The Heart of the United Methodist Crisis: Passio Dei

July 16th, 2021

A Heart Condition  

If the heart is sick, a body will inevitably fail. No matter how healthy the brain or other vital organs may be, when a heart fails, the organism will die. 

Jesus was at times in conflict with the religious leaders of his day. He called them “blind guides” (Matt 15:14; 23:16, 24). Their eye condition was connected to their deadly heart condition, which he described as parasis (hardened) kardia: (heart) “stubborness” (Mark 3:5; 10:5). In several of those encounters, Jesus highlighted their diminished way of seeing others, their fixed views, and their stubborn resistance to take on the posture of a learner. Their rigid, hard-eyed, surety of knowing led them to accuse Jesus of hanging out with sketchy unclean people and ultimately to indict him as a fraudulent messiah.

Methodism in North America is dying. Membership continues to decline, congregations continue to close, and for new generations of participants and leaders we appear to be largely irrelevant. With this decline comes dysfunction and conflict. As if two parents are fighting for who will get what in a divorce, we are locked in a power struggle with mounting anxiety, but with little regard for how it will affect the kids.

What is at the heart of the problem in the crisis of Methodism? It’s not actually a theological dispute; the crisis is missiological. It’s a heart problem not a head problem, and it’s less about orthodoxy or even orthopraxy, and more about orthopathy.

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Missio Dei and the Missional Church

Missional directives are derived from the term missio dei (Latin for “mission of God”). Missio means “sent,” and mission is understood as a primary attribute of God. 

David Bosch, a leading voice in the current missional movement, writes, “The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world.”[1]

The risen Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and says, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21 CEB). In the seeking and sending nature of the Trinity, God’s own life demonstrates a communion in which oneness and diversity are shared in a divine dance of “making room,” for each other. Father sends the Son, Father and Son send the Spirit. The church, sent in the power of the Spirit, is a continuation of God’s missional activity.

The recurring missional movement is born from this reconnection of mission with the life of the Trinity. This missiological framework allowed for mission to no longer be subservient to ecclesiology or soteriology. Rather mission is the purpose of church alignment and life together with Christ. 

The missional church conversation in recent decades is an attempt to divorce mission from a colonial, attractional, propositional form of Christendom concerned with expansion, hierarchical power, and “conversion of the heathen.” In the nationalist narrative of mission and evangelism, churches become the handmaiden of empire. Unfortunately, some of our leaders read the Great Commission in this way. 

Early Methodism—The Missional Church

Paul Chilcote writes that the Wesleys in their own day rediscovered what we would call today the “missional church.”[2]

This idea is applied in A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions. Mission (and neither ethical nor theological disputation) was the defining core purpose of early Methodism. 

As followers of Jesus, we believe the ultimate outworking of the Spirit’s power is love. This love is a different kind of power—relational power—faithful presence—with-ness. A power nowhere more gloriously displayed than in the passion of Jesus. 

This is also a love that goes first (1 John 4:9). God’s love is already at work on the scene before we get there. We can’t “take back the community for Jesus,” because by the power of the Spirit the community already belongs to Jesus. The Spirit always goes ahead of us and is already intimately involved in the life of every person we encounter. John Wesley became aware of this in a field outside Bristol. He found the Spirit at work in the lives of people beyond the church walls, inviting him to join what God was already up to. 

Methodists continue to emphasize a personal experience of the seeking and sending trinitarian God, whose primary characteristic is relentless love. We experience the missional love of God through “waves of grace” (prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying) and “means of grace” (prayer, searching scripture, communion, fasting, and holy conversation). The discipleship process is connected to these means of grace and waves of grace—the profuse outflow of God’s unconditional love.

Methodism bears witness to the “processional” or “sent” work of the Trinity. Thus, we emphasize a “sent” rather than “called” ministry in our ecclesiological structure. Being on the move, itinerating from place to place, was born from Wesley’s dynamic seeking and sending trinitarianism. The Trinity as missionary seeks and sends the church.

God has a mission; thus, there is a church. John Wesley understood the church in an instrumental way, as “the redeemed and redeeming fellowship.” The church does not have a mission; it is God’s missional instrument.

