The beginning of this coming academic year represents the beginning of my thirtieth year at Perkins School of Theology. I am now in the last quarter of my academic career with prospects for overtime. It was a great decision to come to Southern Methodist University and to move to Texas. Coming to Southern Methodist University brought with it a shift in my academic work, picking up research and teaching in evangelism. That in turn radically changed my perspective on other areas within theology, not least in systematic theology and in Wesley Studies. After thirty years it is a good time to reflect on where we are.
What I would like to do in this interim report is three things:
First, say a word about the work in evangelism at Perkins over the last thirty years.
Second, reflect on the journey in evangelism in The United Methodist Church.
Third, reflect on the prospects for evangelism in our present turmoil.
Thirty years in Evangelism at Perkins
Perkins has been a pace setter. Prior to 1985 we had significant contributions from Chuck Hunter in the area of Church Growth. Hunter effectively carried the work of Donald McGavran into a whole new arena making it a major force within United Methodism. David Watson picked up the mantle in two distinct ways: in rethinking the class meetings as covenant discipleship and in focusing on evangelism as constituted exclusively by proclamation. The image was that of a journalist: get the word out in as many ways as possible, to as many people as possible, as often as possible.
My own work argued for a polymorphous conception of evangelism. Evangelism is constituted by those diverse acts that initiate folk into the kingdom of God for the first time. In practice that meant proclamation and catechesis. My inspiration for this stemmed from the evangelization of the Roman Empire and from a revisiting of Wesley and early Methodism. This thesis has been well received but it was effectively rejected by my own Annual Conference and over time by Nashville when I set out to operationalize the catechetical component. In the former case the Conference Office promised a significant financial contribution to a course called Basic Christianity, sent the check in the mail, and then called by phone to cancel the check on the grounds that the materially was theologically and politically incorrect. However, the latter component by the contingent accidents of history led to the formation of my own mission society (Oasis International Missions) and to extensive, exciting work currently being done in Central Asia and Romania.
Scott Jones for the most part went with my proposal but added an important epilogue by insisting that all work in evangelism be carried out as part of our evangelistic love of God and neighbor (a wonderfully inspired turn of phrase). I had built this into the moral dimension of catechesis but as that element completely failed to register I welcome the explicit way in which Jones brought out this tacit dimension of my proposal.
Elaine Heath for the most part assumed the vision of evangelism I commended but took it in a whole new direction with the development of her version of the new monasticism. Here the critical element involves the creation of disciplined communities within local communities of the poor. This has now gone international and has a very significant future in part because of Heath’s personal commitment and organizational skills. It can readily be tacked back into early Methodism and the Holiness tradition with its emphasis on the poor and on Methodism as a disciplined order within the church catholic.
On the academic front we can speak of modest success. There is no longer a debate about the place of evangelism in the curriculum and as a field within practical theology. It will never be the crown jewels within the theological encyclopedia (like biblical studies or systematic theology) but it has its place and this gives me great satisfaction. We have moved it from outside the curriculum to the margins of the curriculum.
Thirty Years on the Ecclesial Front
On the ecclesial front, I have regretfully come to much more pessimistic conclusions.
We got serious about evangelism in the mid-eighties when we bet the store on Church Growth. This has had very good effects overall in terms of changing the culture and in terms of embracing the importance of planting new churches. However, church growth is not necessarily evangelism, for we can grow religious communities without actually bringing folk to Christ; we connect them to the church (not a bad thing) but not necessarily to a living and vibrant faith. This is one reason why we made a very important shift in the nineteen nineties: we needed more content to our vision of evangelism.
I thought we were in for a new day after the General Conference of 1996 when the UMC adopted the Great Commission as the mission statement of the UMC. I made a fatal error when I assumed that this would then be operationalized and we would implement the practices of making disciples in an intentional and robust fashion. This never happened. Yet it is Organizational Studies 101. The various tasks adopted in the ensuing quadrennia never took seriously the task of making disciples.
Furthermore, the bishops in time changed the mission statement through a resolution to General Conference, adding the phrase “for the transformation of the world”. There were good intentions behind this change. It sought to have the church look outward; and it sought to make sure we kept our social witness alive. However, overall it was a fatal error and that for two sets of reasons. Theologically, it is mistaken because it fails to see that any serious disciple will be salt and light in the world; so the change makes clear we did not have a robust understanding of what it is to make disciples. It also makes clear that we think we can improve on our Lord! Pragmatically, it is mistaken because it gave permission to folk to reinstate a vision of mission in which the heavy lifting goes to the continued reduction of mission to social concern and charitable work. Furthermore, it is totally unrealistic in that it assumes we can readily transform the world; at the moment we cannot transform our local dysfunctional churches or our dysfunctional General Conferences; so there is a real element of self-delusion in play. We lack an appropriate measure of realism; more technically, we are “enthusiasts” in that we want the ends without the means.
These observations take us to a deeper level. We are not able to do evangelism as a corporate body, that is, as The United Methodist Church, simply because we do not have the intellectual backbone to do so. We abolished the Division or Board of Evangelism in mid-century and shifted the responsibility into the Board of Discipleship. However, we had no consensus on what it is to be a disciple. There was no real hope of any kind of concerted action or programming simply because there was no theological agreement on what formation in discipleship would be. Hence there never was any chance of operationalizing the decision of the General Conference after 1996.
