John Wesley: Optimist of Grace, An Excellent Book

Henry H. Knight III’s John Wesley: Optimist of Grace is a book I would like to get into the hands of as many Wesleyan/Methodist pastors and lay leaders as possible. Knight has written a remarkably accessible and concise introduction to John Wesley’s life and theology without sacrificing precision and nuance.

John Wesley: Optimist of Grace

As the subtitle suggests, the core theme of this book is John Wesley’s optimism of grace. For Knight, “It is this ‘optimism of grace,’ in connection with the goal of perfection in love, that gives Wesley’s theology its inner dynamic.” Wesley’s theology is “not only a theology of love and grace, but also at its heart a theology of hope, a promise of new creation in the midst of this present age” (xv).

Knight summarizes Wesley’s time in Georgia and his infamous relationship with Sophia Hopkey with particular nuance. Whereas Wesley’s time in Georgia has often been too neatly described as a failure, Knight points to things that Wesley learned:

His belief in the importance of societies for Christian growth was reinforced and deepened. He also became aware of the power of hymnody as critical to Christian formation and worship. And as he began to recognize that there was no single model of liturgy and discipline in primitive Christianity, his devotion to the early church could move from a legalistic precisionism to a more fruitful focus on apostolic faith, life and mission (14).

Knight also notes that Wesley returned from Georgia aware of continued need for growth in his own faith. “Wesley had not found the assurance he was seeking, nor had he attained the holiness he desired. His announced goal of going to Georgia, to save his own soul, was unmet” (15).

Similar nuance is also found in Knight’s summary of Wesley’s relationship to the Moravians, his famous experience at Aldersgate Street, and subsequent conflict with the Moravians. Knight’s summary of Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection, controversy related to the teaching in the 1760s, and disagreement with his brother Charles over the doctrine is also a highlight of the book.

Knight also dedicates chapters to Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace and another to “relieving the distress of the neighbor.” His summary of the controversies in the last third of Wesley’s life is another place where Knight’s ability to concisely summarize complicated events stands out.

Several one-liners in the book highlight core concerns of Wesley’s. Here are three examples:

“The renewal of the Church occurs not through condemnation of others but through one’s own repentance” (124).

“For Wesley, it was the lack of holiness in the church that was the chief impediment to the reception of the gospel by non-Christians” (131).

“Grace at its heart is the power of the Holy Spirit; thus, we can approach God with an expectant, although not a presumptive, faith” (143).

John Wesley: Optimist of Grace is a part of the Cascade Companions Series, which is an imprint of Wipf and Stock. This series publishes “books that combine academic rigor with broad appeal and readability. They aim to introduce nonspecialist readers to that vital storehouse of authors, documents, themes, histories, arguments, and movements that compromise this heritage with brief yet compelling volumes.” This book exceeds in accomplishing the goals of this series. And at a time when the quality of the book itself is increasingly suspect in parts of Christian publishing, this book is a welcomed exception. The design of the cover, the layout of the text, and the quality of the paper all contribute to the quality of the content itself, rather detracting from it.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in John Wesley and the theological foundations of the Wesleyan tradition. You can pick up a copy of the book here.

Advertisements

The Schuyler Quentel NIV: A Very Impressive Bible

I love books. I love the way they feel. I love the way a well-designed book looks. I even love the way books smell. I said this recently to my family, and one of my children just stared at me and said, “You’re weird.” That is probably true.

Despite the digital revolution, the physical aspect of reading is still extremely important to me. I want to be able to hold a book in my hands, feel its weight, turn pages, and see progress in reading the book as the weight is transferred from the right to the left.

So it has been with joy and delight that I have discovered the growth in interest and production of high quality Bibles. I am very much late to the party, but I’m glad I made it! Over the course of this summer I hope to review a broad range of what is available from various publishers and translations of Scripture in bindings that are made to be used and to last long term. I hope you will enjoy learning about these books as much as I have!

I would like to briefly address to objections that I anticipate: First, these Bibles are expensive. If you think it is wrong to spend more than $50 on a Bible, then these posts will not be for you. I may write about why I think these are a worthwhile investment at a later point. That is not my purpose here. Second, I have intentionally tried to gather a range of translations for review. I am not going to spend a lot of time here discussing the various translations. If you are interested in the advantages and disadvantages of various translations and the difference between formal/literal equivalence, functional/dynamic equivalence, and paraphrases try some basic google searches and you will find a host of forums for these discussions.

