Putting the Method Back in Methodism
A New Vision for a Unique, Global, Orthodox Methodist Movement
By Paul Lawler
The United Methodist Church is in schism. While not formalized through the processes of our polity, the realization of our deep division hangs like thick syrup in the backdrop of every consideration regarding our future.
We are in crises. But with crises comes great opportunity.
We can live with a pessimistic fuse tethered to our souls. Or, we can choose to labor and believe our future has great potential.
A sweeping shift has taken place in the last six months in United Methodism. It would be wise not to allow the fog of division to overshadow the new reality in which we are living. Dr. William Abraham wrote an important piece signifying a seismic shift for United Methodists several months ago. Some persons read this piece as if it were merely another opinion pouring forth in a sea of blogs, posts and articles on the state of the denomination. Dr. Abraham’s article was different. It had pages and pages of substance. Dr. Abraham was not offering an opinion on United Methodism’s new identity; rather, Dr. William Abraham was making a declaration. As he noted, “Only General Conference speaks for United Methodism, and General Conference has spoken.” Here is that declaration:
“The United Methodist Church is no longer a contemporary North American, mainline, liberal Protestant denomination like the Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and the like. It is a unique, global, orthodox Methodist denomination.” (Emphasis mine).
Unique. Global. Orthodox. Methodist.
While some in North American United Methodism are hesitant to embrace the new reality, it is upon us. Thousands in the U.S., and thousands around the world, have already embraced this new day. We have experienced a seismic shift from being an old mainline in decline, to a unique global orthodox expression of Christianity that’s on the move.
While volumes have been written about our institutional future, it is now time to begin re-imagining our missional future. We are clearly in the midst of a historical shift; and with great shifts come great opportunities. Here are seven missional re-sets for consideration as we move into a new, preferred future as a movement.
1. Rediscover “The World as our Parish”
Dr. George Hunter once said, “There was a time when we Methodist would say with John Wesley, ‘The world is my parish.’ Today, we far too often say, ‘The parish is my world.’” American Methodism has become rather insular, unaware and even cold to her global responsibility to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Let us reawaken to the primal nature of Christ and His heart for all people throughout the earth. Let us birth new strategies of disciple making, church planting, and church revitalization for regions of the United States where there is an absence of orthodox Methodism. With the understanding that “the world is our parish,” let us step into the development of a European strategy for the expression of orthodox Christianity in making disciples for the transformation of the world. With Great Commission hearts, let us develop intentional strategies for the 10/40 Window and beyond. We are a global, orthodox, Methodist expression of Christianity. Let us live into our new identity.
2. Renew the Method in our Methodism
The “method” in Methodism was originally related to Christian discipleship and maturity and not denominational process and polity. Methodism was once a great Christian movement because Methodism was once a great discipleship movement.
The following is anecdotal, but I remain alarmingly concerned at the answer I receive when I ask the following question of recent seminary graduates: “If I gave you twelve people to disciple over the next year, has your seminary experience equipped you to disciple them?” The majority of the time the answer is “No.” This is a massive tragedy. To spend three to four years of one’s life in an accredited seminary designed to equip a student to fulfill the most basic instructions of Jesus, and for the experience to fail to equip is malpractice on the grandest scale. Imagine surgeons going to med school and our asking them, “Has your opportunity to be equipped for a life of serving humanity equipped you to do surgery?” If the answer were “no”, we would recognize the magnitude of the tragedy. Yet, somehow, a critical mass seems fully numb to the complete and utter failure of many of our seminaries in equipping clergy for making disciples for the transformation of the world. It seems many seminaries have settled into a default mode of training pastors to manage the business of Christendom, but have utterly failed at training them to make disciples.
In this window of opportunity, it is time to re-visit and renew our understanding and expression of seminary. If the seminary is to equip new waves of pastors and missionaries for a unique, orthodox, global and Wesleyan expression of Christianity, the seminary must re-invent and renew itself for the future.
Many seminaries have demonstrated their commitment “to stay the course” with continued teachings that are antithetical to orthodox Christianity. In some seminaries, what is taught under the banner of “progressive Christianity” is another religion altogether. Based on the voice of General Conference, they no longer represent the present or future of the denomination.
Because most seminaries cannot make needed shifts fast enough in this new day, we need to create ways for clergy and lay people to re-tool, and we need to do so quickly. A few local churches are already doing this in several creative ways. A unique, global, orthodox Methodism longs to be equipped for effectiveness in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Let us renew the method in our Methodism.
3. Re-Ignite the Primal Fires of Prayer Again
In 2008, the church I serve went off to our conference camp and spent a Friday night and all day Saturday in prayer. I distinctly remember God lighting initial Kingdom sparks within His people. During this same period, the leadership of the church chose to spend nine months studying Scripture and praying around the mission and vision of the church. Out of multiple waves of seeking God in prayer, God began to speak, energize, and enliven His people with fresh vision and purpose. As waves of prayer have continued among the church leadership and through church wide prayer gatherings, momentum has increased in waves of making new disciples and expressing Christ-centered social justice.
