Completing the Work in Front of Our Own House

I taught Sunday School online for the first time in my life this past Sunday. (Praise the Lord, it went better than I had even hoped it would!) We are working through a broad overview of the Bible that helps everyone master a very basic framework for the grand narrative of Scripture. This past week was focused on the return to Jerusalem in Ezra and Nehemiah. In this part of the story, the Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

Since teaching Sunday School, I keep thinking of Nehemiah 3. This is the part where they begin to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in earnest. It is a remarkable effort in terms of the scope of what they do and how quickly they do it. One commentary says that 42 groups of people work on the walls and complete the rebuilding and repair in 52 days – a very short amount of time for a project of this scope!

Chapter 3 describes in detail the different people who worked on different parts of the walls. 3:22 and following has particularly grabbed my attention:

The next repairs were made by the priests from the surrounding region. After them, Benjamin and Hasshub repaired the section across from their house, and Azariah son of Maaseiah and grandson of Ananiah repaired the section across from his house…. Above the Horse Gate, the priests repaired the wall. Each one repaired the section immediately across from his own house. (Nehemiah 3:22-23, 28)

Over the past two weeks, I have had a wide range of thoughts and emotions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is one that has been at the forefront of my mind more than anything else: This unexpected and unwanted interruption to our lives and normal routines is an opportunity to focus on the work of God in our own house.

There is so much that we cannot control in this season. But in this time when many parts of the United States are under orders to shelter in place, what if we focused on rebuilding the foundations of our faith right outside of our house? What if we started with our families?

Family and private prayer

“Family and private prayer” is a phrase that was frequently used by John Wesley and early Methodists. The phrase was used in almost every discussion of the basic practices of the Christian faith. Today, we usually just say that prayer is one of the basic practices of the faith. But early Methodists were more specific.

A Methodist was expected to spend focused time in private prayer every day. And they were also expected to spend time every day in prayer with their families. (This would obviously be different for people who are single and living on their own, though I suspect most single Christians would affirm that value of communal rhythms of prayer themselves.)

I talked about a handful of practical ways that Christians can focus on their faith in the midst of this unprecedented and surreal season in last week’s post. I found my mind returning to the part about families praying together over and over again this past week. I am writing about it again this week because the more I think about parents praying together with their children the more certain I am that this would fundamentally change things in the American Church.

Many of you already do this faithfully. My message to you is: Keep it up! Maybe this is an opportunity to ask if there is something fruitful you could add to your rhythm in this season where you are spending so much time together as a family.

If you don’t spend time praying together as a family, that is ok. I want to encourage you to think about steps you can take moving forward, rather than spending time thinking about missed opportunities in the past.

I want to reiterate a few specific practices I mentioned in last week’s post because they are ideal for implementing in this season.

Pray together as a family before meals.

Even if the entire family is not eating together at the same time, commit to say a prayer together before you eat. This prayer can be short and sweet, particularly if you are not used to praying aloud. In my family, we all take turns praying before meals and the basic content of the prayer is basically giving God thanks for providing the food we are about to eat and asking that God bless it to the nourishment of our bodies.

One of my favorite things that happens in these times is when one of my kids uses this time as an opportunity to also pray for something that is on their hearts.

Pray together before your children go to sleep.

My family has a routine where everyone shares at least one specific thing they are thankful for from the day. After each person has shared, one of us closes in prayer. Like praying before meals, this is not complicated. It is powerful because it is teaching our kids to pray and giving them opportunities to pray with us. It is also a way of showing our kids the priority that our faith plays in our lives. As Christians, we make time to give thanks to God for our food before we eat it. And we make time to thank God for events in each day at the end of the day and lift up the day in prayer before we go to sleep.

My favorite part about this nighttime prayer routine is when we have guests stay at our house. I love inviting them into this rhythm with our kids and having the chance for all of us to hear what each person is thankful for from the day.

Read Scripture together as a family.

We read a passage from a children’s Bible that our kids like before we share what we are thankful for and pray. The key here is simply to spend time together reading Scripture as a family. Last week I recommended starting by reading the Gospel of John. It is less important where you start than that you start. If you are drawn to a particular book of the Bible, start there by all means.

We need purpose and focus in this season.

We are wired for struggle and for a purpose. For some of you, committing to pray together and read Scripture as a family may not seem big enough or profound enough. In times of crisis and uncertainty, prayer often takes on a new and deeper level of meaning. It is often easier to pray authentic and focused prayers. I have certainly found that to be the case in my own life over the past two weeks.

I believe this is a season to fight to put God in the center of Christian families. For those of us who are used to the church leading our children for us, this may initially be uncomfortable or challenging. But you can do it. And you need to do it.

Praying with your family will renew your own faith and it will change your children’s lives in ways you cannot anticipate.

Our kids are picking up on our anxiety and fears. This is an unsettling time for them. They need us to lead them to the creator of the universe. The Lord is not sleeping through this season. He is with us. He sees us. He cares about what we are experiencing and feeling.

It is time for those of us who have taken on the name of Christ to complete the work that is right in front of us in our own homes.

We need to become active in practicing our faith and finding rhythms to honor Jesus and invite the Holy Spirit to guide and direct our lives day after day, moment by moment.

As we do, we will find that the Holy Spirit produces his fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Come Holy Spirit! Help those of us who follow Jesus and have families to return to the practice of both family and private prayer.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Growing in Your Faith in a Time of Social Distancing

Well, that escalated quickly.

