At the Confessing Movement luncheon Monday, Billy Abraham (Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology at Perkins in Dallas) addressed the suggestions of some (namely Stanley Hauerwas – “God is killing United Methodism” – and John RObert McFarland) that the UMC should disband.
Abraham calls these two “illuminating false prophets;” illuminating because they call attention to the UM “death wish” prevalent in the church, especially in the so-called “progressive wing.”
Abraham asserts that this is not the time for panic or disbanding. LIke Wesley in 1745, he says (speaking for others in the CM) that “We will not leave the ship.” “Renewal and division are not compatible,” so “we [the CM] are in it [the UMC] for the long haul.”
Some scholars have claimed that American Christianity reinvents itself every 30 years. Since our last reinvention in 1968 we’ve:
- Become overly bureaucratized
- Lost our sense of unity
- Divorced the mission of evangelization from humanitarian work, too often settling for the latter in the place of the former.
- Our fear of being racist or sexist has paralyzed us
- We’ve divided into causcuses, interest groups, boards, agencies, etc.
The good news out of all this is that our decline has awakened us to our need to make disciples; our spiritual poverty has allowed us to recover spiritual formation resources in Wesley and the broader Christian tradition; and, interest in evangelism is on ther rise.
There are three good reasons to continue.
1. God raised us up in the 18th century and gave us a network of convictions & practices which were – and still are – of value to the whole church.
2. There are millions of Methodist sheep scattered around the world who need continued care. “We are a full service church, not a business looking for market share.”
3. There remains a vast missionary task of making disciples home and abroad. We have the resources and an essential role to play in this work.
We need to stop whining and apologizing for our existence. It is time to move forward and find our distinctive voice in the world Christian communion.
In light of two factors we find ourselves at a cross roads.
1. Internal fragmentation – serious, but rejecting the role of denominations is the wrong response.
2. The failure of the structures of ecumenism
Leaders on all levels of the UMC need a more subtle understanding of what is happening and to come to terms with the various renewal groups in the church. They won’t just go away.
We need to remember and give thanks for those who stood up early on for a recovery of our doctrine, when taking such a stand was very costly and received much opposition.
As we press on for the next phase of doctrinal renewal we have several issues to work through.
1. Make crystal clear that we aimt o take the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith as our doctrinal standards. [Abraham would like to find a way to better include Wesley’s standard Sermons and Notes on the NT in this mix]
2. We need to think thourh being a fragmented and fragmenting body and find a way back to unity. Absence of division alone is not unity. The CM needs to be a shining head light showing how doctrine leads to unity.
3. We need to connect doctrine with the mission of making disciples. We need to impart to our converts a fully Christian worldview. [The most important development in the UMC in the last 40 years was identifying our mission as “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ.”]
4. Relate doctrinal renewal to the renewal of the whole church. When we stand strong we will be a blessing to the wider Body of Christ and a force for unity.
5. Find a way to implement a doctrinally sensitive connection to disciplemaking, particularly in the rest of the world. We need to release the resources of local churches everywhere to produce strong, doctrinally whole, disciple-making churches. This will require de-centralization.
Whatever else we do, most of all we need a fresh Pentecost.