What does doctrine have to do with renewal? To those who view doctrine (that is, official church teaching) as an impediment to renewal, or in other words as part of the problem and not the solution, the answer might seem simple: “Nothing!” I don’t see it that way, however, and I want to reflect on why. As a lifelong United Methodist, I care deeply about the UMC. I also care deeply about both doctrine and renewal. In fact, I believe that doctrine and renewal are integrally related and mutually informative.
Before I explain why, a little background information about me will set the context for what follows. I attended seminary at Duke Divinity School and then completed a PhD in systematic theology at SMU. My dissertation dealt with the Holy Spirit and the Christian life in Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley. Since I finished school in 2010, I have been serving as a pastor in York, PA. Since 2011 I have also taught as an adjunct instructor in theology and United Methodist studies at United Theological Seminary and at Wesley Theological Seminary. I say all that as a preface to the question that I would like to address in a two-part post on doctrine and renewal. The question is this: How, if at all, has the theological task changed in our generation?
From my vantage point, limited as it no doubt is, I sense that there is an increasing awareness of the need for church renewal and the importance of theology and doctrine for the renewal of the church. One example is the John Wesley Fellows program supported by A Foundation for Theological Education; some of the leading scholars and theologians in the UMC are part of that group promoting a recovery of our Wesleyan heritage in the context of classical Christianity. Of course, others are also working in various ways toward that same goal as well, and it is encouraging to see the progress that such groups and individuals have made and are positioned to make in the years ahead. I have also been encouraged by the example of faithful lay people who are hungry to learn and grow in their Christian faith and service. Laity will surely play a vital role in the renewal of our church. Even with these signs of progress, we have our work cut out for us. We have a long way to go.
One illustration of the challenges before us comes from a teaching experience that I had several years ago, when I taught UM history and doctrine at Wesley Seminary. For an assignment in that class, I required my students to choose a sermon by Wesley and respond to it with a summary and outline of the sermon as well as a sermon of their own that was based on or inspired by that sermon of Wesley. One student reported that sermons like Wesley’s were foreign to her because in his sermons Wesley addressed sin and salvation in specific terms. She further said that in her church salvation and sin were not normally addressed in detail in sermons, but instead were discussed in small groups and Sunday School classes insofar as they were discussed at all. The assignment took this student outside of her comfort zone because she had to preach specifically about salvation! Her words got me thinking: If we are not preaching in specific terms about salvation, about what exactly are we preaching? What is the content of our message if not salvation in and by the triune God? Preaching that is not clearly connected to salvation, to our life in God—how often is that the case in UM churches today? I also began to wonder, “How can I do a better job of staying on message in my preaching and teaching, in offering people bread and not stones—offering them nothing other than Jesus Christ and the truth of his gospel?”
If we are not careful, our preaching and teaching can be reduced to what Kenda Creasy Dean in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church calls moralistic therapeutic deism. Our preaching and teaching might be moralistic in that it calls for people to be good moral people and to think nice thoughts about others. It might be therapeutic in that it stresses that God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves (which of course is true but becomes a problem when we lose sight of the cost of discipleship). And it might be deistic in that it presents an image of a “god” who is watching from a distance, looking down on us—no doubt smiling, because this is a nice, happy “god”—but not a God who is intimately involved in the daily affairs of the world, and certainly not a God who becomes incarnate and dwells among us and who suffers, dies, and defeats sin and death for us on the cross and in the resurrection.
Moralistic therapeutic deism—you can imagine what kind of effect this kind of superficial teaching and preaching could have on a church or denomination. That is an impediment to renewal. The neglect of sound doctrine is part of the problem, not the solution. Clearly God expects more from us as pastors and teachers than this, and thankfully we have so much more to offer the church and the world than this!
I believe that Wesley can help us steer clear of the problem of moralistic therapeutic deism, as well as other barriers to renewal, so we stay on track in providing solid biblical teaching and preaching. He can do this with his robust vision of the Christian life, at once grace-filled and rigorous, communal and personal, leading to the goal of Christian perfection in God’s holy love. That vision is one of the treasures of our theological heritage, which is a heritage that has the power to help renew the church today. So the way forward might be first to go backward, back to Wesley and the broader Christian tradition, and then forward through a constructive engagement with the issues of our day using the best theological and spiritual resources at our disposal. I’ll say more about what that might mean in my second post in this series.