I suspect that we will look back on last Wednesday evening as the tipping point for the United States’ response to COVID-19. It seemed to me to really start when the NBA announced that it was suspending the season. An avalanche of cancellations followed. I waived to my daughter as she stood at the bus stop on Thursday morning and felt like there was a good chance this would be the last time I would do that this year.

There is an inevitable and understandable adjustment period when something this dramatic happens. But today I want to encourage church leaders (lay and clergy) to pick yourselves up and get back at it.

I have been encouraged in conversations with pastors across the connection by how many of you are already thinking in proactive and creative ways about how to continue the ministry of the church in the era of social distancing.

This will be easier for some of us than for others. I want to offer a few suggestions that I hope will connect with anyone who reads this. My challenge to you today is to start somewhere. Take a step forward where you can. What you choose today does not have to be perfect. It should not be impossibly grandiose. Just take a step today that you can build on tomorrow. That is enough.

Here are a few thoughts for opportunities that are offered in this season:

This is an opportunity for families to practice their faith together. If there were one thing I would most passionately encourage it would be this: If you are a part of a family living under one roof, find a daily rhythm to express your faith in a concrete way. I would encourage you to think about enacting practices that you can continue on the other side of COVID-19.

Pray before meals.

In a time when families are home alone together far more than normal, don’t miss the opportunity to eat meals together. And when you do, set aside one minute before you start eating to say a prayer. As you enter into this routine, you can encourage everyone in the family to say a short prayer of thanks for the provision for this meal.

My experience has been that children enjoy praying out loud. It is also a great opportunity to allow them to bring their concerns to the Lord, which also helps us have another vantage point into the hearts and minds of our children.

If you haven’t done this together as a family before, it may initially feel awkward or uncomfortable to you. That is ok! The key question, from my perspective, is this: Do you want comfort more, or do you want your kids to grow in their faith? I promise you that if you take this step you will not regret it.

Read Scripture together as a family.

My family does this as a part of our evening routine. There are a variety of Bibles you can choose from to do this based on the age of your children. Each member of the family shares what they are thankful for from the day and then we read a passage of Scripture. This would be a great time to simply choose one of the Gospels and read a section each evening. Any are great. If I had to recommend one to start with today, I would recommend the Gospel of John. After the Bible reading, someone closes with a prayer giving thanks for the day and anything else they want to pray for.

Honor the Sabbath.

This is for everyone, regardless of whether you have children at home. Be intentional about observing the sabbath. We made an intentional effort to worship together as a family. We connected with a broader church community and sang songs together in our living room, said the Apostles’ Creed, and Lord’s Prayer together. We also heard a passage of Scripture read and preached. Our kids stayed engaged and seemed to enjoy it. Family worship together is wonderful, but I would also encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to connect with your faith community through online worship.

Sunday was also a day that we intentionally slowed down. We played together. We went for a family walk. We intentionally paid less attention to the news and social media accounts. We rested.

Strengthen your small group ministries.

This is an excellent opportunity to strengthen your church’s small group ministry. The first thing I would be encouraging if I were the senior pastor of a church in this season would be opportunities for every single person connected to the church to join an 8-week group (since the CDC seems to be recommending social distancing for at least 8 weeks) that will meet online in groups of about 12.

This would be a great time to give people a chance to experience something like the early Methodist class meeting, a group that is about supporting and encouraging each other in our faith journeys and not primarily learning content. This is an excellent opportunity to gather together and talk about our faith in the midst of unprecedented times in the world.

My book The Class Meeting is an 8-week study that even has a video component (available at the previous link, which you can preview here) that you can watch as a group. This is pretty plug and play for an 8 week stretch. (You can preview the first chapter here.) You could have members read the chapter on their own and then watch the video together and spend about 45 minutes checking in each week. There is a guide for group discussion at the end of each chapter. But this is also a great time for a simple weekly check in: How are you holding up right now? How are you seeing God at work in this season? How can we be praying for you?

I am convinced that this season is an opportunity to experience revival.

In the weeks before COVID-19 was at the forefront of my own mind, I experienced an unusual burden for revival. I found myself praying regularly for revival and asking the Lord to bring revival to our churches and our cities.

This is a difficult and challenging time. I think there will continue to be unexpected challenges along the way. But I am actually optimistic about the opportunity that is presented for the people of God to get on their knees, to recommit themselves to pressing in to their faith, and to interceding on behalf of the world. God seems to make his presence known in desperate circumstances when people stop hoping in their own ability. America is a context where it is difficult to get people to take their eyes off of themselves and turn their focus to the Lord – who is mighty to save.

What step can you take today?

Do not spend the next several weeks treading water aimlessly. Press in to Christ! We may not be able to meet together as we have been in the habit of doing. But that does not mean that there is not ministry to be done.

Focus on growing in your faith in daily rhythms right now. And you will find your faith strengthened for the rest of your life. Focus on connecting with people in your church when the church gathers online for worship. And create a small group to connect with as we ride this thing out.

God is with us. We have not been abandoned. We can thrive even in this place. And we can prepare for a powerful move of God.

Who is with me?

What are you doing to strengthen your faith and be in ministry in creative ways in this season?

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

How to Follow Jesus, Craig Springer [Review]

Every church needs to be able to articulate their understanding of discipleship and to help people diagnose where they are in their journey. A church needs to be able to articulate a process for helping people grow in faith once they have come to faith in Jesus. And they need to be able to help people see where they are in this process.

But how many churches have a visible process like this or a way to help people figure out what the next steps are for them in their faith journey?