The church has seen over 16,000 professions of faith. People have traveled to some of the most difficult regions of the world; engaging in sharing the gospel and making new disciples for Jesus Christ. They have taught new believers how to disciple others and launched hundreds of new churches. For the cause of Christ and His gospel, God has led families to leave the comfort of upper middle class suburbs and move into the inner city to live among the urban poor. These families have “stayed the course,” for they have served faithfully by putting down roots in a challenging neighborhood for the past six years. We have seen dozens of former prostitutes place faith in Jesus Christ, and we have celebrated with enthusiastic praise as they were each baptized in church worship gatherings. They have taught us much as their hearts have been awakened in treasuring Jesus. These developments did not happen overnight. These developments did not happen through a program. These developments came to life through the power of God through prayer. As God’s people prayed, God’s Word took on life. As God’s Word took on life, people began to desire what God desires. Discipleship and missional movement were awakened on a world-wide scale.
What would happen if every United Methodist Church would get back to prayer again? What would it mean for people and families? What would it mean for neighborhoods, communities and our cities? What would it mean for our nation and the nations of the earth? What would happen if a unique, global, orthodox Methodism reignited the primal fires of prayer again?
4. Re-Calibrate the Equipping of Young Clergy
I personally know dozens of young pastors who heard their call as members of the United Methodist Church, but are now serving in the Acts 29 network, the Berean Church Plant network, or one or more of dozens of new expressions on the landscape. These were high caliber people who went on to produce great fruit through other tribes. All of these persons left the United Methodist Church for one of three reasons: 1.) Our process for moving into full time ministry was too cumbersome; 2.) our apportionment framework lacked the perception of a compelling missional pulse; 2.) we were no longer perceived as orthodox. Fortunately, the latter is changing.
Our process for moving clergy into ministry has not always been cumbersome. We have changed our process in the past (See Axiom #4). If we have changed our process in the past, we can change our process in the future. It is time for us to give thoughtful consideration for equipping clergy faithfully, but with new patterns that are both highly effective and highly efficient.
5. Reset the Apportionment Formula for a New Day
While this may sound like an institutional concern to many, in reality it is a missional concern. Many remember Lovett Weems presentation on the coming economic tsunami within United Methodism. His passionate appeal to re-set the apportionment formula around vital mission and ministry should continue to echo clearly in our minds and hearts.
If other denominational movements can make deep shifts in staff in order to embrace a robust future, then so can we.
We are moving into a new day, as the church has become unique, global, and orthodox, whereby the courage to do the hard things is emerging. Our resources can be better aligned with a new strategy of globally focused orthodox disciple-making and church planting. After all, does this not align more profoundly with our stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
It is time to reset our apportionment formula for a new day.
6. Re-awaken to the Power of Gospel Centered Community Transformation
Twenty one percent of North Americans cannot read above a fifth grade level in North America. If the current trajectory of illiteracy in our inner cities continues unabated, the negative social consequences are unbearable for a nation-state within another 15 years: Unemployment at all time highs, poverty at record levels, drug use as escapism seen like never before, prostitution proliferating out of dark desperation, unprecedented levels of brokenness, an incapable work force, an inept economy, and an anemic government in light of diminished tax revenue; all flowing from a nation’s people in which over thirty-five percent of her population cannot read.
We all know John Wesley served the cause of Christ by laboring for gospel centered justice in all spectrums of culture. He did this through clear proclamation of the gospel, through serving among the poor, through fighting illiteracy through education, through setting up clean drinking water, establishing stable housing initiatives, and laboring for just government and laws.
Gospel Centered Community Transformation is getting greater attention throughout the church. Gospel Centered Community Transformation seeks to usher forth God’s shalom in every facet of community life; through education, housing, business development, Gospel presence, discipleship, and the development of the general well-being of communities.
What if every local United Methodist Church was to engage in Gospel Centered Community Transformation? Because United Methodist congregations are located all over the country, our nation would have the potential to move into a preferred future over the next 25 years through the response of a people called Methodists.
There are dynamic conferences available for the equipping of church leaders in Gospel Centered Community Transformation. Through long-term, holistic commitment to communities, miracles can occur. The trajectory of illiteracy and many other social ills can be turned around. It has happened before. It can happen again.
Let us reawaken to the power of Gospel centered community transformation.
7. Repent of Fearing the Future
Let us repent of looking to the future with fear. No one knows if the United Methodist Church will or will not hold together institutionally. While we all want to honor and pray for the work of the Commission on the Way Forward, we are mindful that our ultimate confidence is not in a denomination, but is in the One who gave His life to birth His church. Whether the church divides into multiple expressions, or remains as one, there will be a future for the church. And because only General Conference speaks for the church, the only thing that is official for now is that our future is tethered to our new identity: Unique, global, orthodox, and Methodist in expression.
It would be prudent of North American United Methodists, even as we navigate the stormy waters of potential schism, to see this “new day” as a day of opportunity. It is essential that we forsake timidity and embrace what we must do for the sake of a future that will shake the earth for the glory of God.
This cause is not only about us, but is about our children, grandchildren, and the generations to follow throughout the whole earth. Therefore, let us pray, think, dream and envision a robust resurgence of orthodox Wesleyan Christianity for the sake of God’s glory and the generations to come.
Let us, with God’s help, put the method back in our Methodism.
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC, and founder of The Immersion School, a discipleship training center in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman, Patrick Lawler, founded the Patricia B. Hammonds Girl’s Home for 60 orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The home is operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the North Alabama Conference Discipleship Team. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111