Monday, December 12, 2011

Heavenly Rewards

Wesley's list of Prudential Means includes self-denial and cross carrying as disciplines that usually help Christians to grow in grace.  These means of grace are drawn from Matthew 16: 24 (parallels in Luke 9:23 and Mark 8:34), "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  In his comment on this verse, Wesley taught that these disciplines are steps that help us advance towards perfection.  His doctrinal sermon on this topic explains that failure to use these means of grace frequently leads to backsliding.

In a non-doctrinal sermon, Wesley argued that, in heaven, those who denied themselves and took up their crosses will be "more excellent" Christians and will have more stars in their crown than the lower order of Christians who only followed the General Rules.

I have not found anything in the UM doctrinal standards that describe the nature of the heavenly rewards.  Speculating on what the rewards will be is not a preoccupation of UM doctrine.  For Wesley, Rev. 22:12 ("Behold I come quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every one as his work shall be.") was clear and required no elaboration.

Is the notion that works do not merit salvation but do merit some type of heavenly reward, which will be proportionally (not equally) distributed, intelligible to you?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Judgement Day

After the description of the signs and wonders that will precede the Return of Christ, doctrinal Sermon 15 presents a brief description of the Day of Judgement, and doctrinal sermon 51 provides even more details.  (Another doctrinal standard United Methodists can reference is Article 12 of the Confession of Faith, "The Judgement and the Future State")

As the title of sermon 51 ("The Good Steward") indicates, the judgement will focus on humanity's stewardship of their God-given gifts.  Wesley's sermons suggest that a face-to-face conversation will take place between Christ and each individual at which time Christ will ask everyone such questions as:
How didst thou employ thy soul?
How didst thou employ the body wherewith I entrusted thee?
How didst thou employ the worldly goods which I lodged in thy hands?
Hast thou been a wise and faithful steward with regard to the talents of a mixed nature (i.e., health, strength, time, power, influence, education) which I lent thee?
Above all, wast thou a good steward of my grace?
When all of these interviews are completed, each person's fate will then be decided-- the righteous to eternal life with God and the unrighteous to eternal separation from God.  (See also Notes, Matthew 25)

Wesley's conception of Judgement Day sounds like one long class meeting, or maybe I should say Wesley's practice of class meetings sounds like preparation for the Last Judgement.  Class members were asked how they had employed their souls.  Their answer to that question determined whether they were given an admission ticket to the Methodist Society or were shut out of the society at the next Quarterly Conference.

Methodist accountability pointed towards divine accountability.  What holds you accountable today?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Return of Christ

United Methodists can consult four doctrinal standards to discover the UM teaching regarding the Return of Christ: Article III in the Articles of Religion, Article III in the Confession of Faith, Wesley’s doctrinal sermon “The Great Assize,” and Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament.

The Articles simply state that Christ will return to judge humanity.

Sermon 15 describes the signs that will immediately occur before Christ’s Return, events which are also mentioned in the Notes:

1.  From Acts 2:19 and Luke 21:11, Wesley concluded that worldwide earthquakes will precede the Second Coming. These global earthquakes will generate destructive waves (Luke 21:25). Not only the earth and the water but also the air will be affected-- it will be filled with dark mist, lightening, and thunder. Finally, the appearance of the sun and the moon will change and the stars will fall (Luke 21:25, 26, Acts 2: 20, and Rev. 6:13).

2.  After these global and cosmic disturbances a universal shout will be heard, the archangel will announce Christ’s approach, and the trumpet of God will sound (1 Thess. 4:16).

3.  Next, the dead will be raised (Rev. 20:13), and the angels will gather together Christ’s followers (Matt. 24:31).

4.  After all these signs and wonders, then Christ will appear in glory (Matt 25: 31).

The implication of this doctrine for Wesley? He related it to one of the Fruitful Means of Grace mentioned in the 'Large' Minutes-- “watching. . . . Do you steadily watch against the world, the devil, yourselves, your besetting sin?” (See Notes, Luke 21:36).

Wesley's writings present the prospect of Christ's Return and Judgement as a motivation for using the Means of Grace.  What motivates your spiritual discipline?

Monday, October 24, 2011

2012 Discipleship Plan

Working on my Disciple-Making plan was a pleasant part of getting ready for this year's Charge Conference. It feels good to get ideas down on paper. Of course, these goals and plans are open to revision. This is more of a plan of experimentation. If the plan doesn't work, if it doesn't make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then I will have no qualms about tossing part or all of it. It's the mission that matters, not the means to that end.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Beatitudes 1 & 2

In his doctrinal writings, Wesley described the Beatitudes as the "steps in Christianity" or the method that one should follow to attain present and eternal happiness (Sermon 21, pars. 3 and I.1, and Notes, Matt 5:2).  The following sermon is based on Sermon 21, Wesley's discourse on the Poor in Spirit and those who Mourn.  I have tried to express Wesley's concepts in contemporary language.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cosmic Providence

DARPA hosted a starship symposium last week.  That's right, they want to build a starship, and they are bringing together scientists and engineers to discuss how to develop the necessary technology.  While DARPA designs plasma shields and interstellar light bulbs for its ship, I'm contemplating the doctrinal implications for the crew who will be worshiping the Creator within an unnatural environment. 