Craig Springer’s How to Follow Jesus: A Practical Guide for Growing Your Faith is a helpful contribution that has the potential to help individual people and local churches think more strategically about following Jesus. Springer is currently the executive director of Alpha USA.

How to Follow Jesus contains straightforward advice on how to take steps in your faith. “Your Greatest Skill,” the chapter on prayer, discusses common mistakes related to prayer, like praying aimlessly. Springer then gives a simple guide to daily prayer, which he refers to by the acronym CHAT: Confess, Honor, Ask, and Thank.

He also acknowledges the challenges and struggles that people sometimes experience in prayer. But he still encourages the reader to press in:

Let’s never forget, at its core, our faith is a love relationship which grows in communication and shrinks when we hold back. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is keep showing up. Keep trying. If you allow anything to pull you away from communication with the God who loves you, you are letting that thing define and dismantle you. Make prayer your priority, even when it’s hard. Devote energy and time and courage into an intentional pattern of daily prayer. “Come close to God, and God will come close to you…” (James 4:8 NLT). [50]

This book has a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit. In fact, the book starts with the Spirit. Chapter 1, “Your Greatest Help,” is about the Holy Spirit. Springer identifies five promises the Spirit provides to help us follow Jesus: presence, peace, power, protection, and perseverance.

I was pleasantly surprised by how strong of an emphasis there was on forgiveness and confession of sin in the book, with full chapters being devoted to each. Springer does a good job of illustrating why both of these are essential to the Christian life with compelling personal stories.

How to Follow Jesus also has a strong emphasis on the role of community in the Christian life. Springer discusses our need for places where we take our masks off and go deeper with other Christians. He shares three questions his small group asks each other every time they meet:
1. How are you doing, really?
2. Where are you at with God?
3. What are you working on in your life right now?

Springer also works to help Jesus followers to have a strong commitment to a local church. He prepares the reader that no church is perfect and encourages them to stay committed to a particular church for the long haul.

I wish the book had a stronger emphasis on sacraments. I don’t remember a discussion of baptism or the Lord’s Supper in the book, which is a significant omission. I can understand not including a lengthy discussion of baptism in a book that is about daily rhythms and habits of following Jesus. I am guessing that communion was not featured because of the fairly wide variety of approaches to the sacrament in American Christianity. I think the book would have been stronger if it had included a chapter on the Lord’s Supper.

There was also a speed bump for me in the first pages of the book. In describing the purpose of the book and what he hoped to offer the reader, Springer wrote:

I promise not to spend your time on lofty philosophies, which are better at collecting dust on the shelf than actually affecting your life. My goal isn’t to fill your head with detailed Christian knowledge or even my own personal rambling. This book is my attempt to give you what I had hoped to receive: distilled, relevant, practical, life-tested advice on how to follow Jesus. [19]

The book succeeds admirably in delivering on the aims in the final sentence. However, as a seminary professor, the first part of this quote struck me as unhelpfully anti-intellectual. I would love to have a chance to sit down over a cup of coffee and ask Craig what he meant by that particular statement and to discuss my appreciation of the book in general.

The church needs to help people learn how to follow Jesus. This book is a helpful contribution that will help you think through your own faith. And if you are a church leader, it may help you think through a model for discipleship in your church.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Affiliate links used in this post.

The Treasure God Has Entrusted to Methodism

Several people have asked me to share the sermon I preached on entire sanctification recently at First United Methodist Church, Tupelo, MS and at Pollard United Methodist Church in Tyler, TX as a part of recent speaking engagements. I am hoping to see this doctrine placed at the center of the next Methodist movement. This represents an initial attempt to bring Methodism’s “grand depositum” to the local church.

Towards the end of his life, John Wesley believed there was one key reason God had raised up Methodism. And this was a pretty big deal for Wesley because John Wesley could remember when Methodism started. There was no Methodism before John Wesley.

I want to share with you this morning the one reason John Wesley believed God raised up the people called Methodists. I want to share this with you because I teach Methodist history and I find it inherently interesting and worth studying. But that would not be sufficient grounds for a sermon, would it?

I want to tell you about the one reason John Wesley believed God raised up the people called Methodists because I believe it still encapsulates the best news that we have to offer to those outside the walls of this church. And because we need to receive it first so that our own lives do not make it impossible for others to hear the faith we profess with our mouths.

But before I go any farther, I need you to know that I understand at the outset that at points this morning what I am sharing will sound crazy to you. It will seem impossible to believe. You may even find yourself thinking, there is NO WAY this guy actually believes this. I want to ask you at the outset, then, to do everything that you can to try and hear me out. Because if what I am saying is true and you experience it in your own life, you will never be the same.

How’s that for a hook?

John Wesley died on March 2, 1791 at the age of 87. Less than six months before his death, on September 15, 1790, he wrote a letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, a Methodist preacher. In the letter Wesley identified a particular doctrine as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”

That seems important! The founder of the particular part of the Body of Christ that we inhabit said at the end of his life that he believed that there was one “grand depositum” or great treasure that God had given to Methodists and that we were raised up by God in order to preach, teach, and spread this doctrine.

This morning I want to tell you what this grand depositum was. And I want to try to convince you that it still matters for us today.

One more thing before we get into the heart of this. This message may seem too Methodist or too Wesleyan. I get that. Look, this is an occupational hazard for me. Try to cut me some slack. More importantly, my motivation this morning is genuinely *not* to try to encourage all of us to become followers of John Wesley. Far from it! I want us to see what kind of life is possible by the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I want us to take far more seriously the victory over sin that we see in Jesus Christ and the way that is opened up for us if we put our full trust and confidence in Jesus Christ and him alone.