Schuyler Quentel NIV

V8ROtpqDQAq229kfj4PPXw

The Schuyler Quentel NIV is one of the Bibles I kept coming back to over and over again as I began learning about fine Bibles. Schuyler has published the Quentel in a variety of translations (availability changes as these Bibles are produced in small batches). The Quentel is a reference Bible in a two-column setting, as is traditional for most Bibles. But there was just something about this Bible that made me keep coming back to it.

I would not be able to overstate how excited I was for this Bible to arrive in the mail. When it arrived, I stopped what I was doing and spent the entire evening looking through it and reading it after the kids were in bed.

First Impression

The Bible arrived in a package that gave me immediate confidence that this was a Bible crafted with attention to detail. The shipping box contained a thick and elegant box that was wrapped in bubble wrap and included packaging peanuts surrounding it. The Bible itself was further wrapped inside its box to protect it. It arrived in excellent condition.

To be honest, my expectations were so high that I was initially slightly disappointed with the Bible itself. The Quentel was bigger than I thought it would be. I think this was mostly because I had not realized that the measurements on the website are the dimensions of the pages of the Bible, not including the binding (cover). The cover is “semi-yapp” which means that the cover goes beyond the pages (I measured 3/8 of an inch on mine). The binding also adds a fair amount of thickness. The measurements on the website are 6.1” x 9.1” x 1.4” The actual Bible measures 6 5/8”  x 9 7/8” x 1 3/4”. The difference is not huge, but I was initially surprised by the thickness and size. It is the same thickness but wider and longer than the NIV Study Bible I received as a gift back in high school, which measured 6 1/8” x 8 3/4”.

A Deeper Look

The Cover

lUy+XDpdQEWZJCF31m4Elw

I don’t want to overstate my initial reaction. The truth is I could not stop touching this Bible and flipping through it. The cover is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I ordered the “Antique Marble Brown” goatskin. Mine does not show as much texture in the color as the one in the picture appears to show, but I really like the brown color. The NIV Quentel is also available in a variety of other colors. Goatskin binding are $200 and calfskin bindings are $130. (I warned you that these are not cheap!) The gold lettering on the spine looks elegant and dignified. I also really like the texture added by the raised bands on the spine.

If you have never owned a goatskin Bible, I am not sure I can adequately describe it. They are often described as supple and that is exactly the word that keeps coming to mind as I handle this Bible. The goatskin cover also has a full leather lining (the interior of the cover). The most impressive thing about the cover is its flexibility. You can roll it up and it springs back into place.

Holding this Bible is simply unlike any Bible, or any book, I have ever held. The quality of the book makes you want to touch it and read it, which is an ideal quality for a Bible!

The Pages

fullsizeoutput_1f30

The pages are listed as 36 GSM paper, which is thick for Bible paper. To give you an idea, the Schuyler Quentel is the same thickness as my NIV Study Bible, which has more than 500 more pages. Of course, it is still thinner than the pages you’d find in a typical book. Schuyler also uses line matching, which means that the text is much less visible on the other side of the page.

The layout is what I think most sets the Quentel apart. There are three things that I think are particularly worth mentioning. First, the text is clean and as unencumbered as a reference Bible could be. The experience of reading this Bible is as ideal as a two-column setting could be. The font is 11 point, which is quite large for a Bible. Second, red ink is used in subtle but helpful ways. Each chapter number is red, the cross references chapter and verse numbers are also in red, as is the line separating the text from the footer. Third, all of the cross references are in the footer of the text, instead of being in the center column, which is typical of two-column settings in reference editions. This is my favorite part and I think what made me really want this Bible. Moving the cross references to the footer keeps your focus on simply reading the text. The fact that the chapter and verse for the references are in red is another stroke of genius, because it helps to quickly locate the specific reference in the footer.

Other Features

Aside from the 54,000 cross references, this Schuyler Quentel also has the NIV concordance. It is a red letter edition. It also has three very nice ribbons. The page edges have art-gilt edging (red under gold in my edition, which looks fantastic). The pages are Smyth Sewn, which means the pages are sewn together in booklets instead of glued together, allowing the binding to last longer and be significantly more flexible. The Bible includes 12 pages of lined paper and 12 maps designed exclusively by Schuyler.

Longing to See the Personal Size Quentel

I have spent at least five hours reading and looking through this Bible. The only question I have about it at this point is whether I would like the smaller Personal Size Quentel (PSQ) better. If you are looking at the same translation, the layout from the Quentel to the PSQ is exactly the same, which allows for easy transition from the larger to the smaller one. The NASB PSQ is listed as 4.7” x 7.1” x 1.1”, which should be compared to the textblock specs for the Quentel for consistency. The PSQ has a smaller font (8.5) and thinner paper (28 GSM) so there are tradeoffs. I am hoping to get my hands on a Personal Size Quentel someday to compare them. I am told that the PSQ will be available in the NIV in early 2019.

