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“In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 1

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. - Bishop Mike Lowry Part I: “I am Doing a New Thing!” It is indeed a high honor to stand before you this day and address some of the issues that confront us as a larger church. As I do so, I am reminded of a story that one of our truly outstanding preachers, Dr. Zan Holmes, shared on one occasion. He told of a man who survived the Great Johnstown Flood. Historians in our group may recall well that this great flood took place on Friday, May 1, 1889, unleashing something like 20 million tons of water that devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the flood killed 2,209 people. In the midst of the tragedy, not only our nation but the world was brought together to aid the “Johnstown sufferers.” The site is now actually a part of the National Park Service. At any rate, a survivor of the Great Flood finally died of old age and went to heaven. There he was greeted by St. Peter and ushered through the Pearly Gates. As he looked around, he said, “You know I am one of the few survivors of the Great Johnstown Flood. People need to hear my story.” And Peter answered, “Well that’s very nice, thank you, but I don’t think so. Everyone has a story.” However, the guy wouldn’t let it go. He bugged St. Peter. He talked to Jesus about it. He constantly shared his unshakable conviction that he had to tell people in heaven about his miraculous survival of the Great Johnstown Flood. Finally, with the Lord’s permission, Peter gathered together a huge crowd in heaven to hear the man address them on surviving the Johnstown flood. As the guy got ready to step on stage before the packed heavenly auditorium of millions, Peter turned to him and said, “By the way, remember that Noah is in the audience.” “I am doing a new thing!”  I feel somewhat like that man in addressing this distinguished gathering. Noah is in the audience. I’ve had the privilege of studying and being mentored by so many of you in your teachings and writings that it is difficult to adequately express my gratitude and debt. Even more, as we seek to address the topic of “The Future of The United Methodist Church,” I am made doubly mindful of the great cry that rose around Johnstown as the water went up behind the Southfork Dam – “The Dam is becoming dangerous and may possibly go!” We gather with that same cry ringing around us. So it is that “now we see in a mirror dimly” both the future of The United Methodist Church and the re-emergence of a vibrant orthodoxy in the North American mission field. Counterintuitively, while the dam is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism simultaneously something remarkable, and remarkably good, is taking place.  God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 spring to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.” You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of orthodoxy budding around us, of which this gathering is evidence. Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, causing heartache and much anxiety but this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy. Consider some of the antidotal evidence:
  • Seminaries which focus on orthodoxy are showing growth, especially in young people.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes.
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the work of Dallas Willard among many others offers a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically-centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidenced by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and many of you is another sign of the reemergence of interest in theological orthodoxy. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity. It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • The search and experimentation for “something more” being conducted on the edge of Methodism offers a further hint both at the hunger for substance and the slowly awakening conviction that the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and an uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary). We are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is inherently emaciated and entering a death spiral.
  • The growing sense among some bishops that we work side by side with two kinds of churches offers evidence of new day dawning. One kind of church is the fading, declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) and the other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. By very nature such a church, grounded in the gospel, instinctively understands that doctrine and practice cannot be separated. Furthermore the emerging church is passionately, outwardly focused in way that is evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.
  • The rise in a new generation of young scholars committed to an orthodox witness of the Christian faith speaks to the awakening orthodoxy which this group (United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy) represents. But then I am back where I started.
I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture. Rather than an excessive focus on gender preferences, I want to argue that we have been engaged as a denomination in extended affairs with various new versions of heresy. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Missional plagiarism, political infatuations of both the right and the left iced over with a prosperity gospel which surreptitiously tugs at the heart of the crumbling mainline edifice.  (With regard to the prosperity gospel, consider the casual embrace of financial resources and upper middle class status that accompany the hidden assumptions of virtually all United Methodists including myself.) Alister McGrath rightly notes: “Heresy was a flawed, deficient, anemic, and inauthentic form of Christian faith that was inevitably doomed to extinction in the pluralist and intensely competitive world of late classical antiquity.” And we should carefully add, in the pluralistic and intensely competitive world of the early 21st century.  He continues, “Orthodoxy had greater survival potential, prompting a ‘search for authenticity’ as a means of safeguarding its future.” The new or more accurately renewed Church which the Lord is calling into being out of the old “mainline” will be smaller, learner and more doctrinally coherent. We will recover, we are recovering, some sense of what it means to say Jesus is Lord and to assert core doctrines of incarnation, sin, justification and sanctification (to mention a few).  I have come slowly, painfully to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving us away from a “Big Tent” Methodism (and “big tent” Christianity) which enjoys periodic affairs with heretical suitors into a new movement of faithfulness and fruitfulness in the name of our Lord.  But then, I am ahead myself.

More in the next installment of this four part series…