Ok, so here we go.

The grand depositum of Methodism, according to John Wesley was the doctrine of entire sanctification or Christian perfection. Wesley claimed that Methodist doctrine was derived from Scripture. And this was no exception. Today’s Scripture reading is one of the most important passages for this understanding, but certainly not the only one.

Here is the heart of it: 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” And then, at the end of the reading for today, 5:23-24 says, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (NRSV)

This is the heart of the great treasure God has entrusted to us.
God’s will is that we be sanctified. And He is faithful. He will do this. Entirely.

Before we go any further let me give an initial definition of entire sanctification or Christian perfection (these are synonyms).

Let’s take sanctification first. Ok. Big picture: the Christian life can be divided into two key works God does. First is justification. This is when we are forgiven and pardoned of all past sin through faith in Jesus Christ, by putting our full trust and confidence in the work that Jesus has done for us to be able to be forgiven and made right with God. Forgiveness and pardon are a relative change. When someone is forgiven, they are still the same person that they were right before they were forgiven. Theologians often talk about justification by imagining God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the sinner in need of pardon and forgiveness. In justification, Jesus stands in front of the sinner so that God the Father sees the righteousness of Jesus Christ and forgives the sinner due to the righteousness of Christ – which is not theirs.

At the same time that one is forgiven, they experience the new birth or are born again. And the new birth, as the name suggests, is a real change. The gift of forgiveness itself brings forth gratitude, thanksgiving, joy, a new freedom and peace. We are changed. And this is the first step in sanctification. Sanctification is the process of growing in holiness, of becoming more like Jesus. It is being changed from the inside so that we come to genuinely love what God love and love like God loves. Sanctification can be both gradual and instantaneous. It is gradual in that there is always room for us to learn more about God and learn more about ourselves and give ourselves more fully and completely to loving God and others.

A helpful example of this is thinking about a relationship. Any healthy relationship is dynamic and one where two people get to know each other in deeper ways over time. My wife and I have been married for 15 years. I am sure some of you have been married for a lot longer than that. There is a familiarity in being married for that long that is a blessing. But it is also a blessing to be able to grow closer to someone, to learn more about them, and to be surprised by them even after knowing them for this long.

Entire sanctification or Christian perfection is when we have grown in holiness to the point that the love of God excludes inward and outward sin from our lives.

The language of perfection causes problems and confusion for some. Wesley himself addressed this head on. He said in his sermon “Christian Perfection” that entire sanctification is:
– Not perfection in knowledge
– Not freedom from mistakes
– Not free from infirmities
– Not freedom from temptations

What entire sanctification is:
– Love excluding sin. We “are made free from outward sin.”
– Freedom from evil thoughts
– Freedom from evil tempers

Ok. So to summarize, John Wesley was convinced that God had given Methodism this particular teaching to steward for the sake of the world. Wesley believed that we exist so that this doctrine could get a hearing.

The concern for this doctrine getting a hearing was above all else because it is biblical. We have seen this in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:23-24. The Greatest Commandment in the Gospel of Matthew 22:37-39 is another key passage. Jesus answers the question: “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Greatest Commandment, love God and neighbor, is one of the ways that Wesley would often define entire sanctification.

Today’s passage is actually a prayer of blessing at the end of the letter. As Paul is bringing the letter to the Christians in Thessalonica to a close he prays:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

So, we have from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that the greatest commandment is to love God with every part of our lives and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

And then Paul, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, teaches that “the will of God” is that we be sanctified. And he feels comfortable praying that God would sanctify the Christians in Thessalonica “entirely” so that our spirit and soul and body would be sound and blameless at the return of Christ.

Don’t miss the way that last prayer ends:

The one who calls you is faithful – ie., God – and he will do this.

Who sanctifies us? Not us.
God is faithful. God will sanctify us.

Sanctification, like justification, is by faith.
What kind of faith?
– That it is promised in Scripture
– That God is able to do what he promises
– That God is able and willing to do it now.
– That God actually does it.

In his sermon “Scripture Way of Salvation,” Wesley says this is how you can tell whether you are seeking entire sanctification by faith or by works:

“If by works, you want something to be done first, before you are sanctified. You think, ‘I must first be or do thus or thus.’ Then you are seeking it by works unto this day. If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are: and if as you are, then expect it now. It is of importance to observe that there is an inseparable connection between these three points – expect it by faith, expect it as you are, and expect it now!”

The doctrine of entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is not only an old teaching from the beginnings of Methodism. It is something that every single ordained United Methodist pastor has professed belief in and expectation of experiencing in this life. Before ordination, every ordained clergy answers several questions as a part of the “Historic Examination for Admission into Full Connection.” Here are the first four:

1. Have you faith in Christ?
2. Are you going on to perfection?
3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

The anticipated response to each of these questions is, “Yes, by the grace of God.”

When talking about the treasure that God has entrusted to Methodism, there are two mistakes that we can make. On the one hand this can seem like putting a heavy and impossible burden on people. I have to make myself perfect? Impossible! I may as well give up. If that is what you are thinking, I have failed to communicate well. Entire sanctification is by faith in Jesus, not faith in yourself. Here’s the truth: You cannot make yourself perfect in love in this life. Neither can I. No one can make themselves holy. But there is one who is able: Jesus Christ the risen one! Entire sanctification is at one level about learning to put our full trust and confidence in Jesus. Learning to keep our eyes fixed on him and depending on him moment by moment to enable our faith and obedience.