The Highest Quality NIV on the Market?

Schuyler markets the Quentel as “the best all around classic reference NIV on the market.” This is indeed a fantastic Bible. There are not as many NIV Bibles of this quality as you might think, given the popularity of this translation. If you are a fan of the NIV and you appreciate the experience of holding and reading extremely well-made books, you cannot go wrong with this Bible. The Schuyler Quentel would also be an excellent gift for your pastor, or even for a high school or college graduate.

The Schuyler Quentel is a Bible made with care and attention to detail at every level. I will enjoy using mine for years to come!

The folks at Schuyler generously provided this Bible for review. I was not required to give a positive review of this Bible, only an honest one. For another take on this Bible, with photos of the Imperial Blue cover, check out the Bible Design Blog.

Practicing Celebration

Church, we have some celebrating to do!

It is Easter Season. Many of you are probably thinking: What is he talking about? We just celebrated Easter. It is over.

But did you know that Easter is a season and not a Sunday?

Empty Tomb 2 (K)

The past several years I have been stuck on the contrast between the effort and energy that many Christians put into self-denial throughout Lent (the forty days, not including Sundays, from Ash Wednesday until the first Sunday of Easter) and the lack of effort and energy that is put into celebrating Easter as a season and not just a Sunday.

My guess is that many laity do not know that Easter is a season and not just a Sunday. And that is ok. I am not here to shame you.

But I’ve been wrestling for several years. Lent is intended to be six weeks of prayer and fasting that prepares us to receive the astonishingly good news that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. In most of the churches that I’ve experienced, it seems that Lent is ultimately preparation for one worship service. And, pastors and worship leaders, please hear this: It is an awesome worship service! My experience at Easter Sunday worship services over the past decades has been wonderful. Pastors, staff, and a host of volunteers pour themselves out and go home exhausted. I know.

I am not trying to add more programming to your church.

But I am haunted by a sense that to a world that is watching, we are not living like we mean it. If what we said on Sunday is true, how ought we to live? What kind of freedom and joy should we expect to be unleashed? Are we convinced, deeply convinced, that everything has changed? Are we walking in freedom from the ways of sin and death because Jesus has already broken the power of both?

I think about Paul’s proclamation to the Corinthians. Paul described the impact of Jesus’s resurrection and what is coming at length in 2 Corinthians 15. See if you can let these words sink in just a little bit deeper into your soul today. If this is what Jesus has done for us, how should we celebrate?

Then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15: 54-56)

Can you think of anyone whose life would be different if they had an encounter with the God who swallows up death in victory? How would your life be different if the risen Jesus brought his victory where you most need it?

If we really believed what the Scripture passages we read, the sermons we preached, the hymns we sing, and the liturgy says, we would have to celebrate, right?

The world needs a church that knows how to celebrate, really celebrate, the best news that has ever been told. If we are honest, the church itself needs a church that knows how to feast and not just fast, that knows how to throw a party.

The world has problems. The church has problems. The truth is we need a savior. We need saving. And we cannot save ourselves. But a savior has come.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

And he is for us. He has done everything that is necessary in order for us to be reconciled to God the Father and rescued from death and destruction. A broken and hurting world needs a church that knows how to properly celebrate what is truly good and able to change lives in deep and lasting ways.

If we tell a story like we just told and then go eat lunch and return to life as usual, our very lives impeach the testimony of our mouths. Celebration is a gift. It is also a discipline.

Lent is six weeks of preparation for Easter. The logic of Easter being a season is simple: If we fast for six weeks, we must celebrate the good news of Easter longer than we fasted. And so, in the church calendar, Easter is an eight-week season of celebration.

What is one step in your control that you can take to practice celebrating the resurrection during the eight week season of Easter? Particularly if you used discipline and practice in order to bring focus and intentionality to Lent, how can you use the same skills to bring focus and intentionality to rejoicing for a season and not just a moment?

May God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make us Easter people during this Season. May we practice celebration with discipline and with delight. It is not just a cliché, it is simply true:

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed.

May our lives outwardly conform to this reality.

