16. Ten Provocative Questions

Dr. Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership (and a member of our Missouri Conference!) presented some observations about the State of the Church to the Council of Bishops, and again to the meeting of Extended Cabinets at Lake Junaluska last week.  He entitled his talk, ìTen Provocative Questions,î and I encourage you to have a look at his work.  These questions offer excellent entries into significant conversations about the United Methodist Church, our mission and future. Over the next couple weeks, I plan to take some of Dr. Weemsí ìProvocative Questionsî and mull them over on the Five Practices Blog. The first question he raises is, ìCan we capture the Wesleyan power of being an evangelical church in a liberal tradition?î

What a great way of stimulating thought and discussion about our mission and ministry! Are we an evangelical church, and what does that mean? Do we come out of a liberal tradition, and what does that mean? How did Wesley and our forebears weave these together so powerfully?

The word ìevangelicalî has many meanings. When political pundits speak of ìevangelical Christiansî as a voting constituency, they mostly mean religious conservatives, perhaps fundamentalists and biblical literalists. The majority of mainline United Methodists donít see themselves that way and donít preach and practice out of a fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of scripture and faith.  And the word ìliberalî in political conversations brings to mind folks with a particular shared agenda related to a particular party. But our ìliberalî theological tradition does not refer to that so much as to the way we combine personal piety with social holiness, a care for souls with a concern for systemic social change, the interweaving of knowledge and vital piety, our theological tolerance, our reliance upon biblical scholarship to help us understand what texts meant for ìthem over there back thenî as well as for ìus here right now.î Our theological tradition derives from Wesleyís willingness in all things that do not strike at the heart of Christianity ìto think and let think.î 

ìEvangelicalî in itís broader meaning signifies to me those Christians (conservative or liberal theologically) who feel a keen sense of responsibility to share the faith, to invite others in, to tell the story, to pass the faith on to the next generation, to foster the spiritual life that is based on Godís revelation in Jesus Christ.  As Albert Outler wrote, ìto bring the good news that God has met our highest hopes and greatest needs in Jesus Christ.î 

A recent book helps us recover our evangelical spirit (even in a liberal tradition) and to invite people into the faith in a voice that is authentic, genuine, and true to our theological and ecclesiological roots. Unbinding the Gospel by Martha Grace Reese delves into the internal resistances and old baggage that many of us carry about evangelism and sharing the story. Also, many people have found Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations to be a helpful model for understanding how we fulfill our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in an authentic Wesleyan way.

Iím hoping that books like these and others help us overcome our hesitations. Iím hoping that questions like Lovettís help us understand the power of the United Methodist way of interweaving personal holiness and social holiness.

There are churches that are growing and thriving that take a more conservative approach theologically, and also those that are dying. And there are churches that are growing and thriving who take a more moderate or liberal approach theologically, and there are those that are dying. The key difference between growth and decline in either theological branch of the family is the evangelical spirit, the heartfelt desire to share the faith, the intention of reaching out into neighborhoods and communities to invite people in and make them feel welcome and share with them the life-sustaining stories of our faith and the life-giving truth of Jesus Christ. I hope our churches consider questions like, ìwhy does it matter that we are Christian? Why does it matter that we invite other people to become Christians?î As we develop our relationship to God, and our relationship to one another within the church, how do we also develop our relationship with those outside our congregations? How do we practice sharing our faith in an authentic voice that is true to our Wesleyan heritage?

Thank you, Lovett, for asking the right questions!

Yours in Christ,