On the other hand, we can decide that it is all about Jesus and not about us and begin to turn a blind eye to the ways in which we are not there yet and just start to pretend. This can and has led to legalism in some parts of our tradition, where people come up with lists of specific sins and as long as we avoid those, we are good to go. This has been said in one refrain as “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do.” It is, of course, not hard to see that this does not encapsulates the beautiful and radical vision of holiness that is offered to us in Christ.

Let me close with what is at stake for us and for those who are not here yet. We live in a world that is broken and hurting. People come to church looking for hope and healing. Increasingly, they are unwilling to give us much time to convince them that we actually have answers. If it appears that all we have to offer are some self-help strategies to tweak our lives and make them slightly better through the sheer force of our will, they will not stick around because they are smart enough to know that they don’t have to come to church to get that.

Here is what I am staking my life on: I believe that Jesus is real. I believe that he really lived, died on the cross, was raised from the dead on the third day, and has ascended to the right hand of God the Father. I believe that the Holy Spirit is with us now. I am staking my life on the truth of the gospel as it has been received by the church over centuries.

Entire sanctification is not about legalism and it is not about working harder and straining more. It is about receiving the gift of God’s perfect love into every single part of your life and allowing the love of God to change you, to heal you, to bring forgiveness, hope, and even healing in every place where it is needed. Entire sanctification is about the radical optimism that the grace of God is sufficient for every need. Entire sanctification makes us bold to look the world full in the face with eyes wide open to suffering and needs we know we cannot meet in our strength and have the faith to say “Jesus!” in complete trust and confidence that he is the answer.

Some of us have been going through the motions. And church has become more about habit and duty and routine than about expecting to meet with the living God. What if God wants to change that today? Are you willing to ask God in faith to fill you with his perfect love as you are, right now, and then to follow where he leads you?

I am not promising you that it will be easy. I am not even promising you that it will mean you avoid suffering. Jesus’s embodies perfect love and it led him to the cross for our sakes. The servant is no better than the master.

But I can promise you that there is no more fulfilling and complete life than life in Christ. Jesus is the treasure. And God has given Methodism, at our best, a burning desire to say that Jesus is enough. He is all that we need. And he is able to make us whole, complete, and to enable us to say no to everything that takes life, that undermines, hurts, or damages others, and to say yes to God and all that God wants for us.

At the end of the day, here is why I believe the doctrine of entire sanctification is true: on this side of the resurrection of Jesus Christ I do not believe I am entitled to say that sin is more powerful than the grace of God. If God hates sin and it is fundamentally at odds with his purposes, I do not believe I am entitled to say that sin must be a part of the lives of those who are in Christ. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! Jesus not on cancels sin, as Charles Wesley, the writer of the soundtrack for our movement has said – he breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free!

May today be a turning point for you. May the Holy Spirit come now and give you a new hunger for more of God and the things of God. May you hunger and thirst to be filled with God’s love so that you can truly love God and love others with all that you are and all that you have. And may the Holy Spirit produce his fruit in your life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May it be so! In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

God’s Power in Impossible Odds and Our Simple Faith

Over the past several years, God has graciously ministered to me through stories of God’s power in the midst of seemingly impossible odds. This is a lovely thread throughout Scripture. The Lord often goes to great lengths to demonstrate that God alone is able to provide and protect.

Parz - Fresco Daniel 3

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Gideon (Judges 7)

God reduces Gideon’s army from 32,000 warriors to 300! God then causes the opposing army to fight each other or flee.

Elijah and the Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18)

Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a direct demonstration of God’s power. 450 prophets of Baal vs. Elijah. The story again emphasizes that it is not a fair fight. But, again, the fight turns out to not be fair for the opposite reason it seems to the world. Elijah has the one true God on his team and the 450 prophets of Baal only have an imposter god.

The four lepers (2 Kings 7)

Samaria is under a terrible siege. Four lepers with no good options decide to surrender to the Aramean army and end up raiding their camp.

“But when they came to the edge of the camp, no one was there! For the Lord had caused the Aramean army to hear the clatter of speeding chariots and the galloping of horses and the sounds of a great army approaching. ‘The King of Israel has hired the Hittites and Egyptians to attack us!’ they cried to one another. So they panicked and ran into the night, abandoning their tents, horses, donkeys, and everything else, as they fled for their lives.” (2 Kings 7: 5-7)

Our Faith in God’s Power

One of the things I have been struck by is that in the midst of these stories something subtle but very important happens. Real people take simple steps that demonstrate that their full trust and confidence is in God.

Here is a story that I’ve been rereading for about three years now that shows this in a way that is particularly moving to me.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3)

There was a period of time when I just couldn’t stop reading Daniel 3. I encourage you to read this story for yourself. King Nebuchadnezzar is deeply confused about who God is. (He has a lot of other stuff going on.) He builds a gold statue ninety feet tall and nine feet wide. He then demands that everyone in the kingdom bow down and worship the idol that he has made.

Daniel is a profound study of faithfulness in a foreign land. This is a powerful story of when faithfulness requires saying no to the powers and principalities, even though there is every reason to believe it will cost them their lives.

“But there are some Jews…” (12) Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have refused to bow down and worship the idol. And their accusers promptly bring this to the King’s attention. They are then called on the carpet to stand before the King who reiterates his demand and gives them one last chance to bow down and worship his idol. He makes sure the threat is explicit:

“But if you refuse, you will be thrown immediately into the blazing furnace. And then what god will be able to rescue you from my power?” (15)

The response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the face of the full might of the King and his promises continues to encourage and strengthen me:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”

My reading of this passage has almost always stopped at verse 18 of late.

