This post continues a series of reflections on doctrine and renewal. In my last post (Part 1) I shared about the challenges that we face in the UMC to recover our distinctive Wesleyan doctrinal heritage. I mentioned that one of those challenges is moralistic therapeutic deism, a counterfeit “gospel” that has worked its way deep into the minds and hearts of many pastors and lay people in the UMC. I also suggested that we desperately need to return to the theological and doctrinal sources within our tradition in order, first of all, to be more fully formed by those sources as Wesleyan Christians, and, secondly, on that basis, to engage in critical and constructive ways with the issues of our day. I believe that this kind of retrieval is absolutely vital to any hope we have for the renewal of the UMC.
Before talking more about renewal, though, I want to share another story. This one involves a reaction to a YouTube video called “What is Methodism?” that I showed students in a seminary class on United Methodist Doctrine:
The student writes,
“I listened to the video and was amazed that someone would put this video on a public website. It does not make us look good – only one woman actually had any concept of what she believed. But it accurately conveys our sense of who we are – most of us haven’t a clue. We vaguely know that our pastors encourage us to minister to people, but I hear very little about the Gospel, about Christ, or about holiness coming from our leaders. Instead, we hear about the cause of the season, whether it be immigrants, oppressed workers…or – well, you’ve all heard it. At our meetings, we sound like the tear-jerker movie society while all around us people walk past our mostly empty churches headed to soccer games or drug buys.
Yes, this is common in our churches, partially because I have not attempted to define Methodism or generate a pride in being Methodist, but have focused upon using the word ‘Christian’ as I define the character of a good Christian, which hopefully is what our church members will become. If I focus upon Methodism, there is too much disconnect between what I am preaching and what they see in the publications.”
My student shares his thoughts frankly here, and whatever we might think about some of his word choices, he clearly identifies a major challenge facing our church today. What does the UMC believe? What do (or should) leaders in the UMC teach? And in both cases, why? We need to attend to such questions carefully, prayerfully, and when necessary, repentantly. I don’t think Steve Long puts it too strongly in his claim that when UM pastors are generally far more comfortable explaining their personality type on the Myers-Briggs personality test than they are of talking in any meaningful way about the Chalcedonian formula, then we have a theological and intellectual crisis in our church.
So if such stories identify the problems of doctrinal neglect and confusion, where can we turn for a solution? In the face of the challenges before us, what hope is there for a way forward? I believe that we will discover the most promising way forward through a deep retrieval of our doctrine and a comprehensive re-reception of it at every level of our church, especially in the local church since that is the most significant arena for making and growing disciples of Jesus Christ. This retrieval project will be a long and difficult one, but it is critical. My hope is that efforts to reclaim our theological heritage and develop a richer theology for the renewal of the UMC today will continue to bear fruit and spread throughout our church and world. I see doctrine as a light on the path to renewed vitality for the UMC.
Wesley warned of the sort of problems that we now face in his 1786 tract entitled “Thoughts upon Methodism” where he writes this: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast… the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Here Wesley not only provides a warning but also points to a remedy: holding fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which the Methodists first set out—or in other words, recovering the Methodist heritage in its fullness.
I hear echoes of Wesley in 2 Timothy 1:13-14: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”