In practice, Wesley’s theology was formulated in support of mission. Thus the true Wesleyan theological legacy is a “practical divinity,” a focus to share the gospel in “plain truth for plain people.” Wesley said things like, “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity.” Also “If your heart is as my heart, take my hand.” And “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” Ultimately missionary need gave rise to different forms of order, as church formed with people in the “fields” (spaces and rhythms) of their everyday lives, many of whom who had no connection with the church. 

Methodist leaders who seek priority and dominance concerning one Wesleyan theological perception or another are losing the heart of Methodism. 

Methodism was born from a missional impulse, not a doctrinal dispute

Unfortunately, the missional church movement has been weaponized in harmful ways by extremists across the continuum (from conservative to progressive) who want to sustain their assets. We speak of being sent to love one another out there when we fail to love the people even in our own denomination.

Any comprehension of missio Dei that is ungrounded in the passio Dei is fruitless and harmful.

Recentering the Missio Dei in the Passio Dei 

The missional church flows from the loving heart of God. Its origin is the compassion of God.

Overemphasis on orthodoxy (“right opinion”) or orthopraxy (“right practice”), while disregarding orthopathy (“right pathos” i.e., experience of God), fails the Jesus test at every level of the holy conversation.

In the 1970s Wesleyan and Pentecostal theologians introduced the term orthopathy to describe that a “right experience” of God is just as essential as right belief and practice. For example, the religious leaders who opposed Jesus were orthodox in their belief and practice. But in their striving to be righteous and holy, Jesus boldly challenged a stubborn lack of pastoral compassion that comes from experiencing the heart of God. This loss of love for the other tends to harden conflict about right belief and right practice.

The passio dei (the passion of God), is grounded primarily in the incarnation. More specifically, the suffering, crucifixion, and death (passion) of Jesus ultimately reveals the heart, nature, and power of God like nothing else in creation. When we see Jesus on the cross, we see the heart of God. God’s nature is the self-emptying, other-oriented, and sacrificial love fully displayed in the crucifixion. The passion of Christ expresses God’s immersion and connection to human vulnerability and suffering. 

We cannot rightly emphasize sanctification (being re-conformed to the imago Dei, image of God) as the ultimate completion of the missio Dei (the mission of God) unless we embrace the experience and character of the self-emptying, passio Dei (passion of God).

The mission of God flows from God’s essence as compassionate caregiver. In Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age: How the Church Can Prepare for a Post-Pandemic World, Rosario Picardo and I reconnect the missional church with the compassion of God. We pose the question, “Where are the healers?” We are one of the most stressed-out generations in history. Extended exposure to chronic or extreme mental or physical stress ultimately becomes trauma. We are living through a series of unfolding crises that are causing individual and collective trauma on a massive scale. 

These overlapping crises include: a global pandemic, systemic racism, climate change, political extremism, and the disintegration of church as we know it—just to name a few! How are the people called Methodists responding to this trauma? Well, if we measure this by news headlines, we are responding with internal, mean-spirited theological squabbles. 

Social researchers document that emerging generations don’t see congregations or denominations as a place of healing, but rather as a cause of harm. A church that gets belief and practice right, but lacks compassion doesn’t correctly recall early Methodists who worked against political corruption, structured a systematic distribution of food, medicine, clothing, and loans. They organized jobs for the unemployed, educated orphans, and secured shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Methodist gatherings were places where people of all walks of life came together as one. A movement somehow connected to a “heart strangely warmed” with the love of Jesus. 

Unfortunately, the missional church has been hijacked and landed right back into the very conversations from which it was born to be freed. The Fresh Expressions movement, which flows clearly within the missional church stream, can be misrepresented as the next plan to save the denomination. Conserving the legacy is simply not the “why” or motivation of missional communities. Fresh Expressions of church are the outflow of God’s compassion. They embody the eucharistic heart of Jesus, to break pieces off and give them away. They are about self-donation, not self-preservation or survival.

Most pastors never heard the call and then signed up to be staunch, fierce defenders of orthodoxy. My heart like yours was touched by the compassion of Jesus. So, we gave our lives to sharing that love with others. 

The Methodist way to do this is to give our selves away in the work of cultivating new Christian communities. If we do, we won’t have time to take up positions as guardians of the status quo. If Methodists committed to cultivating new Christian communities, predictably, we would experience new life. We would move through the process of death to resurrection and new creation, a people of compassion sent in loving mission to all the world.


[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 390.

[2] Paul W. Chilcote, Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2011), 20.

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