But even if he doesn’t.

Amazing courage and strength!

Of course, God does rescue them. But I have needed the reminder that the life of faith is lived in real time. And the gospel is not a promise that we will avoid suffering. It is a promise that God is with us always and Jesus wins.

The resurrection, the ultimate victory of God, comes through the cross.

I don’t know about you, but this feels like a pretty chaotic and uncertain time in my part of the Lord’s vineyard. (And it has felt that way for a long time, hasn’t it?) There are times I feel weary and exhausted.

There has been an unexpected blessing for me in this place. I am learning to seek God’s power in what seem like impossible odds. I am learning to hunger and thirst for the Holy Spirit. I am learning to depend on God’s power to rescue.

I am remembering that the God we read about in Scripture is the same God we worship today. And he is worth giving yourself to fully, without holding back.

I am desperate to see God move in power in ways that only God can. I am yearning to see a move of the Holy Spirit that increases faith, brings strength, and courage. I want to see the Lord raise up a people who want nothing more than Jesus and the power of his resurrection.

God is faithful. Lord, we are waiting on you. Come Holy Spirit.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

The Pastor I Hope My Children Will Have

With everything going on in my denomination right now, it feels like almost everything is up for grabs. In this context, I find myself wrestling with what kind of pastors I want to see formed in whatever it is that unfolds. I keeping finding this musing to center around the kind of pastor I hope my kids will have when they are around my stage of life.

My deepest hope and prayer is that my children will choose to embrace the Christian faith for themselves when they no longer live with me. And I hope that they will be blessed with exceptional pastoral leadership when they do.

So, here are my initial and incomplete thoughts on the kind of pastor I hope my children will have when they are my age:

I hope they have a pastor who has a deep, abiding, and personal confidence in the gospel.

I hope they have had an experience of justification by faith and the new birth.

I hope they are comfortable speaking both to their faith in Christ and speaking to their desperate dependence on Christ.

I hope they can speak clearly and compelling to the difference following Jesus has made in their lives.

I hope they are convinced that Jesus is the only source of salvation.

I hope they are thoroughly convinced that there is nothing more worth living for than Jesus.

I hope they are committed to basic Christian orthodoxy.

I hope my kids’ pastor has a clear vision for what it looks like to follow Jesus and the steps that people need to take in order to follow Jesus. In other words, I hope they have not only a generic endorsement of the importance of discipleship. I hope they have a practical and concrete vision for what discipleship looks like and how people move from seeking Jesus to being filled with the perfect love of God and radically transformed by God’s love.

I hope their life has been molded and shaped by prayer and searching the Scriptures on a daily basis over decades.

I hope they have experienced the truth of Jesus’s words in Luke 11, that God responds to prayers of “shameless persistence.” (Luke 11:8, NLT) That they themselves keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking until they receive what they ask for, find what they are seeking, and the door is opened to them.

I hope they regularly talk about their own faith in ways that show that they experience God as alive and active and a person they talk to and relate with.

I hope they have been encountered by the Holy Spirit and have a confidence in the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit.

I hope they evidence the fruit of the Spirit in their lives in a way that is visible to others.

I hope they have seen God work in life-changing ways that provide a testimony to the power and presence of God in their lives.

I hope they are humble and don’t take themselves too seriously.

I hope they have more than average self-awareness.

I hope they share stories of times when they were wrong and repented and experienced forgiveness and healing through faith in Jesus.

I hope they recognize that the pursuit of deeply committed Christian discipleship is at odds with the dominant culture and that this puts pressure on people seeking to follow Jesus.

I hope this sober assessment is combined with an unshakeable confidence that Jesus is of infinite worth and giving yourself fully to Christ is worth the cost of discipleship.

I hope they show moral courage and do not dodge difficult topics, particularly when they are most important for Christian formation and most offensive to the surrounding culture.

I hope they will share times when their faith has made their life harder. And that they will testify to the goodness of God in the midst of difficult circumstances.

I hope they will provide guidance on how to endure suffering for the sake of the gospel, rather than implicitly or explicitly assuming that suffering is always to be avoided or bad.

I hope they have a strong theological education that has led them to the simplicity on the far side of complexity. That is, I hope that they continue to read and think deeply but that this learning does not become an end in itself where questions and questioning become the point.

I hope their learning helps them to proclaim the gospel in their time and place with greater conviction, competence, and credibility.

In addition to a strong theological education, I hope they have been mentored or discipled by someone who has gone before them.

And I hope they are committed to passing on what they have received to others who are not yet where they are.

I hope they will expect conflict to be a part of ministry and be able to engage in healthy conflict about things that matter.

I hope they are able to speak winsomely and humbly, but also unapologetically, to their deep convictions that come from being firmly rooted in Christ.

I hope they care deeply about reaching all people with the good news of Jesus Christ and will go to great lengths to do so.

I also hope they refuse to water down the gospel in order to try to make Jesus seem more palatable or attractive.

I hope they will invite people to come to know the love of God in Christ that not only brings forgiveness of past sins but freedom from the power of sin in this life now.

I hope they proclaim the gospel with the most audacious and bold optimism of any church in their surrounding community.

May it be so!

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Preaching and Teaching in Tupelo, MS

One of my favorite parts about teaching at a United Methodist seminary is getting to preach and teach at various levels of the UMC. This weekend I had the privilege of preaching and teaching at First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, MS at their annual Preaching and Teaching Event. It was such a blessing to me!