Contextualization, The One Church Model, and The #UMC

Since the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, I have been wrestling with the suggestion by many of the top leaders in United Methodism that the deep disagreements in United Methodism about marriage and human sexuality ought to be resolved by locating them in the category of those things contextually determined. And now, contextualization seems to be a key area where the Commission on a Way Forward, which has just concluded its work together, and the Council of Bishops are focusing as they prepare to offer legislation for the 2019 General Conference.

The United Methodist Church would benefit from a careful and sustained conversation about what things are appropriately determined at the level of the local church, district, Annual Conference, etc. It would be even more helpful for The UMC to surface the values that inform these decisions. The UMC may even more desperately need clarity about what practices are binding on all, even when there is disagreement, and why. In our current moment, however, the urgent task before United Methodism is whether God’s design for and involvement in marriage is to be worked out at the level of the local church, various other regional levels, or the General Conference.

As I have read and considered the variety of proposals that would ultimately move disagreements about marriage and human sexuality from the General Conference level to lower levels of the church, I have become increasingly concerned about the integrity of the witness and ministry of United Methodism were such approaches to be enacted. Here is the way the “One Church Model” was described in a recent news release from the Council of Bishops:

The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.

I realize that the Council of Bishops is still deliberating and that the above news release does not represent a final or formal proposal from the Bishops. It is also only one of the two sketches that was provided. I also believe that the members of the Commission on a Way Forward and the moderators of the Commission have done their best, sacrificing time, energy, and resources, in order to serve the church. I am grateful for this work. What follows is an attempt to honor the work that has been done so far by giving it serious attention and consideration in hopes of serving the church that I love.

My deep concern with the One Church Model is that it would make it impossible for gays and lesbians to receive sound pastoral care across United Methodism. Christians who experience same sex attraction rightly seek their church’s guidance on how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ. Or, to put it in Wesleyan language, they want to know what “holiness of heart and life” looks like for them. The “One Church Model” suggests that divergent understandings of marriage would exist at different levels of United Methodism. This would mean that people who moved from one UMC to another might experience whiplash in the beliefs about marriage and the pastoral care they received as a result of those beliefs. The language from the press release suggests that it would be possible, for example, for decisions about same sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be made at the Annual Conference level of United Methodist polity. How, exactly, would it work when a United Methodist moves from an Annual Conference that has voted to officiate same sex marriages and has been legitimately married in a local church in that context to an Annual Conference that has voted to reaffirm the current United Methodist understanding of marriage? And how would the opposite scenario work? Would the gay Christian who chooses to embrace celibacy as a result of the ministry of a church that does not affirm gay marriage need to be convinced that his or her beliefs about marriage and sexuality were wrong when they moved to an Annual Conference that affirms gay marriage? Would they be able to be supported and affirmed in their own convictions?

These scenarios are deeply problematic for both pastoral care and church teaching. A church that were to adopt such an approach as its considered position would be offering such a confused and damaging witness to gay and lesbian Christians on the church’s understanding of marriage that it would be engaged in a kind of ecclesial malpractice.

The proposal that same sex marriage is a matter of contextualization is ultimately an argument that God’s best for you is dependent on where you live. If you live in a part of United Methodism where the majority affirms same sex marriage, then same sex marriage is God’s best for you. If you live in a part of United Methodism where the majority affirms the traditional understanding that marriage is between one man and one woman, then God’s best for you cannot include same sex marriage. This possibility is only even potentially intellectually satisfying if we are entirely focused on ourselves and doing whatever is necessary to fight for the survival of an institution. It is unsatisfying intellectually as soon as we turn from looking at ourselves and looking instead to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If the Council of Bishops wants to move the “One Church Model” forward, they need to offer United Methodists theologically sound reasons for why the church ought to view human sexuality as a contextual matter and not a matter of basic Christian faith and practice.

Another concern with proposals like the “One Church Model” is that they put the burden firmly on the individual to do their own work to figure out which kind of United Methodist Church one is considering, since there would no longer be consistent standards across United Methodism regarding Christian marriage. Would churches be required to clearly advertise their position on same sex marriage on their website and in their bulletin so first-time visitors would be spared the potential embarrassment of incorrect assumptions about the views of a particular local church? How would local churches be prepared and equipped to explain to laity the rationale for inconsistent views of marriage existing within one denomination?

One potential response to what I’m arguing is that this level of incoherence already exists in United Methodism. Many Bishops, Annual Conferences, pastors, and local churches refuse to abide by the polity of their own church. How is this different?

