In 1992, distinguished New Testament scholar, Leander E. Keck, delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School on the theme, “Toward the Renewal of Mainline Protestantism.” He expanded those lectures into a very helpful book, The Church Confident. On the cover of that book was a challenging word. It was not a subtitle—but a sort of personal admonition from the author: “Christianity can repent, but it must not whimper.”
I’ve been thinking about that admonition a great deal lately. Frustration and confusion are crippling us in United Methodism. The possibility of separation dominates the conversation where two or three Methodists (particularly clergy) are gathered together. Though schismatic action has been going on for a long time, that word and the word “division” have become more commonly heard now. The truth is, we are a divided denomination. Thankfully some of our bishops are acknowledging that fact and are fostering helpful conversation about it. Bishop Michael Lowry focuses on the issue in one of the chapters of the book, Finding our Way.
We United Methodists are not alone in the Mainline in this matter of separation. The Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran Churches have already experienced formal division. Keck did not specifically address the dynamics that have led to division in these denominations, but he acknowledged the malaise and impotence of the Mainline, and expressed hope that the British historian Paul Johnson would be proven right in his suggestion that “the current crises of the mainliners is actually the birth pains of the Fourth Great Awakening.”
My prayer is that Johnson is right. The setting is ripe for revival. And the essential response to that possibility is for God’s people not to whimper. Acknowledge our sin, and repent, yes, but not whimper. When we look at the Great Awakenings in our country, with the great Methodist Revival on the heels of them, two things were dominant: one, strong, clear proclamation and teaching of Biblical doctrine and two, passionate, earnest prayer.
Could it be that we are mistakenly centered on institutional unity, when a prior issue is crying for attention: unity in the Gospel. We can have institutional unity without revival, but we can’t have revival without Gospel unity that will come through repentance and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
At the close of His ministry, Jesus commissioned us for Kingdom work:
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 things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
In response to this commission, the American church in the 20th Century tended toward two distinctly opposite poles. One branch (the Mainline, sometimes called liberal) championed an optimistic commitment to social transformation as the central mission of the Church. Unfortunately, the salvation of souls diminished in priority, thus giving way to what was known as the social gospel. The other branch (often labeled evangelical, sometimes fundamentalist) responded in opposite fashion by stressing personal conversion, the dangers of the world, the centrality of evangelism, and an expectation of a promised place in heaven. One group made converts without making disciples; the other group sought to make disciples without conversion.
The crisis of our time can be the occasion for Gospel revival, where personal conversion and discipleship are integrated. One without the other is not the whole Gospel.
Those last words of Jesus to His disciples represent the marching orders that are to be followed until He returns. There is no more powerful motivational text for Christian mission and evangelistic zeal. And yet, this text is not shaping the ministry and mission of mainline churches. Could that be the primary cause for the crises of our mainline churches, and particularly our United Methodism? If it is so, Keck’s admonition needs to be heeded: we can repent, but we don’t need to whimper.