Wesleyan Wisdom: Turning dying churches into vital congregations

Every United Methodist Church would benefit if a network of small groups would study Len Sweet’s latest book, The Greatest Story Never Told. Our singing a “somebody done somebody wrong” song about General Conference will get us nowhere. (When you point an index finger, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself!)

Instead, the focus now must turn to developing vital congregations. Expect a batch of new books on re-visioning dying churches.

By using Dr. Sweet’s little volume as our “GPS,” we can get a leg up for “recovering church-aholics” who want to learn to dance a new dance to the old song: “Revive Us Again, fill each heart with thy love; may each soul be rekindled with fire from above.”

In his introduction to the book, Dr. Sweet writes of our United Methodism: “We aren’t singing our song. We aren’t living into our own story. The Spirit orders us into being, but we are held together by how we hear ourselves, by our songs, and by how we see ourselves, by our stories.”

Steeped in anecdotes about Wesley, Dr. Sweet reminds us that Brother John lived in a maelstrom of criticism. In face of people who wanted to write Methodism off, “Wesley did for his day what God is calling us to do for ours: proclaim the Gospel with confidence and power, bless the naysayers, detractors, Christophobics, . . . and all whose trade is tirade. The greatest story ever told has become the greatest story never told or the ‘greatest story half told.’ It is time to tell the whole Jesus story and sing our song again: ‘This is Our Story; this is Our Song.’”

Dr. Sweet reminds us that “originality” means a “return to one’s origins or a rediscovery of one’s roots, not merely to reproduce the original, but to recapitulate the original in the current context, a fresh choreography of an old dance for daily life.”

Dr. Sweet’s mastery of many disciplines is always fascinating and instructive. He does that in this book—“Folksinger Pete Seeger distilled all the world’s knowledge into a single word: ‘maybe.’ It is hard to innovate [if we are locked] in a spirit of maybe-ness and fear. Fear is contagious; fear is paralyzing; fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The opposite of the spirit of fear is the spirit of Christ.” He cites seldom quoted words of Wesley: “It is not doubts or opinions that He has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself.”

Dr. Sweet pushes his point more: “The mark of the work of the Spirit is not speculation but full assurance. The Holy Spirit brings us truth, not speculation; theology, not moralisms; a bold spirit rather than a hesitant or hit-the-sack spirit. Faith is able to leap chasms that reason cannot fathom.”

Dr. Sweet is convinced that it is time to challenge the prevailing “maybe Methodism,” the one-calorie UMC. Is it any wonder that we are closing thousands of churches every year and opening so few, and losing our young adults? How sad that we have so few young people listed in our bulletins for “Senior Recognition Sunday” compared to 20 years ago.

“Maybe” churches don’t attract teens, because teens like passion. They follow bands whose tunes they can dance to.

As I’ve often reiterated in this column: Our message is grace. When the trumpet sounds with an uncertain sound, there will be few to march to its music. The latter days of evangelistic preaching guilt-tripped us with personal moralistic legalism, revival sermons against “Demon Rum” or “cussing.” That was followed by a social justice legalism that was also laden with guilt trips. Dr. Robert Cushman of Duke called it “humanistic moralism.” Any hermeneutic that reduces the good news of the gospel to a message of “my way or the highway” is a breach of faith with the gospel. Where is the good news of God’s graciousness?

Secondly: Our method is not polity! Wesley admitted that no one form of polity—congregational, presbyterial, or episcopal—can be proven from Scripture. We married itinerancy and are now being widowed by its slow death. Cabinet authoritarianism and shabby treatment of the congregations who pay the salaries and benefits of the authorities is to church polity what bleeding was to primitive medicine!

Polity is not our genius; Len Sweet insists that our method is music conducted by the “Lord of the Dance.” We have lifted up the church to be idolized and it has become the target. If we lift up the Lord of the church to be followed, all the world will be drawn to Him.

But how do we reach people in today’s postmodern culture? The altar calls accompanied by “Just As I Am” of the old revival meetings are not effective. Let’s go to our roots to get in step with early Methodism. What did Wesley do? Adding to some earlier creative research done by George Hunter, Dr. Sweet recalls for us the vast difference between Wesley’s means of reaching people and ours.