This is the very problem the Commission on a Way Forward is meant to resolve. The refusal to enforce The United Methodist Church’s teaching on marriage has been devastating to the unity of United Methodism. On Wesley’s understanding of schism, these actions are by definition schismatic (see Wesley’s sermon “On Schism”). But as problematic as these actions have been, offering an incoherent theology and practice of marriage as a denomination would be even worse. The contemporary UMC does have a consistent position on same sex marriage. The problem currently is a lack of adherence to the polity of the church, not an intentional embrace of an incoherent theology of marriage.

I’ve written elsewhere that on Wesley’s understanding The UMC is already in schism at the present moment due to the division within the church over same sex marriage. I also argued there that Wesley cannot be used in support of a vision of “unity that lacks specificity and conviction regarding God’s intention for Christian marriage.” We cannot preserve unity by sacrificing a commitment to a coherent doctrine and discipline (or beliefs and practice). Relativizing United Methodism’s understanding of Christian marriage based on context will not produce unity and it will result in unacceptable pastoral care for all people created in the image of God.

The Band Meeting: Now Available!

Scott Kisker and I have written a book, The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformational Community. The purpose of the book is to help people start a unique kind of small group. The book provides a theological and historical introduction to band meetings and the crucial role they played in the vitality of early Methodism. The band meeting was the key piece of the method of early Methodism where people pursued deep transformation in community by the grace of God.

Here is what key leaders are saying about the book:

In The Band Meeting, Drs. Watson and Kisker have made accessible to a wide audience a path, discipline, and practice for any and all who “expect to be made perfect in love in this life.” Thoughtfully weaving church history, Wesleyan theology, and personal testimony, the authors invite us one and all to shed our masks and superficiality. They graciously invite us to be clothed in the garments of spiritual intimacy. I pray for the faith to say yes.
Gregory Vaughn Palmer, Resident Bishop
Ohio West Episcopal Area—The United Methodist Church
West Ohio Conference UMC

The Band Meeting is a practical guide for authentic solidarity in Jesus. Biblically and theologically grounded, the text offers life-led examples and directions for intentional disciple living. For a true Wesleyan unity, built on Jesus-led community, this book is essential.
Dr. Vance P. Ross, Director
Annual Conference Relations
Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church

The band meeting was the primary engine of the Early Methodist Revival for discipleship and spiritual formation. Along the way, the band meeting for deeper discipleship has been obscured and confused with the class meeting, which provided initial small group spiritual direction for seekers. In this volume, The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformational Community, is new insight and power for making disciples of Jesus Christ who can make other disciples. This is a must-read for every pastor and small-group leader in the Wesleyan tradition.
Tom Albin, Executive Director
United Christian Ashrams

Our faith journey, in order to keep it healthy, is not traveled alone, but along with others of like mind through connection within communities. Many within our congregations suffer and hurt in silence because they lack this connection. The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformational Community provides a biblically based and experientially backed approach to Christian discipleship through small-group ministry. I recommend it highly to campus ministers, small-group leaders, and pastors desirous of enhancing the spiritual depth and maturity of their members through intentional intimacy with God and others. It is a relevant resource for my Spiritual Formation Class as we endeavor to strengthen small-group ministry at the Gbarnga School of Theology
Jerry P. Kulah, Dean
Gbarnga School of Theology
United Methodist University

The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformational Community is not for the faint-hearted! Indeed it is for those who desire to know more fully the freedom that comes from trusting God and a handful of other journeyers with the good, bad, and ugly of our deepest selves. After describing band meetings as the “engine of holiness” for early Methodism, authors Watson and Kisker make a compelling case for why participation in a band is an important tool of transformation for twenty-first-century Christ-followers.
Debbie Wallace-Padgett, Bishop
North Alabama Conference UMC

Many are trying to figure out how to reclaim the life-changing, world-altering secret of the Wesleyan movement. While it was and is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit borne out in the lives of every day Jesus-followers, the band meeting taught and modeled by the early Methodists provided the strength and accountability that led to vibrant faith in action. Historians and theologians Kevin Watson and Scott Kisker can help us recapture the essence of what gave Methodism the depth and vibrancy that changed the world in the eighteenth century through The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformational Community. I highly recommend it.
Jeff Greenway
Lead Pastor, Reynoldsburg UMC
Chair of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council

The Band Meeting is an essential text for the recovery of deep discipleship in the United Methodist Church. I recommend it strongly to any who are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord. The Band Meeting serves as volume two in making transformational disciples (building on Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting). Together in these pages we are offered an opportunity to reclaim the essence of the Wesleyan movement in transformative
discipleship.
Mike Lowry
Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference
of the United Methodist Church