The issues here run very deep indeed, that is, into systematic theology and epistemology. However, we are what we are, that is, de facto we are a complex mélange of theologies competing for attention and political implementation in the Boards and Agencies of our church. In one sense we are simply implementing the vision of United Methodism developed in the General Conference of 1972. Few at that time realized what this vision would do to any serious work in evangelism. Evangelicals, much to the consternation of Albert Outler who thought he had taken their measure, were uneasy from the beginning and clipped the wings of pluralism as best they could. In the meantime Church Growth was welcomed because it dodged the implications of pluralism; we could all agree that growth was a good thing because of our desire for survival and because it was theologically empty of content. When we tried to get serious in 1996 by picking up the theme of discipleship, the impact was eviscerated by the additional goal of transforming the world. Again, we all could agree that social action and relief work dressed up as transforming the world was a good thing and we let the theological challenges fall by the wayside. Or better expressed, we adopted a reductionistic missiological agenda because that was as far as we could go as a denomination.
In these circumstances evangelism in any robust sense tends to be seen as the province of one section of the church, that is, the province of the evangelicals. In some cases they have been remarkably tenacious and successful. However, they are generally ignored, treated with suspicion, and are far less united than outsiders realize. Moreover, for reasons I cannot pursue here, evangelicalism has within it the carrier of its own self-destruction in that it readily prepares the soil for persistent new generations of revisionists and progressives who can unintentionally but by degrees give away the store. Given these realities, their impact tends to be local. Moreover, they are not at home in a church in which they feel they are marginalized and even demonized, so morale among them is low. They readily feel they have to take up issues that take them away from their commitment to evangelism. In some cases that I know they feel they have to disown their United Methodist identity because its public image is one that undercuts their work in evangelism. So those within the United Methodist Church who readily carry the mantle of evangelism are not in a good place to advance the cause in terms of healthy theology and healthy practice. They are essentially in survival mode.
Evangelism in our Current Turmoil
We are now on the cusp of a hurricane within the life our church. Expressed in a different metaphor, the underground volcano on sexuality has come to the surface with a speed that is rightly alarming for those who care for the future of the UMC. This is not the place to unpack what I think is happening other than to proffer three telegrams.
First, there has been a significant breakdown in the Order of the church represented by intentional violation of canon law, by deliberate acts of intimidation in the councils of the church, and most recently by the effective short-term nullification of canon law by the tactical deployment of the strategy of just resolution to resolve cases that might otherwise go to trial.
Second, this is not at all surprising in that pluralism is an unstable, stop-gap arrangement which in a generation or so will be hollowed out from within by those passionately committed to an aggressive first-order theology, say, like liberation theology. The latter is the default position in the current academy; its adherents cannot make it on their own as a new denomination, so the only option is to take over where they can the institutional instruments of the church and reform the current church to implement their theology. Conservatives have tried various forms of renewal, a noble cause indeed, but one that has failed outside certain very restricted circles. They have now been dramatically awakened if not traumatized by recent events and are hoping to salvage what they can before the crowbar of events destroys what they cherish.
Third, the political machinery is already gearing up for the next General Conference. Everybody in the know has been asking questions about potential division for years but now the fat is in the fire with some folk lining up to introduce a long-standing effort to secure a local option for certain sections of canon law and other folk insisting that the time has come to look at division. The mood as I read it is one of great fear and of lament.
In these circumstances there is no hope of any serious engagement with the challenges we face in evangelism. Consider an alternative scenario for the General Conference of 2016. Suppose that a motion is passed on the first day that we set aside a full day for a serious conversation on making disciples prompted by reports of best practices from successful local churches, by pithy theological presentations on aspects of evangelism, and by attractive testimonies from recent converts. Delegates then take two hours together to strategize on implementing what they have learned in their local churches. Think of the message that would send and the fruit it might yield. Even to mention an option like this is to head off into lalaland. We are in for a season of extremely painful conversation and turmoil. There is not a chance that we will have any serious engagement with issues related to any sort of robust vision of evangelism.
What then shall we do as we lament and figure out how to respond to the major options that are now in the making?
Let me be personal. Here is what I plan to do.
First, I will continue to seek to bring folk to Christ in my own limited sphere of influence. I tend to end up with hard cases who can take years before they will commit to Christ; so I will continue to be patient.
Second, I will continue to build up those in the faith in my local church by faithful teaching Sunday by Sunday so that the rational sheep are fed and nourished by the gospel and by the scriptures.
Third, in my primary vocation as an academic I will continue the core work of articulating an industrial strength vision of the Christian faith in a four-volume work currently under contract with Oxford University Press. I see this as vital because one of the deeper issues is the serious theological deficit in the church as a whole after our complicated engagement with modernity and postmodernity. This will be accompanied by further work in the epistemology of theology and by further work on the identity of Methodism within the history of Christianity. Think of all this as the functional equivalent of sermon preparation week by week.
Fourth, I plan to throw myself afresh into the work of the Oasis Foundation, a mission agency I established over 12 years ago and which is intimately involved in Central Asia and in establishing a new indigenous Methodist denomination in Romania. And here and now I unapologetically ask you and your local church to consider helping us meet our next half-year budget commitments. We need money for the support of a local clergyperson in Romania and money for upgrading an orphanage and local ministry needs in Central Asia.
If I were a leader in the local church I would continue the work of evangelism with flair and enthusiasm. I would follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in sharing the faith and in seeking to bring folk to Christ. I would work on implementing effective ministries in the social arena at home and abroad. I would foster a welcoming congregation that loves and ministers to people where they are. I would ensure that there is faithful proclamation of the gospel, done systematically and winsomely. I would guarantee that there are pathways to serious spiritual formation and discipleship available for all who come and for all who need a refresher course in the faith. And of course, I would give a call to Professor Abraham, offering immediate help on the budget beginning on July 1! You can even send your donations to him at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Tx 75275. This may seem like an opportunistic way to finish; I prefer to see it as an expression of urgency and Texas can-do-ism!
The hurricane is upon us but the work of the Lord endures forever!