Monday, April 26, 2010

Wesley for Everyone

The most wonderfully Wesleyan aspect of the spectacularly successful Disciple Bible Studies is its name. It’s not “Thinking Long Thoughts about Scripture” or the “Noble Ideas from the Bible” series. It’s Disciple. As I see it, John Wesley made two enduring contributions to the church universal:

(1.) Belief in Jesus results in discipleship. Scripture is meant to be embodied, performed, and enacted in our daily lives (Wesley’s “practical Christianity”). We’re not talking distinctively United Methodist Christianity if we’re not talking practical, incarnate, obedient Christianity. Randy Maddox characterized Wesley’s theology as “responsible grace,” [1] an interplay between the loving work of God in us and the work of God through us, all of us.

(2.) Discipleship is for everybody, young and old, rich and poor. Wesley truly believed that it was possible for ordinary Eighteenth Century people, of every age and rank, to be transformed into saints – if they were disciplined, educated, and formed by Scripture. Early Methodists designed a score of creative means to enable the accomplishment of those two goals.

Recently I asked a successful youth minister, “What is the chief factor in the growth of your ministry with youth?” He replied, “the spiritual needs of students match up perfectly with Wesleyan Christianity. They want to be transformed and they yearn for connectedness with others in their walk with Christ. Methodists know how to do that!”

Uniquely Wesleyan identity doesn’t come naturally. Randy Maddox showed me an exchange of letters between Wesley and Miss J.C. March that illustrates the twofold particularities of Wesley’s practical Christianity. Miss March had written to Wesley about inadequacies in her spiritual life. Wesley replied, without noticeable sympathy for her plight, chiding her to give up her “gentlewoman” airs and be a disciple of Jesus. How? “Go see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman!... Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear an higher character. You are an heir of God!” [2]

Two years later, in response to Miss March’s continued whining about her sad spiritual state, an aggravated Wesley replied, “I find time to visit the sick and the poor; and I must do it, if I believe the Bible….. I am concerned for you; I am sorry you should be content with lower degrees of usefulness and holiness than you are called to.” It’s vintage Wesley – nobody is too low (or in Miss March’s case, too high) to be outside of the reach of responsible grace. For Father John, faith in Christ meant being busy in Christ’s work, going where Christ goes, doing what Christ commands. (I count 86 references in his sermons to the importance of prison ministry.)

A major pastoral responsibility is to inculcate and indoctrinate our people, young and old, in distinctively Wesleyan Christianity, even as Father John worked on Miss March.

1. We ought to love Wesleyan Christianity and our people enough to entice them into the joys of Wesleyan believing. I know of no really vibrant, growing church that does not take the orientation and education of new members seriously. Methodism is not synonymous with being a thinking, caring, average American. Everyone who joins a United Methodist congregation should be asked, “What do we need to give you that would enable you to participate fully as a Wesleyan Christian?”

In 2008, our Conference celebrated United Methodist Believing, urging every congregation to have lay-led learning opportunities organized around my book, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2008). A team of our laypersons designed a fine downloadable study guide. (Go to, click “Resource: United Methodist Beliefs” in the left menu)

I recently visited a congregation that requires a four Sunday new member class – led by laypersons. One layperson has fine-tuned, “United Methodist Beliefs in Forty-five Minutes,” a class that is organized around the doctrinal section of the Discipline. At the end of that session, each prospective member is asked, “Which United Methodist belief would you like to know more about?” The pastor and lay leaders then point that person to additional resources.

The Wesley Study Bible, with its commitment to biblical interpretation from a Wesleyan perspective, is a great new resource. Adult Sunday School classes could work through the entire WSB in the course of a year, reading selected Wesleyan Core Terms and Life Applications found within the text of each biblical book as an exercise in Wesleyan hermeneutics.

I have written a Downloadable Discussion Guide that takes the Four Emphases from the last General Conference and utilizes the Wesley Study Bible for study by individuals or groups. Teachers of youth and children could easily adapt this study guide for use in leading even very young Christians into scripture.

I met with a group of High School students who had a “Walking to School With Wesley,” in which they took various key Wesleyan terms – justification, sanctification, New Birth, “almost Christian” – and wrestled with how these ideas could be put into practice in their lives as students. “It’s great to see that scripture isn’t just ancient stuff to be understood in church but also truth to be practiced in my high school,” said one sophomore. I see Father John smile.

The Wesleys taught that it is possible not only to come to faith in Christ but also to experience significant growth in faith in Christ. We’ve got to be half as resourceful as our spiritual forebears in creating means whereby Christians can grow. You probably know that Methodists were among the originating leaders of the Sunday School Movement in Nineteenth Century America. That movement was, in great part, a creative attempt to get the Bible into the hands of everyone, particularly those who had been excluded from the educational systems of the day. I just had lunch with a Disciple Bible study group for homeless persons at one of our congregations in Birmingham. How very Wesleyan.