The phrase in the first chapter “We are hardwired for connection” captured my imagination. I loved the journey through Scripture, history, theology, and experience on how to finally live out how God intended for humans to flourish. The Band Meeting does this along with very practical guides. I see this book as a catalyst for another great awakening across our globe.
Jo Anne Lyon
General Superintendent, Emerita, The Wesleyan Church

Throughout much of the Wesleyan world, we have lost a clear sense of what “social holiness” actually is and why it matters. In The Band Meeting, two of our best theological minds have collaborated to help us recover true social holiness through a practice often neglected today: the band meeting. I highly recommend this volume, which is clear and readable, historically informed, and theologically rich.
David F. Watson, PhD
Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Professor of New Testament, United Theological Seminary

In our age of digital disconnection, we need Christian practices of community more than ever. Watson and Kisker open up the practice of the band meeting in a way that will benefit the church as we seek to reconnect with each other and with God.
Beth Felker Jones
Professor of Theology, Wheaton College

The stunning success of early Methodism as a disciple-making movement was made possible because of Wesley’s genius in organizing believers into band meetings. Watson and Kisker have shown us the way back to our heritage as a transforming, disciple-making movement. The Band Meeting powerfully demonstrates that the band meeting is not merely another church program, but is ultimately the basic transformational community that enables us to be “saved to the uttermost.”
Will WillimonBishop UMC (retired)
Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, Duke Divinity School

I hope you will check out the book and spread the word!

My Struggle with Centrism #UMC

Since the 2015 Annual Conference season I have been wrestling with some basic questions: Should we take it for granted that the preservation of United Methodism is a foremost value? Is the Holy Spirit committed to preserving United Methodism under any circumstances? Should we be committed to defending the institution above all else? Is the division of United Methodism the greatest threat that United Methodists face?

arrows-2034025_1920

Actually, I’ve been chewing on these questions longer than that I suppose. My thinking was stimulated and challenged when I first came across Adam Hamilton’s Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. I remembered reading Hamilton’s Confronting the Controversies when I was in my first year of full-time ministry and admiring the clear and careful stances he took on controversial issues. When Seeing Gray came out, I was a bit perplexed and intrigued by the fairly significant change the title suggested. As I read the new book, I was a bit jarred that the overall argument seemed to be that being in the middle of extremes is predictably virtuous. He started the book off by asking if Jerry Falwell and John Shelby Spong were our only options? I remember thinking, of course they aren’t! But what does that establish?

As Hamilton applied the virtue of the gray to a variety of moral and ethical dilemmas, I felt increasingly troubled, particularly as I watched Hamilton’s writing influence the conversation in my own denomination (The United Methodist Church). Is the challenge The UMC faces really the need for more Christians in the middle? The impression I got from his comparison of Falwell and Spong was that Hamilton was suggesting our problem is we just don’t have enough reasonable and fair-minded people in the church. If I were to list the problems facing United Methodism, a lack of middle of the road consensus builders wouldn’t be anywhere near the top. In fact, I’m pretty sure I would argue that the opposite is a problem. We have too many people in key positions of leadership who are most concerned about being reasonable, not rocking the boat, and trying to hold a declining institution together.

The deeper problem I have with Hamilton’s approach, which he seems to have doubled down on since the initial publication of this book, is that there are many ethical issues that logically cannot have a middle ground. (Bill Arnold has made this argument convincingly in his response to Hamilton, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World.) Trying to see gray may sometimes work at an abstract 50,000 foot level. But it does not work very well when you are talking to a human being created in the image of God who is trying to discern whether they can do something with God’s blessing. The reality is it is often, though not always, an either or.

As time has gone by, I have come to increasingly see Hamilton’s work as a well-intentioned effort to save The United Methodist Church. He has been one of the most effective preachers, communicators, and leaders in recent American Methodist memory. I admire the time and energy Hamilton has poured into my church and the way he has taken stands based on his convictions, even if they led to uncharitable responses. I very much hope my engagement here does not fall into that category. I’ve wrestled with this for a long time, in many ways wanting to be convinced that he and those interested in centrism in the past few years are right.

I have finally had to admit that I am not convinced. I believe that a commitment to centrism as a principle would ultimately reinforce many of our worst instincts and neuter any spiritual vigor and vitality we have remaining. Here I should say that I have no idea to what extent Hamilton desires to be seen as a leader of more recent movements like the United Methodist Centrist Movement out of West Ohio. My sense is that the interest in centrism as a new sort of caucus group has at least partially been inspired by Hamilton’s advocacy and leadership.