Reflecting on God's works was one of the ways that Christians exercised stewardship over the soul's capacity for understanding Wesley argued in his doctrinal sermon on the Last Judgment, Sermon 51, par. III.3.  This includes striving to know that God providentially gives us Life and Breath.

How does the crew of a submarine understand this aspect of providence when for them each breath depends upon technology designed by people?  And how much more dependent on human ingenuity will those on the starship feel?  What does a work of Providence look like in space?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The new book market

I've signed a contract with Wipf & Stock to publish my book The Form and Power of Religion: John Wesley on Methodist Vitality, and I've created a separate page on this blog where I'll reflect on the publishing process.  One step in this process involves identifying academic journals and professional periodicals that will review the book.  I'm interested in knowing your e-sources for book reviews.  What online sites do you visit for book recommendations?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Soul at Worship

My thanks to Rev. Russ Tompkins (senior pastor at St. James UMC in Bellevue, NE) for the tour of his church sites.  Russ shared the theory of experiential worship that informs his approach to contemporary worship, and I'm intrigued by the definition of the soul that undergirds this theory.

Quoting Mark 12:30, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength," this approach to worship seeks to include elements that will engage the intellect (mind), body (strength), emotions (soul), and choices (heart).  These "four levels of human experience" are some what comparable to the theory of the soul (the embodied functions of understanding, will, affections, and liberty) implicit in Wesley's doctrinal writings.

Notice that in place of the word Soul the experiential worship philosophy uses the term Human Experience.  This raises two questions for me--
What meaning will people take away from a statement like "Jesus redeems Human Experience"?
Are there only four levels to human experience?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Hermeneutical Rule

     Every verse of Scripture could be interpreted according to the Analogy of Faith, in Wesley's opinion.  Dr. Maddox associates four doctrines with Wesley's interpretive key:  natural corruption, justification, regeneration, and sanctification.  I would extend this list by one more category-- Eternal Happiness.
     The themes of sin, sanctification, and heaven are evident in Wesley's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, for example:
Notes, Mt 5:3-- The poor in spirit - They who are unfeignedly penitent, they who are truly convinced of sin; who see and feel the state they are in by nature, being deeply sensible of their sinfulness, guiltiness, helplessness. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven - The present inward kingdom: righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, as well as the eternal kingdom, if they endure to the end.
The connection between justification and heaven is made in Wesley's note for John 10:26-28:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, &c. - Our Lord still alludes to the discourse he had before this festival. As if he had said, My sheep are they who, Hear my voice by faith; Are known (that is, approved) by me, as loving me; and Follow me, keep my commandments, with a believing, loving heart.
And to those who, Truly believe (observe three promises annexed to three conditions) I give eternal life. He does not say, I will, but I give. For he that believeth hath everlasting life. Those whom, I know truly to love me, shall never perish, provided they abide in my love. Those who follow me, neither men nor devils can pluck out of my hand. My Father who hath, by an unchangeable decree, given me all that believe, love, and obey, is greater than all in heaven or earth, and none is able to pluck them out of his hand.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Daily Bread

The commentary in the Wesley Study Bible for Matthew 6:11 and Luke 11:3, "Give us this/each day our daily bread," does not reflect John Wesley's interpretation of these texts in his Notes on the New Testament.  The Abingdon commentary focuses on the practical need for physical sustenance.  Wesley commented on the need for physical and spiritual nourishment:

Matthew 6:11
Abingdon -- "Daily bread" acknowledges the reality of an agrarian society in which economic distress is a daily reality.
Note -- our daily bread - All things needful for our souls and bodies: not only the meat that perisheth, but the sacramental bread, and thy grace, the food which endureth to everlasting life.
Luke 11:1-4 
Abingdon -- the need for physical bread is first
Note -- Who asks for no more of this world than his daily bread, longing meantime for the bread that came down from heaven
A footnote indicates that "epiousion" has been translated as both "daily" and "tomorrow," however the Abingdon commentary obscures the debate over the meaning of the word.  The ambiguous meaning of this infrequently used word allowed early interpreters to see this as a petition for the bread of this world and as a request for the bread of the coming Kingdom of God.  I prefer Wesley's commentary to Abingdon's in this case because of it's consistency with early church tradition. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vital Congregation Planning Guide

The Planning Guide is out and it is essentially the same as the proposed workbook released at the beginning of the year with a few sections added.  A new section on the Wesleyan Means of Grace is now included, the suggestions for beginning the planning process with prayer, worship, and Bible study have been expanded, and questions on Purpose, Principles, Promise, and People precede the section on metrics.  These changes, along with the area of the Vital Congregations website where churches can share their stories of success in ministry, indicate to me that UM Leaders are trying to expand the definition of effective ministry to include spiritual growth and not just numerical increases.

To strengthen the website's discuss of small group accountability I offer this section from John Wesley's  Journal as one standard to which group members can hold one another accountable:
October 14, 1738, "Examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith." Now the surest test whereby we can examine ourselves, whether we be indeed in the faith, is that given by St. Paul: "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
First: His Judgments are new: His judgment of himself, of happiness, of holiness. He judges himself to be altogether fallen short of the glorious image of God. To have no good thing abiding in him; but all that is corrupt and abominable: in a word, to be wholly earthly, sensual, and devilish ;—a motley mixture of beast and devil. Thus, by the grace of God in Christ, I judge of myself. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature. Again: His judgment concerning happiness is new. He would as soon expect to dig it out of the earth, as to find it in riches, honour, pleasure, (so called,) or indeed in the enjoyment of any creature: he knows there can be no happiness on earth, but in the enjoyment of God, and in the foretaste of those " rivers of pleasure which flow at his right hand for evermore." Thus, by the grace of God in Christ, I judge of happiness. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature. Yet again : His judgment concerning holiness is new. He no longer judges it to be an outward thing: to consist either in doing no harm, in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. He sees it is the life of God in the soul; the image of God fresh stamped on the heart; an entire renewal of the mind in every temper and thought, after the likeness of him that created it., Thus, by the grace of God in Christ, I judge of holiness. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature.
Secondly: His Designs are new. It is the design of his life, not to heap up treasures upon earth, not to gain the praise of men, not to indulge the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; but to regain the image of God; to have the life of God again planted in his soul; and to be " renewed after his likeness, in righteousness and true holiness." This, by the grace of God in Christ, is the design of my life. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature.
Thirdly : His Desires are new; and, indeed, the whole train of his passions and inclinations. They are no longer fixed on earthly things. They are now set on the things of heaven. His love, and joy, and hope, his sorrow, and fear, have all respect to things above. They all point heavenward. Where his treasure is, there is his heart also. I dare not say 1 am a new creature in this respect. For other desires often arise in my heart; but they do not reign. I put them all under my feet, "through Christ which strengtheneth me." Therefore I believe he is creating me anew in this also; and that he has begun, though not finished, his work.
Fourthly: His Conversation is new. It is always "seasoned with salt," and fit to "minister grace to the hearers." So is mine, by the grace of God in Christ. Therefore in this respect, I am a new creature.
Fifthly: His Actions are new. The tenor of his life singly points at the glory of God. All his substance and time are devoted thereto. Whether he eats or drinks, or whatever he does, it either springs from, or leads to, the love of God and man. Such, by the grace of.God in Christ, is the tenor of my life. Therefore, in this respect, I am a new creature. But St. Paul tells us elsewhere, that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, peace, joy, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, temperance." Now although, by the grace of God in Christ, I find a measure of some of these in myself; namely, of peace, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, temperance ; yet others I find not. I cannot find in myself the love of God, or of Christ. Hence my deadness and wanderings in public prayer: hence it is, that even in the holy communion I have frequently no more than a cold attention.
Again: I have not that joy in the Holy Ghost; no settled, lasting joy. Nor have I such a peace as excludes the possibility either of fear or doubt. When holy men have told me I had no faith, I have often doubted whether I had or no. And those doubts have made me very uneasy, till I was relieved by prayer and the Holy Scriptures. Yet, upon the whole, although I have not yet that joy in the Holy Ghost, nor the full assurance of faith, much less am I, in the full sense of the words, "in Christ a new creature." I nevertheless trust that I have a measure of faith, and am "accepted in the Beloved:" I trust, "the hand-writing that was against me is blotted out;" and that I am "reconciled to God" through his Son.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Natural Corruption

Article VII - Of Original or Birth Sin
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.

This quote is taken from the United Methodist Articles of Religion and is part of the standards that define United Methodist Doctrine.  In trying to explain natural corruption in a way that is in keeping with our Doctrinal Standards and that is intelligible to a lay audience, I came up with the following sermon:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Exercise the Presence?

Wesley listed “exercise the presence of God” as a Means of Grace and posed two questions to his preaching assistants that provide some guidance regarding how to practice this spiritual discipline: “Do you endeavour to set God always before you? To see his Eye continually fixt upon you?”

Unlike other Means of Grace, this one is not discussed in Wesley’s sermons.  His Christian Library does include a section on practicing the presence of God that is taken from Jeremy Taylor’s book Holy Living.

Chapter 1, Sect. III, “Practice of the Presence of God,” includes this passage: "Let every thing you see represent to your spirit the presence, the excellency and the power of God, and let your conversation with the creatures lead you unto the Creator; for so shall your actions be done more frequently with an actual eye to God’s presence, by your often seeing him in the glass of the creation.” (vol. 16, page 22)

This sounds similar to sentiments Wesley expressed in Sermon 23 where he interpreted the Beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8):
But the great lesson which our blessed Lord inculcates here, and which he illustrates by this example, is, that God is in all things, and that we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature; that we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism; but, with a true magnificence of thought, survey heaven and earth, and all that is therein, as contained by God in the hollow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is, in a true sense, the soul of universe (par. 11).
Granted, the relationship is indirect, nevertheless I think it’s fair to say that one of the ways we can exercise the presence of God is by contemplating the Natural World as the Creation of God, that this practice can be a means of conveying God’s grace to us, and that this exercise is an aspect of Wesleyan Spirituality.

I’d be glad to receive feedback from those who think more evidence is needed to support this reading of Wesley.

Addendum:  Alban Weekly has an article on Practicing the Presence in Ministry.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Clergy Health

Professor Henry Rack is the editor of volume 10, and his introductions and commentaries provide a very helpful overview of the different types of Minutes that were published by Wesley.  The 1780 version of the 'Large' Minutes may be of most interest to United Methodists as this document was the basis of the first American Book of Discipline.

As Rack explains, the earliest edition of the 'Large' Minutes was the Disciplinary Minutes (the Doctrinal and Disciplinary Minutes were published as separate tracts in 1749).  The pamphlet on Methodist doctrine was not revised, unlike the one on discipline which was edited six different times during Wesley's lifetime (1753, 1763, 1770, 1772, 1780, and 1789).

Many of the sections found in earlier editions are retained in the 1780 discipline including a brief history of Methodism, policies on field preaching, rules on society membership, suggestions for class leaders, guidelines for home visitations, and a job description for preachers.

New sections on nervous disorders , fasting, guidelines on singing, polity related to preaching houses and the General Fund, and the dangers of Calvinism are added in 1780.

The section on nervous disorders reflects Wesley's interest in medicine.  It begins with a question. "What reasons can be assigned why so many of our preachers contract nervous disorders?"  Wesley then summarizes the opinion of the eighteenth-century British physician William Cadogan who concluded that the principle causes of nervous disorders were indolence and intemperance.  Wesley applied Cadogan's theory to the preachers and accused them of not getting enough exercise, eating too much, and sleeping too long.  As a cure Wesley's advised them to "(1) Take as little meat, drink, and sleep as nature will bear; and (2) Use full as much exercise daily as they did before they were preachers."

Two things jumps out at me in this section.  First, the assumption that physical health and mental well-being are inter-related and second, Wesley's silence on spiritual health and maturation as a necessary factor in maintaining a sound mental state.  (Maybe the need for spiritual exercises was so obvious to him that it didn't occur to Wesley that he needed to mention it?)

What would a disciplinary section on clergy health (physical, mental, and spiritual) look like today?  My guess-- it would be part of the standard used to declare a minister ineffective and unfit for appointment.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Doctrinal Minutes

With the publication of volume 10 of Wesley's Works, United Methodists now have access to a succinct summary of the doctrine that Wesley and his assistants agreed to teach in the Methodist preaching houses.  The theological principles discussed in the Doctrinal Minutes are the same as those set forth in the Doctrinal Standards (the first four volumes of Sermons on Several Occasions and the Notes on the New Testament), however at approximately 29 pages this statement of Methodist belief is a much quicker read than the others. 

The main doctrines covered in the Minutes are justification and sanctification with a very brief section on ecclesiology (pp. 783-785).  Various aspects of justification (e.g., what does salvation by faith mean?  what is assurance?) and of sanctification (e.g., how do we increase in holiness?  what is entire sanctification?) are dealt with in a question and answer format.  The answers are brief, at most a paragraph in length, and for that reason provide an introductory overview of Wesleyan theology. 

The Doctrinal Minutes are a summary of theological conversations Wesley had with his preachers at Conferences held from 1744 to 1747.  If United Methodist doctrine were to be discussed at your Annual Conference what doctrines would you want to cover?  How would the "official" United Methodist position on a particular doctrine be determined?  Is this something you would like to see happen at your Annual Conference?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Means of Grace

     The critical edition of Wesley's Conference Minutes was just released by Abingdon Press (Works, v. 10).  At 1046 pages this is more of a reference book than a reading book.  To facilitate use of this volume my blog posts will point out sections that I have found particularly helpful in the hopes that others will as well once they know where to look.
     Starting with the 1763 edition, the 'Large' Minutes contains Wesley's most complete* list of Instituted and Prudential Means of Grace. Several of his sermons discuss the Means of Grace, but for the full list you will want to refer to this new volume.  Unlike the sermons, the commentary on each Means is brief so reading the Minutes in conjunction with the sermons is advisable.
     I've outlined Wesley's Means of Grace below because I think it would be a helpful guide for Covenant Discipleship groups.  Each member of the group could pick one of the Means and practice it until the next meeting.  Then when the group meets again everyone could report on how often they used their Mean and discuss whether or not it was a means that conveyed God's grace to them.  This is an eighteenth-century document after all.  Wesley's list may need to be adapted for current contexts.  Did the spiritual exercise that you find the most beneficial make the list?

Large Minutes (1763), pp. 855-858, [§40.1-7]
I. Instituted Means
A. Prayer
B. Searching the Scripture
C. The Lord’s Supper
D. Fasting
E. Christian Conference: (i.e., holy conversations--  “Is it always in Grace?  Seasoned with Salt?  Meet to minister Grace to the Hearers?”)
II. Prudential Means
  1. Common Christian Means: rules for avoiding evil, doing good, growing in grace, arts of holy living
  2. Methodist Means: society, class, band meetings
  3. Preacher Means: meet with society, leaders, bands, visit the sick and well, instructing in homes, relative duties
  4. Assistant Means: regulate the societies, bands, and books. hold watch-nights, love feasts, and quarterly examinations. Send Wesley account of preachers’ defects
  5. Fruitful Means: watching, self-denial, taking up our Cross, exercise the presence of God
These instructions remain the same in the 1770-1772 editions of the Large Minutes ([§44.1-7]) and are slightly revised in the 1780-1789 editions ([§48.1-7]).

*The only category missing from this list is Works of Mercy.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Worldwide Book of Discipline

The Study Committee on The Worldwide Nature Of The Church has posted a proposed General Conference petition on their website.  The accompanying press release explains that the intention of the petition is to streamline The Book of Discipline by identifying the sections that apply to the entire denomination and the sections that can be adapted to better fit regional contexts.

Reading about the committee's work has motivated me to get to work on an article idea I've been contemplating for more than a year.  I read The Book of Discipline through an interpretive framework I call the Six P's of United Methodist Polity.  Every paragraph of the BOD can fit into at least one of these six categories:
  1. Principles-- Many sections of the BOD begin with a statement on UM theology or principles.  For example, ¶701 is a statement on the principle of connectionalism.  Of course all of Part II and Part IV could be included in this category.  Every paragraph that reflects on UM theology should be retained in the worldwide BOD.  Paragraphs on social principles could be adapted by regions.
  2. Plan-- The Organizational Plan of the UMC at the General, Central, Jurisdictional, Annual, District, and Local levels is set out in the BOD.  The paragraphs in the Constitution should apply to the whole denomination.  Regions should be able to design an organizational structure that enhances ministry in their unique settings.
  3. Purpose-- Part III begins with a statement of purpose, ¶120 "The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."  The purpose served by local church committees and General Agencies is also detailed in the BOD.  As long as a purpose statement is consistent with the general mission of the UMC, regions should be able to edit paragraphs related to the purpose of the various parts of their organizational structure.
  4. Personnel-- The make-up of the different committees of the church is stipulated in the BOD.  These paragraphs identify who should be on the committees, the ratio of men and women, young adults, and youth that should constitute the membership of a committee.  A general statement on the principle of inclusive personnel should apply to the entire denomination.
  5. Powers-- After identifying an organizational entity of the church, its purpose and personnel, paragraphs then follow that explain the group's authority, for example ¶1303 explains the objectives of the General Board of Global Ministries.  Similar to the paragraphs on Plan, each region should write its own paragraphs on the powers of the committees that constitute the organizational plan at the regional through local level.
  6. Procedure-- My impression is that most of the paragraphs in the BOD deal with the procedures a group is to follow in order to fulfill its responsibilities, however I have not counted to what percentage of the paragraphs would be a part of this category.  I find the Procedures paragraphs to be the most contingent.  Perhaps a general statement on the principle of transparency could apply to every level of the church.  A detailed, step-by-step set of instructions that tells a group how it is to carry out its work is impractical and can hinder rather than help ministry initiatives.
When I write my article (!) I will focus on the Procedure paragraphs, discuss their purpose and function in the BOD, and recommend ways to shorten these sections and thus reduce the size of the Book of Discipline.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Moral Psychology

In the article "Reconnecting the Means to the End," Dr. Randy Maddox uses the term "Moral Psychology" instead of "The Soul" when discussing the faculties of the Understanding, Will, Affections, and Liberty.  Unsurprisingly given this framework, his thesis equates spiritual maturation with ethical development and focuses on Christ as Moral Exemplar.  There is no place for the role of Faith in this presentation of Christianity, which seems like a lot to give up just to modernize our vocabulary.

A very helpful historiography is included in the article, one which describes what happened in the nineteenth century as Methodists discarded Wesley's conception of the Soul for more contemporary theories.  The debate became fixated on whose argument was the most accurate rather than on whose argument produced the most fruit (i.e., mature Christians).

This history lesson is a reminder that merely swapping out Wesley's terms for something more trendy will not give me a Wesleyan theology if the goal that motivated Wesley's ministry is overshadowed in the revision process.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Church Top Three

This past year I have had the chance to visit many different churches, and I came away from the experience with a clearer sense of what I need from a church-- Praise-filled Worship, Small Groups, and Community Outreach.
  • Praise-filled Worship: I get the most out of worship services where the congregation comes together to praise, give thanks, and acknowledge God as the source of all that is good in their lives. 
  • Small Groups: Meeting with other Christians for prayer, Bible Study, and accountability is crucial to my ability to live out the good gifts I have been given and share them with others. 
  • Community Outreach: I can not say enough about how meaningful I find it to be part of a church that is in ministry to its neighbors.  
In July, I will become the pastor of First UMC in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and I am eager to talk to my parishioners and learn their Church Top Three list.  From my communications with them thus far I know that they also value works of piety and works of mercy.  I look forward to sharing in these Means of Grace with them.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Marks for the Interim Operations Team

Ah, the luxury of a blank screen.  Blogger presents me with just such a screen when I click on "Posting," and I am free to fill this space with whatever thoughts occur to me as I mull over Wesley's relevance for today.  The page is uncluttered.  Within its margins I can adapt Wesley in ways that seem logical and fair and accurate to me without compromising my vision.  I don't have to take anything else into consideration-- not a budget, not a structure, not a staff-- my brainstorming is unfettered by preexisting realities.

The news coming out of the Council of Bishops made me realize that the Interim Operations Team does not enjoy the same luxury.  They are adapting the budget, structure, and staff of the General Church.  They are not going to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.  They are overhauling the current apparatus.

Judging by the press release, the goal "to better align the agencies toward fostering vital congregations" seems to be the criteria guiding the IOT in its task.  The news story does not make clear how the IOT is going to determine which aspects of the general agencies' programs promote vitality in congregations and which do not nor does it define vitality.  Maybe injecting a Wesleyan perspective into this blank space will help.

I have found one of Wesley's doctrinal sermons a helpful reflection on the components of Christian vitality.  The sermon addresses individuals not institutions, nevertheless I think Wesley's standard can be used to evaluate any level of Church structure.  So as more reports come out of the IOT/COB/CT/GCFA, I will be evaluating the recommendations and asking myself the question-- is this likely to promote Faith, Hope and Love (1 Cor. 13:13)?

These three marks of the New Birth are discussed in Sermon 18, and for Wesley they represent the defining traits of mature Christians:
Faith "is not a bare assent to this proposition, 'Jesus Christ is the Lord;' nor indeed to all the propositions contained in our creed, or in the Old and New Testament."  Faith is "a disposition which God hath wrought in [the] heart; 'a sure trust and confidence in God that through the merits of Christ [our] sins are forgiven, and [we are] reconciled to the favor of God'." (par. I.2, 3).  The fruits of Christian faith are a gracious power to resist harmful temptations and an experience of peace (par. I.4-7).

Hope is a sense of assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither suffering, nor crosses nor trials nor afflictions nor death (par. II).

Love for God and Neighbor is the final mark of Christian vitality.  This love motivates the Christian to conform to God's will, especially to the command to do good in the world (par. III).

The IOT can observe which congregations are doing good and might notice when love of Neighbor is expressed as forgiveness of enemies, but what about the other marks?  Faith, Hope, and Love of God are just as important though not as easily evaluated by outsiders.  Wesley used testimonials as evidence that his ministry was promoting these interior marks of vitality.  What would count as evidence today?  How do outsiders confirm that another has experienced faith, hope, and love, and how do they determine which ministry produced the fruit?

Would planting a seed count?  Could an agency argue that in theory a program should help people come to faith and use probability of fruitfulness as a reason to justify funding?

And what about at the local level?  How could local congregations prove that their members are growing in faith, hope, and love?  First-person accounts of transformation could be one way, especially if those stories are corroborated by others who have noticed their friend's change of behavior.  Would Cabinets accept these narratives, along with statistics on attendance and offerings, as evidence of effectiveness in ministry?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Skype Covenant Group

I'm a member of a covenant group that meets using Skype's group video application.  We are all in the Nebraska Annual Conference, and this format allows the five of us to continue meeting no matter where in the State the Cabinet might send us.  At times there are technological glitches that interfere with our conversation, but on the whole this group does fill a need I've felt ever since reading Dick Wills' book, Waking to God's Dream.

Before he became a UM bishop, Dick was the pastor of church that organized its adult members into accountability groups.  The rule that governed group discussions was simple: identify a spiritual practice that you want to observe and for which you want the group to hold you accountable.  Each group member picked a discipline (prayer, reading scripture, fasting, visiting the sick, etc.) and, at the next meeting, everyone reported on their efforts to engage in regular spiritual exercises.

This isn't the Methodist General Rules (Using the Ordinances was discussed but not Do No Harm and Do Good).  Bishop Wills argues that his format is more democratic and that's why he prefers it for an American congregation.  I think the Bishop's model is great for beginners, those who are new to accountability groups.  His groups can be a way to introduce Wesley's concept of the Means of Grace to a congregation.

The Skype group was organized in March so we're still getting used to each other and this method of covenanting.  We have a Facebook group page that allows us to stay in touch with one another outside of the Skype sessions.  I'm curious if anyone else uses technology in connection with a Discipleship group and what the experience has been like.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

No Other Foundation

The title of this post is a reference to Wesley's Sermon 17, "The Circumcision of the Heart," II.4, "Our gospel, as it knows no other foundation of good works than faith, or of faith than Christ. . . ."  This is the phrase that came to mind as I reviewed the Proposed Vital Congregations Planning Guide.

Congregational leaders who use this manual are encouraged to make worship, prayer, and Bible study part of the planning process.  To facilitate a Congregational Ministry Plan Bible study, nine passages of Scripture are recommended (p. 4):
  • Matthew 28:18-20, The Great Commission;
  • Matthew 22:36-40, The Great Commandment;
  • Acts 2, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church;
  • I Corinthians 12, the healthy church is one body and it is the body of Christ;
  • Ephesians 4:10-13, Christ has gifted the church through a variety of gifts;
  • Galatians 3:28, all are welcome in the body of Christ;
  • Luke 10:25-37; the parable of the Good Samaritan;
  • Micah 6:8, righteousness and justice are the expectation for God’s people;
  • Luke 4:17-21, Jesus announces his ministry, which is a calling for the body of Christ today 
In order to make this Bible Study more Wesleyan, another passage should be added to this list, one that emphasizes faith in Christ as the starting point for any ministry plan.  A passage such as 1 Corinthians 3:5-12 fits what I have in mind.  I'm open to other suggestions.  The addition could look something like--
  • 1 Corinthians 3:5-12, No Other Foundation
I'm imaging a planning team meeting where the members are sitting around a table with their Bibles (paper or electronic) open to 1 Cor. 3 and they are discussing questions such as what does it means to have faith in Christ, what would it mean for their church to build on that foundation, what would a plan for ministry look like that started at that point, what would church programing look like if every program rested on that foundation?

Adding this passage would make the Bible Study more consistent with Wesley's own religious experience.  He alluded to his struggles as a minister in Sermon 2, "The Almost Christian," I.13.  While he was at Oxford University he did no harm, did good, used the means of grace, and sincerely tried to follow God's will, yet these actions did not make him a Christian.  Likewise, his ministry in Georgia was full of activities but still lacked vitality (Journal, May 24, 1738, par. 9).  When he stopped expecting his religious work to make him a better person and instead put his faith Christ, that's the point when he became an effective minister. 

What other aspects of Wesley's doctrine need to be included in the Bible Study?
And can anyone tell me why the file name for the proposed guide is "A Congregational Ministry Plan for 2009"?  It appears that this guide was written before the Call to Action report and later adapted.  I'd like to know if any church used the 2009 version of the guide and what kind of results it produced.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Maddox on Wesley on Making Disciples

My thanks to John Meunier for the link to Dr. Randy Maddox's paper, "Wesley's Prescription for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ."  I discovered that the Quarterly Review article was an edited version of a paper Maddox produced for the United Methodist Council of Bishops' Task Force on Theological Education and Leadership Formation.  The paper does not address seminary education or the type of training that would best prepare leaders for the church.  Instead, Maddox describes five characteristics of Wesley's ministry and discusses their implications for today.

The faculties of the soul (Understanding, Will, Affections, Liberty) are referenced in the paper, although Maddox uses terms such as "intellectual convictions"and "rational initiative" instead of Understanding.  This is an example of one possible approach to updating Wesley-- maintain Wesley's definition of the soul but use terms that are more familiar to a contemporary audience.

The advice that Maddox offers to the 21st Century church is shaped by Wesley's theory of the soul:
  1. Cultivating a Doctrinal Sense of Christ-likeness will reform the Understanding
  2. Offering opportunities to experience the Spirit will reform the Affections
  3. Engaging in formative practices will reform the Will
  4. Participation in the Means of Grace (which includes working with the poor) will reform the Affections and Will
  5. Creating small groups for support and accountability will reform the Liberty
I take away from Maddox's argument the insight that our definition of the soul matters because it determines the focus of our ministries.  Our view of the soul, its predicament and functions, is implicit in our church programming.

For that reason theological education must provide students with an opportunity to both learn and test various theories of the soul.  Activities such as reading, preaching, and writing about the soul are insufficient.  Seminary students must have learning labs in church settings where they can try out theologically-informed practices of ministry and evaluate their results in order to determine what kind of impact these practices are having on souls.

These reflections make me wonder if there is an unacknowledged theory of the soul that currently informs most church programming (including preaching)?  If so, how do we surface this theory and make it more explicit?  When we become aware of our definition, what means should we use to evaluate if our practices are producing the desired reform to the soul?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Leadership Survey Results

Those responding to the Leadership Survey overwhelmingly agreed that "For United Methodists, spiritual accountability includes the state of our soul and the fruit of our ministry."  The vast majority of folks taking the survey also seem more than willingly to pray, study Scripture, participate in holy conversations, study the Call to Action report, set goals and measure results, become citizen advocates, celebrate the Spirit, and take other actions that support the reform of the UMC (question 22).  Their commitment to these actions is commendable, however such practices will not address the need to hold each other accountable for the state of our souls.

When Wesley wrote about the soul he described thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and dispositions not just words and actions.  Wesley's ministry was about inward soul changes as much as it was about changes in behaviors. 
We need statistics on the number of egotistical jerks, arrogant bullies, judgmental scrooges, and anxious fear-mongers converted by grace through faith.  Without commitment to this kind of practice, the UMC runs the risk of merely measuring the plaster over filthy tombs (Matthew 23:27).

Developing principled leaders must include giving them the skills to develop principled followers.  What processes of "identifying, training, credentialing, appointing and evaluating clergy leadership" produce those kinds of skills?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Call to Action report, Item #2-- “redesign the leadership development system”.

The seminaries aren't mentioned in the UMC Call to Action report, but as a significant part of our leadership development system they could help the Church fulfill the vision laid out in the Call to Action/Vital Congregations/Leadership Summit.  The proposed planning guide identifies 16 strategies for vitality that congregations should follow.  If this proposal is adopted, then pastors will be expected to lead their congregations in the implementation of these tasks.  Seminaries could help their students (and current pastors) by offering training related to these 16 strategies.  The training will have to move out of the classroom to be effective, however.  The interpersonal skills needed to accomplish all 16 strategies can only be acquired through supervision and mentoring.  The pastors will need to:
  1. shadow someone leading a church that has one or more of the vitality strategies running, 
  2. learn the steps taken by that church to start the ministry, 
  3. think through how to adapt those steps to their setting for ministry with the help of mentors and/or peers,
  4. take the ideas back to their congregations and share them with the lay leadership,
  5. evaluate their efforts to implement a vitality strategy with a supervisor.
The first three steps could be accomplished in a week.  The last two steps could take a year to complete.  This is an expensive proposal, but I think it is the only way that students are going to learn how to lead the laity and work as a congregation to fulfill the tasks laid out in the planning guide.  The 16 strategies can only be realized by a highly motivated congregation.  Motivating others is a learned skilled.  Done poorly, it leads to manipulation and exploitation.  Where else and how else can this skill be acquired if not in seminary?

July 24 addendum:  The Alban Institute's report on an initiative to train new pastors in congregational clusters.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Back to Wesley

     Just read another call for the UMC to go back to Wesley.  I wonder if those calling for a return to Wesley have this quote in mind--
"I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out." 
     That's from Wesley's article "Thoughts Upon Methodism."  I've been researching this article and Wesley's definitions of doctrine, spirit, and discipline and trying to understand how these three things worked together to keep Methodism from becoming a dead sect.
     What I'm finding are the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources that informed his definitions.  I enjoy tracing this intellectual history, but I don't think this is what people are asking for when they say they want to go back to Wesley.
     For example, Wesley's understanding of the Soul is informed by his Aristotelian education.  He identified the faculties of the Soul as Understanding, Will, Affections, and Liberty.  When he describes the healing of the soul as the healing of these four functions  (See Sermon 141) Wesley is using terms that current UMCs do not use any more.
     I question how valuable it would be to go back to this aspect of Wesley's doctrine.  At the same time, I think conversations about current definitions of the soul and what it means to save the soul, would be fascinating.  So, I'm concluding that Wesley's categories (Methodist Doctrine, Spirit, Discipline) are helpful, but that I need to think through what those categories look like today.