I preached twice on entire sanctification. I have been working on a short popular book on entire sanctification and its importance for contemporary Methodism. Working on this book has increased my passion in me to offer this core teaching of Methodism – the reason Wesley believed God breathed life into Methodism in the first place – to laity.

It is important for me to connect with local churches because it keeps me honest. The academy is great in many ways. But it is also not the church. And scholars that seek to serve the church need to spend significant time in both places. I found that preaching on entire sanctification was more challenging than I anticipated it to be. In short, I felt like I needed a lot more time to do what I needed to do. But that is part of why it is important for people like me to preach. I need to remember what it is like week in and week out for pastors anchored in the local church serving week after week.

When I talk about entire sanctification in any context, I expect skepticism and some pushback. I was encouraged by the number of people who were willing to be challenged and were open to thinking more about the doctrinal treasure God has entrusted to Methodists and what is possible through faith in Jesus Christ.

My favorite comment of the week went something like this: “I was very skeptical of what you were saying and you came close to losing me a few times. But I think you may have convinced me at the end when you said that Christians are not entitled to say that sin has to be a part of Christian’s lives on this side of the resurrection of Jesus.” Hearing a comment like that which shows that the person was working hard to understand what I was saying and that the main point of the sermon connected is as good as it gets for me.

That was only one of so many thoughtful comments. I am not sure I have ever been in a church where the entire church seemed so committed to doing everything they could think of to welcome me.

The music was great in both services. I enjoyed worshipping with the band in the contemporary service. The music chosen by Beverly McAlilly, the Music Director, for the 11 o’clock service was unbelievable. Despite not giving very detailed information about my sermon beforehand, the music could not have been better from my perspective. The Offertory Anthem was the most beautiful version of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer that I have ever heard. And we sang “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Jesus, Thine all-Victorious Love,” and “A Charge to Keep I Have.” It was awesome!

I was also able to give three teaching sessions Sunday and Monday. I talked about the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of Methodism and its core identity. I also talked about the importance of connection for the Christian life and the class and band meetings. And I shared some thoughts on how to succeed in implementing groups like class meetings in the local church.

The folks at FUMC Tupelo were extraordinarily gracious and generous hosts. I was welcomed into people’s homes to share meals with them. Dozens of people took time out of their lives to not only seek to better understand their faith, but also to make me feel appreciated and welcomed. I have to say this was at the top of my experiences of Southern hospitality.

Something that may be obvious to you, but I had missed until I got there, is that Tupelo is also a tourist destination. Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo and lived there until, I think, 6th grade. Tupelo has a museum that preserves the house of Elvis’s early childhood. Next to the house is an Assembly of God church where Elvis worshipped (it has been moved near the house). I was not able to enter either because most of the downtime I had was on Sunday when the museum was closed. I was told by multiple people that the Church has a particularly effective video presentation that gives visitors a glimpse of the influence the music that Elvis heard in that church as a young child had on him.

I even met a wonderful woman, who blessed me multiple times during my trip, who surprised me Sunday evening by telling me that she went to school with Elvis!

Thank you First United Methodist Church, Tupelo, MS!

A Church that Gives Me Hope and a Voice You Should Follow


One of the highlights of my time as a PhD student at Southern Methodist University was getting to be part of a new church start. It was actually a relaunch of a church in East Dallas, launched by Highland Park UMC.

Being a part of the first months of Munger Place’s resurrection was such a blessing. I will never forget my son’s baptism at Munger. They even let me preach once!

Andrew Forrest is one of the pastors who gives me hope for the future. He is one of the most gifted preachers I have heard. His passion for the craft of preaching makes me want to be a more effective communicator. Check out this blog post as one example. I love his discussion of the simplicity on the far side of complexity! This is essential for theological education and leadership in the church. (You should definitely subscribe to Andrew’s blog while you are there.)

I wanted to lift up Munger Place here because I think it may be the most spectacular story in the United Methodist Church in the U.S. over the past decade.

What God has done at Munger Place is astounding! Here is a brief and partial glimpse that does not do justice to the individual lives that have been changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On October 30, 2019, Andrew shared some data at the 9 year anniversary of Munger’s rebirth.

Their average attendance was 1,139! A 12% increase from the previous year.

– Munger Kids (birth through 5th grade) was up 20% from the previous year at 278. This 278 is not included in the 1,139 average attendance above.

Annual giving was up 14%, which means that people are increasing their giving overall, a sign of growth in discipleship.

These stats are all amazing. But here is the one that I suspect is unique in contemporary United Methodism in terms of both percentage and total:

Munger has 1,466 total members. Of those members, 54% had no previous affiliation! In other words, MORE THAN HALF of the members of this church became members through baptism or profession of faith. Munger is not the new trendy cool church to worship at that is drawing cultural Christians away from other parts of the body of Christ. It is bringing new people to faith in Jesus through its deep commitment to proclaiming the gospel and reaching new people with the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Munger’s website includes the welcome Andrew uses at the beginning of every sermon: “Whatever your week’s been like, or your life’s been like, whatever you look like—whether you believe what we believe, or even if you vehemently disagree—in the name of Jesus Christ you are welcome in our church this and every Sunday.”

Praise God! May their tribe increase.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer [Review]

I am trying to expand my horizons and get to know the work of thought leaders and pastors outside of my tribe.

The most recent book I read in this category is John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. Comer was leading a church that grew by over a thousand people for seven years straight! And he was burning out and, more important, not growing in discipleship.