Again, let me say that I am convinced that these people have good intentions. I believe that they truly love The United Methodist Church and want what is best for it. I struggle to understand their passion for being centrist. It does not strike me as sufficiently radical to be considered Wesleyan, or really in keeping with the deep witness of the history of Christianity. How many of the people who have been most influential in the history of Christianity would have been considered centrists in their lifetimes?

For Christians, there is no inherent value in being centrist. In fact, centrism is by definition an unstable concept that is fundamentally bound to the prevailing winds of culture. To be in the center, or the middle of extremes, you first have to know what the extremes are. And they are constantly changing. And then you have to move your beliefs and values to the center. This means that one’s beliefs and values are not first informed by Scripture, or the deep riches of the Christian tradition, but by one’s cultural context, whether it is accountable to the gospel or not.

I know I fail to live up to my own ideals. I am still pursuing growth in holiness. But I am convinced that faithfulness should trump centrism every time they come into conflict.

There is simply no way of knowing ahead of time that following Jesus will lead you between two extremes. And Christians should be committed to following Jesus, whether doing so means we receive the respect of the broader culture that comes from being a centrist, or whether we are despised by the culture we live within as radical extremists.

Put differently, I cannot imagine a reading of the Gospels that could convincingly argue that Jesus was a centrist. Centrists, after all, are rarely crucified.

 

Revival through Wesleyan Small Group Formation

On June 9, 2017, I spoke to the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church on small group formation in the Wesleyan tradition. The theme of the conference was “Revive Us Again.” The title of my presentation was “Revival through Wesleyan Small Group Formation.” Check out the video below to get my take on why small group formation is the key to the renewal of contemporary Christianity.

The presentation was divided into three main parts. First, I summarized Wesley’s use of Christian conferencing and clarified ways in which the phrase is used and misused in our current context. Christian conferencing, for Wesley, is one of five instituted means of grace. I defined Christian conferencing as the practice of cultivating growth in holiness in community through conversation about our experience of God. I suggested that the best examples of Christian conferencing in early Methodism were the class meeting and the band meeting.

Second, I situated the class meeting and the band meeting within Wesley’s understanding of social holiness, where we seek to become more like Jesus in community and not in isolation. I then defined and described the class meeting and band meeting in more detail and took the Annual Conference through a sprint through the theology that informed this method.

Finally, I described the importance of the class meeting in particular for early American Methodism and its explosive growth from the late 1700s through the first half of the 1800s. I also described the decline of the class meeting from the second half of the 1800s throughout the 1900s. The class meeting was the most important factor in the explosive growth of American Methodism and continues to be an essential practice for contemporary Christians.

If you are interested in starting a class meeting but would like some practical guidance for starting a group from scratch, please check out my book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.

Howard Snyder’s The Radical Wesley BOGO on Seedbed in August

Howard Snyder’s classic The Radical Wesley: The Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker is on special this month through Seedbed. If you buy a copy of the book, Seedbed will give a free copy to share (or sow to keep with their metaphor) with someone else. This one of the most important books I read in seminary. If you have not read it, I would highly recommend it. And this is a great time to pick up a copy for yourself and bless someone else with a copy.

Here is Seedbed’s own description of the book:

The Radical Wesley is not simply a biographical sketch of John Wesley. It’s much more than that. In this book, Howard Snyder skillfully takes Wesley’s model of small groups, circuit riders, societies, and lay leadership and uses it as an outline for analysis of church renewal through the centuries.

By understanding not only John Wesley’s methods, but also the motivations behind his decisions, we are able to start recasting the mold for a more biblical mentality and structure for church life and mission in our own homes, churches, communities, and world.
Grab your copy this month and receive a second copy free to share with someone else in your life!

Click here to get two copies of The Radical Wesley for the price of one!

La Reunión de Clase: The Class Meeting Now Available in Spanish

I am thrilled that Seedbed has just published a Spanish edition of The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. The title of the Spanish edition is La Reunión de Clase: Recuperando una experiencia de grupos pequeños olvidada (y esencial).

The need for this translation came through conversation with clergy in the Rio Texas Annual Conference of The UMC. In February 2016, I was invited to speak at the Bishop’s Convocation in Rio Texas on Christian conferencing and Wesleyan small group formation. During one question and answer session, there was a plea for my book on the class meeting to be made available to a broader audience through a Spanish translation. More conversation followed at the next break and I became increasingly excited by the desire for a resource to help Spanish speaking Methodists start class meetings. As a result of that conversation, I committed to plead with the publisher to consider a Spanish translation of the book.