Confirmation is a grand opportunity to emphasize the special qualities of Wesleyan believing. Confirmation materials that pair a confirmand with an older, experienced adult mentor seem to me a wonderfully Wesleyan way of stressing that Christianity is not just a way of believing but a practiced way of living, a mode of apprenticeship in which we take responsibility for one another’s spiritual growth.

2. The love of Christ, working in us, transforms us, as we are drawn closer to Christ and become more joyfully obedient to Christ’s will for our lives.

God’s grace is not a facile pat on the head with God murmuring sweetly, “I love you just the way you are, promise me you will never change.” Wesley taught that God’s grace is the power of God to live a transformed life. The first Methodists pioneered the use of small accountability groups where each person took responsibility for “watching over others in love,” holding one another accountable to the disciplines of discipleship.

In too many of our congregations, the way pastors utilize their time, the way educational opportunities are offered, and the way the congregation expends its resources, human and material, suggest that the congregation has limited itself to responding to the spiritual needs of one generation. There is a reason that the average United Methodist is about 58 years old.

From my observation, youth may be more attuned to the adventure of Wesleyan transformational Christianity than people in my age group. Young people love to be worked over, turned upside down and transformed. The peaceful, sedate, placid life is rarely a goal of activist Wesleyan believing. In campus ministry, we formed “Holiness Groups” – small groups of students who covenanted with one another to hold one another accountable for five spiritual disciplines each day. Disciplines included practices like praying for one another at the same time each day, attending church together each Sunday, and studying the same biblical passages together once a week. We Wesleyans believe that Christ can transform and empower any life and Christ tends to do some of his most transformative work through small accountability groups.

I have high praise for the Volunteers in Mission from some of our congregations that pioneered the “Grandparents/Grandchildren” teams to Panama. That effort was so successful that they are now doing a team for “College Students and Grandparents” to Haiti. The church needs to realize what a wonderful resource God has given us in the intergenerational nature of the church.

3. God expects not only to be loved but also obeyedby practice of the faith in disciplined communities of faith. Nobody is expected to be a solo United Methodist Christian. Discipleship is too difficult, survival as a Christian is too demanding without habitual, formed and formal practices of discipleship that are taught in the church. Prayer, Bible study, sacraments, public worship, and the small group Christian conferencing that we methodical Wesleyans once cultivated with enthusiasm, may be taken up again by all age groups as essential to Christian believing. It is no small thing that Wesley’s greatest theological work was in his crafting of liturgies, hymns, and sermons – those theological practices that were near to the needs of actual believers in their daily walk with Christ. Any real, deep spiritual transformation must be cultivated and sustained through good habits. The most important Christian virtues are too important, and too against our natural inclinations, to be left to when we feel like doing them.

I know a children’s choir director who, when I praised her for her choir’s stirring rendition of “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” said, “We used to sing those silly little songs that you buy off the internet. Then I said, ‘Wait! We’re United Methodists! We have some really good ways of praising God that we ought to be sharing with our kids.” I hope that Charles Wesley heard that.

Last Advent, a group of young couples expressed dismay at the anticipated effect of Christmas commercialism upon their young children. “What can we do to rescue our children from this holiday onslaught?” they asked. A group of a half dozen older women in the congregation stepped up and offered a series of crafts workshops in which parents and children made Christmas gifts that simplified and made more faithful their celebration of Christmas.

So Miss March, take heart! A new generation of Wesleyan Christians is putting our beliefs into practice and being transformed in the process. Discipleship is for everyone. Everyone.

William H. Willimon

Bishop Willimon is General Editor, with Joel B. Green of The Wesley Study Bible.
[1] and [2] As discussed in Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace, John Wesley’s Practical Theology, (Nashville: Kingswood Books (Abingdon Press), 1994, 19.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ten Theses About The Future of Ministry

Last fall I met with a group of Lilly Transition into Ministry fellows in Pennsylvania. These are some top recent seminary graduates who are in their first years of ministry. For our discussions I presented some of my hunches about the future of the pastoral ministry. This provoked a lively discussion among these new pastors. I share my theses here in encouragement of discussion of the future of pastoral leadership in our church:

Ten Theses About The Future of Ministry

The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will continue to experience numerical decline as well as be pushed to the margins of this culture. The mainline is old-line that is becoming sidelined.

The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to lead the church in redefining itself in the light of the spiritual needs and aspirations of people under 35 or else will continue to decline because it has limited itself to the spiritual affairs of one generation.

The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right).

The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism may recover the joy of denominational identity even as denominations are dying. (The Wesley Study Bible’s enthusiastic reception by the church may be a sign that Wesleyans are joyfully recovering their roots.)