“It hits me like a freight train: in America you can be a success as a pastor and a failure as an apprentice of Jesus; you can gain a church and lose your soul.” (4)

So Comer does something that I can’t imagine a successful United Methodist pastor doing. He resigns from pastoring the entire operation in order to be the pastor of their smallest campus in downtown Portland.

I want to reset the metrics for success, I say. I want to focus more on who I am becoming in apprenticeship to Jesus. Can I do that?

They say yes. (7)

A key Scripture for this book is Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Comer invites the reader on a “counterintuitive and very countercultural journey to explore your soul in the reality of the kingdom.” (13)

The book is divided into three parts:

The problem: Hurry

The solution: The easy yoke of Jesus

Four practices for unhurrying your life:

Silence and solitude

Sabbath

Simplicity

Slowing

I enjoyed this book. Probably the best thing I can say about it is this: I will read it again. I recommend it to you if you have been feeling harried and worn down. If you are struggling to live in a way that keeps Jesus at the center of your life because you are too busy, distracted, or pulled in many directions, this book will be challenging and convicting. If you read slowly and listen for application for your life, it will also bring rest and transformation.

I found Comer’s writing to be simultaneously convicting and encouraging. He manages to offer an uncompromising and radically counterculturally way of life that avoids a judgmental or self-righteous tone. I experienced The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry as an invitation to a path to deeper intimacy with Jesus.

The chapter on sabbath was my favorite and has encouraged me to a renewed focus on practicing sabbath. Comer raised my expectations and left me anticipating deep enjoyment of sabbath. He uses a simple litmus test for sabbath: one should rest and worship on the sabbath and only rest and worship.

As a result of reading that chapter, I have started turning off devices for 24 hours as a part of my sabbath. I am increasingly convinced that our connections with our phones, especially, are a matter of Christian discipleship in urgent need of attention. It is an area where I need more discipline and one where almost everyone I know does too.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry was the last book I read in 2019. It was a great way to finish the year and think about the new one.

I am continuing to look for thought leaders and practitioners outside of my immediate sphere to learn from and remember that the church is much more than United Methodism. A friend recently recommended I read Francis Chan’s Letters to the Church, so that is up next for me.

Whose work have you read recently that has been helpful to you? I’d love to receive your recommendations in the comments.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Affiliate links used in this post.

Forming Habits in 2020: Final Thoughts on Reading and Writing

I have been encouraged by the responses to the first and second posts of 2020. Thank you to each of you who has commented here or written to me elsewhere.

My favorite: I received a text message from a good friend of a page with 200 boxes and the first box with an “X” through it. His text simply said, “You motivated me.”

That is as good as it gets for a reader response! The world will be a better place if people like him write a little bit every day (or most days).

I also received feedback that I should be even more specific about how I worked toward this habit.

Here is a brief description of how I approached each goal throughout last year:

Writing:

I use this weekly calendar for keeping track of habits and daily to-do lists. Each weekday, I write “Write 500 words” under that day.

When I am done writing, I draw a line through “Write 500 words” and then put the number of words I actually wrote in parentheses next to it: “(572)”

Next to the number in parentheses, I write the number of days out of 200 I have written 500 words. Today it looked like this:

Write 500 words (572) 10/200

At the end of each week, I add up all of the daily number of words written that week and write them at the top of the page for that week. I then add that number to the previous total and write “Total Words: 5,258” and put a bit rectangle around that.

This keeps both my daily progress and the progress I’m making over the course of the year in front of me. In 2019 I needed to see how much I had written and how many days I had left to go to stay motivated.

Reading:

I kept track of my habit of reading using the following method:

On January 1, 2019 I wrote “36,500” in the far right column of my weekly calendar.

When I finished a book, I would subtract the total number of pages of that book from the total number of pages left for the year.

So, if I finished a 230 page book, I would write “230” under “36,500”. I would then draw a line and write the new total of pages underneath it, “36,270.”

I found counting down towards zero to be more motivating than counting up to 36,500. I’m not sure why.

I also wrote the title and author of books I finished in an app on my phone. I have a separate document for each year, so I can see what books I read from one year to the next.

Making the Process Work for My Personality

I am motivated by both goals and habits. I tend to focus on habits as a way to break down bigger goals into manageable chunks that lead to something that feels significant. I write in order to publish articles and books. And I really enjoy the feeling of finishing a book.

I have tailored both of these habits so that they motivate me in both the short-term and the long-term.

In the short-term it has been very helpful for me to be able to say that writing 500 words is my win for the day. This is especially valuable on days when I am struggling with low energy, low motivation, or writer’s block – which happens a lot.

Knowing that I was building towards a goal of writing more than 100,000 words was more motivating to me than the daily habit. But it was the daily habit that got me to the bigger goal.

Two New Habits for 2020:

This year I want to work towards being a person who blogs regularly. I intend to blog 50 times throughout 2020 in order to work on this habit. My goal is to publish a post every Tuesday morning.

John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry inspired me to work on being more intentional in practicing sabbath in 2020. While I’ve had some habits around sabbath in place, Comer’s book convicted me that I have room to grow and motivated me to experiment with ways to enter into a more intentional and thorough sabbath. Thinking more carefully about how to rest and worship for a 24 hour period in the rhythm of a 7 day week has been both helpful and fun!

What About You?

My approach to writing is used in a variety of long-term projects. How have you used a similar approach to keep both the daily steps as well as the big picture in view for large projects?

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Affiliate links used in this post.