It turned out I didn’t have to plead. The timing was ideal, as Seedbed had recently made a commitment to produce Spanish language resources for the broader Wesleyan/Methodist movement. (I was especially excited to see a Spanish edition of Howard Snyder’s The Radical Wesley, El Wesley Radical.) The folks at Seedbed readily agreed to get to work on a Spanish edition of the book.

I am grateful for Seedbed’s vision and commitment to providing Wesleyan resources for Spanish speaking communities and look forward to seeing what God has in store.

If you know a pastor or lay leader who might be interested in this resource, I would be so grateful if you would help me get the word out. Thank you!

One Faith, Different Understandings: A Response to Interpreter

Edit: Interpreter magazine has revised the online article here and published a correction in the July-August 2017 issue here. I am grateful for the time the editors put into addressing my concerns about the initial article.

I was discouraged to read “One faith, different understandings” published in the May-June 2017 issue of Interpreter. I was interviewed for this article about two months ago. At the end of the interview, I asked to read a complete draft of the article before it was published. I said that I recognized the author was on a tight deadline and promised to respond within a few business days, or she was free to send it on for publication. I did not see or hear anything more about this article until I started receiving emails and messages from people asking me about my quotes in it this week.

This is particularly frustrating to me because I tried to be clear about my perspective when I received the interview request, which started with this question: “To begin, perhaps we can agree that the Methodist quadrilateral unites United Methodists. Describe the quadrilateral’s role in denominational life.” I responded to this email as follows:

Reading your questions, however, I may not be helpful to the direction you are going with your article. I see the quadrilateral as probably more of the problem to the disunity of The UMC than a way of providing unity. I think it became, in some ways despite Albert Outler’s wishes, a way of legitimizing coming to different – and at times mutually incompatible – understandings of theology and practice in one denomination. I would also be fairly adamant that the quadrilateral is not theology proper. Rather, it is a method for doing theology – and one that, again, virtually guarantees different conclusions (and that is almost always misused).

I have done some writing about the quadrilateral on my personal blog. These pieces may help you discern whether I would be of help to you in the story you are working on.

Experience in the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”

More on Experience in the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”

United Methodist Doctrine: That 70s Show?

Again, happy to talk if that is helpful to you. I also understand if you determine that my thinking on this would not help in the article that you are writing.

Two quotes in the article, in particular, suggest that I support the big-tent vision for United Methodism that started with Albert Outler at the beginnings of The UMC and is being aggressively advocated today by many United Methodist Bishops and other key denominational leaders.

The article begins by listing a number of random facts about United Methodism. These facts are followed by the question: “Do those differences have to be sources of division?” The article introduces me for the first time after asking this question. It states:

Within United Methodism are Christians rooted in mainline Protestantism, the Holiness Movement and everything in between, says the Rev. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies at Candler School of Theology. Essentially every denomination connected to John Wesley and Methodism is “represented in the United Methodist denomination.” [I am leaving the lack of quotation marks etc. as they are in the article published online.]

Immediately after this, Tamara Lewis, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology is quoted, “The core of United Methodism even going back to Wesley is unity in diversity.” I do not share this understanding of our Wesleyan heritage, and said as much multiple times in the interview. (To be fair, Lewis may also feel that her remarks were taken out of context and used in a way that distort her meaning.) Either way, the transition between these two quotes gives no indication that I would disagree with the second, and seems to me to suggest that I agree with it.

Later the article states:

Throughout the church, Lewis said, theological differences on questions of homosexual leadership in the church or other interpretations and understandings of Scripture “do not have to divide Methodism as in splitting the church institutionally. I don’t think these questions have to make or break us if we follow Wesley’s lead.”

Watson likens the denomination to a big tent. “We keep moving the tent poles as wide as we have to make sure that anyone who is part of it or wants to be part of it can be,” he said.

In my description, I was saying that the tendency to keep moving the tent poles was a liability of United Methodism, neither a source of strength nor faithful to our Wesleyan heritage. I believe that for Wesley unity was the product of a firm commitment to a particular set of beliefs and practice (a doctrine and discipline). Wesley would not, and we should not, put institutional unity above a particular understanding of “holiness of heart and life.”

My words were not used in a way that accurately reflect the interview I gave, what I believe is true of our history, or what I believe is at stake for The United Methodist Church today. Since the print version of the magazine is already out, I am publishing my response here to clarify what I believe. I hope that Interpreter will publish a correction to this article online and in their next print issue.