H. Richard Niebuhr summed up the mainline Protestant view on the coming kingdom of God with the statement: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Sharp words. Niebuhr was writing in the 1930s. But it might as well have been yesterday. Many Christians in our culture still get queasy about the stark biblical picture of salvation, preferring to focus on things like human betterment and societal progress.
Methodists in America have long bought into the “progress” approach that Niebuhr lamented, not only ignoring the fact that such progress is a myth but also watching their churches decay as a result.
My own denomination is the United Methodist Church, but it is only one of many Wesleyan or Methodist churches in our society. Alongside the UMC are the Nazarenes, the Free Methodists, the Wesleyan Church, the AME, the CME, and the AMEZ Churches, along with many others. For any of them that want to have a real and vibrant future, I would say this: Take heed of Niebuhr’s criticism and take a long look in the mirror.
I’m suggesting that the path to renewal is theological and doctrinal. And I think it will require a lot of repentance on the part of ourselves and our churches. This won’t be easy. But here’s the good news: We already have the resources in our tradition to do it.
Once upon a time, the mission of Methodism was about salvation. When John Wesley was giving advice to his junior preachers, he told them, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.”
It’s a wonderful statement. But for it to mean anything, you have to first believe that people have souls that need saving.
Wesley also believed that the reason the Methodist movement had been raised up by God in the first place was “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Spreading scriptural holiness is what salvation looks like when it is embodied in local congregations. Through lives transformed by the power of God’s grace, whole communities can begin to look and act differently.
Again, a wonderful idea. But for it to mean anything, you have to believe that the church is full of broken people who need to be healed.
We now live in a society marked by two great forces: our economic system of consumer capitalism and our political system of liberal democracy. The former focuses on meeting the “felt needs” of individual consumers; the latter centers on the rights and liberties of individual citizens.
Put together, the result is a culture that lionizes the individual. And the influence of that on the life of the church cannot be overstated.
In a society where the individual reigns supreme, the one thing to avoid at all costs is calling an individual’s choices, values and “needs” into question. That means personal sin is out, because sin manifests itself first in the lives and actions of individuals. So the idea of a necessary transformation of the person through grace is taboo.
What does missional outreach look like in such a culture?
Not what it used to. Take the individual out of the picture and you’re left with trying to mimic the best of what is going on in the larger society.
In my own denomination, that mimicry is found in the slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It says to anyone who will listen that our church will never threaten you. You can come and worship with us without fear that you’re risking anything in the process. We’ve made tolerance into the supreme virtue, so don’t worry about anyone pressuring you to deny yourself and take up your cross.
It’s a brilliant marketing ploy in a society defined by consumer individualism. There’s nothing scriptural about it, of course. But in a secular society where everyone’s worth hinges on being accepted as is, the church that defines itself by its “openness” sounds like it’s on the cutting edge.
Social activism then becomes the flip side of the church’s refusal to engage in calling individual sinners to repentance. We know we should be doing something for Jesus, so we look to what enlightened people in society at large are doing and focus our attention there. That usually results in a list consisting of ending poverty, stopping genocide, fighting AIDS and reversing global warming. So we join in, usually from the comfort of our living room by writing a check and joining a Facebook group.
Nowadays everybody wants to “make Methodism a movement again.” Nice thought, but it isn’t going anywhere until we come to grips with what we’ve lost. Circuit riders once held convictions about sin and salvation so dearly that they braved any risk to preach the gospel to isolated communities that others couldn’t reach. They often died as young men from their labors.
And yet, what they knew firsthand has been largely forgotten by us.
Relearning it means reclaiming the first task of the church as proclaiming salvation—a salvation that is about an inward change of the heart and that results in an outwardly changed life.
To receive that salvation, we must by God’s grace recognize our utter sinfulness and repent. The humility that comes through such contrition opens our hearts to receive God’s saving grace. And through the reality of the new birth we can start on the path of sanctification.
Thereafter, our participation in the means of grace God has provided us will so transform us that we will naturally show our faith through our works. Holiness will increase throughout our lives, as we move toward perfection in Christ.
Wesley called this journey the “Scripture way of salvation.” Though experienced by individuals, it is not individualistic. It’s always social and always occurs in the community we call church.
Moreover, the kind of social action that Methodists get excited about will also follow. But it will be something other than a psychological salve, because it will be personally engaged by a sanctified people and will be rooted in their own local communities. That’s the only real way scriptural holiness ever spreads.
God doesn’t need another lumbering denomination with an identity crisis. But what God could use is a people who understand that their first calling remains their sole reason for existence: to proclaim the evangelical gospel of God’s saving grace to needy sinners, so that they might be transformed in holiness and led to share the good news with a broken and hurting world.
(This essay originally appeared in a different form in the United Methodist Reporter. Used by permission.)