As part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist believing, I’ve asked some of our pastors to contribute their thoughts on the joy of the Wesleyan way of Christianity. This week we begin with thoughts on United Methodist “specialness” by Dr. Michael Stewart. Michael is known as one of our outstanding preachers. He formerly directed our Connectional Ministries and is currently pastor of our Hazel Green United Methodist Church.
NOT ALL THAT SPECIAL
Perhaps what makes us Methodists special is that we do not believe we are all that special.
The Roman Catholic Church is older and bigger. Episcopalians and Eastern Orthodox do liturgy with more flair. Presbyterians are more focused on doctrine and scholarship. Quakers are the folks we go to for instruction in prayer. Disciples of Christ are more ecumenically minded. Pentecostals are more exuberant. Baptists are more democratic. The Salvation Army is better with the poor. The Amish are greener. Lutherans are better at pipe organs. The Assemblies of God are more adept at raising up large congregations. Mormons are uniquely American; holding that Jesus’ return will take place in Missouri.
We Methodists do not claim to have invented Christianity. With St. Paul, we simply pass along to others what we first received (I Cor.15: 3).
John Wesley said the Methodist way is nothing new. It is simply the old religion of the Bible: “the love of God and all mankind” and “loving God with all our heart, and soul and strength”.
While every third barbeque joint in the South claims to have “The World’s Best BBQ”, and every touchdown ignites the fans to chant, “We’re number one”; we Methodists are just happy to be here. We have neither an inferiority complex nor an exaggerated view of ourselves as the one true tribe of Christians. We are not offended by Jesus’ saying that he has other sheep not of our fold (John 10:16).
We do not believe for a minute God has to go through us to accomplish every godly thing done in the world. There is not a sectarian bone in our bodies. We are not offended that God’s love can be active in Syrian, Lebanese, or Samaritan pagans (Luke 4:25-27; 10:33). We believe that God can work through the Scouts, public schools, secular universities, politics, the United Way, the Red Cross, country music, and our enemies. Methodists do not retreat to a religious subculture; but take seriously the incarnation and immanence of God in the world, calling it prevenient grace.
At our best we are not anxious or fearful, but trust God. We believe as a denomination that we will be fine as long as we keep aiming to love God more, and extend concrete acts of mercy to more neighbors. John Wesley even gave us our own Serenity Prayer:
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message and author of The Jesus Way notes that America is a nation of consumers. Consequently, the quickest way to get Americans into congregations is to identify what people want, and offer it to them. He writes that the winning strategy is to “satisfy their fancies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, whatever.” The only problem is that this is not the way of Jesus.” (The Jesus Way, pg.6.)
Is it a coincidence that Methodists stopped growing numerically in the 1960’s when our national church leaders went against the grain of America and challenged racism and war? Telling people what they do not want to hear is probably not a great strategy for church growth in a consumer culture.
The good news is that our decline may finally put us in a place God can do something with us. As long as we imagined we must have been serving God because we were so special (“More Methodists serving in Congress than any other denomination!”) or because our success could be measured in our membership numbers or the height of our steeples, God could not do much with us. But perhaps in our weakness, and in the need to depend on God’s grace rather than our own performance, God can work with us. As it becomes less about us, it can become more about Jesus.
Consider the African-American Church in the mid 1960’s. It was not wealthy. Most of it buildings were modest. Its membership contained few corporate CEO’s, bank presidents, mayors, governors, or captains of industry. Nonetheless, in spite of statistical weakness, the Black church was the most faithful part of Christ’s church in America in that day. The little cinderblock and wood-frame Black churches rose higher than the big steepled churches, and made an astonishing kingdom witness. God can do mighty things through what the world counts as weakness. After all, God did his best work with some slaves in Egypt led by a tongue-tied shepherd, and with some fishermen in Galilee led by a tortured and executed criminal.
Perhaps the best way to serve a crucified and risen leader in an America addicted to Super-sizing and Superpower-ing is not to bemoan or resist diminishment, or frantically embrace every technique that works in selling products, making money, managing people, winning wars, or manipulating emotions. (Peterson, p. 8.). Rather, in following the way of the cross – being generous and forgiving even in our weakness – we might hear the dying cross-bearer say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And therefore, “we can boast all the more gladly about our weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on us.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Our neighbors across town and across the world are dying for a genuine, authentic, honest, humble, non-gimmicky, servant church that is in the process of giving itself away, just like its Lord. The world is dying for a church that knows it is not all that special, but that its Lord is the real deal.
And, who knows? God may then have in us something that is indeed special, and worth resurrecting.