The pastoral ministry must be supple, adaptable, and willing to experiment on the basis of biblically supported leadership styles.

The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.

Methodists will either become engaged in the mysterious, relentless growth of the Kingdom of God or they will continue to decline. Growth is our most needed focus.

Ministry will be energized by theological refurbishment and a recovery of the theological rationale for ministry. Ministry will become more dependent upon a theological construal of the pastoral ministry.

The pastoral ministry will recover the oddness and the excitement of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The pastoral ministry will either find a way to attract and empower a new generation of pastor’s critique and reconstruct pastoral ministry or we will pass away with this generation.

Will Willimon

Monday, April 12, 2010

Preaching and Resurrection, Jesus Continued

If one considers the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus – the birth of the church from the once despondent and defeated disciples, the perseverance of the saints even unto today, last Sunday’s sermon that changed a life -- it is difficult to see why anyone would disbelieve it, except for two reasons:
1. The resurrection is an odd occurrence, outside the range of our usual experience, so that makes it difficult for our conceptual abilities. We tend to reject that which we lack the conceptual apparatus for understanding. Because we cannot conceive of resurrection we deny its possibility.
2. Perhaps more importantly, if Jesus is raised from the dead, if the resurrection is true, a fact that is real, then we must change. Resurrection carries with it a claim, a demand that we live in the light of this stunning new reality or else appear oddly out of step. Now we must acknowledge who sits upon the throne, who is in charge, how the story ends. Now we must either change, join in God’s revolution or else remain unchanged, in the grip of the old world and its rulers, sin and death.

Thus because we preachers must, at least on a yearly basis, preach resurrection, we keep being challenged to live and talk in the light of the resurrection. We keep being born again into a new reality. We are not permitted the old excuse for lethargy, “people don’t change.” Certainly, everything we know about people suggests that they usually don’t change. But sometimes they do. And that keeps us preachers nervous and sitting lightly on our cynicism. Change is rare, virtually impossible, were it not that Jesus has been raised from the dead. When a pastor keeps working with some suffering parishioner, even when there is no discernable change in that person’s life, when a pastor keeps preaching the truth even with no visible congregational response, that pastor is being a faithful witness to the resurrection (Luke 1:2). That preacher is continuing to be obedient to the charge of the angel at the tomb to go and tell something that has changed the fate of the world (Matt. 28:7), which the world cannot know if no one dares to tell.

Preacher Paul was not only the great missionary to the Gentiles but also living proof that the dead can be raised, thus accounting for his frequently self-referential testimonials of his encounter with Christ. In Paul’s encounter, the dead Jesus was not only seen as raised, but the Church Enemy Number One, Paul, was also raised. On Easter, Jesus was not just raised from the dead. He did not just return to us, he returned to us, to the very ones who had so forsaken and denied him. When he appeared first and most frequently to his own disciples (the ones who, when the soldiers came to arrest him had fled into the darkness) the risen Christ thereby demonstrated that it is of the nature of the true and living God to forgive. And not only to forgive but also to call, commission, and commandeer. “Go! Tell!”

Easter keeps differentiating the church from a respectable, gradually progressive, moral improvement society. Here, there are sudden lurches to the left and to the right, falling backwards and lunging forward, people breaking lose and getting out of control. Easter keeps reminding us pastors that the church is the result of something that God in Jesus Christ has done, not something we have done. When the world wants change, the world raises an army, arms itself to the teeth and marches forth with banners unfurled to storm the wilderness. When the God of cross and resurrection wants to change the world this God always does so nonviolently, through some voice crying in the wilderness, through preaching.

Easter is great grace to those well disciplined, hard working, conscientious preachers who are so often in danger of thinking that the Kingdom of God depends mostly on their well constructed and energetically delivered sermons. Easter is also a warning to cautious and too prudent preachers that they ought to expect to live on the edge, ought not to expect to be “kept” by the church. A resurrected Christ is pure movement, elusive, evasive, he goes ahead of us, will not be held by us. A true and living God seems to enjoy shocking and surprising those who think that they are tight with God. We therefore ought to press the boundaries of what is possible and what is impossible to say in the pulpit, ought to keep working the edges as if miracles were not miraculous at all but simply typical of a God who loves to raise the dead. We ought to preach in such a reckless, utterly-dependent-upon-God sort of way that, if God has not vindicated the peculiar way of Jesus by raising him from the dead, then our ministry is in vain. But, as Paul says, thank God, our faith in resurrection is not in vain because, by the grace of God, our preaching is not in vain.

