesleyan.

Dr. Weems did not define these terms in his presentation to the Council of Bishops. What exactly he may have intended is therefore a bit unknown. If he meant these terms in their classical sense, then evangelical may mean having some interest in both a) evangelism and b) personal conversion, or the personal experience of justification that leads to a transformed life (sanctification, to use the classic Christian terminology). Liberal may mean "broad church" (in the sense of not needing to have agreement on theological premises with great specificity), or it may refer to the political sense of individual liberty with respect to belief and action limited only by the need not to cause palpable harm to others, to which one might also add an obligation to work for the palpable good of others.

From a postmodern and a missional perspective, and I would argue from a Wesleyan perspective as well, too much interest in these labels may be seen as counter-productive. Why? Because they seem to be more about ways to summarize or categorize positions or past belief systems than to reflect the action and reflection of existing communities of practice.

So if we reframe the terms evangelical and liberal in terms of communities of practice, where might we end up?

Evangelical MIGHT refer to the PRACTICES of communities of Jesus followers of declaring the good news that God's kingdom is happening all around us in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit and changing everything-- people, their relationships with each other, and their relationships with God. Evangelical from this frame might mean not being bashful about saying that and living in such a way that our actions bear out what we're saying.

Liberal might mean generous... as in Brian McLaren's "Generous Orthodoxy"... and perhaps more for us in the Wesleyan tradition as Mr Wesley's own "Catholic Spirit." (That sermon is well worth reading... and it predates "classical liberalism" by a good half-century or so!). Here's the key paragraph of that sermon, that sort of brings together his thinking along these lines, and actually summarizes how he intended the Methodist small groups to work:

... a man of a catholic spirit is one who, in the manner above-mentioned, gives his hand to all whose hearts are right with his heart: one who knows how to value, and praise God for, all the advantages he enjoys, with regard to the knowledge of the things of God, the true scriptural manner of worshiping him, and, above all, his union with a congregation fearing God and working righteousness: one who, retaining these blessings with the strictest care, keeping them as the apple of his eye, at the same time loves--as friends, as brethren in the Lord, as members of Christ and children of God, as joint partakers now of the present kingdom of God, and fellow heirs of his eternal kingdom--all, of whatever opinion or worship, or congregation, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; who love God and man; who, rejoicing to please, and fearing to offend God, are careful to abstain from evil, and zealous of good works. He is the man of a truly catholic spirit, who bears all these continually upon his heart; who having an unspeakable tenderness for their persons, and longing for their welfare, does not cease to commend them to God in prayer, as well as to plead their cause before men; who speaks comfortably to them, and labors, by all his words, to strengthen their hands in God. He assists them to the uttermost of his power in all things, spiritual and temporal. He is ready "to spend and be spent for them;" yea, to lay down his life for their sake.

IF we have such practicing communities in place, such groups in SOME relationship to United Methodist Churches (or even that just include some United Methodists, among others, perhaps ideally!) that embrace this sense of catholicity, then, I would suggest, we have good reason to trust that we can be evangelical (in the sense of trusting and living into and inviting others into the transforming power of the mission and life of God) in a liberal (but not latitudinarian or laissez-faire) environment, AND truly Wesleyan.

But we need the groups to practice this-- not just a set of beliefs that might be compatible with it.

So some further questions for each of us individually, and for our congregations, might be "Where do such groups exist?" "How can I find a place in such a group?" "How are we (congregations and individuals) helping people find places in such groups?" "What is our commitment to going out and starting such groups?" Bottom line, Methodism (or as Mr Wesley would argue, Christianity!) makes no REAL sense without them, any more than faith without works does.

Of course, there's another bottom line.... such groups would not be entirely INSIDE a local congregation, or even controllable by it. Practicing "catholic spirit" or "evangelical liberal Wesleyan missional" groups ARE like the early Methodist class meetings and societies-- composed of people with a variety of congregational affiliations, and some perhaps to more than one, or even none in a formal way, not just one.

Evangelicalism alone (in the classic sense) does tend (historically) to reduce to doctrinal distinctives and disputes, and ultimately to division. Liberalism alone does tend to have too much confidence that whatever we believe doesn't matter much if we're in general agreement. Both tend to live with the illusions of attractionalism-- the former that they will attract others to their version of the truth passionately articulated, the latter that they will attract others to their vision of tolerance. Attraction in either case is based on beliefs, not positive shared missional experience-- unless it is the experience of excluding those who don't believe as you do or trying to change their minds (evangelical) or being refugees or persons on the mend from those who tried to do that to you or who excluded you because you didn't change your mind (liberals).

Mr Wesley showed a better way... a way that, to my way of thinking and acting, is both aligned with the gospel and the way of discipleship to Jesus and can always be recaptured or lost in every generation.

Can we recapture the power of being an evangelical church in a liberal tradition?

Yes. We know what Mr Wesley did. We know that groups that are following the "catholic spirit" or "generous orthodoxy" that Mr Wesley advocated exist now in many forms, and we can both learn from others who are part of them and start such ourselves wherever we are.

And that may not be the only way to embody a commonlife that is "deep in faith and piety and open to new needs and possibilities".... but it is one way we know.

What ways do you know where you are?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards