The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
COMMENTARY: Yesterday’s challenges still confronting UMC Andrew C. Thompson, Jan 12, 2012
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
I started the new year by reading a sermon from what appeared to be a fire-breathing Methodist preacher.
Some folks think the church needs to be challenged. And challenged sharply. This preacher was one of them.
To understand where this guy was coming from, you have to realize that he wants Methodism to reclaim the Wesleyan mission that lies at its roots.
And that means practicing the Christian faith in a profoundly counter-cultural way.
We live in a culture of comfort where we spend a great deal of time figuring out how to meet “needs” that aren’t really needs at all. The society around us teaches us that we ought to think of ourselves as consumers. And so consumers we are.
Meanwhile, the world around us really is full of suffering and evil. It cries out for the good news. But we’re too comfortable and lukewarm to do what the gospel calls us to do.
That whole approach to life doesn’t square too well with a savior who tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow him. And so good Christian people do all sorts of mental gymnastics to conform Christianity to the culture they prefer.
It’s hard to live counter-culturally. Much easier is embracing a cultural Christianity that baptizes the whims and desires we’d want to pursue anyway. It’s a double benefit: We’re able to live the way we want with the added bonus of believing that we’re being faithful disciples in the process.
This kind of malaise is one big reason why Methodism on the American scene can often seem moribund.
But the preacher I was reading wasn’t having any of that. The words leapt off the page as I got into the sermon.
“One thing is for sure,” he said. “What has served till now as our status quo ante will simply not suffice for the upcoming future. For all its great merits—for all its saints and heroes—the standing order is now too nearly preoccupied with self-maintenance and survival.”
He was clearly adopting the role of the prophet. He pointed to a faithful past without letting his audience get trapped in idolizing that past in the present. And in the process he was calling all of us back to a renewed faithfulness as God’s people for the future that lies ahead.
The preacher went on: “The world is in furious and agonizing turmoil, incomprehensible and unmanageable. The church is in radical crisis, and in the throes of a profound demoralization, at every level: of faith and order, life and work.”
He wasn’t pulling any punches with those words, which is exactly what you’d expect to hear from a prophet.
“In such times,” he said, “business as usual simply will not get our business done.”
After summarizing the situation before the church as he sees it, the preacher went on to cast a vision for the future. He said that we must seek to be a church that is “truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed.”
He went on to describe what he means by those three terms. In the process, he lays out as full a picture for church renewal as can be sketched in a single sermon.
But I don’t think the prescription he offers is as important as the diagnosis I’ve already described—or the identity of the preacher in question.
The diagnosis is strikingly relevant for the United Methodist Church today. And yet, the sermon I’ve been describing was preached in 1968. It was in fact preached at the very Uniting Conference that brought together the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the UMC.
The preacher was none other than Albert C. Outler. He was anything but a fire breather. Dr. Outler was among the most learned scholars of his day, and his courtly manner marked him as a true Southern gentleman. He was also possessed of a significant charisma, which helped him to rise to high leadership during the ecumenical movement’s high-water mark in the 1960s.
Dr. Outler’s sermon at the Uniting Conference on April 23, 1968, in particular captures two of the dominant interests of his career: that of ecumenism and that of the retrieval of the Wesleyan tradition for Methodism. His legacy in both areas continues to have importance for the church today.
But Albert Outler died in 1989. And this sermon is over four decades old.
What are we to make of the fact that his diagnosis of the situation in which the church finds itself feels like it could have been written yesterday?
One way to look at it is that we haven’t done a very good job over the past 44 years in holding together Dr. Outler’s twin interests: ecumenism and Wesleyan renewal. The very formation of the United Methodist Church was a real ecumenical achievement. But the springboard that the union could have created for Wesleyan renewal hasn’t been fully realized. The American church, at least, feels culturally trapped.
There’s another, more hopeful way to think about Dr. Outler’s prophetic words, though.
We’re on the cusp of another General Conference. We’re considering a Call to Action report that contains some recommendations that have real merit. And we are a church that is growing outside of the United States in some remarkable ways.
Dr. Outler helped us read the signs of the times back in 1968. He just didn’t realize he was helping us to read the signs of the times for 2012 as well.
Perhaps the best way we can further his legacy is by not letting another 40 years go by before we fully engage the Wesleyan renewal he so earnestly desired for us then.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at www.andrewthompson.com.