Will Willimon

Many of our congregations had an incredible response to their Easter services. Riverchase boasted the “earliest Easter Sunrise Service in Alabama” with a Holy Saturday Service that drew over five hundred persons. Trinity Homewood and Alabaster had record breaking Easter crowds. In the Northeast, little New Market has 113 members and had 261 in attendance! In Madison, Asbury had 5,100 at church in all their Easter services. Scottsboro First has 647 members and had 854 at church. St. Paul/Triana has 137 members and had 365 on Easter. In every one of these churches, these attendance figures validate the specific steps these congregations and pastors have taken to make their churches be inviting congregations.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Effect of Easter on Preachers

It makes a world of difference whether or not a preacher has been encountered by the living, speaking, resurrected Christ. Thus, making doxology to God (Rom. 11:33-36), Paul asks that we present ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” by not being “conformed to this world” but by being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). All of this is resurrection talk, the sort of tensive situation of those who find their lives still in an old, dying world, yet also are conscious of a new world being born. Our lives are eschatologically stretched between the sneak preview of the new world being shown to us in the church and the old world where the principalities and powers are reluctant to give way. We throw out our frail voices into a dying world and they come back to us, in the lives of those in the congregation who have seen and heard the risen Christ and who now embody that new life in their lives.

As pastors, we see a world in the grip of the Enemy, the final Enemy, but we also, by the grace of God, get to see the Enemy losing His grip upon some of the territory He once thought was His. We see death and the cross being raised again in a thousand place but we also see Jesus. In the meantime, which is the only time the church has ever known, we live as those who know something about the fate of the world that the world does not yet know, something so grand and wonderful that we cannot keep silent. We must go and tell. We must preach.

Paul confesses his own internalization of the resurrection in which he places Easter at the center of his discipleship:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the community of
his sufferings by becoming just like him in his death, so that I might be like
him in his resurrection. No, I have not already obtained such a state, nor have
I already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ
Jesus has made me his own. Sisters and brothers, I do not consider that I have
already made this my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind
and straining forward toward what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, the
prize, the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.
(Phil. 3:10-14, my

Because of Easter, we preachers are not permitted despair. We keep forgetting what is behind and straining forward, eager to see what else a risen Christ can do through our preaching. There is certainly enough failure and disappointment in the preaching life to understand why depression, disillusionment, and despair could be considered the three curses of the preaching ministry. Despair is most understandable among some of our most conscientious and dedicated preachers. Any pastor who is not tempted by despair has probably given in to the world too soon, has become dishonest and deceitful about his or her homiletical failures, has become too easily pleased by and accommodated to present arrangements, is expecting too little of the preached word. Weekly confrontation with the gap between what God dares to say to us and what we are able to hear, leads many of our best and brightest to despondency. We grieve for the church and we despair that preaching really is as effective as God promises it to be. It seems sometimes as if our faith is in vain and our preaching is in vain. It seems as if God’s Word returns to God empty.

Yet, as Paul says, after the resurrection of Christ we do not grieve as those who have no hope. If our hope were in ourselves or our techniques for the skillful and effective proclamation of the gospel, we might well abandon hope. Our hope is in Christ, who for reasons known only fully to himself, has determined our spoken words to be a major means of his powerful presence in the world. Many Sundays I do not know why, and many Sundays, standing at the door of the church, bidding farewell to the worshippers, I see no evidence for Christ’s faith in us preachers. The congregation appears to have heard nothing and the world seems sadly the same.

Yet by the grace of God, I do so believe. I do believe that we have something to preach and I do believe that we preachers work not alone. In Jesus Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself. And Easter tells us that God’s purposes shall not be defeated, not by the Enemy, nor death, nor principalities and powers, or even by the church itself.

There is that sort of homiletical despair that leads some of our brothers and sisters to quit, to stop talking and to go into less demanding vocations. Yet there is also that despair, which I find more widespread, that leads some of us to slither into permanent cynicism about the efficacy of preaching.

“Preaching doesn’t change people,” becomes their mantra.

Some of this sense of the vanity of preaching is due to lack of faith that God can do any new thing with us. It is sad to see such accommodation to sin and death. How do we know that Easter is not true? Who told us that Jesus used bad judgment when he made us his witnesses to the resurrection even to the ends of the earth?

In order for the powers-that-be to have their way with us, to convince us that the rumor of resurrection is a lie, they must first convince us that death is “reality,” and that wisdom comes in uncomplaining adjustment to that reality – “This is it. This is all there is. Preaching is woefully archaic, one sided, authoritarian indoctrination that is bound to fail. Get used to it.”

The world, the flesh and the devil have a stake in our convincing ourselves that preaching doesn’t work – it’s one of the ways that the world protects itself from the reality of resurrection.

So, by the sheer grace of God and our faith in Easter, we still preach and that we continue to preach, last Sunday and the next, becomes a sort of proof of the truth of the resurrection.

Will Willimon