Wesley would walk down a village street accompanied by a little band of Methodists singing Charles’ songs! As people began to emerge from their homes and the grog shops, Wesley’s entourage would lead them to the village green. He would not preach what we know as “Wesley’s Standard Sermons” which were written to be read; he would preach for about 15 minutes. His most frequent theme was that we are made in God’s image, that God loves us in our sin and we can experience forgiving grace. He urged seekers to attend a class meeting in the morning before daylight “if you desire to flee from the wrath to come.” His group would “work the crowd” and invite those gathered, one-on-one, to class meetings.

At the time, people were accustomed to the social caste system of England where lords and ladies never fraternized publicly with miners and factory workers. However, at the Methodist class meetings, people of all walks of life sat on backless pews to hear an exhorter read the scripture, expound on its meaning and begin counseling people to “take the cure” for their sin-diseased nature.

Len Sweet likes the work of British Methodist David Hempton, now at Harvard. In his own book, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, Dr. Hempton reminds us: “The Methodist message was inexorably bound up with the medium of oral culture. Itinerants preached, exhorters exhorted, class members confessed, hymns were sung and meetings throbbed with exclamatory noise.”

Dr. Sweet concludes, “Methodists provided a new sacred soundscape and metaphorical universe for living out of daily life in a new social landscape. Methodists sang their lives.”

Russ Richey says that if you asked a Methodist what he believed, he would respond, “Let me tell you my story.” One can only wonder what would happen if, on a given Sunday morning, every United Methodist preacher would tell her or his life story. Few of us who went in to the ministry while still “wet behind the ears” could identify with Paul on the Damascus Road, but we might have a “John Mark” story or a “Timothy” story because our mother was a Christian!

Many second-career clergy do have a rather dramatic story to tell. If we are dancing to the Lord’s tune, when did we change from the devil’s dance?

Randy Maddox has helped us see that Wesley’s language in coaching conversion was not so much juridical as it was clinical. The nature of salvation is not so much the believer’s faith as the Giver’s grace. Wesleyan doctrine grounds salvation in God’s love rather than in the Calvinist emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Our faith (whether couched in the language of affirmative answers to doctrinal questions like “four spiritual laws” or in the court language of acquittal) does not save us. We are saved by grace!

Dr. Maddox writes, “God heals our corrupted nature and enables us to grow in virtue.” Wesley spoke of Christ as the “physician of souls who is seeking to heal our wounds and make us partake of his holiness.” Note how redemptive, liberating, and peace-filled the gospel is when we use original Wesleyan vocabulary and theology!

Why should we study Len Sweet’s book? What about some discussion time on these sentences: “It is one thing to say, ‘God is love.’ Wesley deemed these three words the most important description of God in the whole Bible. But it is another thing to move from ‘God is love’ to “God loves me.’ The former is an intellectual grasp; the latter is an experiential grip.” Dr. Sweet follows with the conclusion, “When any religious tradition shrinks into a dogmatic system, whether the ‘dogmas’ be theological correctness or political correctness, the dry bones rattle in one’s ears and hollow out the soul.”

He quotes Myron Augsburger, the brilliant Mennonite theologian:

“I believe in justice, but I am not a preacher of the gospel of justice; I am a preacher of the Gospel of Christ who calls us to justice.

“I believe in love, but I am not a preacher of the gospel of love; I am a preacher of the Gospel of Christ who calls us to love.

“I am committed to peace, but I am not a preacher of the gospel of peace; I am a preacher of the Gospel of Christ who calls us to peace.

“I believe in the value of the simple life, but I am not a preacher of the simple life; I am a preacher of the Gospel of Christ that calls us to the simple life.

Dr. Augsburger concludes, “Let us beware of the ultimate plagiarism of borrowing great concepts from Jesus; then running off proclaiming these concepts and not sharing the Christ that empowers these concepts.”

The current situation in United Methodism may become our finest hour. Candor seems to be the order of the day. We have not seen bishops and superintendents and pastors being so honest in a long, long time. The venting is cathartic but it will spend itself. And when we tire of beating each other up, let every local church begin studying a book and using it as purer water from a new spring to jump-start the lethargy of our congregations.

(If you so desire, email me for some titles whose study might lead your church to dream and thrive again.)

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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Diane Woodall

We are 150 years old, a “town church” which in the past was a thriving church. No longer is that true. We are down to 13 active members (6 in their mid-eighties, 3 in their seventies, 4 in mid-sixties). Five are unable to walk without canes or walkers, Seven are in fair to good health. Two are experiencing the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. ALL want the church to “grow” but for the most part are unable to do any kind of physical work. They will show up for special programs of outreach, but “don’t know anyone” to invite. Until recently, only… Read more »

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