Reflections: A passionate, witnessing faith

A recent experience greatly impressed me. A fine layman was asked to transport me from an airport to the hotel where I would be staying during an out-of-town visit. I was to be a guest preacher at his local church.

Bishop Woodie W. White

We had hardly left the airport terminal when his enthusiasm for his faith became more than apparent. He expressed to me, unashamedly and without a hint of self-righteousness, the joy of being a Christian. He shared a bit of his “walk with the Lord,” and the privilege he had to witness to others.

He spoke about the positive ministries of his church, praised his pastor, and was enormously positive about his 26 years of membership there. Not once did he utter a negative word about the United Methodist Church or his congregation. In fact, he talked more about the Lord than he did about the Church!

By the time we arrived at the hotel, I knew that this man served a living God. I thought, if I were not a Christian, I certainly would want to get what this man has, and to know the God who has so captivated his life. This was Christian witness at its finest.

I would later learn that this active United Methodist tells the story of his faith and shares his testimony whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. He is passionate about his faith! We are now prayer partners.

I have been thinking about this personal encounter, and how different it was from so many others I have had. I talk to Christians, especially United Methodists, all the time. Without question, these lay and clergy are not only committed but also faithful to the Church and to God. Yet, in retrospect, what often seems lacking in those conversations is both a passion for personal faith and a sense joy in one’s relationship with a living Lord. That is not to suggest those two feelings are absent, but rather, they seem to be kept as coveted secrets!

United Methodists at every level are concerned with our continued diminishing membership. Our leaders conscientiously look for new ways of undertaking ministry in the 21st century, and many have strived to determine the cause of the downward trend. I am of the opinion that the factors are cultural as well as spiritual.

Unfortunately the impression has been given, even if unintentionally, that our “present” decline in membership is due to 1) a recent crop of “ineffective” clergy and 2) the time-honored Wesleyan covenant that when clergy commit to go where they are sent, the Church commits to have a place to send them! In today’s polity language, that covenant is called “guaranteed appointment.” Some measure of each pastor’s fruits for ministry has always been assumed.

The truth, however, is that losing members has been an issue since 1966—the first year in its history that the Methodist Church reported a drop in total membership. And as we work to reverse the trend, I believe two factors cannot be discounted. The first was displayed by that layman I met some months ago: passion! If clergy and laity have no passion about sharing the faith, it is unlikely they will excite those who have no faith or little faith, or those who are simply apathetic about religion and church affiliation.

Another factor is closely related. If clergy and laity come to believe it makes no difference whether one knows Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then they will see no compelling reason to reach out to others. And if we see no basis for evangelism, and we lose our raison d’etre. That may be one significant difference between early and current Methodists!

Rear Admiral (Retired) Barry C. Black is currently the 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate. In his inspiring biography, From the Hood to the Hill, he shares the following experience. When Barry was a young Navy chaplain, he showed considerable leadership ability. One of his chaplain colleagues advised Barry, a Seventh Day Adventist, “if you really want to reach the top, change your denomination. . . . You’ll be more competitive with a mainline church designation.”

Some years later, Barry was indeed being considered for a promotion as Rear Admiral, and was reminded by his old friend that he should have listened to him years ago. The friend said he would never be appointed to this high post, as a member of such a small denomination. Barry responded: “You just don’t know my God. . . . If He wants me to be an admiral, it will happen.”

When it was announced that he had been appointed Rear Admiral—thereby becoming the first African American to hold that post in the U.S. Navy—that same friend called and left this voice-mail message: “Barry, when you get a chance, would you please introduce me to your God?”

Oh, for a United Methodist passion, enthusiasm and witness that would leave countless people clamoring, “Would you please introduce me to your God”!

Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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