Faith in Action: Wesleyan message losing out, but it need not be so

Editor’s note: We’re glad to have the Rev. Andrew C. Thompson back as a Reporter columnist. He will write monthly under the title “Faith in Action.”

Recently there has been a lot of talk in social media about the “visibility” of the Wesleyan message in the larger culture.

Methodists can generally expect to be heard by other Methodists. But are they being heard “out there” in the wider world? Is their message reaching the unchurched, especially?

And do Methodists even know what their distinctive message is?

Andrew Thompson

The conversation around these questions is a good example of the kind of thing that can bubble up in social media overnight. In this case, the conversation largely got started by Dr. Kevin Watson, a UM pastor and professor at Seattle Pacific University.

Kevin mused first on Facebook and then on his blog (vitalpiety.com) about the problem of an “invisible Wesleyan message.”

The idea that the Wesleyan message is muted can be best understood by way of a comparison. In this case, the comparison is with “Reformed” Christianity, that branch of the Christian tradition with strong affinities for Calvinist theology. The Reformed tradition has a lot of similarities with the Wesleyan tradition, though there are important doctrinal differences as well. And the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions have also been in something of a theological and evangelistic competition since the days of John Wesley himself.

The comparison I want to make here (and that Kevin and others have made) is between well-known Wesleyan pastors and well-known Reformed pastors.

If you look at those Wesleyan leaders in the United Methodist Church with the greatest visibility in the larger culture, you find names like these: Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection; Leonard Sweet, a popular writer on church & culture and self-described “futurist”; and Tim Stevens, the executive pastor of Granger Community Church.

All three of these leaders have multiple books in print. And all are active in various forms of social media.

Twitter is a good measure of the kind of visibility I’m talking about, because you can chart a person’s followers: Adam Hamilton (@revadamhamilton) has about 9,750 followers, Leonard Sweet (@lensweet) has 26,500 followers, and Tim Stevens (@timastevens) has around 38,700 followers.

This all sounds pretty impressive. Until you start looking at their Reformed counterparts.

I’ll offer two examples. Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, can boast of over 350,000 followers on Twitter. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis has well over 450,000 followers.

Twitter is a useful measure of cultural visibility because it can be quantified by numbers of followers. It isn’t the only form of online social media, obviously. And to be fair, all of the people I’ve mentioned use many other outlets for connecting with audiences: personal websites, church websites, books and e-books, podcasts, and Facebook.

Those are the virtual platforms. There’s always the good old-fashioned method of speaking to people in person. And each of these guys does a lot of that too, whether it be through Sunday morning preaching or speaking at conferences all over the country.

But all of the other forms of connectivity tend ultimately to get reflected in Twitter, because anyone interested in a writer’s broader message is going to end up following his Twitter account.

So what does it mean when the leading Reformed voices in the larger culture outpace the leading Wesleyans by a ratio of more than 10 to one?

That’s the vexing question that this social media conversation has been concerned with. A common theme in the conversation has been the notion that Methodism is “doctrinally impoverished.” Some have suggested that Wesleyans need to identify their core unifying commitments as a way to get on the same page and begin pressing those themes before wider audiences.

It also seems to be the case that Methodists—at least those in the UMC—seem to do a better job talking to one another than to the broader culture. Ironically, the presence of a large publishing institution like the United Methodist Publishing House may contribute to this parochial attitude. What might otherwise be a vehicle for getting the message out to the world has perhaps been used mostly for getting the message out to the “in-group.”

One other suggestion has been that Wesleyans tend to be better at doing ministry than talking about it. This line of thinking can appeal to the Scripture passage in James 2:18—“Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

I’ll go on record as saying that I don’t think any of these points of view should serve as excuses. The example of John Wesley suggests otherwise. For Wesley, there was a doctrinal core that informed the spread of the Methodist revival. He utilized publishing both to nurture the “in-group” and evangelize outsiders. And Wesley also never separated a robust defense of the faith from a robust practice of it.

In other words, we need to do better. And the good news is that we have the intellectual and practical resources to do so.

Since Kevin’s initial commentaries earlier this year, this conversation has been picking up steam. Anyone can get a glimpse of it by going to the Twitter hashtag #andcanitbe and scrolling through the conversation.

I don’t think anyone is claiming to have the answers yet. But the right questions are being asked. Ultimately the Wesleyan faith must be intellectually defensible and publicly proclaimed. That’s about doctrine and practice. And yes, both of them matter quite a lot.

Dr. Thompson is an assistant professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at www.andrewthompson.com. Follow him on Twitter, @andrew72450.

 

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2 Comments on "Faith in Action: Wesleyan message losing out, but it need not be so"

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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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brett t
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Pardon me — "Kardashian," not "Kardsahian."

brett t
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I can't disagree that some of our Wesleyan leading voices are less visible that some of the other denominational traditions.

I can disagree that one's number of Twitter followers is at all meaningful — Kim Kardsahian has more than a million and she has yet to say a single worthwhile thing via Tweet or otherwise.

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